Doctor Janie Crowe and her husband, Tom, are just two of the many characters in Ann Benson's audacious and sweepingly grand novel about history, faith, and the desire to stay alive. Janie and Tom lead a small band of survivors who have formed an isolated community in Massachusetts after a global biological terrorist attack has wiped
out most of the world's population.
Named DR SAM, the contagion rapidly raced across the globe, initially sweeping over the border of Mexico into the United States,
destroying almost every living thing in its path. Now Janie and her group are forced to confront a brave new world, where those with certain immunity have survived and life has sadly become like a type of medieval siege.
Luckily, Janie finds hope and inspiration in an ancient medieval text written by a Jewish physician by the name of Alejandro Canches, who lived at a time when the bubonic plague was ravaging across Europe. Alejandro is on a mission to save his adopted daughter Kate from the evil clutches of King Edward III.
Kate is Edward's daughter born of a woman who once served his cherished Queen, and Edward wishes to acknowledge Kate as his own progeny and accept her into his household as a princess of England. To do this, he must not only get papal permission but also formalize a relationship between the scheming Isabella, his legitimate princess Royal, and the Frenchman Baron de Coucy.
For Edward, Kate is simply a tool of diplomacy for an ambitious ruler who wishes to solidify his kingdom in France. Kate's position is made even more precarious by the threat of being married off to some foreign
prince whom she does not love. She is also horrified that she will suffer the fate of her predecessors should she seek to thwart the King's plans.
In desperation, Kate seeks assistance from the wily young poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and together they continue
to scheme and plot behind Edward's back. They contact Alejandro in the hope that he will travel to Windsor Castle and rescue her, thereby taking her back to France so that she can be reunited with her young son.
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, Janie and her group gradually discover there other communities who have also survived the dreaded attack. Happenstance leads them to an assemblage of friendly villagers led by former LAPD detective Lany Dunbar.
Initially hesitant to contact this group, Janie realizes that they must open up to this community and others - including a group of scientists and computer specialists working at Worcester Technical College – if they are ever going to defeat a far more deadly and viciously fast-growing bacteria that has so far proved resistant to every cure.
Benson's tale is of two accomplished physicians who find themselves ill prepared to curtail their respective floods of history. In the end, both these doctors, Janie and Alejandro - although living several hundred years apart - are similarly forced to confront the effects of devastation and plague, whether they like it or not.
Drenched in period detail, The Physician's Tale is very much a view of history from the perspective of the modern. While the book is certainly fiction, the story is also disturbing and often disquieting as it provides a cautionary insight into the dark world of 13th-century politics and society, effectively juxtaposing this with its near-futuristic setting.
Certainly Janie, Tom and Lany discover that when the chips are down, faith and reason are not necessarily contradictory forces.
In the process, they learn that their own urge to survive and endure, and hopefully thrive, is not that different from those like Alejandro, who lived and suffered and died before them.