'Deep Zone' takes readers on thrilling journey

Imagine Katniss Everdeen in her 30s. That's the picture I get of Hallie Leland, the female heroine in James Tabor's new novel, "The Deep Zone."
Both women are smart, strong, resourceful and love being in the outdoors. While Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" embraces the woods, Leland loves the water, especially scuba diving and spelunking.
She needs those skills and a strong will to live in Tabor's spectacular thriller, which ranks among the best I've read in the past year. Probably in the top five. It's got rip-roaring action, compelling characters, scientific intrigue and a real-world sensibility. It feels like something you read in a news magazine after the event happened, similar to a Jon Krakauer story. It's a mixture of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "Into Thin Air," which means things go wrong in the wild and people die. What could be a better adventure story than that?
Leland is a renowned microbiologist who is trying a new career track after being unjustly fired from a U.S. government laboratory — operating a dive shop in northern Florida. She's an athletic, attractive woman ("She was tanned the shade of tea, her naturally blond hair sun-bleached almost pure white. ... Her forearms were corded with muscle and veins from climbing, her hands scarred and as rough as a laborer's.") who has a heart for educating and helping people. She does just that as the story begins, rescuing a man during a dangerous dive.
But then her world is turned upside down. She is summoned by the government to play a key role on a special team that is being assembled to confront a national and global threat. Think "Avengers." There's a mysterious epidemic, apparently born in combat hospitals, that is killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. It apparently has spread to the United States and may be infecting other nations.
Millions of people could die if Hallie and her team can't recover a very rare organism that is needed to create a new antibiotic. The problem? The organism is only found at the bottom of Earth's deepest cave — located in the middle of a war zone in southern Mexico.
Not only does the team have to confront the dangers of the supercave (flooded tunnels, lakes of acid, bottomless chasms, intense darkness, etc.), they have to work with differing personalities and agendas. In the dark recesses of the cave, nerves and fear can drive someone to the breaking point very quickly. Forget man vs. wild; it's man vs. hell on earth.
Fortunately, most of "The Deep Zone" takes place underground, and Tabor does a magnificent job of describing the perils Hallie and the others face. Especially when the group has to dive into gloomy, watery holes for extended periods of time.
While waiting in a small cave before a big dive, Hallie felt "a gnawing anxiety that kept her looking over one shoulder or the other and intensified with every foot they down-climbed." Says one team member, "I do not know which would be worse — losing the mind or spending days alone in here waiting."
Tabor paints such a dreadful picture of the cave and the group's struggles inside it that the main objective — retrieving the rare organism — almost gets overlooked. The team can only succeed if it gets the organism, survives the return trip to the cave entrance and gets safely rescued. And even then, there's no guarantee that the antibiotic will work and save lives. It's a nearly impossible journey but it's a fantastic one, full of classic twists and turns.

Sparked by a rich imagination, "The Deep Zone" is a story worth diving into. Again and again.