A brief Prologue sets the tempo: a headlong chase with the grunts of the hunters close behind, malevolent betrayal, and the slowest of deaths for a 17 year-old girl. Then into the first chapter, where the walk to her first day at an exclusive high school takes narrator Skye Rodgers and her twin, Red, across New York’s Central Park through a bunch of “crazies and religious weirdos”. They brandish placards, predicting the world will end on March 17th, just a few months away. Monmouth School serves the children of the 1% obscenely rich. It’s all about status and breeding, money and fashion. Monmouth boasts four students whose lineage can be traced back to ‘The Mayflower’. A girl’s education ideally leads to coming out at the season’s most prestigious debutantes’ ball, where the process of catching one’s man could well begin. The futures of male students are likely to be clearly mapped already; an Ivy League college, then on into a high earning profession, politics or the military. As newcomers at their first Assembly, Skye and Red are called up to the stage by the headmistress. Red’s fine – waving cheerfully to the student body; Skye trips on the steps and sprawls on the stage. Bitchy giggles and comment. Reilly’s good at teenage snobbery and venom.
With their mother’s marriage to step-father Todd, the twins have left their lives in Memphis and moved to an apartment in the San Remo building on the Upper West Side. Residents include Steven Spielberg among other movie glitterati, Wall Street Masters of the Universe, Saudi princes and several of the families of Monmouth students.
Easy-going Red soon settles in at school, but apart from a fellow outsider, Afro-American Jenny, Skye finds it hard to make friends. So it’s an amazing surprise to her when, after a few months, first Red and then Skye herself are admitted into an elite group led by Misty Collins. The year moves inexorably towards March 17th, though the Monmouth students pay little attention to that. Time only for gossip and shopping. But this is no fundamentalist prophesy of an apocalypse. Serious scientists confirm that Earth will pass through a “gamma cloud”. Dr Harold Finkelstein expects the consequence will be “an extinction-level event”, wiping out 99.5% of the world’s population. Mankind and all its works will be returned to the Stone Age. Reilly is less interested in the aftermath of the cataclysm than in people’s behaviour before and during the event itself. Misty’s wealthy inner circle has a unique perspective. They share a secret, passed down through the Collins family; for just a couple of years, when they are between 17 and 19, they have the means to access an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park. Once inside, they run together to a point where they can step out of a disused well into a parallel future, which they now establish is around 22 years ahead of their own world. So, before the catastrophe of March 17th arrives in their own time, they can visit the post-disaster period and see what’s happened to themselves, their families and the city. What they find is evidence of savage self-interest. Death came cheap as the wealth of that richest 1% provided no defence against the have-nots. Suicide, murder and starvation – even the skeletal remains of their mothers and fathers.
Reilly handles all this with accomplished plotting (he’s sold 7.5 million copies of his many titles), great pace and often gruesome violence. Stephen King, mentioned several times in the text, is one of Reilly’s acknowledged heroes. Skye, Jenny and Red, among the surviving 0.5%, contribute to an effort to build some kind of order based on humane values. You wouldn’t fancy their chances. Their settlement must be defended by armed guards, willing to shoot any who threaten their safety. This exploration of how the race might respond to such a catastrophe can offer only the bleakest of prospects.