2008, Science Fiction (Arizona)
Little, Brown, $25.99, 619 pages, Amazon ASIN 0316068047
I liked this book much more than I expected too. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably seen the Twilight phenomenon in action. In the last year these books have seen incredible buzz, and everyone and their dog seemed to be reading them. I read the first one, because it was a selection for my book club. I thought it was okay. Entertaining, but not ground-breaking. And I had no real desire to read the other ones (conveniently, my daughter already had, so she summed them up in a couple of sentences). The funny thing is that it was undoubtedly our best attended book club ever; all kinds of people came out of the woodwork that we've never seen before or since. The reason, I think, is that the Twilight series appeals to people who do not usually read. That's not really a bad thing, but it does sometimes raise my more elitist, bibliophile hackles. I'm sure I'm not the only one who cringes when someone says, "I don't usually read, but I loved this book!" This book is entirely unrelated to the popular vampire series. Nonetheless, I was surprised to find The Host to be thoughtful and interesting.
The book begins with an alien (in this book they are called "souls") being inserted into a human body. The setting is present day, and virtually all of humanity has been taken over by the souls, who reside in human hosts, controlling their every move. Only a few un-posessed humans remain, and Melanie is one of them. On the run with her brother Jamie and boyfriend Jared, Melanie survived by stealing food and laying low. But when she went to rescue a her cousin, she was caught by the seekers (souls who hunt those who are still human). She is caught and forced to host a soul named Wanderer.
Right at the start, it seems clear that things are a bit odd. Wanderer is so named because she has lived on many worlds - and she's never had a host body fight her as this one has. Melanie refuses to give up her secrets, and she won't stop talking either. Neither circumstance is typical. Gradually, Melanie begins to share her memories with Wanderer - who comes to understand and sympathize. In a turn of events that surprises both of them, Wanderer takes off for the Arizona desert in search of Jared and Ian (another human hold-out), both of whom she believes are hiding out with her uncle Jed.
After extensive well, wandering, Wanderer is discovered by Jed and his compatriots, who are living in a series of caves. They don't exactly get out the welcome wagon; as far as they are concerned, Melanie is possessed by the enemy and can't be trusted. Wanderer is hit, abused, and threatened. Most of the human survivors see her as a threat to their very existence. Jared is no different. He immediately punches her in the face and holds her captive, isolated from the group.
Uncle Jed is a little more trusting. He's not sure what's going on with Melanie/Wanderer, but he'd like to find out. When Jared leaves on a supply raid, he takes Wanderer out of her uncomfortable prison and starts introducing her to the wary group. Melanie's brother Jamie is quick to embrace both Melanie and Wanderer, whom everyone begins to call Wanda. She also feels a pull toward Ian, an understanding and protective man.
I'd hesitate to give away much more, because there are some surprises here. Suffice it to say that Melanie and Wanda struggle with sharing the same body. They have different personalities and desires, and they even come to love different men. There are some big questions here, mostly involving what it means to be human. How can Wanda and Melanie both exist - ethically? The answers to these questions are pretty interesting.
The strongest point of this book is not the characters, or even the plot. It's the idea behind it all. I wouldn't precisely call it world-building, but it has some of that element to it. The background of the souls - and Wanda in particular - is unique. I enjoyed her stories about her past lives as much as her fictional human listeners did. Beyond that, the questions involving humanity and the struggle for survival are work reading about - and thinking about.
The only flaw I found was that at times the book dragged a bit - particularly toward the end, when Wanda keeps dreading a certain event (and talking about it all the time). That niggle aside, I found The Host to be surprisingly well-written, and definitely worth my time. I'd give it a try - whether you're a fan of the Twilight series or not.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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