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The Strain

The Strain  - Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan Seems these days if you want to make a buck, you gotta write a vampire story. Don't get me wrong. I've enjoyed many vampire books out there but think the sub-genre has all but been bled dry. So along comes a book co-authored by visionary Guillermo Del Toro, a favorite movie director of mine, that claims to turn the concept of the vampire story on to its head. So yeah, I had high hopes for the book. It's too bad that after the promising first few chapters it simulated the experience of watching a bad TV mini-series with a blindfold on -- complete with cliche characters, anti-climactic and wholly ridiculous action scenes, and a very predictable and unsatisfying ending.

Here's the set up: after a triple 7 jumbo jet taxis onto a JFK runway it goes mysteriously and completely belly up. That's a hook! All shades are inexplicably drawn and no one is able to communicate with the pilots or gain entrance to the plane. Neat-o. What gives? Once it's pried open like a tin of sardines (and the door mysteriously opens) they find a whole lot of people restfully peacefully in their seats, all dead. Oh, and a coffin filled with some very nice compost. Thankfully, a small cast of stereotypes is perceived to still be alive (the pilot, the rock star, the vicious lawyer bitch, the cute kid) and serve as some of the agents of the book's slow plot progression.

We are left with some intriguing questions:
What's that horrible smell?
Why were all the shades drawn?
How did this very modern plane with independent and redundant electrical systems fail all at once?
Why were there no signs of struggle?
How did that coffin get through Customs when I have to practically strip naked to get on a plane?

Well, one of these questions is kind of answered in the rest of the book so I hope you're not a nitpicker like me.

Enter our good guy, a free-thinking doctor from the CDC with marriage problems. He's not a bad fellow you see, he just works so hard at his job but BOY does he love his son! He could have completed the cliche by being named Jack but instead goes by...Eph.

Following our intrepid hero throughout the book, for no other reason than to provide a romantic interest and a counterpoint to his limp, wet dish rag relationship with his ex-wife, is Nora, the Strong Silent Type. So silent that she isn't given more than two sentences of dialog throughout the entire book -- despite being nearly inseparable from our protagonist. If this trilogy does make it to the theaters as so many speculate I feel for the woman cast in this thankless role.

Expanding on our list of characters, we have a burly exterminator -- no, really, we do -- and a Holocaust survivor turned avenging vampire slayer, Abraham "Rambo" Setrakian. Abe, though pushing 80-something, according to my calculations, is an absolute death-dealing merchant in the presence of those pesky vampires. His walking stick predictably conceals a silver Ginsu sword which he swings about like Errol freakin' Flynn and yells "My sword sings silver" or something equally silly as he lops heads, arms, and other vampire appendages free in a furious rage. . Oh please. Abe hints at the end of the book that there's a lot about the vampires that the authors have been keeping him from saying. We'll see if that pays off in the future books.

So, this whole "redefining the genre" nonsense? You're asking yourself: "Can this really be true?" In a word, no. As I said, the vampire genre has petered out significantly. The recent publication of The Passage was entertaining and somewhat original but the concept of vampires being created by viruses was plumbed many times before. Micheal Romkey's vampire books come to mind. Cripes, one of them was even called The Vampire Virus. The vampire elements could have been assembled from any number of checklists. The Strain is purely "paint by numbers".

The middle of the book is maddeningly repetitive. We are quickly presented with a sketch or our next victim in their home, arriving home, or leaving their home. Their routine is interrupted by Something Unusual (dirt on the floor, a Haitian housekeeper sneaking into a house, the shed door being strangely open, etc.). The soon-to-be victims move forward without a flashlight or lights turned on to investigate, unsuccessfully trying to build up some tension in the reader, are faced with a "turned" vampire (usually a relative, friend, or cute kid) are are pounced upon, drained by the vampire's proboscis, and pooped and urinated on by the attacker.

Aaaaand scene!

This is played out so many DAMN times with so many people we don't know or care about it becomes nearly unbearable. The Strain might refer as much to the effort it takes to make it through these tedious scenes as it does the vampire virus.

Other parts of the book are meant to inform the reader (city rats, the inner workings of the CDC, the lunar eclipse [HA HA! It's actually an occultation, you fool!] for example) but are so unnecessarily drawn out that they detract from what little story there is. As I felt recently with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker book, less is often more in these cases.

"Lookit me!! I did my RESEARCH!"

As for logic problems and plot holes, they exist a-plenty. I won't go into all of them but the biggest to me seem to involve the virus itself. If it's a virus, why do our vampire buddies require an invitation to cross a body of water? Is the virus transmitted by vampire blood or by these pesky inchworms? Why would silver affect the vampires the way it does? What the heck is with the coffin, other than it being a carryover from other vampire novels. Its purpose is never explained and the reader is left wondering if there is any reason for it at all. I also wonder how a Holocaust survivor turned professor turned pawn shop owner, an exterminator, and a doctor all somehow turn into vampire slaying ninjas in a matter of hours. They are slicing, dicing, kicking, flipping, and karate chopping the vampires with such ruthless efficiency they emerge from every scuffle without a scratch. This not only demolishes the believability of the book but also makes us even less interested in each skirmish's outcome. We already know they'll be triumphant -- even if they are picked up by the head like a basketball with dandruff, thrown clear across the room into walls, and beset upon by legions of strong, fast, toothy monsters Hell bent to destroy them. For all the slapstick violence The Strain could almost have been titled "The Three Stooges Meet Dracula" save for the lack of humor.

We are given glimpses of some of the other six vampire Mafiosos near the end and are led to believe some kind of Vampire War is coming. Some kind of truce was formed and 3 Bosses got land over there, the other 3 got land over here. Our main vampire Boss in this book appears to have gotten the short end of the stick somewhere along the line and has been causing all sorts of ruckus of late because, darn it, he's had enough and he's not going to take it anymore!

With a set up like that the series promises to get a whole lot worse before getting any better. And I'm just talking about the writing and plot.