With The End of Men, Christina Sweeney-Baird delivers a thrilling debut set in the not-so-distant future. One that's sits with the reader long after they've put it down.
Now, although I'd vowed to do anything in my power not to be reminded that we were amid a global pandemic, I'm glad I broke my promise. Of course, with the way publishing timelines go, Sweeney-Baird's book was undoubtedly written long before news of a virus in our world made headlines. Still, it is almost eerie how prescient the author is regarding the dangers we are facing today.
Dr. Amanda MacLean's story takes place less than five years from today. In 2025, a fatal virus is tearing through the male population as MacLean sounds alarms that go ignored, and the outbreak worsens. Now, the virus has spread, and we're taken along for a journey across time and even different points of view. As men drop like flies and humanity races to find answers, we are not only allowed to hear how MacLean deals with the rising pandemic but a range of characters from scientists to conspiracy theorists.
This novel's premise harkens to apocalyptic stories, of which there are numerous. World War Z for books, Contagion in regards to film, and others have done what Sweeney-Baird does regarding the concept and the multiple points of view narration style. Still, The End of Men accomplishes something that feels wholly unique and more modern in manner. Not only that, but the social commentary is prescient. Politics is subtly weaved into the action and helps maintain a sense of momentum throughout.
Regarding the story's concept, this is not the first time an author toyed with the idea of men dying off has in fiction. However, the author's decision to leave some men alive and play with that notion makes exciting and very human situations that kept me intrigued throughout the novel. Would some women be more focused on finding a cure? Possibly. Would other women be more concerned about fighting over the remaining men? That is also likely. The author can give us unique takes on what is hitting the world in real-time in a way that felt real is one of the more potent elements in this book.
Point of view shifts is another part of this story worth discussing. Here, too, the author managed a challenging dynamic that elevated the tension in the story. With the cliffhanger's the author leaves us with–not to mention one unforgettable chapter involving a sudden spurt of gunfire–I found myself staying up later as expected to discover what happens next. The book does contain more point of view characters than in the average novel. However, they are all unique in their personalities and able to wrestle with their challenges in ways that break up the narrative nicely. It also spread the action across a broader geographic footprint, giving the reader a better sense of the issue's scope.
Now, to say that all characters are equally compelling would be disingenuous. For example, I loved Amanda's point of view while Catherine's fell flat. Yet, the varying levels of interest between characters contribute to the novel's intrigue. While I didn't necessarily empathize with each character, Sweeney-Baird convinced me to root for the ensemble, as if rooting for the collective group is akin to being on team humanity versus a silent virus. I expect other readers to share my perspective as to which characters they enjoyed reading. What I do expect is that each reader can find a character they can cheer on. A name who keeps them invested in the story, as I was invested in a couple of the lead characters myself.
While I enjoyed the novel, I found the news articles that the author uses as a plot element less believable. With special note given to the last item in the story, these tended to read less like news pieces and more like blogs or social media posts. Sure, this was a fictional novel set in an unprecedented circumstance. Still, it is difficult for one who frequently reads The Washington Post (the referenced news source in the book) to buy into the author's handling of their articles. The articles are a minor critique, though they took me out of the narrative, if only momentarily.
Ultimately, The End of Men is a fun read, the conclusion leaving us with a sense of hope as well as a caution for how such a circumstance may end. Sweeney-Baird ties up all narrative arcs in a way that gives us solace, and in the case of a couple of characters, left me wanting to read more. Additionally, the story delivers relevant social commentary packaged in a fast-paced narrative. I would recommend this book to anyone unafraid of diving into another pandemic narrative other than our own or whoever may be looking for their next thrilling read.