Parasite

by Mira Grant

Cover image

Series: Parasitology #1
Publisher: Orbit
Copyright: October 2013
ISBN: 0-316-21893-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 504

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It's 2027, and a company named Symbogen has revolutionized medicine and health. They manufacture a genetically-engineered parasite based on a tapeworm that can stabilize and protect the health of just about anyone. It can synthesize medication, fix chronic medical problems, and be adapted to different conditions. (Yes, I know biological systems don't work this way. That's not going to be the only suspension of disbelief problem.) This has made Symbogen one of the most powerful corporations in the country, aided by the skill at marketing and self-promotion shown by one of the founders.

Sal, the protagonist of the novel, is one of Symbogen's most famous success stories. Sally was the victim of a horrible car crash that put her into an apparently irreversible coma. But as her family was debating whether to turn off life support, she woke up. She had no memory of her previous life at all, and had to relearn fine motor control, reading, and many other skills. She was essentially a new person. But she was alive; her symbiont had saved her.

When the story proper starts, Sal is still a ward of her parents. She has generally adult skills despite still struggling with reading, but she still has occasional attacks and is under intensive monitoring by Symbogen. That means periodic mandatory appointments with Symbogen, which she hates, but she's otherwise started building a life for herself: a job in an animal shelter, an interest in exotic predatory plants, and, most notably, a boyfriend. There are things about her life she doesn't like, and she wants to be free of Symbogen, but she doesn't have a bad life. But then a mysterious illness begins sweeping through the population, causing people to go blank, apparently lose their minds, and then start attacking those near them.

Some of you have doubtless already figured out the key plot revelation. It's not hard; even if you didn't from the summary, you will probably figure it out shortly into the book. And therein lies a large problem with this novel: it's hopelessly predictable. Creepy evil corporation that supposedly has your best interests at heart, check. Plucky mad scientist opposition who understands exactly what's going on, check. Well-meaning but heavy-handed government agents who try to get involved but mostly make everything worse, check. (Although it's unusual to have those agents as part of the protagonist's family, and I thought that added some additional depth.) Mostly clueless protagonist sucked into the plot and becoming critical to its resolution, check. Very few readers are going to be surprised by this story.

This is not, by itself, a fatal flaw. Predictable story structures can carry satisfying variations, or introduce the reader to enjoyable characters. And I think Grant manages both here.

Seanan McGuire, both as herself and under her Mira Grant pseudonym, tends to write damaged and struggling characters. Both her Newsflesh and October Daye series feature protagonists that have been hurt badly, but are coping and muddling through in their own ways. In Parasite, I think she takes a more daring and intriguing approach: a protagonist that other people in the story perceive as damaged and struggling, but who actually isn't. Sal is not a badly injured Sally, and she's quite a bit healthier than those around her think she is. Her thought processes don't work quite the same as those around her, but that's not because she's hurt. That's because she's a different person. This makes Parasite partly a novel about identity, about Sal claiming ownership of her own life. Grant drags this out longer than I wish she had, but I liked the idea. In Sal, she strikes a good balance between gratitude and genuine affection for her family and the need to become her own person unconstrained by other people's expectations.

As with the Newsflesh series, Grant uses quotes and excerpts from interviews to fill in the world background: a few at the start of each chapter, and more around each part boundary. I like this technique, and Grant uses it well. By the end of the book, the Rolling Stone interview with the head of Symbogen has added a lot of insight into how Symbogen manages its public relations.

Grant also throws in a few of her trademark dangerously off-beat characters: hyper-competent, wise-cracking, but eerily skewed. I loved those in Blackout and I loved Tansy and Dr. Cale here. (Adam was much less successful.) A whole book from Tansy's perspective wouldn't work, since she needs Sal as a straight woman, but I thought she stole every scene she was in.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with Tansy on another point: Sal is remarkably, irritatingly dim about what is apparently intended to be the critical revelation of the book. I won't state it outright; given its significant presence in the final scene, apparently it is intended to be a spoiler. But I figured it out about 50 pages into the book. Grant telegraphs this revelation heavily, and Tansy considers it painfully obvious (with quite a bit of justification). But Sal doesn't figure it out for the entire book, ignores all the signs, and is apparently willfully blind. In a book written from the first-person perspective by an otherwise-reliable narrator, this is highly annoying. It significantly undermined my enjoyment of the book. I spent much of the novel ahead of the narrator in my understanding of the plot and waiting, in vain, for her to get on with it already.

That unfortunately makes Parasite a mixed bag. I really liked many of the characters, and I think Grant did some interesting things with family dynamics and with claiming one's own identity. But this is undermined by a very predictable plot, the protagonist deciding to be dumber than a sack of hammers about a critical plot point, and some rather dubious world logic. (For example, why is Sal terrified of bad driving? It makes sense as a post-traumatic stress reaction... except it's a critical point to her characterization that she never went through that stress.) Sometimes I wanted to like this book and sometimes I wanted to shake it, and sometimes I felt both reactions at the same time.

I like Grant's writing and characterization well enough that I will probably read the sequel, but this is more like the later books in the Newsflesh series than it is like the spectacular Feed. Worth reading, at least for me, but it could have been better.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2014-08-03

Last modified and spun 2014-08-04