This is Merriman doing what she does so well, pacy adventure writing for young adults. Violet Black is a story that begins in the near future of Auckland with two late teens – Violet and Ethan – hospitalised with M-fever, a measles derivative that makes Covid seem like a runny nose. This virus targets teenagers. Ten percent of those infected with M-fever will develop encephalitis. Ninety five percent of those with encephalitis will die. Wow. Kids, this is fiction, OK? Ignore the fact that it is written by a doctor who we generally trust to tell us the truth about medical matters and that the whole scenario sounds pretty convincing at the beginning. If you feel your stress levels going up while reading, take several deep breaths. This nightmarish stuff–pandemics, sinister government organisations, anti-vax terrorism–is all imaginary.
Violet Black is in hospital, one of the few who has recovered. She is ‘visited’ by another patient, Ethan, and I say ‘visited’ because their minds meet before they do and their connection is tantalizingly intimate. Despite their parents being on opposing sides of the vaccination debacle, these two swiftly become soul mates. Deep soul mates, so intensely that they are inside each other’s heads, sharing a heart beat, feeling each other breathe. It’s a love story of total immersion.
Ethan goes home to recover; Violet remains in hospital. Warning bells start ringing when she is taken for further tests. She can hear others in her head now, a telepathic network of M-fever survivors. But who is doing the testing and why the secrecy? There is no consent for what is happening to her and Violet is cut off from her parents, sedated and taken to another institution in a remote corner of Australia to be studied and developed. Ethan, extending his powers, goes looking for her and he, too, is captured and recruited.
The group of teenagers become a unit: VORTEX, controlled by a shady coalition of German, Australian and New Zealand secret service agents. The young peoples’ powers are trained to be exploited for use in anti-terrorism activity. It is chilling how the kids seem to accept this, learning languages and gun handling and martial arts like they’re playing at spying, despite knowing this is no game, their camp has a wire fence and armed patrols and their parents probably think they have died of fever. And how will future recruits be found, if so few survive the instigating virus?
It’s the tingling relationship between Ethan and Violet that cements the story, but when Violet is sent away on her first assignment it is not lover boy, but the enigmatic Phoenix, another recruit, who accompanies her to Germany. The anti-vaxxers need infiltrating. It should be a relatively easy assignment, with time off for sight-seeing in Berlin and some awkward moments (I think a teenage boy would get plenty of slaps around the head if a girl could really read his mind).
But this wouldn’t be a thriller if everything went to plan and the end isn’t an end at all but a beginning and there are two more books in the story and I’m off to read them both. Hope someone else is cooking dinner tonight because the sequel, Black Wolf, starts with Phoenix and I’m, as they say, hooked.