The fictional bioterror of Richard Preston's The Cobra Event was scary enough, but The First Horseman is based on the real Spanish flu, a hideous virus that killed over 20 million people in 1918. From the opening pages, this second novel by investigative reporter John Case (author of The Genesis Code) thrusts readers into the thick of a rapid-fire plot. In New York, a man and a woman are murdered at their home by a cult whose motivations remain mysterious. Immediately, the action shifts to Tasi-ko, North Korea, where a medical worker flees to the mountains to escape a disease that has decimated his village. While he looks on from his hiding spot, North Korean soldiers pour into Tasi-ko and incinerate it and all of its suffering inhabitants. The CIA investigates the events at Tasi-ko, and realizing that the disease could well be a hybrid Spanish flu being tested as a biological weapon, recruits a team of American scientists to uncover the only known sample of the 1918 pandemic--which is frozen into the bodies of miners buried in the Arctic. From there the novel traces scientists Anne Adair and Benton Kicklighter on their expedition to the frozen town of Kopervik to uncover the miners' corpses. Not knowing that the CIA is behind Adair and Kicklighter's work, Washington Post reporter Frank Daly follows their story. When the scientists return empty-handed, though, he begins to suspect that a medical curiosity is on the verge of becoming a global catastrophe.
The strength of the novel is the eerie suspense that Case sustains by revealing only enough about the Korean plot and the Temple of Light cult to keep the reader fully engaged and wanting more. While Case doesn't spend much time delving into the lives and motivations of his characters, the Spanish flu is the real star. Case propels the novel with the constant reminder that a new plague is on the verge of exploding, and his several enigmatic subplots keep you turning the pages and praying that this is only fiction. --Patrick O'Kelley