Little, Brown and Company, 2008
Here’s another book I finally had to get around to reading so I could finish it before the movie comes out. First, though, to chase the elephant out of the room: Twilight. This review is of The Host itself, not Stephanie Meyer’s work as a whole, but I realize how deep the rift is between Twihards and non-Twihards, so I think it’s only fair to disclose what I am so people on both sides can take my opinion with whatever grain of salt they find necessary.
I am neither. I have read the entire Twilight saga and seen all the movies multiple times. I enjoy them mainly as camp, as something more in a few select parts. I take serious issue with a lot of it, from its messages about gender relations and free will to its massive structural issues and painstakingly minimized action scenes, but I’m not immune to its mystical page-turning power, and that’s a power I have to respect, however popular it may be to do otherwise.
Okay, now that I’ve thoroughly alienated both halves of the population, on to The Host.
Wanderer is a member of a race of parasitic aliens who call themselves “souls.” They attach themselves to other sentient creatures’ brainstems, steal their memories, block out their consciousness, and take control of their bodies. They’ve already taken nearly all of humanity when Wanderer arrives and is placed in the body of a recently captured resistor, Melanie Stryder. Melanie’s consciousness refuses to fade out after the insertion procedure, and her memories of her boyfriend and little brother are so moving to Wanderer that after a while grappling for control of the shared body, Wanderer and Melanie end up working together to find and continue protecting Melanie’s resistance cell.
It’s hard to suck all the fun out of bodysnatching aliens. There are some good chapters of survivor compound paranoia when Wanderer and Melanie arrive at the caves where the others are hiding, and the few moments of humans running and hiding from aliens, mainly in Melanie’s memories and in one of the present timeline raiding scenes later on, offer a couple decent thrills. What I will refer to only as “the dissection scene” is brief but surprisingly horrific. There’s also a fairly heartstring-tugging moment toward the end when it has to be decided who gets to live in what body on what planet, after Wanderer has absorbed Melanie’s feelings for her boyfriend but also developed her own relationship with another man in the cave hideout.
It’s long. Much, much longer than the story it tries to drag out, and that’s coming from a fan of both J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. It’s long and treacle-paced and overcrowded and almost entirely without tension and without guts, figurative as well as literal. The cave hideout is packed full of bland, mostly interchangeable characters, leaving no room for the main characters to be anything but slightly less bland and interchangeable. After fifty-odd chapters, there’s still no one who really feels alive enough to care about other than Wanderer, whose clearer personality is primarily defined by its double dose of blandness. The main point of the story is that the aliens are nice, so much nicer than humans, and they just haven’t accepted the possibility that what they’re doing might be wrong. The concept has some promise in theory, but it isn’t a slow realization the reader is brought to, that the situation might be more complicated than it seems; Wanderer reminds us of the souls’ gentle nature loudly and repeatedly from the very beginning.
The result is a story about nice alien invaders, nice humans (once they get used to Wanderer), and a heroine whose strongest character trait is niceness. Not exactly a surefire recipe for drama and intrigue. The first half holds some hope, between Wanderer’s competent narration and the tension between her and Melanie and between the more and less open-minded humans, but then people make up, nonentities start dying and are treated as gigantic emotional plot points, and it becomes painfully obvious that no real characters have anything to fear, that all villains, human and soul, will be thoroughly explained and absolved by the end, and everyone will somehow live perfectly, guiltlessly, happily ever after. The only thing that dragged me through the remaining twenty chapters to make sure was the possibility that the upcoming movie might harness some of the wasted potential in the whole two-souls-in-one-body-alien-apocalypse premise, and I prefer to go in informed when I find out.
Yes, Fi is both hoping and predicting that a movie adaptation will somehow be better than the book. Yes, the world may very well be coming to an end. I just hope it’s not in the form of these polite, passionless brainstem-huggers.