Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Kalahari by Jessica Khoury

Sarah Carmichael is the daughter of zoologists living and working in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Sarah has lived all her life in the field, working alongside her parents. Now it's just Sarah and her father after her mother died four months earlier from a bee attack. Helping them is Theo, a Bushman who has trained Sarah to track and to live in the Kalahari.

Sarah and Theo wait by the landing strip for a plane bringing in five teens who have signed on to a educational safari. The teens include seventeen year old Joey Xiong, a Hmong American from California, Canadian Avani Sharma, Miranda Kirk and Kase Rider of Boston, and seventeen year old Sam Quartermain from Pittsburg. In return for hosting the teens on a conservation exchange program, Sarah's father will receive much needed research funding from the Song Foundation. When the group arrives at camp they are met by Sarah's father who tells the group that they will be staying in tents.

The group has no chance to settle in when Sarah's father and Theo race out of camp in the truck to try to locate poachers who are hunting a white lion. When Sarah's father does not return by dark, she tries to contact him via radio but is unsuccessful. Sam asks Sarah if they should be worried and she tells him that the situation with the poachers has been getting progressively worse. As night comes on Sarah becomes increasingly concerned about her dad and Theo and even more so when they receive a garbled radio transmission that gives their location and that they are being pursued.  The transmission ends with the sounds of gunshots, leading Sarah to believe her father is now in grave danger.  Sarah is unable to reach Henrico, the South African warden located south of their camp, and she cannot contact the military nor anyone else to help them because the satellite radio is in the Cruiser with her father and Theo. 

At first Sarah wants to leave immediately to track her father but Sam insists he accompany her and this results in all five teens deciding not to stay in camp. Packing water and muesli bars, the group sets off the next morning, with Sarah tracking her father and Theo. Eventually they discover tracks that indicate the Cruiser was being followed by another vehicle. By evening Sarah makes another discovery that the trucks are being followed by an adult male lion. As the sun is beginning to set, Sarah and the group discover the damaged Cruiser smashed into a tree. Tracks leading away from the Cruiser lead Sarah and Sam to Theo who is fatally wounded. As Avani, whose parents are both doctors, attempts to help Theo, he warns them of a silver spirit, a lion hunting. Sarah is deeply shaken by Theo's death and mystified by her father's disappearance. She doesn't know if he has been captured or is somewhere out in the bush.

Sarah discovers that the lion has been around the Cruiser but instead of going after the lion, Theo appears to have followed her father. The group also discovers that the food supplies which were in the Cruiser have been ravaged by wild animals. After burying Theo, the group eats some leftover fruit and then try to rest. The next morning they manage to get the Cruiser started and head back to their camp. However, they discover that the men pursuing Sarah's father have visited the camp and burned it to the ground, destroying not only the tents and supplies, but also Sarah's parent's notes and research. They learn that a man named Abramo is in charge and is determined to find them.

Sam tells Sarah that this is all very strange as ordinary poachers would never go to these lengths, to murder researchers. Sarah creates a false trail for the men to track while she leads her group west hoping to meet up with the road that will take them to Ghansi and safety.  The next morning while working to free the truck which has become bogged down in sand, the group first hears and then is attacked by a lion. However this lion is not ordinary - it is "silver, from nose to tail, as metallic and gleaming as mercury." Sarah immediately realizes that this is the lion the men have been searching for and that they have stumbled upon something much bigger than poaching.

The lion attacks the group as they huddle in fear in the truck and they are only saved by Sarah firing her shotgun and wounding it in the shoulder. The group flees in terror into the bush. Sarah and Sam return to the area and discover the lion is no longer wounded, but behaving strangely and watch as it kills an ostrich for no reason. The lion once again picks up their scent and begins pursuing them through the desert. They only manage to escape when the entire group falls into a huge underground cavern filled with water.

Sarah and the group find their way out of the pool by crawling to the top of metal scaffolding that leads them to an above ground pumping station and find themselves in what appears to be some kind of research facility. As Sarah, Sam and the others scout out the camp, which appears to be abandoned, they discover a laboratory and then a room filled with animals in cages. The cages are filled with numerous different mammals from the Kalahari desert. Many of the cages contain animals that have been shot dead. Other cages hold live animals, some of whom are partially silver while others are like the lion, completely silver. They also find a lab worker dead in the room.

Sarah now believes that the animals have some kind of infection and that the scientists from the lab are chasing the silver lion because it escaped from this facility. Sarah's father and Theo were complications they hadn't expected and so they killed Theo and are now hunting Sarah and her group, her father and the infected lion. Sarah and Sam realize that whoever is responsible for creating the infection now want to cover up the research and will be returning to the lab to finish destroying what remains.

In a small trailer, Sarah makes a truly shocking discovery; three scientists who are infected and completely silver, locked in a room. The scientists who are in advanced stages of the infection are incoherent and in obvious distress. In the trailer, Sarah and Sam come face to face with Dr. Carl Monaghan, who admits that he created a metal that is "alive", - a type of inorganic life. Dr. Monaghan explains "Metalcium is inorganic, and yet it self-replicates. It has a kind of metabolism. It adapts to changes in its environment....Just little cells of metal at first...It was when we began adding lead that its true potential was realized." Avani fills in the details for the others, that metalcium sneaks "into an organism's system by hiding behind a mask of lead." Monaghan admits that he had hoped to use his discovery to heal but, instead the metalcium began attacking them, converting all an organism's cells to metal.

The doctor explains that they came to Kalahari because their research could be conducted under secrecy and it is rich in minerals which they required for their research. Once Monaghan realized the danger he tried to stop the research, but Corpus, the company funding the research, refused. Now Corpus has sent out Tony Abramo to clean up the mess, by killing everyone involved and everyone who knows about the research. Monaghan tells Sarah and Sam that they must leave immediately.

Sarah knows they have to get to safety and tell the world about the deadly infection but with Abramo on their tail, her father still missing, and the possibility that they have all been exposed to infection, the likelihood of her getting to Ghansi is beginning to seem remote.


Jessica Khoury's novels are characterized by unique stories involving futuristic science in the style of John Wydham. The story in Kalahari is centered around a new virus, Metalcium, that has been created in a lab, and which gradually converts living tissue into metal, eventually killing its host. Although this twist makes Kalahari an intriguing read, it doesn't appear until Chapter Eight. Instead the first hook is the disappearance of Sarah's father and the group's foray into the semidesert to find him. From there the plot thickens leading the group from one adventure to the next. The resolution to the story flows quickly and ties up loose ends rather neatly.

Khoury immediately sets up the beginnings of a romance between Sarah and Sam, who seem to develop a rapport quickly, learning about each other as the story moves along. There are other pairings as well, although they really don't figure much into the story; Miranda and Kase are already a couple, but Joey, the group clown, likes the brainy Canadian, Avani. The minor characters are not as well developed, only enough to give readers a sense of who they are.

The author does have her main character, Sarah Carmichael experience an inner journey that parallels the physical one she undertakes in the novel. Sarah is not keen to spend time with teenagers. Her one experience in school in the United States was disastrous. "The kids in the class called me Mowgli and threw bananas at me during lunch." However, Theo encourages her, telling Sarah she needs to spend time with humans too. When Sarah first meets the five teens she judges them as shallow and uncaring at the beginning of the novel. However, her opinion begins to change. When Miranda offers her diamond ring for Sarah to use on a stick, Sarah feels ashamed that she has made assumptions about Miranda without really knowing her. "When I studied wild animals, I always waited until I had all the facts before drawing conclusions about their habits and lives -- why couldn't I do that with people?" By the end of the novel, Sarah is glad to have met all five teens despite what they went through.

When Sarah becomes infected with the Metalcium which will be fatal, she begins to regret how she has lived over the past four months since her mother's death. She admits to herself that since her mother's death she hasn't cared much about life. "The world had been covered in a gray veneer, tasteless and uninteresting. She had been the sun that lit the savanna, and when she died, I'd been left in darkness, not caring whether I stumbled forever through the night or fell over a cliff and was lost. " However, now that she's caught the incurable infection, Sarah begins to see life differently. The change of heart has also come from her deepening relationship with Sam who has helped her to recognize that she could be happy again and "that the sun could rise on a world without my mom." Sarah also realizes that's she's never taken the time to cherish all the special moments in her life and that she's taken the time she's had for granted.

Kalahari has a few spots in the storyline which feel weak. The first is the unrealistic actions of Sarah's father, Ty Carmichael, who leaves his daughter with five inexperienced teenagers in a bush camp, taking ALL their food supplies AND the satellite radio with him. Ty is not just going for a short drive in the bush, he's going to try to track what he believes are poachers, who present some degree of risk for him and Theo. It's unlikely that Carmichael, as a seasoned field researcher would have done this.

Secondly, although Sarah's father does manage to escape from Abramo and he has considerable skill as a tracker, he never seems to quite be able to catch up to Sarah and her group. That is, until conveniently at the climax of the novel, when Sarah faces down Abramo - making his sudden appearance seem somewhat contrived.

Kalahari is filled with interesting facts about  this semi-desert region of Africa including the wildlife, the climate and geography and about the Bushmen who still live in the area. Khoury spent time in Africa at the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve and in Botswana where she had the experience of tracking elephants, lions and leopards.

Kalahari is book three in the Corpus series. Overall, Khoury's interesting storyline works well, providing readers with plenty of suspense, some intriguing science fiction and a little romance in an exotic setting.

Book Details:
Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
New York: RazorBill, an imprint of Penguin Group    2015
354 pp.

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