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Written by JA Schneider — Michael Crichton, Robin Cook and Tess Gerritsen, make way for a new kid on the block in the field of medical thrillers. This debut novel by JA Schneider is a promising addition to the canon.

Maternity wards of hospitals are usually joyous places, filled with new life. But in the Madison Hospital Medical Center, a highly respected hospital ward and fertility treatment research facility, bad things are happening to would-be mothers and newborn babies. Young intern Dr Jill Raney becomes suspicious after several unusual and fatal cases crop up on the same day. Is it a random cluster of deaths, sheer bad luck or just the imaginings, caused by overwrought nerves, of an inexperienced doctor fresh out of medical school? Or, is there something more sinister at work? Warned off muddying the waters any further by the hospital authorities, Jill cannot resist checking out some incongruencies in secret. Her friend and fellow intern Tricia and more experienced residents David Levine and Sam MacIntyre express their concern and disapproval, but ultimately do their best to help, and cover for her.

The plot is full of twists, turns and near-misses. It keeps us guessing and discovering things just half a step before, or at the same time as Jill. Embryo manages to convey the beauty of science and passion for work in the medical profession, but also the dangers of the God complex some doctors might get. The novel addresses delicate issues such as the complicated hierarchy of a large hospital and teaching unit, and the tendency to cover up mistakes in order to support one’s colleagues.  The new interns are referred to as ‘Munchkins’ and are discouraged from speaking up or disagreeing with their more senior colleagues, which can lead to the kind of abuses of power that are perfect for thrillers.

As in all medical and bio thrillers the pleasure for readers – and fans of ER and other medical dramas – comes from the technical information within the storyline. The names of medical conditions have to sound impressive in Latin, but we don’t necessarily need to know all of the details to enjoy the story. In this book, the information-sharing is cleverly done, without the pace flagging. This may be partly because the issues of genetic engineering and human reproductive technology are ethical ones that anyone can identify with, and which have a far-reaching effect on society. I was surprised to discover that JA Schneider is not working in the medical profession, although her husband is a physician, as her writing is very knowledgeable and plausible.

The weaker part of the book is the love story between Jill and her mentor Dr David Levine, which felt a little extraneous to the plot. This was also the part where we were most likely to encounter some clichéed descriptions of ‘cameo-perfect faces’, ‘remarkable green eyes’ and ‘tall, broad-shouldered frames’. Luckily, this soon gives way to an acceleration of pace and interesting debates about the randomness of death and the perception of unfairness when it strikes young women and babies.

“I thought I was going to save everybody,” says one of the doctors. It is this combination of world-weariness, proximity to death and real physical exhaustion that makes doctors so similar to police detectives, and one more reason why medical thrillers are such a buoyant sub-genre. Having avoided this genre in the past, perhaps owing to a maternal over-insistence that medicine is the only subject worth studying at university, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have been converted to this type of crime fiction.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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