Jane Jensen, whose writing until now has been confined to computer programming and interactive game design (Gabriel Knight), makes a strong debut with Millennium Rising. It seems you can't swing a dead cat without hitting another book of apocalyptic what-ifs turning on the millennial wheel. Jensen's hybrid of global conspiracy, Vatican intrigue and holy revelation makes her entry stand out in the ever-more-crowded subgenre.
Father Michele Deachez is a Vatican-appointed investigator of purported miracles (think Gabriel Byrne's character in the recent film "Stigmata") whose stubbornly rational mindset makes him a perfect debunker. Sent to look into reports of spiritual visitations in tiny Santa Pelagia, Mexico, shortly after the beginning of the third millenium, Deauchez is caught up in an awesome wave of emotion and belief. To his horror, he himself experiences the stigmata, watching in disbelief as blood runs from miraculous wounds in his palms. Even with such personally physical evidence, Deauchez doubts the divine nature of his experience in Santa Pelagia. As other religious leaders who were mysteriously "called" to Mexico commence announcing the beginning of the end -- as prophecied in so many sources throughout the ages -- Deauchez struggles to convince his immediate superiors of the worth of continuing his investigation.
Simon Hill writes for the New York Times -- it's all he really lives for. He's the first reporter to really chase the news he smells in Santa Pelagia, and he thinks that he just might have a Pulitzer-worthy story going. He digs into researching apocalyptic prophecies and discovers that some talk of a total of twenty-four prophets who will announce the end of the world; problem is, he can only find a few over twenty. The reporter's and priest's investigations cross paths early on, and they begin sharing information via cell phone and modem as their travels carry them across the United States and around the world.
The world is already seriously underfed, a condition created by overpopulation and poor crop returns over several years. Nations are forming alliances to protect their own self-interest and to demand assistance from their more fortunate fellows. When the first sign appears as announced, a plague of sores that rots both living human tissue and the crops in the fields, the U.S. President has a serious problem. One of his advisors smoothly takes the fore in helping manage a food crisis that has become a serious threat to human survival overnight.
As the known Santa Pelagia prophets continue to announce sign after devastating sign (rampant ocean-killing red tides, a deadly Ebola-like virus) and each comes to pass, Deauchez and Hill's inquiries grow more desperate and more dangerous. When the pair separately learn of recent medical treatments of some of the prophets and of ongoing inoculations among followers of those leaders, they discover that they are out of their depth, for it is nothing less than a deliberate conspiracy to cull and control the billions of people living on earth. Hunted by those who want their secrets kept, Deauchez and Hill begin a cross-country trek in a desperate attempt to save Hill from the ravages of the "cold" plague. The conspirators, however, have problems bigger than a priest with a crisis of faith or a comatose reporter, for things like worldwide panic have a way of taking on lives of their own.
Well-researched yet free of minutely detailed scientific explanation, Millennium Rising clips along at an entertaining pace. Jensen makes an astute observation: that an apocalypse is an apocalypse is an apocalypse whether it's started by human hands or by the finger of God; the end result is the same. Deauchez's private history makes him a troubled but sympathetic hero as he tries to stop, or at least understand, the apparent end of the world. Millennium Rising is one of the best of the recent bumper crop of doomsday novels.