As Shanon Hunt was getting ready to publish her debut novel The Pain Colony in late 2019, I was tasked with reading it and providing her with an honest, critical assessment. Before I offered my opinion, I asked whether she was nervous about unleashing her work to the literary public. “Petrified,” was all she said.

I remember that reaction well, and how it magnified the insecurities of people with a creative mind — so personal, so subjective, anxious to find acceptance and an audience. I informed Hunt that her work was magnificent, and later, upon reflection, I told anyone who would listen that it was one of the best books I had read that year. (Read BookTrib’s review here.)

The author had used her knowledge of 15 years as a pharmaceutical executive to write a smart, swift medical thriller with just enough science to keep the plot entertaining and mind numbing, right up to the dazzling finish. A tough act to follow.

Yet here we are a year later, and Hunt has delivered a brilliant sequel, The Rage Colony  (Narrow Ledge Publishing), another thought-provoking but more complex and sinister narrative highlighting the impact — and dangers — of genetic engineering and manipulation. Hunt has a marvelous knack for creating page-turning suspense founded in scientific theory and overlaying it with dark horror.

INSPIRATION FROM ORWELL

She opens The Rage Colony with this quote from George Orwell’s 1984: “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them back together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” Some 400 pages later, when one of the book’s crusaders for justice (and okay, a bit of personal fame) is asked how he made out, he utters, “There’s more to it than we understood. It’s complicated.” Indeed.

That complication starts with the Colony, a beautiful, immaculate campus complex in Mexico positioned to its “guests” — society’s misfits and those down on their luck — as an exclusive club, an opportunity for a second chance at life by washing away memories of the current poisoned world and transforming to purification.

Or is the Colony a cult society whose leaders make promises of a better existence for its inductees but have something more self-serving in mind?

THE COLONY’S POSTER CHILD

A seeming poster child for the program is Sister Layla, whose previous life was erased in book one. She now heads up the Colony’s purification operation. As she tells one hostile recruit, “I’m the same as you. I came here to escape something too. The Colony helped me. It changed my life, actually, and gave me purpose.”

“We employ the best and brightest scientists who have given up their lives in the poisoned world to fully dedicate themselves to purification of the human race.”

Before she is done addressing a large hall with the same message, she has everyone ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

Add to the intrigue that Layla’s significant other is Brother James, one of the masterminds of the operation.

We get hints page by page that life in the Colony is not all peaches and cream. In fact, the Colony is a site of massive genetic experimentation of differing degrees, differing results and unclear information about which influential individuals and organizations are behind it. One of the gene mutations being explored activates a rage syndrome within its recipients. This plays out in most unusual ways — with some of the central characters.

A REPORTER’S OBSESSION

A crossing storyline is reporter Nick Slater’s ongoing obsession with trying to put the pieces together surrounding the now-closed Vitapura Wellness Center and Research Facility near Phoenix — aka the original Colony in book one — and the death of the head of that operation. In the process, Nick searches for a missing person suspected of murder and whose existence seems, well, non-existent.

But it gets bigger than that. What, you ask, might a virus that starts in China and threatens to spread throughout the world have to do with all of this? As one genetics genius explains to Slater, “It’s the story of the century.”

Nick penetrates the Colony, sneaking in as a potential inductee, in an effort to observe the brainwashing first hand. “A hidden government facility that recruited people from the dregs wasn’t a Pulitzer Prize story. The real story was the basement filled with people attached to machines through tubes in their spines … If he had to suffer through chants and heartfelt emotional stories and group hugs in the gallery, whatever that was, he was all in. The story had to be told.”

CLEVER AND CRAFTY CHARACTERS

I picked up The Rage Colony concerned that my expectations would fall short after my glowing review of The Pain Colony.  But we all have writers to which we gravitate, whose writing style, pace and sense of story match perfectly on our reading wavelength, whose next book can’t come soon enough. Two pages into The Rage Colony, I felt I had reconnected with an old friend, and we were going to spend a few days together immersed in this tale. Hunt knows how to keep a story moving, finishing so many chapters with the type of jaw-dropper that compels you to keep going without a break. I was hooked.

For my money, Shanon Hunt has done it again. She has written a gripping — at times, terrifying — story with many tentacles that moves at the speed of light with clever and crafty characters whose motives and allegiances make it exciting to decipher the good guys from the bad.

Trying to keep up with the truth, and what is real and what is imagined in the plot and its world, makes this thriller, well, thrilling. Going Orwellian again, Nick quotes, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” Whatever that truth may be.

The Rage Colony is available for purchase.

As a former pharmaceutical executive of 15 years, Shanon Hunt has first-hand experience with cutting-edge medical advances. But it wasn’t until she took an interest in CRISPR and the near-future implications of genetic engineering that she became inspired to write a suspense thriller.  Her debut novel The Pain Colony was published in the fall of 2019. When she’s not acquiring the world’s supply of post-it notes and plotting her next story, she enjoys being tormented by her frisbee-obsessed Australian Shepherd, hiking the wilds of northern New Jersey, and canyoneering in southern Utah with her husband, Steve.