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The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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How many people are sick of vampire books?

Here, I imagine vast hordes of people raising their hands, crying, “Please! Save us from Twilight fever!” (No offense to the multitudes of Twilight fans out there…) I know I’m at least overwhelmed by the sheer mass of vampire fiction out there – sure, I love a good fanged feast as much as the next fantasy buff, but there is an undeniable influx of vamps in the literary world these days. So many varieties – blood-drinking, sparkling, evil, romantic, psychic, bestial, vamps in suits and vamps in jeans, vamps with sidekicks and minions and familiars, old and young and in-between vamps, funny vamps, serious vamps – much like Chicken Soup for the Soul, any type of vampire you can conceive of, they’ve written about.

Confronted with such a vast sea of choices, my brain kind of glazes over like a day-old donut and I wander off in pursuit of easier reading material decisions. Such as any book that includes the words “Terry Pratchett” on the cover.

However. This is Guillermo del Toro we’re talking about. And no self-respecting fan of fantasy should pass over anything with del Toro’s stamp upon it. So I picked it up.

And I loved it.

The Strain
is the first novel in The Strain Trilogy. Book Two: The Fall is available now as well, and Book Three: The Night Eternal is scheduled for a spring 2011 release date.

Here’s the official description of The Strain:

They have always been here. Vampires. In secret and in darkness. Waiting. Now their time has come. In one week, Manhattan will be gone. In one month, the country. In two months—the world. 

A Boeing 777 arrives at JFK and is on its way across the tarmac, when it suddenly stops dead. All window shades are pulled down. All lights are out. All communication channels have gone quiet. Crews on the ground are lost for answers, but an alert goes out to the CDC. Dr. Eph Goodweather, head of their Canary project, a rapid-response team that investigates biological threats, gets the call and boards the plane. What he finds makes his blood run cold.

In a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem, a former professor and survivor of the Holocaust named Abraham Setrakian knows something is happening. And he knows the time has come, that a war is brewing . . . 

So begins a battle of mammoth proportions as the vampiric virus that has infected New York begins to spill out into the streets. Eph, who is joined by Setrakian and a motley crew of fighters, must now find a way to stop the contagion and save his city—a city that includes his wife and son—before it is too late.

Now – I said that I loved it, and I did. The Strain discards all those romantic notions of vampires thirsting for true love in addition to scads of blood (a thread that goes all the way back to the grandfather of vampire fiction, Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and seats vamps firmly in monster territory. These bloodsuckers don’t love anybody. They don’t wear fashionable clothes, woo maidens, or angst over the torment of having to feed from human beings. They crave blood, destruction, and the replication of the virus that warps their bodies into powerful undead machines. There is no saving them. Once you’re bitten, you’re fucked.

Del Toro’s atypical creations do not have fangs – they have stingers, like frogs with scorpions for tongues. They are not beautiful and hypnotic – they are dirty, twisted, and vicious. They’re nasty pieces of work – inhuman monsters through and through. And they are terrifying.

Exactly what I want out of my vampires. Read The Strain, and you will lose sleep.

Being a writer, however, I have to qualify my love for this book. I loved it as a reader. The plot zipped right along and had me bulldozing through to see what happened next. There were enough main characters to keep things interesting and framed in various perspectives, but not so many that I got confused. I could easily (and probably will, soon) see this as a movie.

The actual writing… well, suffered in places. Here, I don’t know whether to blame del Toro or Hogan, so I’ll reserve judgment. Most of the characters have specialized occupations with processes the average person doesn’t understand, and there were several instances of “As you know, Bob” explanations of CDC procedures and airport equipment usage that just wouldn’t have occurred to the characters whose viewpoints we’re in, because they are part of their everyday lives. One particularly egregious transgression – a cold, clinical description of a piece of medical equipment in the middle of an intense action scene – ripped me from the world of the story and left me ranting for a good half hour.

But once the reader in me managed to bludgeon that pesky internal editor into unconsciousness with a lead pipe, The Strain was a hell of a thrill-ride. I’m looking forward to The Fall.

Sonya Bateman lives in “temperate” Central New York with her family, where she spends six months out of the year cursing the existence of snow, and sometimes writes novels. Her debut urban fantasy novel MASTER OF NONE, first in a series about the world’s unluckiest thief and the genie who hates him, is currently available everywhere books are sold. Except airports, for some reason.

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