Book Review: The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

This month I decided to re-read a few of my favorite horror books in order to give them a proper review. I noticed a lack of horror titles on my review page and thought a horror lover and writer should remedy that. There’s nothing like remembering why you loved a particular book as you’re swept up in an immersive and well written world. Like an old friend, The Strain welcomed me back into its blood stained home with a warm embrace. In case you can’t tell, I really like this book.

The StrainFrom the publisher:

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 world ended as the 777 died on the runway full of two hundred corpses…

The Strain will always be one of my go-to vampire books. The authors get so much right that horror fans should be reading this one for years to come. Readers get a genuine sense of change on a global scale as these vampirirc parasites spread across New York City. We’re along for the ride as medical professionals try to figure things out before it’s too late. There’s a real sense of foreboding, panic, and doom as our main characters try and put all the pieces together. If you ever need a lesson in the proper use of foreshadowing, pick up this book.

Make no mistake about it, these aren’t your typical vampires. You won’t find any slicked back hair, capes, sexuality, or even fangs. These vampires are predators. They live to feed. GDT and Chuck Hogan took traditional vampire mythology and really broke it down and rebuilt it from the ground up. The Strain shows vampires at their blood craving worst. They’re monsters, creatures to be feared, and you don’t want to run into them in the dark. That underlying feeling of dread is something that sticks with readers. We understand that one mistake and it’s game over for any character. I like that.

Being set in NYC, The Strain provides a diverse set of characters. Too often books don’t accurately represent the population. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a fairly large city around every skin color, but I always prefer diversity in my books. It may come as no surprise that my favorite character is Augustus “Gus” Elizalde, the street smart teen with a big mouth and machismo to back it up. He adds what I like to call a “hood mentality” I think more books could use.

The authors take their time building the action in this book. Like two veteran chefs, Del Toro and Hogan season and marinate the plot of this book like a prime cut of meat until readers are left salivating in anticipation of the next bite. They keep readers interested in the mystery of the dead 777 and slowly unravel what’s happening in a way that keeps their audience glued to the text. You want to know what comes next. And once the shit hits the proverbial fan, buckle up because by then readers are already up to their necks in blood.

My only minor complaint about this book is Setrakian. He’s old, yet he somehow manages to do things a man his age probably shouldn’t. Other than that, I had trouble finding things not to like.

If you’re looking for a book that provides an entertaining romp through a blood soaked New York City that’ll leave you breathless, then give The Strain a try. This is so much more than a horror story. At it’s core, The Strain is a piece of masterful story telling with three dimensional characters who struggle to believe they’ve stumbled upon monsters in the modern world. This is one chilling read you don’t want to miss.

What I liked:

  • The vampire lore. The authors give readers a different take on what a vampire is and how they behave. I found it refreshing to find predators, monsters who hunt the uninfected. Bring on the carnage!
  • A constant sense of dread. From the first page to the last, readers are aware that bad things are going to happen. I liked the constant threat of death these characters feel as they try to piece together the mystery behind the dead 777.
  • The diverse cast of characters. New York City isn’t called a melting pot for nothing. Kudos to the authors for bringing different races, colors, creeds, religions, and even economic levels (rich versus poor) into their story. It adds an authentic street vibe to this book.
  • The medical undertones. Eph and Nora work for the CDC. If readers don’t believe they’re actual doctors this story won’t work. The first half of this book deals with them trying to understand the infection in a conventional medical sense. It was also interesting to see how Eph, as a doctor, reacts when he understands the scope of their problem. Well done.
  • The horror. There’s plenty here for to keep horror lovers happy. We’ve got blood, cold blooded killing, and vampires roaming the night. This is the apocalypse and it starts with a 777 going dark shortly after touching down. And it all leads to a showdown of good and an ancient evil, light verses dark. Rest assured, readers are in good horror hands with The Strain.
  • The soul crushing storyline. By the end of this book, life has irrevocably changed for most of our characters. There’s no going back. They have to figure out how to fight before all is lost on a personal scale as well as a grand scale.
  • The relationship and family dynamic. Eph is a man going through a rough patch in his personal life. There are many complications, both good and bad. Despite these personal challenges he manages to soldier on and do his job. Eph, Nora, Kelley, and Zack’s storylines (at least in this book) all intertwine in a way that brings this story to a smaller, more personal level. It urges readers to ask themselves what they would do to protect the ones they love when the world is going to hell. Save the people you love, or everyone else? I’m sure each reader will come up with a unique, and different answer.
  • Gus. His was one of the few characters whose storyline I enjoyed throughout the entire trilogy. He stayed true to the person presented here. You never had to wonder what Gus would do because he was always looking out for numero uno. Unless it involved Setrakian who he had a soft spot for. He’s a man of the streets, a soldier who isn’t afraid to get in the thick of things and get his hands dirty. He’s also a man of his word which I liked. Gus brings a much needed sense of recklessness, youth, and “hood mentality” to a story in desperate need of it.

What I didn’t like:

  • Setrakian is supposed to be an old, gnarled man. Yet he manages to somehow dispatch foes much stronger, faster, and younger than him. I had a hard time believing someone his age would be capable of sustaining such heroic actions.

Overall: I’m giving The Strain five out of five stars. I’ve read this book three times now and have grown to love it more with each reading. It’s one of those rare books where you can pick it up years later and appreciate subtle things you may have missed the first time around. This is definitely an entertaining read that has enough scary moments to keep readers up long into the wee hours of the morning. Make no mistake about it, this is an epic story first and a horror novel second. This book should be on any vampire lovers shelf.


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