5 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Title: The Strain

Author: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: William Morrow (US) / Harper Collins (UK)
Publication Date: June 2009 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 416 pages

Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the planned Strain trilogy.

Why did I read this book: Well, there are a few very compelling reasons. One, it’s oscar winning freaking genius Guillermo del Toro (I have such huge love for Chronos, Hellboy, Hellboy II, and Pan’s Labyrinth). Two, it’s a new, vicious take on vampires (as opposed to the leather-clad/ridiculously sexified vamps that dominate literature and tv these days), in the tradition of ‘Salem’s Lot. Three, Ana is my sugar mama – she went to a signing in London to celebrate the release of the book with a bunch of other wonderful UK bloggers, and SHE GOT ME A PERSONALIZED, SIGNED COPY OF THE BOOK. Seriously:

So, as you can see, I had no choice but to read this book.

Summary: (from amazon.com)
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.


The Strain begins with a prologue of sorts, as a young man named Abraham listens to a bubbeh meiseh, a grandmother’s story, about the evil that lurks and waits in the darkness. This evil has overwhelmed many before, and continues throughout history, as Abraham will discover during the course of his life. Many decades later, an airplane lands at JFK in New York, but something is horribly wrong. The plane is dead. No lights, no noise from the pilots or passengers. When the CDC arrives on the scene under the leadership of Ephraim Goodweather, the find that the all the passengers on the plane save four have died, mysteriously drained of all their blood. Fearing a viral outbreak, Eph rushes to find the cause of the mysterious deaths – but what he discovers shakes him to his very core, and forces him to confront everything he’s ever known about science. As the situation in New York grows more dire following a total eclipse that eerily coincides with the airplane deaths, Eph teams up with an old man who has seen this evil before and remembers it well from his grandmother’s stories, and together with a few other determined survivors they strike out to stop the spread of the strain.

The Strain isn’t really what I was expecting – I thought this would be a horror novel, when in actuality, thematically and in writing style this is much more of a thriller novel. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – simply unexpected. In many ways, The Strain reminds me of books by Robin Cook or Richard Preston (i.e. Outbreak, The Hot Zone). I used to read these bioterrorism/CDC/USAMRIID books when I was in middle school and Ephraim’s scientific angle with the CDC dominates a lot of this story. On the other hand, balancing the scientific elements The Strain is also a tale of the supernatural, written very much in the tradition of ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. There’s a Master, there’s a moving coffin storyline, there’s a male hero with the son character, and there’s the necessary Van Helsing character. I guess what I’m getting at, is that The Strain borrows heavily from established works of fiction (even the central theme behind the trilogy, with vampirism as a pathogen or strain can find its roots in Richard Matheson’s classic tale I am Legend), cobbling together a modern, grittier take on vampires.

Unfortunately, the overall effect is sadly uneven as the story struggles to balance both thriller with horror and blend science with fiction. The Strain isn’t a bad book, but it’s firmly locked in mediocrity.

The beginning of the novel is undeniably strong – starting with a prologue of sorts in Romania and a glimpse of young Abraham (who will become our Van Helsing in New York many years later). It’s a very Guillermo del Torro-esque way to start a story – as with the story of Nuada and the Golden army in Hellboy II, the grandmother’s tale about the monster Sardu is one that sets an eerie, dark atmosphere for The Strain, haunting with the telltale sound of the monster’s cane (“pick-pick-pick“). It is in this element, the supernatural, that Mr. del Torro and Mr. Hogan excel – the old stories of evil, powerful master vampires in the trenches of WWII, the ancients that still remain on Earth, the motivations for destruction of the human race – these are the thematic and storytelling highs of the novel. In contrast, the medical thriller The X-Files-cum-Outbreak just doesn’t quite work. Ephraim’s struggles with his bureaucratic bosses may ring true, but it’s not something I want to read about for fifty pages, and the alacrity that Eph and Nora switch from concerned CDC scientists to sword-wielding slayers of anyone infected isn’t quite believable. There’s also an attempt to make vampirism a pathogen that can be defined by science, but then it’s countered by decidedly non-scientific factors that don’t make any sense if vampirism is due to a virus (vampires cannot cross moving water unassisted, mirrors only show vampires if they are backed with silver, vampires can be hurt by UV lamps but not killed by exposure to the sun). It never really quite works either way.

As I’ve mentioned above, The Strain is written in the style of a thriller. Actually, a more astute observation would be that The Strain is written in the style of a TV movie or episode of CSI. Sections end on commercial break-like cliffhangers, switching constantly from following Eph’s storyline to Setrakian’s (that is, Abraham’s), to the infected survivors from the plane, and to anyone these characters may have been in contact with. It’s a schizophrenic, sensationalist writing style that I’m not particularly fond of – but perhaps this is just a matter of personal taste. There’s no beauty to the writing, it simply is. Blood gushes, eyes look angry, etc. The action verbs and adjectives are in the right places, but The Strain is descriptive without finesse or anything to set it apart. Yes, there is an apt amount of description of dismembered body parts, but it’s hollow. There’s a lot of ‘so and so was sad and tired’ instead of ‘so and so rubbed a weary hand over his brow, attempting to soothe the pounding in his head’ or whatever. There’s simple telling, but no showing.

The characters are similarly bland – not badly written, but not particularly memorable or compelling. At best, they are caricatures. Archetypes. There’s the Hero – estranged from his wife, a Good Man, a doting father to his loving son, the man who means well but is married to his job of saving the world. Of course, there’s his predictable love interest Nora (who hardly gets any narrative insight other than being Ephraim’s partner at work). The other main character is of course Setrakian, the knowledgeable old man who has been fighting evil since his days as a survivor of the Holocaust. Again, the characters aren’t poorly written, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of them.

Also, another notable writing flaw in The Strain is a bizarre tendency to explicate the strangest little things. For example, at one point in the story, rats have invaded an apartment by vents in the walls. The narrative will suddenly break from the story and start describing characteristics of rats in apartments, i.e.

Norway rats – Rattus norvegicus, city rats – have a highly defined sense of smell and taste. Their front incisors are long and sharp, stronger than aluminum, copper, lead, and iron. Gnawing rats are responsible for one-quarter of all electric-cable breaks in the city, and the likely culprit behind the same percentage of fires of unknown origin. Their teeth are comparable in pure hardness to steel, and the alligator-like structure of their jaw allows for thousands of pounds of biting pressure They can chew through cement and even stone.

While this information is undeniably interesting, these textbook-like asides to the reader by an otherwise non-present narrator is distracting and…well, odd. It’s everywhere in the book, from descriptions of HAZMAT suits and eclipse details.

The biggest detractor, however, from The Strain would have to be in the plotting of the story. The first fifty pages or so are strongly gripping, engaging reader interest, but then for a good chunk of time (about half of the novel) the book plods along with boring exposition. The survivors go home and start to feel a little strange. Eph and Nora deal with bureaucratic BS. Setrakian works his pawn shop with a sense of impending doom. As the first book of a trilogy, it has an open ending that will be resumed in the next volume…but I’m not entirely sure this should have been made a trilogy, as there is a good chunk of nothing happening in this first book that surely could have been reduced or cut out of the novel entirely. One particular problem I had was with the whole eclipse storyline – WTF why? There’s a scary total eclipse. People irreparably damage their retinas by looking at the eclipse without protective glasses…and that’s it. There’s no real tie-in to the vampires or anything (and this eclipse takes up a good chunk of narrative time, in the ballpark of two chapters).

Now, I’ve harped on about my problems with The Strain, and I know I sound like I hated it. That’s not the case – I actually did like the book. It’s nothing new or particularly groundbreaking, and it certainly isn’t perfect. But once I slogged through two-thirds of the book, things FINALLY pick up and get interesting. By the time the strigoi-killing dream team has been assembled, humans are becoming vampire meat and silver swords fly, it’s really freaking exciting. And good. And fabulously gory. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get to that point. There are cinematic elements to these big battles at the end (Setrakian’s “My sword sings of silver!” is just as memorable and unexpectedly splendid as the priest in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive busting into kung fu zombie slaying while yelling, “I KICK ASS FOR THE LORD!”), and I finished The Strain in a flurry of pages, bloodlust sated. I also appreciated the sense of scope in the novel – as nights continue to pass, the threat of the vampire curse spreading grows to apocalyptic proportions and there’s a revealing scene near the end within the vampire world itself. As for the vamps themselves, I really did like this new descriptive invocation of them. Stinger tentacles as opposed to the usual fangs, mutating and disjointed body parts…it’s really wicked good stuff.

Was this action enough to make up for its other shortcomings, all its flaws and lackluster writing? In my opinion…sort of. At least, it was enough to make it worth reading the sequel.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:

“Once upon a time,” said Abraham Setrakian’s grandmother, “there was a giant.”

Young Abraham’s eyes brightened, and immediately the cabbage borscht in the wooden bowl got tastier, or at least less garlicky. He was a pale boy, underweight and sickly. His grandmother, intent on fattening him, sat across from him while he ate his soup, entertaining him by spinning a yarn.

A bubbeh meiseh, a “grandmother’s story.” A fairy tale. A legend.

“He was the son of a Polish nobleman. And his name was Jusef Sardu. Master Sardu stood taller than any other man. Taller than any roof in the village. He had to bow deeply to enter any door. But his great height, it was a burden. A disease of birth, not a blessing. The young man suffered. His muscles lacked the strength to support his long, heavy bones. At times it was a struggle for him just to walk. He used a cane, a tall stick–taller than you–with a silver handle carved into the shape of a wolf’s head, which was the family crest.”

“Yes, Bubbeh?” said Abraham, between spoonfuls.

“This was his lot in life, and it taught him humility, which is a rare thing indeed for a nobleman to possess. He had so much compassion– for the poor, for the hardworking, for the sick. He was especially dear to the children of the village, and his great, deep pockets–the size of turnip sacks–bulged with trinkets and sweets. He had not much of a childhood himself, matching his father’s height at the age of eight, and surpassing him by a head at age nine. His frailty and his great size were a secret source of shame to his father. But Master Sardu truly was a gentle giant, and much beloved by his people. It was said of him that Master Sardu looked down on everyone, yet looked down on no one.”

She nodded at him, reminding him to take another spoonful. He chewed a boiled red beet, known as a “baby heart” because of its color, its shape, its capillary-like strings. “Yes, Bubbeh?”

You can read the first two chapters of The Strain from DreadCentral online HERE.

Additional Thoughts:

For all its writing flaws, The Strain would make a kickass movie. And there are the cinematic book trailers from two scenes in the novel below to prove it!

You can find out more about The Strain online at the very pretty book website HERE.

BUT for a look at books that The Strain channels, here’s my recommended reading list:

Mr. Barlow is eager for you to join him in Jerusalem’s Lot…

Verdict: An all around bland book, but not without its highs. I certainly wasn’t impressed by this literary effort from Mr. del Toro and Mr. Hogan, but I’ll be sticking around for the sequel in hopes that the writing and plotting improves. Recommended only for genre fans (because, of course you’re going to read this book anyways).

Rating: 5 – Meh, but not without some merit (especially by the end of the book)

Reading Next: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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  • Harry Markov
    August 31, 2009 at 6:06 am

    The freaking longest review I have ever seen you write… I think it crossed over from review to essay to a critical dissertation of a published work. It’s super extra cool that you got that book signed with an individual touch and I also like the whole grizzlier take on vampires, but I am not too fond on it being a thriller. I have not read many thrillers, because all the movies I watched in this genre are pretty much in the same vein and if books are too, then I can’t waste days with them.

    And OMG you read thrillers in middle school? Back in middle school I collected Pokemon and 50 pages of anything sounded like an eternity of boredom. Hated reading back then.

  • Jeff
    August 31, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Thea, I have similarly mixed feelings on the book, but kind of in reverse. I was really excited to read a medical/procedural thriller about vampires – it seems like a fresh take on a worn subject that actually makes a degree of sense – but it abandons that concept as soon as Setrakian convinces Eph and Nora that they’re dealing with vampires, at which point it becomes focused on the more traditional, supernatural aspects of the source. I wish it would have been more “The Hot Zone with vampires” than it was.

  • Thea
    August 31, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Harry – Hah *blushes* I know, I let this one get away from me. I kept wanting to end the review, but I’d remember something else that bothered me, and so on and so forth. I was pretty disappointed with how decidedly lackluster The Strain was (and frankly, cannot understand all the rave reviews). Gaah.

    And yep, I went through a phase in middle school and the beginning of high school where I was really into medical/outbreak thrillers. It started after I saw Outbreak in the theater, and then of course I started glomming Robin Cook’s backlist… 😆

    Jeff – Ahh, gotcha. Well, I can definitely understand wanting more of the thriller side of the book (as you’re right, the supernatural angle certainly isn’t anything new). The Strain suffered from a bizarre identity crisis, and I’m not sure if that had to do with the two different authors or whatever. I just wish it had stuck with either thriller or trad horror as opposed to this weird blend that leaves all parties dissatisfied.

    I kinda got the feel that this book was rushed for maximum profit, if you know what I mean? Which sucks, because I really did wanna like it. Oh well. C’est la vie.

  • Jeff
    August 31, 2009 at 9:05 am

    I think that you’re right, though. It has merit. It just should have more merit. But I can’t hate anything that has a holy nail gun in it.

  • Adrienne
    August 31, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Rats!- 😆 I have this on my TBR pile and was waiting for a rainy weekend (which never happens where I live)to read it. I wish sometimes when they market books they are a little more honest with the readers on exactly the type of book. If the book was marked “thriller” instead of “vampire”, do you believe your review would have been more positive?

    BTW-soo jealous with envy, you have a signed copy!

  • Vanessa @ BookSoulmates
    August 31, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    I LOVE your review! It’s so wonderfully detailed! *Applause*
    I especially loved that you gave us books that reminded you of this book. The Hot Zone hit particularly close to home since I too read it several yrs ago, along with Demon in the Freezer. Talk about a TRUE THRILLER! lol.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book!

    Your blog is super cute!
    Vanessa 🙂

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