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The Strain - Guillermo del Toro
Member Name: SWSt
The Strain - Guillermo del Toro
Advantages: Interesting, well-paced and highly readable
Disadvantages: Disappointing ending; lacks originality
When it comes to novels which are co-authored by celebrities or famous names from other fields, I'm always a little cynical. Did they simply attach the name to the project and wait for the royalties to roll in, or were they actively involved in the plotting, characterisation and writing?
Of course, a well-known name can help with publicity and books sales and there's no doubt that this tactic works. When I saw this book on Amazon, it was the name of Guillermo Del Toro's that caught my attention, not the name of co-author Chuck Hogan or the title of the book. I was interested to see how well Del Toro's ideas could make their way from the highly visual medium of film into the written word. The answer, it turns out, is "very well indeed". Del Toro and his writing partner craft a great novel that (mostly) tells an interesting horror story, whist also setting up a trilogy of novels.
This is one of those books that grabs your attention straight from the start. It opens in a deeply mysterious fashion: a plane lands in New York and suddenly goes quiet. Everyone on board is found dead, yet there are no obvious signs of poisoning, terrorist activity or mechanical failure. Dr Ephraim (Eph) Goodweather and his team are called in from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate, but initially are stumped. Slowly, Eph starts to discover that the incident was caused by a very different kind of disease which threatens the very existence of humanity - vampires.
One of the core reasons why The Strain works so well is that straight from the start it establishes an atmosphere of tension and mystery. It's never exactly a scary book, but it is a very atmospheric one. The strong opening instantly raises questions in the reader's mind and makes them curious to find out more. From here, Del Toro and Hogan gradually pile revelation upon revelation so that the plot becomes a little clearer with each passing chapter. The fact that it shifts regularly between different characters also helps keep the reader's attention and ensures that the authors can keep tension levels high by shifting the focus of the plot at crucial moments.
In fact, there are times when you want to shake the characters for not realising the significance of what they are witnessing because, thanks to the well-written narrative, it seems so obvious to you. In fairness, that's because you are aware of all the facts and have the bigger picture, which none of the characters do. Whilst this apparent stupidity of the characters can be mildly frustrating, it's also a real strength, demonstrating how involved you have become in the narrative.
It has to be said that there is not a great deal of originality behind The Strain - it's a fairly standard vampire story and in many respects, is highly reminiscent of Stephen King's Salem's Lot. That again is no bad thing, however. The reader is instantly comfortable with the central idea and the authors don't have to waste lots of time explaining vampire lore or establishing the basic principles. It's assumed that the reader already knows at least something about vampires and that helps move the narrative along at a rapid pace.
The book's single new idea (that newly turned vampires return home to feed upon their loved ones first) adds an extra element of emotion. It makes the book about the characters, rather than the vampires and allows Del Toro and Hogan to introduce a few nice sub-plots that really bring out the impact of this "disease" on family units.
In some ways it's difficult to define what makes The Strain so readable since it not only lacks originality, it also is one of those books where it takes quite a while for nothing much to happen. This is not a book full of set pieces, of mass struggles with vampires or desperate fights for life. Instead, it's a slow burner: elements of the plot are gradually revealed so that the reader becomes more and more aware of what is going on and characters are more important than excitement.
Not that there is anything particularly original about the characters in The Strain. They are all pretty standard genre archetypes: the intelligent doctor who is willing to accept the fantastical, his faithful sidekick female and the wise old man who has spent his life tracking down vampires. Yet this lack of originality doesn't matter. Just like the plot, it means that the reader can feel instantly comfortable with the characters and just accept them for who they are. The familiarity also means that it's easy to care about them and worry for their safety.
It's a shame that the ending was somewhat anti-climactic. The build-up was fantastic, creating a real sense of tension as the vampire hunters move deep into the creature's lair. Yet, the final confrontation is rather lacklustre and a let-down after the tension of the preceding pages. Not only is it over with too quickly, it leaves lots of loose ends flapping around. This is obviously because this is the first book in a trilogy, so some plot strands are left unresolved so that they can be explored in subsequent books. However, it does leave this first part feeling rather anti-climactic.
For all I enjoyed it, I also felt that The Strain was slightly too long and the authors delayed the (disappointing) climax just a little too much. Towards the end, it became a case of the characters simply doing nothing as a means of avoiding the inevitable final confrontation and this meant that the pace slipped from "slow burner" to just plain slow. There was no question in my mind that the book ended far less strongly than it began.
Overall, I enjoyed The Strain. It might not add anything new to the genre, but it was well-written, (mostly) well-paced and enjoyable. I'm certainly looking forward to reading the next two volumes (The Fall and The Night Eternal) to catch up with the characters and see how they fare in their on-going battle with the vampires of New York.
Available new for around £4 (paperback) or £5 (Kindle edition)
Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
Harper, 2010 (Reissue)
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: A surprisingly readable vampire novel