Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: The Host by Stephenie Meyer

I am not a fan of sparkly vampires, but I am a fan of books and giving second chances. Any writer can turn out a good book, even after some pretty bad books, or in spite of them. With this in mind, I approached The Host with no expectations, other than wanting to read a good science fiction novel.

The first thing I noticed from reading the synopsis of The Host was that it was very similar to Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppetmasters. Alien race uses humans as hosts and lives and acts through the host body. I have to say up front, Heinlein did it better.

Although Meyer does set up an interesting premise of the parasite--in this case the silver beings that name themselves souls, or centipedes as the humans call them--being unable to completely eradicate the host personality and bonding sufficiently to turn rebel to her own species. The Wanderer is a female, though she has had more hosts than any other of her species, and capable of birthing a thousand of her kind, something she fears to do because it will mean her final death. No more hosts, only a thousand offspring born from the individual cells of the Wanderer's body, essentially tearing her apart. That is something to be feared, not like the more transient pain of a human giving birth.

Meyer describes the souls in their natural form as beautiful silver ribbons with hundreds of tendrils implanted at the base of the human brain where the tendrils, or tentacles, connect with the spinal cord and brain, using 278 connections, more than in any other species the souls have taken over among all the worlds they have colonized. Nothing like scary and beautiful in the same breath.

Because the Wanderer is having trouble quieting her host's voice and mind, she seeks help in order to figure out why and fix the problem. Unfortunately, a Seeker, the enforcers of the souls, is onto Wanderer and tells her that either Wanderer gets the information about the rebels the host Melanie is part of or the Seeker will be implanted into Melanie's brain and the Wanderer will get a new, more tractable, less difficult host. That sends Wanderer on a drive from San Diego where she is an honorary history professor (history of the souls and her own hosts) to Tucson where Wanderer expects to get help.

Along the way, Melanie recognizes one of the landmarks that leads to a rebel sanctuary and off Wanderer and Melanie go into the Arizona desert. Nearly dead, they are found by the rebels, taken hostage, and held in the lava tubes of a vast underground system Melanie's Uncle Jed has fashioned into a sanctuary for himself and 35 other rebels.

Most of The Host is about how the rebels react to the parasite and how Wanderer and Melanie interact and become a part of the community.

Once again, Meyer has created a protagonist that is weak and emotionally frail, a victim that does not show any real grit or determination until nearly the end of the book. The first two-thirds of the novel is slow and tedious without much action. Despite there being thirty-seven rebels purportedly in the caves, barely half of them are never heard or seen. One or two characters pops in and out and there is very little connection to Wanderer or Melanie except as props for the change in sentiment. All the characters are Meyer's stock in trade -- either irritating or whiny, ineffective females and stereotypical male characters chosen from the usual suspects: strong and silent, strong and obnoxious, irascible with a good heart, weepy and ill, and just plain invisible until someone needs to die or be killed to move things along.

The Host doesn't really get interesting and moving until the last third of the story when time is running out and much needs to be done before Meyer can write the end. There are moments when Wanderer and Melanie and her brother Jamie move out of the mundane plod, but too few to hold the story together. I had hopes in the beginning that Melanie would be a force to be reckoned with, but trapped in her own head by Wanderer, that did not happen. There is nothing like an alien genetically incapable of violence giving up an Eden of plenty and happiness to be a pathetic pawn who finally finds the strength to determine her own fate in the last few pages of a 600-page novel.

While the elements of a real page-turner are there, Meyer fails to put them together. The beginning of the novel is like slogging through thick mud until the last third when the pace picks up and the stakes are high. I usually read novels of this length in a couple of days, especially good novels that I promise myself I will read just one more chapter -- and one more -- and one more until I am finished. Not so with The Host, which took me nearly two weeks to get through the bulk of novel before I became engaged sufficiently to keep turning the pages. I will not even go into the usual tirade of poor writing and poorer editing that abound in the book.

Suffice it to say, that The Host is a moderately successful novel in the last third of the novel. The rest is a poor warmup for what could have and should have been really good science fiction. Best I can give The Host by Stephenie Meyer is 3 out of 5, and that's only because of the last third of the book when it really took off.

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