Deadly Memory by David Walton
In 2023’s Deadly Memory, by David Walton, the challenges humanity faces have never been higher. A virus so deadly it can kill nearly every species on the planet is loose, and a pheromone-based drug that allows the wearer to dominate everyone who smells it is in the hands of authoritarians from more than one global power. The source of the substance, and the possible antidote to it, is hidden away, and it will be up to archeologist Samira, her friend Kit in Thailand, and another new friend held prisoner in a high-security facility, to stop the complete loss of freedom… and a near-complete loss of animal life on the planet.
This review contains mild spoilers for 2022’s Living Memory.
In Living Memory, Samira and Kit uncovered an unusual dinosaur fossil and found a strange green substance with it. Alongside their adventures, the book shared the storyline of Prey, a low-status analyst in a gendered, hierarchical society. Sixty-five million years ago on Earth, Prey, an astronomer, discovered an approaching asteroid that would rain destruction on the planet. Despite his low status, Prey struggled to make the societal leaders aware, with mixed success. As the book ended, Prey awoke in an enclosure, alone, surrounded by mammalian aliens.
Deadly Memory picks up there. The USA-side of the story alternates between Samira’s point of view and Prey’s, as she is introduced to the living dinosaur. Prey is isolated and baffled by the ascendance of these strange creatures, who as near as he can tell don’t even have language. It may seem strange against the backdrop of military coups and a global viral outbreak, but the attempts of Prey and Samira to communicate with each other was gripping. While I loved the action-adventure and intrigue parts of the book, the thing I thought about the most, while reading the ARC and after I’d finished it, was the nature of communication.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, Kit still works with the militant princess Mai, the sole survivor of the royal family. Mai plans to take the government back from a Chinese-backed warlord, but she is under-resourced and literally out-gunned. Still, the princess is both resolute and ruthless, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Kit. Mai has right on her side, but she didn’t hesitate to use the domination drug. Now her supply has been stolen. More seriously, the Chinese government has its own source of the substance.
The final third of the book evolves into a convoluted chase sequence. Samira is an archeologist, not a spy. She has no tradecraft and a motley assortment of friends and allies, but she’s going up against the US military and the CIA. (We all know the best tool to use against the military and the CIA is a motley crew, at least in fiction.) The final few chapters were nail-biters for me.
Along the way, there are moments of insight and humor. I loved the moment when Prey deduces that the deadly asteroid was probably the craft that ferried these weird mammals to his home world. I loved the early conversations with Samira and Prey, and the occasional false starts. Samira’s parents are devout Christians, which leads to one of the best lines in the book:
“‘Wait,” Samira said. “You’ve been evangelizing the dinosaur?’”
Like communication, the question of faith is not hand-waved here. Nor is the question of personhood, which in this case goes both ways. Humans, especially those clinging to power, see Prey as an animal at best, a resource to be exploited. On the other hand, it takes Prey a while to see the weird creatures who imprisoned him as having basic intelligence, let alone language, society, etc. And are those the things that make someone a person? As Samira learns more about Prey’s people, she is awe-struck by how advanced they were. And so was I. Having read both science fiction and fantasy novels with dinosaurs in my life, I say with confidence that Walton writes the best ones as far as I’m concerned.
A twist near the very end sets up yet another challenge for Prey and his human friends, while both the plague and the battle for humanity enters a new phase. I enjoyed the book tremendously, and eagerly away the third one, Memory Reborn!
Published in May 2023. THE PAST TURNS DEADLY in this sequel to the globe-spanning paleontology thriller Living Memory. Ancient genetic technology drives world politics as China and the US vie for the power contained in Thailand’s fossil deposits. Deep in an underground CIA facility, Samira studies an unprecedented find but fears her discoveries will be used as a weapon. Meanwhile, from the depths of the ocean, a killer organism surfaces that hasn’t been seen in two hundred and fifty million years. Will world powers share what they know in time to save humanity?