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Urskuul’s Reading Circle: Parasitology by Mira Grant – Series Review

Spoiler Warning: This review contains some spoilers for the Parasitology series. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish the books.

“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.”

Urskuul's Reading Circle (detail)It doesn’t always require much to entice you to pick up a book. You eye the colourful plumage of the cover and pick it out from its siblings on the shelf. A scan of the blurb on the back. “Oooh, that sounds enticing. I wonder what the writing is like? Maybe I’ll take a quick look at the opening pages.”

“Oh. Really? You started the story like that? That’s a shame. Bye-bye, back to the shelf you go.” Maybe you even try covering it with another book in hopes the second book will eat the first one and save anyone from accidentally buying it. My local bookstore tries to weed out the cannibalistic books before putting them on the shelf, but there is the possibility they have missed one.

Hopefully, you’re more used to the opposite. I am not. I have had my heart-broken numerous times by that quick look that doesn’t live up to the promise of the blurb. It can be difficult to get over. I’ve had so many troublesome rebounds and one night stands when I rushed into another book simply because the start was better than the first one I picked up. I’ve never been very good at taking time and making sure I hold out for a book that can truly satisfy my needs.

When I am lucky enough to find one like that, I immediately smile. That sense of connection with a book hits and you know you’re going to have a good relationship with this one. Okay: sometimes it goes wrong, you hit some rocky times and you have to finish it early. You have to keep believing though that a good opening heralds a good book, and I often find it does.

FEED (cover)The opening line that we started with is one of those where it worked that way. Hopefully it caught your eye too. For those not in the know, this is the opening line of the first chapter in Mira Grant’s Feed, book one in the Newsflesh series.

I think everyone can think of a book which hits them like that. Indeed, opening it up to the Reading Circle’s floor got a barrage of suggestions. “Call me Ishmael,” was the most popular and probably the most iconic. (It sounds simple, but can you imagine it being so iconic if Ishmael had been called Tommy?) That informal opening immediately sets you up on a level with our dear narrator. You can imagine yourself sat in a dockyard tavern enjoying the atmosphere whilst listening to old tales told by older sailors. Not that I would have ever deigned to frequent one of those places, or talk to a penniless seaman, but there are things you can imagine doing in books that you couldn’t in real life.

Melissa, having a good idea for once, mentioned “If on a winter’s night a traveller.” Now, you may recognise this as the start of Sebastian De Castell’s second book in the Greatcoats series, Knight’s Shadow. What you less-learned fellows may not know is it references the Italo Calvino novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, one of my favourite books. Recognising that immediately endeared me to De Castell (the fact he wrote a pretty damn decent first novel helped) and I realised that we would clearly become great friends should we ever meet. He hasn’t written me back yet acknowledging this though. It’s almost like he doesn’t want to give me free copies of his books or pay for me to come on his book tours.

Red Sister (US cover)Amy, managing to finish a sentence without Alex interrupting her for once (he unfortunately couldn’t make it as is still recovering from the crossbow related injury he suffered at our previous meet) mentioned Mark Lawrence’s latest, Red Sister: “It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.” Another fine start, since everyone knows how difficult it is to kill a nun, but no one really wants to admit they’ve been planning to attempt it. It’s frowned upon.

Did we read one of these fine books mentioned above? Is that why I’m wittering on at you? Well, no. But, we were looking over Mira Grant’s other trilogy, Parasitology (consisting of Parasite, Symbiont and Chimera). I was delighted that everyone agreed to discuss the whole trilogy (rather than just one book) because I have kept that pleasure and connection with her subsequent books ever since Feed hooked me from that opening foray.

Parasitology, as you may have guessed, has something to do with parasites. So, what happens? Some clever scientists of dubious morals decided that genetically modifying tapeworms to keep humans free of disease was a bloody good money-making scheme. Or something that would benefit all of humankind. It turns out the money-making part was right. Benefit all of humanity? Well, I’m afraid there were some unintended side effects.

Parasitology (banner)

Our story begins with our protagonist, Sal Mason. She’s a survivor of a car crash that left her in a coma. Upon waking, her entire memory had been wiped clean. The Symbogen company (who market the modified tapeworms and is owned and run by mad scientist #1), paid for her rehabilitation providing they could run regular medical tests upon her to see how she was recovering and monitor her tapeworm. Sal never recovered her memories and ended up with quite a different personality to how she was before (when she was known as Sally), but she did become a functioning human being again as a result of this rehabilitation.

Parasite (cover)We follow her and her boyfriend, Dr. Nathan Kim, (eventually revealed as the child of slightly less mad scientist #2. Or possibly slightly more mad. It’s difficult to tell.) as they go about their normal daily lives. It all seems fairly standard, nothing particularly crazy going on in their day to day routine. Then the can of worms hit the fan and bad things ensue.

Yes, it turns out that these genetically modified tapeworms can get a bit bored of hanging around keeping humans free of disease. So, they head off on a swimming tour round their human host’s body. Should they make it to the brain, they have a bit of a munch and then end up taking it over. The brains tend to be damaged or poorly integrated by the tapeworm which leads to shuffling human bodies controlled by the parasite inside them. And these bodies seem to like attacking humans who aren’t under tapeworm control. Oh, and they can awaken the tapeworms in other humans by pheromones. So yeah, zombieish creatures, but you don’t need to be bitten to turn.

Finally, some of the tapeworms can integrate more fully for greater control, allowing them to act almost like normal humans. Hooray, intelligent zombies! Though they prefer the term Chimera. We follow along with Sal as she gets to experience all of this wonder and joy. We’re a little bit in the dark about how and why this is all happening (as is Sal), but eventually we get to meet Nathan’s mother who reaches out via a children’s book (and then starts offering to explain what the hell is happening, but only if Sal and Nathan are willing to step through the broken doors). The broken doors is a reference to that children’s book which sounds pretty interesting for a kid’s story. I’d say it was quite a dark one, but children seem to read all sorts of horrible traumatic stories nowadays, so probably not in the top ten.

Symbiont (cover)I think you’ve probably guessed what Sal’s story is and why her memories and personality were wiped following the car crash coma. It’s obviously a big deal for her. Not every day do you wake up and find out you’re actually a tapeworm/human Chimera. As she comes to terms with who she is and how she came to be, the world continues ploughing along and pulling everyone behind it in its dystopian wake. All of the baddies are revealed (this is pretty much everyone). Mad Scientist #1 definitely isn’t a nice guy. Sal’s dad (a military commander) is pretty horrible at times too, though you do understand why.

And then there is Sherman, a Chimera who proves that intelligent tapeworms know how to be evil. He wants to infect all humans with chimera tapeworms who will take over the brain and become intelligent versions rather than the standard zombie-like model. I should mention the zombie-like ones who simply wander round attacking humans. They aren’t evil, they aren’t intelligent enough to be evil, but they do have an unfortunate habit of killing random people.

As for Mad Scientist #2, well, it’s probably all her fault, so I think she has to take some part of being a bad guy. Without her, Mad Scientist #1 wouldn’t have gotten a tapeworm capable of keeping humans free from illness or from taking over human brains. So, the good guys? Sal, Nathan and the people on their side. Which does include Mad Scientist #2, so you forgive her to a certain extent. And of that crew, the greatest hero of them all is Fishy.

Chimera (cover)Now, Fishy isn’t that integral to the story. You’d reckon he was, at best, a minor sidekick (if we take Sal as the hero protagonist and Nathan as main sidekick). Why, therefore, is he the greatest hero? Fishy has rejected it all. The real world can’t have turned out like this, it must be an interactive computer game he’s playing. Otherwise he has to accept that his wife is dead and the world is overrun with a zombie plague. When he dies, he’ll log out and return to the world where life makes sense. This means that he gets to utter awesome lines like the below (taken from the second book, Symbiont):

“Yeah, I’m good,” said Fishy calmly. “It’s all good. See, this is where we split the party to deliver the MacGuffin” – he pointed at Dr. Banks, who looked more confused than affronted – “and cure the zombie plague that’s been destroying mankind. You guys are running into a series of cut scenes. If I stay here with the boat, I’ll either get an unstoppable wave of enemies to fight or I’ll be ready when you come back with the final boss fight in tow. Either way, I’m good.”

How can you not be slightly in love with a character who can say that? Or a book that has him in?

Okay, maybe it’s not for you. Maybe you’re not a fan of zombies (or tapeworm-controlled human hosts that act like zombies). Maybe you think zombies are overdone. But Mira Grant’s writing easily eclipses the majority of the zombie books out there. Why not give it a try? I think there are few in the Reading Circle who would disagree. Mainly because I’m planning to use the ones who didn’t like it as bait when the full-on zombie apocalypses occurs.

And now, a word from our sponsor:

Freakshow by Xavier Ward

The season is changing, the days are getting longer and warmer, and you know what that means? It’s the return of Urskuul’s Summer-ning festival! We have lots of festival rides and games for all to enjoy! Such as:

• The Coconut Aggressive: where you throw grenades at a giant mutated coconut, hoping to blow it to pieces before it manages to eat you.
• The Hook & Ritually Sacrifice a duck: Where different animals have been transformed into ducks. As you sacrifice them to Urskuul, the bigger the soul you retrieve, the bigger the cuddly toy!
• The Hell-pit: A ball-pit, but with fireballs! And everyone loves a ball-pit. Can you avoid being horribly burned to death?
• The Haunted House: Where you must navigate through the rooms and avoid being killed by any of the ghouls inside.
• The Demon Circle: A rollercoaster that takes you through the various different levels of the Netherhells. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a demon on your way which you can release into the fairground to roam around reaping souls for Urskuul’s glory! Providing you’re not one of the unfortunate victims, the more souls that it reaps then, you guessed it, the bigger the cuddly toy!
• Providing enough visitors turn up, we may even summon a special guest. Lord Urskuul, himself, may put in an appearance to sign autographs, collect the earnings and eat anyone’s body and/or soul who annoys him.
• And finally, the closing spectacular, The Running of the Minotaur! Where the Minotaur is released into the fairground at the end of the day to ensure everyone leaves at a respectable time and any stragglers are killed.

Please note, the organisers have confirmed there will be no repeat of last year when the ghost of Theseus escaped from the haunted house and ended up killing the Minotaur. That was not supposed to happen and it costs a considerable sum of money to purchase a new one, so please don’t wait around in hopes it will happen again.

• All proceeds, including any monies found in the wallets or bank accounts of those people who didn’t survive (or were daft enough to allow their wallet to be stolen) will go towards enriching Urskuul and improve his standing amongst the other Demon Lords.

Circus by Yamio ZH

Even better news! All members of Urskuul’s Reading Circle have been gifted with free entrance and train ticket to ensure they can get to the festival. Okay, only one-way. Obviously, we wouldn’t want Urskuul to waste his money on covering return travel expenses for those members of the circle who sadly don’t survive.

Many thanks all, and look forward to seeing you at the festival!


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