Tuesday, December 7, 2010

[Novel Review] The Strain

A novel by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I'm not really into the CSI-style television shows, but this novel, for me, read very much like I'd imagine such a show would read if turned into a novel. Which, for all I know, they have been. In any event, The Strain, the first novel in the eponymous series, combines Quincy-style forensics with good, old-world-style vampire action. And by the end of the first novel, I was hooked.

The novel centers around Eph, a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control who's trying to juggle his job, his affection for his young son, his divorce (and related custody battle) and a romantic involvement with his partner (that's never really more than a footnote). Suddenly, he finds himself called away from a weekend of baseball with his boy to a mysterious jetliner that landed at JFK airport with no signs that anybody on board was alive.

The first third of the novel, with only an occasional exception, revolves around Eph, his partner Nora, and their investigation of the planeload of dead people. We also meet the enigmatic Professor Setrakian, and learn a little about his youth as a prisoner in the Nazi death camp of Treblinka. Mostly, though, it's all about Eph and his attempts to unravel the mysteries of an international flight where everybody seems to be just fine, except that they're nearly all dead, peacefully sitting in their seats with no indication as to their cause of death.

It was clear pretty quickly what the authors were trying to do with the first 125 to 150 pages of the novel - they needed to set up all of the biological factors involved in the "disease" of vampirism, as it was clearly their intent to approach it as a type of plague rather than a mystical curse or other paranormal phenomena as is typical with most other vampire stories. They went to great lengths to show proper CDC procedures and technically there was a ton of information there. The problem for me was that I almost ended up like one of those passengers on the plane: bored to death, inexplicably found in my chair, the novel clutched in my cadaverous hands. It took considerable will - and faith - to force myself to keep reading when I got to page 100 and nothing had really happened. I was sorely tempted to simply set the book aside and read something else.

Ultimately I'm glad I chose to keep reading, because the latter half of the novel was really quite good. Once the vampire part really came into play, it became much more of an action-adventure, with the bulk of the technical detail cast aside in favor of good, old-fashioned man versus vampire battle. The climactic final quarter of the book, in fact, dragged me along so swiftly that I found myself unable to put the novel down, and stayed up late to finish it - something I confess I haven't been motivated to do in some time.

Ultimately I liked The Strain. I liked how they handled vampires from both a historical and scientific perspective. I liked the characters well enough, and I definitely liked both the rise of the vampires and the heroic battle to fight them off. It came off as extraordinarily well-researched when it came to technical details about anything from the New York subway system to CDC protocols. My big criticism remains with that first 125+ pages - there's just no excuse for the authors not making them more interesting. They showed they were capable of writing to that level later on, the needed to do it sooner. I get that they were building the foundation for a multi-novel series, and that there was a big payoff for the slow start. I do. But it's just sloppy, in my opinion, to bank on your readers slogging through to find that payoff without something helping them along - some action, some real dramatic tension, anything that gives them hope that the story's really going somewhere.

If they'd done that. I'd probably be rating The Strain somewhere in the A to A+ range. As it stands, I think B+ is as high as I can go. Still, if you're the sort who'd enjoy a story of vampires running amok in Manhattan and threatening all of mankind, grit your teeth, push through the early third, and enjoy the rest.

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