I would hate to be selling books in this day and age. For one, book reps are becoming peddlers of 0s and 1s, intermediaries between the company that makes money from pimping authors and the company that makes money from selling e-readers (both of which are fast becoming one and the same). Also, I find that we-readers are awfully discriminating. Take me, for example (please). When in a bookstore, it would never occur to me to venture in a category other than fiction. I think I’m at a point where I own or at least have read the classics, I won’t magically stumble upon some old gem I have never heard of. And as much as I only care about fiction, I really only would consider reading a select few subgenres. Actually if I am to trust my bookshelves, I mostly like authors from specific points in time and place. To say that I am picky would clearly be an understatement: in the last 15 years, my favorite book from France would rank maybe a B in my grand brain of things. Maybe. On a good day. At a glance I would say that 90% of the books I enjoyed in the last 15 years are from Britain – the remaining 10% are friends and random picks at some airport, somewhere.
The ONLY reason I started picking up The Strain books is Guillermo Del Toro. I have never hated anything that he has done, which is a lot to say. Chuck Hogan I probably don’t know well enough to reliably talk shit about, but I picked up The Standoff a while back and thought it was ok – a bit contrived but worth sitting through – whereas Devils In Exile I thought was boring as hell even though the protagonist was kind of a cool guy. Neither book made it back home. So yeah, I kept my expectations midrange. But to me Del Toro has a special talent to create atmospheres that are both powerful and weird, the kind that me and my mother-in-law can agree on. And I heard that he writes crazy intricate scripts so at thought that at worse this would be like reading rejected pages from his Blade movies, which I can live with.
As any good vampire story, The Strain establishes its own lore, which can be summed up in the fact silver is the only viable vampire killer. No crosses, no garlic, no stakes. They do shy away from sunlight (no glitter) but there is no occurrence of vampires dying in the sunlight. That is because they are a pretty ruthless bunch: by the end of the first book, Earth is essentially conquered. Their fearless leader is affectionately, fittingly called “the Master”: they function as sort of a hive fathered by the Master with everyone on the same wavelength and the Master being the Master that he is can actually manipulate that wavelength to see through the eyes of each and every vampire, whenever, wherever, he can even speak directly into people’s brains with it because he is the Master. We also discover at some point that he is sun-resistant, though not all the way sunproof, so yeah. Ordinary vampires still communicate telepathically, they can even hack into human communication networks with brainpower, and they do possess a special mental bond with people they knew before being turned. Vampirism is the strain of the title: it is a worm/parasite that gets passed on to others via a stinger that shoots out of under the tongue, and is up to six feet long. Once turned, former humans lose all their body fat because they’re on a blood from then on, their middle fingers turn into a talon-like appendage that they can fight with, and they become all pale and smooth I guess from moisturizing in sewer water. They also lose all sexual appendages, which is a cute nudge to all your slutty vampire books.
So the Master is pretty BA. We are introduced to him firstly via the childhood memories of Abraham Setrakian, a holocaust survivor who was told stories of Josef Sardu, a giant who had the habit of capturing misbehaving little Romanian kids like him. After he saw him with his own eyes, he began to obsess over Sardu, gathering all kinds of intelligence about him. In his contemporary shape, the Master arrived in New York by plane, on a Boeing that turned completely off upon landing. First man on the scene is Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC doctor sent to investigate a possible terrorist threat. He is recently divorced, not quite over his wife and definitely tied to his kid Zach. Once he gets on the plane, he and his teammate Nora Martinez find out that there are only 5 survivors, everybody else is dead, with no trace of poison or fight. It’s crazy. Meanwhile, in the City, Vasily Fet is a rodent exterminator who has seen his target population (the rat) fleeing the city and/or becoming super tough to the point of attacking babies to find sustenance. Gus Elizalde is a Mexican thug who witnesses some crazy dude causing trouble (a vampire) and kills him straight up. He ends up back in jail but he figures that’s safer than in a world of bloodsuckers. These are the characters who will somehow put their brains and weapons together to fight the Master, with the help of the “Occido Lumen” a book of vampire knowledge being offered for auction just that week by some anonymous bidder.
The story is told through the eyes of all these characters, by way of journals or direct discourse. Narratively, everything is very well tied together: each of them has their own voice, knowing just enough about what is going on (and the world at large) that there is not a dull or confusing moment. Actually, I would like to make a personal note that between the various characters and the three-installment format, there is maybe a tad too much repetition of some elements. Sure, it does make sense that different characters would have the same thought, and sure, it does create a sort of oppressive atmosphere as man, woman and child observe the same little bummer or a detail. However sometimes I got the feeling that the writers thought I was some kind of idiot, repeating the same thing three times within thirty pages. Anyway. You get to see each character slowly unfold, growing from scared to determined to scared again as they quest to understand what is exactly going on, and how to get rid of the strain. Overall, that’s some really tight storytelling with enough description for you to get a clear visual of what is going on, and enough left out so you can piss your pants on occasion. It’s precise, incisive, cutting. No gobbledygook, and actually not much depth either. There’s no time for depth as far as the characters are concerned, they spend a good part of the trilogy just understanding what is happening. I think it helps that a good bulk of the drama takes place in New York, in places that have received enough media exposure (the subway, La Guardia, Ground Zero) so that even if you have not set foot in New York you will be able to recreate some of the ambiance. As a reader, that means you keep a good grip on the bigger arc and you can keep in touch with the various subplots through geography.
There is a but. A sizeable one (I am quite fond of those, I shall not mislead you on this). The story finds its resolution in a manner that will undoubtedly make a lot of people unhappy. It doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but nothing leading up to the final moments would have prepared you for it. Except maybe that as the number of pages stuck between your left index and thumb dwindles, even the arrival of Quinlan the half-breed vampire who gets in league with the good guys for his own reasons, you get a pretty good sense that none of this situation will work out easily. While I did keep the possibility in mind that everybody would die for a very anticlimactic ending, the end is alter-climactic instead. It’s not what you/I expected, but it’s also probably not what you/I wanted. It’s cinematic to the point that you wonder whether the book came with a script option. Let’s put it this way: if watching The Matrix pissed you off in any kind of way, you will have the exact same feeling. You’ve been warned. But if you are willing to look past your sense of ironic detachment, be prepared to enjoy this book cover-to-cover3, sweating your shirt off at the end of the first two volumes, and scratching your head when you close the last one.- Gnou