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Book Review: Parasite, by Mira Grant

If her family approved the procedures to harvest her organs now, her death could mean life for others. By pairing her organs with splices taken from her SymboGen implant, the risks of rejection could be reduced to virtually nothing. Dozens of lives could be saved, and all her family had to do was approve. All her family had to do was let her go.

All they had to do was admit that she was never waking up.

Sally Mitchell opened her eyes.

The ceiling was so white it burned, making her eyes begin to water in a parody of tears. She stared up at it for almost a minute, unable to process the message she was getting from her nerves. The message wanted her to close her eyes. Another part of her brain awakened, explaining what the burning sensation in her retinas meant.

Sally closed her eyes. (from Parasite, p8)

I was super-excited when I heard that this book was coming out. I very much enjoyed Mira Grant‘s Newsflesh trilogy, even if I disagreed with some of her plot choices (non-spoilerific review of the first book is here); I’ve also now read one of the author’s books written under her own name (Seanan McGuire), the first in the urban fantasy/PI series about the half-human, half-fae October Daye, and enjoyed that too. McGuire/Grant’s worldbuilding is consistently solid; her characters are witty and fairly well-rounded, and she does a decent job with broad-spectrum representation, with queer characters, characters of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, and characters with disabilities all appearing as non-tokenized members of the cast. The fact that her books are all set around the Bay Area, where I live, is an additional bonus.

But (you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Parasite didn’t work for me.

The premise is interesting enough. The one-sentence summary is that in the near-future (most of the plot takes place in 2027), disease, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and most drugs are a thing of the past.The reason? Almost everyone on Earth has been fitted with a genetically engineered tapeworm that integrates with their system and compensates for the artificially pristine modern world (the book talks a lot about the hygiene hypothesis), while also secreting designer drugs, birth control and basically anything else you can think of. No more need to monitor your health: the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard(TM) does it for you.

Of course, this goes about as spectacularly well as any other medical marvel is apt to go in a novel.

My first problem with this book, actually, was the marketing. I’m pretty sure McGuire/Grant intended for the exact nature of the problem caused by the designer tapeworms to become clear relatively late in the book, but there’s information on the book jacket that, when combined with the “things start to get creepy” aspects of the early chapters, makes it all too clear what’s happening, even to this fairly naive reader. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to get upset about spoilers on book jackets because if you don’t want spoilers you shouldn’t read the marketing material… but it’s hard to get someone to buy a book if they can’t get a hint of what it’s about.

Unfortunately, my second (related) problem came out of the story itself. This is a book that counts on its compulsive page-turn-ability coming from the fact that the first-person narrator, Sally Mitchell (she who wakes up from her coma in the first few pages) has no idea what’s going on, and I’m definitely a fan of that “Aha!” moment when the reader figures out what’s about to happen just a few pages before the characters do. But that’s not what happens here. I guessed some important facts about the main character very, very early on, and then read through more than 450 pages before she came to the same realization.

This isn’t a common experience for me: as I noted above, I’m generally a fairly naive reader. On my own, I rarely develop suspicions about characters’ parentage, or wonder if a prophecy really means what the character thinks it does, or even guess that someone isn’t really on the hero’s side before their sudden-but-inevitable betrayal. Because of this, I tend to be guilty in my own early drafts of dropping too many hints or waiting too long for the revelatory moment, leaving my beta readers wondering how my character can really be that clueless. That was how I felt about Sally Mitchell throughout this book.

I haven’t given up on this author: not by a long shot. I’m hoping to go into San Francisco in a couple weeks to see her read and buy a copy of her new book released under the Seanan McGuire name. But this one was disappointing.

(If you’re curious about the specifics of what I guessed, I’ve included a spoiler-full explanation under the cut).

 

OK, for starters, the spoilerific information on the cover copy was this: “Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them. But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives… and will do anything to get them.”

With that information in mind, when the first people began acting strangely, about 50 pages into the book — mall shoppers suddenly going blank-eyed and unresponsive, shambling around like zombies — it wasn’t very difficult to guess what might be happening: the tapeworm parasites were somehow taking over the bodies of their human hosts. Interesting idea: doesn’t occur to a single person in the book. It’s more than 250 pages before the idea enters the narrator’s mind, and that’s because one of the scientists who originally created the SymboGen tapeworms tells her it’s what’s going on. Well AFTER it’s been discovered that the people who are acting strangely have “a parasitic infection.” It felt like the whole world was being unnaturally blind.

Frustrating, but I can blame it on the marketers. The other piece… well, heck, without the marketers maybe I wouldn’t have gotten that one on my own either.

See, Sally Mitchell, the narrator, she’s an amnesiac. She was in a horrible car accident six years before the book begins; she was in a coma for ten days; she should have died, and instead, against all medical odds, she woke up. She’s never recovered any memories of her former life. She doesn’t remember how to speak, or walk, or anything about human social conventions. And she has these dreams.

Last night I dreamt I was swimming through the hot warm dark, just me and the sound of drums, and there was nothing in the world that could frighten me or hurt me or change the way things were.

Then there was a tearing, ripping sound, and the drums went quite, and everything was pain, pain, PAIN. I never felt pain like that before, and I tried to scream, but I couldn’t scream — something stopped me from screaming. I fled from the pain, and the pain followed me, and the hot warm dark was turning cold and crushing, until it wasn’t comfort, it was death. I was going to die. I had to run as fast as I could, had to find a new way to run, and the sound of drums was fading out, fading into silence.

if I didn’t get to safety before the drums stopped, I was never going to get to safety at all. I had to save the drums. The drums were everything.

I never guess book endings. I guessed this one. Sally is a sentient tapeworm inside a human body; the first one to achieve full sentience on her own; the one whose human host is passing on pheromone cues to the people around her that cause their worms to attempt to gain sentience. There’s more than one place where she almost figures it out — when she meets other human-tapeworms, the assistants of a not-quite-crazy scientist, she realizes something’s wrong and passes out — but our first-person narrator buries the idea, doesn’t discuss it with us. It doesn’t occur to anyone else, even though there are hints about it in increasing numbers through the latter parts of the book. It’s finally, explicitly stated on page 499 of a 500-page book.

Seriously.

I was frustrated. I had never realized before how difficult it could be to read a book when you’d realized the fact that the author didn’t quite want you to realize yet, LONG before you were supposed to. I finished the book — which is saying something for me these days with a book I don’t like — but I won’t be recommending it to others.

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4 Comments

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