Thursday, December 4, 2014

Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin

Tabula Rasa is a action-suspense novel about a girl trapped in a mental hospital who is trying to learn why paid mercenaries are attempting to assassinate her.


Sarah Ramos is in a special medical center being treated by doctors to have her long-term memories erased. "Getting better means forgetting the past."The facility she's at is surrounded by mountains. Dr. Buckley who looks like Santa Claus is the surgeon who will be doing Sarah's surgery. She's only met him once. Larry Ladner is Buckley's research partner who reads the CAT scans and the MRI's and decides were to drill. While surgery is being done, Sarah who's awake notices that she's being watched from the observation window by Ms. Hodges, someone who inexplicably causes Sarah to feel intense hatred. Suddenly during her procedure, all the lights go out. The power returns and then fails again. It is during this second failure that someone enters the operating room and places a plastic bag into her hand. After being taken out of surgery, Sarah is wheeled back to her room in the South Wing by her orderlie, Steve, but she notices that everyone is gone. Steve tells her that there is to be a big blizzard that night and that people are being flown out. They encounter another patient, Jori, who tells Sarah that she overheard Ms. Hodges talking on her cell phone with Dr. Buckley about Sarah and that they need to deal with her. She warns Sarah that something bad is going to happen. When Sarah gets back to her room she discovers that she's been given three pills in a plastic bag with a note instructing her to take the a pill every 24 hours and not to move around after taking them. Sarah takes the first pill.

Sarah takes the first pill and almost immediately begins to have a flashback of climbing a crane in New York City to place a banner. In her hospital room Sarah notices street clothing stashed under her bed so she gets dressed. She discovers a magnetic card similar to the one that allows staff to access doors. She hears a series of pops and decides to leave her room and move into the ward. Sarah hears the sound of helicopter rotors and then watches in horror as it launches a small rocket into the building - where her room is. In her attempt to get to Jori and rescue her, Sarah encounters men dressed in military camos who shoot at her. When she reaches the lobby of the hospital, the military men announce that they are here for Sarah Ramos and ask for help locating her. Sarah is betrayed by Steve who announces that she is hiding behind the security guard's desk.

Steve is murdered by the men but Sarah is protected by the strafing gunfire by a filing cabinet. Arriving in the lobby is a woman with a southern accent who tells a soldier to check on Sarah to confirm she is dead. Sarah who covers herself in the blood of another person waits until the soldier comes close and then manages to escape through a broken window and falls fifteen feet into the basement. Unfortunately, her fall destroys one of the two remaining capsules. She uses the passcard to slip into a garage. Realizing she is trapped Sarah finds a nail gun to use as a weapon and a way out into the cold, blizzard.

Outside she sees a figure dressed in a puffy ski jacket and the fact that he has hair means he's not one of the hospital patients. Sarah follows this person to a work site on the other side of the building where she sees a huge excavation site. The young person heads to a small building attached to the main facility by a glass walkway. Sarah manages to get into the building after he uses his passcard. They meet after Sarah punches him in the face.

The young man, handsome with dark hair, tells her that this building houses the mainframe for the hospital where he retrieves some data and then destroys the hospital's mainframe. He tells Sarah that he is a hacker and his boss, 8-Bit is also a pre-eminent hacker but that they are not connected to the people who are trying to kill Sarah. They hide out in the boy's yurt in the forest and Sarah discovers several things about herself with his help.First she tells him that all she knows is that her parents are dead and she is in the hospital because she has PSTD. However when she remembers that she calls herself "Angel" and the boy, who calls himself Pierce tells her she has a large tattoo of wings on her back, he believes he knows who she is.

Pierce things that she may be the girl known as Angel who "exposed a vast government scandal and then vanished into thin air." As Angel, she stopped the development of a housing project along the Hudson River leading to people being sent to prison for lying to Congress about the government's involvement. People believed she had been assassinated. Pierce wonders why she was put in the hospital and why 8-Bit who is his father, was involved. He tells Angel that his father gave him a flash drive that has information on it in case he doesn't return.

Pierce and Angel also come to a startling conclusion - that she needs to replace the pill which was destroyed in her fall. Pierce tells her that the doctor who has been working on her is not Dr. Buckley but really someone named Joseph Purcell Wilson who is the mastermind behind the Tabula Rasa project. Pierce tells Angel that Buckley was likely never physically in the hospital operating on her but actually did the operations remotely. He also states that based on what he's read, the procedures are not permanent. Pierce explains that a plasticizer that migrates to certain nerve endings has been injected into her head and that another chemical is injected to harden the plasticizer, killing the neurons. The plasticizers can be flushed out of her brain via special pills. Pierce tells her that once she starts to take the pills she has to take all three or it won't work - instead the plasticizer will remain in her brain and could cause permanent damage. Angel tells him she's taken one of the pills but that one has been destroyed and she has a remaining pill.

Based on this information, Pierce and Angel decide that she needs to get back into the hospital to find the third pill. This leads Angel and Pierce who now tells her his real name is Thomas, into a race against time and a deadly battle against trained mercenaries to recover the medication she needs and to discover why she is being hunted.


Tabula Rasa is an engaging, suspenseful novel told from the perspective of Sarah Ramos, a character who has no idea who she is and why she is in a high security hospital. The appeal of this novel is her struggle to recover her identity while being hunted down by special mercenaries hired by a crazy woman named Evangeline Hodges. With the help of Thomas and his hacking abilities, as well as the pills which restore some of her memories, Sarah comes to the decision that that she needs to kill Hodge and she needs to get the one pill she needs to neutralize the procedure done to her.

Lippert-Martin has created an exciting premise for a novel - girl who has no memory of her past and therefore no idea as to why she's in a hospital. However, the ending falls short of expectations, despite the heart-pounding action scenes that feel like they have been written for a movie. As the storyline develops and it becomes apparent that Angel is caught up in some kind of top secret research, suspense builds. Readers will be disappointed however, when the truth is finally revealed at the end of the novel because the storyline feels so unnecessarily convoluted and overly complex. Thomas's father, 8-Bit asks the question the reader is left wondering, why go to all this effort to hire mercenaries to kill a 16 year old girl who is a patient in hospital?  One wonders why Hodges simply didn't hire an assassin to take out Angel (who had no parents and whose real father, Virgil Claymore did not even know about her existence) instead of placing her in a research facility and then having to hire expensive mercenaries to kill her. 

The manner in which Angel eventually learns the truth about her identity and her past is disappointing. Although she does learn about some of her past the loose ends are tied together by Thomas's father, 8-Bit, who has been captured by Evangeline Hodges. Believing Angel to be dead, Hodges has her taken to the Director's office and left on the carpet to hear 8-Bit questioning Evangeline killing Angel. Through this conversation Angel and the reader learn about how Evangeline wormed her way into the Claymore family and fought for control of the Velocius project - research that has the potential to create super-soldiers who can think and act quickly. Angel was the project's first success, something Hodges did know about. Instead, she wanted Angel to be murdered by Wilson during brain surgery in revenge for causing problems with Claymore Industries, the company hoping to benefit from the secret research. How Lippert-Martin sets up Angel recovering her missing pill seems implausible and the way in which Evangeline Hodges is arrested  seems contrived.

The story misses the mark by diverging into smaller subplots that often are distracting, leaving the reader hanging. For example, when Thomas is badly injured, Angel encounters three men, Sam, Jerry and Sylvester, who are former Special Forces soldiers who believe they are prisoners of war surrounded by miles of desert. They were the first set of experiments undertaken by Wilson but they backfired and are now experiencing what is called paradoxical treatment effect. Barefoot and kept in a room having no contact with the outside world, with one man strangely in possession of an axe, these men become the substitute security detail for Thomas, helping Angel on a secondary mission to repower a battery. (Her brain is at stake and yet her focus is Thomas's computer?)

Just before this event,  Thomas and Angel are about to re-enter the hospital to try to reach the sixth floor where the medical supplies are kept. However, Thomas is terribly injured when one of the escaped patients, Oscar Noriega who is completely crazy,  takes a backhoe to the trailer they are in. This removes one of the main characters in the story, stunting what was the beginning of an interesting, developing relationship between Angel and Thomas. Thomas is conveniently brought back into the story by the medic, Jerry and a shot of morphine.  For the type of injury Thomas has sustained,  "His lower leg looks like the muscle has been filleted off the bone." the shot of morphine makes him able to function as though nothing has happened to him. He's right back on his laptop hacking mainframes and locating soldiers. Morphine has a significant effect on pain but also on the cognitive abilities of a person. It's unlikely given Thomas's injury that he would be much use to Angel or anyone else at this time.

A rather incongruous piece of dialogue in this novel is one that happens between Thomas and Angel near the beginning of the story. Angel and Thomas are in the trailer and Angel is looking for something to eat. Thomas instructs Angel to make him something to eat but not the enchiladas because "They taste like Mexicans." This gets even stranger when Thomas insists that enchiladas taste like "...actual Mexicans. Unwashed ones."  There is simply no way to make any sense of this strange, out of place dialogue that is derogatory towards Mexican people.

I think Lippert-Martin could have created a more interesting novel by simply having a straightforward story that focused on the secretive research aspect, somehow tying in Angel's relationship as a whistleblower who needs to be silenced. A better developed villain would also be an asset instead of a poor girl from Georgia who is determined to make it in New York City and ends up walking around the hospital in a long coat.

Overall, those who like action thriller novels with mass destruction and mayhem will probably enjoy Tabula Rasa.

Book Details:
Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin
New York: Egmont     2014
335 pp.


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