Shanon Hunt thought enough of this quote from George Eliot to put it at the top of her website: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
A pharmaceutical industry executive for 15 years inspired by Eliot’s words, Hunt has parlayed a powerful gene-editing mechanism called CRISPR with her own experience of cutting-edge medical advances into an edge-of-your-seat debut suspense thriller called The Pain Colony (Narrow Ledge Publishing).
Let’s hope it’s not her last.
Hunt’s masterfully plotted and sequenced DNA-focused narrative with both good- and bad-intentioned characters attests to the durability of and fascination with the medical thriller genre, riding a 40-year wave of commercial prominence triggered by Robin Cook’s Coma and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. Her work shows even a debut author with a strong sense of craft can successfully crack the category.
The genre’s formula is to describe a medical breakthrough, project how it could be used in the future to advance or exploit society, and then wrap it around a nail-biting page-turner you can’t put down.
The state of my nails is an indicator of The Pain Colony‘s success.
“We live in an age where scientific and technical advances can, and frequently do, outpace our ability as a society to fully understand their future implications,” writes Hunt. “This book pushes not only the boundaries of what’s technically possible in the very near future but also what’s ethically and morally acceptable.”
At the heart of the story is a drug that alters people’s DNA engineering such that they are immune to pain. We first learn about it at a conference presentation by Dr. Austin Harris, discussing it as an exciting journey into gene therapy. He is assisted in his lecture by his right-hand person Allison Stevens, who talks from the heart about a young patient who has progressed from a wheelchair to running in the playground with other children.
But how noble and well-meaning is Harris’s work? One has to wonder when, during a post-lecture celebratory drink, he is suddenly arrested and whisked off by FBI agents. And how much does Stevens know?
Meanwhile, Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent Peter Malloy is tasked with investigating the cause of six mysterious deaths. The victims, all athletic, seemingly tried to extend the limits of their physical abilities far beyond the norm and far beyond what they were even aware of. Did a pain-masking treatment reduce their tolerance for pain and as a result put them in harm’s way?
And what about the strange dark cult referred to as the Colony? Participants welcome physical pain as a crucial therapy to help them recall their “poisoned past” – which has been wiped from their memory – in order to free themselves from it and attain purity. The Colony is described through the voice of Layla, a patient who struggles to remember, embraces her treatment, works to please her staff of doctors and mentors, and hopes to reach the next stage of her life in harmony.
The Colony’s mantra: “With pain comes peace.”
Hunt, in her preface to the book, offers three definitions for the word “colony,” with the third being “an experimental unit of animals, typically housed together for the purpose of selective breeding.” Just saying.
If you are intimidated from books with medical or technical explanations, fear not. Hunt does a great job of making these important nuggets very readable and understandable to the layperson. Even one of the experts, Dr. Jennings, talks down to the non-scientific level when he starts out, “You probably remember in Bio 101 that all cells in our body contain DNA…” And as he gets more detailed, he’ll stop and say, “With me so far?” as if talking directly to me – a former lousy biology student.
As you follow the book’s three threads and watch them develop, you figure they will come together at some point. While Hunt writes satisfyingly to advance the plot and its characters, she doesn’t waste words, and every action and utterance has a purpose.
As a first-time novelist, Hunt’s primary hope was that she could put together a fast-paced yarn with twists and stunning revelations – the goal, I imagine, of any suspense writer. Hunt has succeeded in spades.
The Pain Colony is available for purchase.
About Shanon Hunt
Shanon Hunt was a pharmaceutical executive for 15 years before turning her attention to writing. When she’s not plotting her next story, she enjoys being tormented by her Frisbee-obsessed Australian shepherd, hiking the wilds of northern New Jersey. She lives in suburban New Jersey with her husband Steve and their two teenage sons.