Early Featured Book Review: Strain by Amelia C. Gormley
*** This review has minor plot spoilers. Read on at your own risk. ***
The Walking Dead meets Julie Kagawa’s Blood of Eden (minus the vamps), Strain is a contemporary romance set in a futuristic dystopian world where zombies (revenants) roam freely, terrorizing Earth’s final scattered bands of survivors, and super-soldiers called Juggernauts hunt them down and exterminate the infected creatures. The premise for this story could have easily come across as contrived, where all the societal and scientific rules of the universe felt coerced into funneling the characters along a particular path, but everything meshes together realistically and believably. The Jugs are intentionally biologically altered men and women who were originally US Army ground troops; they have infected blood and are the origin of the zombie plague. Their blood also provides immunity to it and the most effective means for passing on that safety net is sexual transmission… by heavy exposure with multiple partners, in an environment where there is little privacy and few luxuries beyond the necessities of survival. When they save Rhys from a close call with a rev, his only choices are to accept death or let them attempt to infect him with the alpha strain of the virus.
Now, based on that, you might be thinking “hey, that sounds a lot like a rape situation”, and that is actually something that is addressed in the story, with the Jugs feeling decidedly unenthusiastic about coercing emotionally unwilling partners. What takes this story to the next level is two-fold:
1) The company of soldiers our protagonist, Rhys, finds himself with are all genuinely good-hearted people and do not make a habit of creating new Jugs, neither as a by-product of recreational activities nor for the purposes swelling their ranks with new soldiers. They keep to themselves, do their jobs, and honor the exile from what’s left of civilization their volatile blood forces on them when not out sweeping the countryside for revenants.
2) The setup is ideal to highlight the psychological aspects of a D/s relationship dynamic. Rhys agrees to attempt to become one of the Jugs through sexual transmission of the virus but feels shameful when he submits to the gentler men in the company and won’t allow himself to enjoy it even though he is admittedly gay. However, when he feels physically overwhelmed by Darius (the company’s leader, who quickly discovers this is what he needs), he can let go of his own emotions and trust Darius with all his choices, feeling no shame or demoralization and finally able to enjoy the process of trying to survive.
Normally, I wouldn’t give this level of detail in a review because part of the story experience is discovering the nuances for yourself, but this book won’t be for everyone and it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you start. If you do not enjoy reading about physical domination and submission or if multiple sex partners between men in a public venue is not to your taste, or if you absolutely can’t deal with the realism behind a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies, this book is not for you! However, if all of that makes you sit up and take notice, Strain is an excellent read and is both viscerally realistic and emotionally compelling.
Being a hero means making the hard sacrifices…
Rhys was splattered with blood by the time the revenant stopped thrashing. A drop itched as it chilled and dried on his lip, its weight irritating.
Don’t lick. Don’t lick. Don’t lick.
He supposed it didn’t really matter. Even if he managed not to become dinner, he was still a dead man. He had been from the moment he’d breathed the same air as the revenant.
It’s a fine line to walk…
That measuring gaze pinned Rhys, stripped him down to all his deepest secrets. “You need to understand: If you’re not infected with Alpha, you’re infected with Beta or Gamma. Either you become one of us or you die. We can’t have you running around, no matter what strain you’ve got. The reasons you can’t be let loose infected with Beta or Gamma are plain, but even if it’s Alpha, you’ll still be too dangerous to leave uncontained. One cut and you could infect any survivors you come across. You’d be strong enough to take captives and set yourself up with a harem and slave labor somewhere out of the way. So no matter what happens, boy, you’re with us until you die, whether that’s a few weeks from now or when you’re an old, old man. You understand what I’m saying?”
Rhys shook his head. “I don’t— No.”
Darius glowered. “I’m saying if you back out, I’ll kill you. I don’t like it. It’s a little too close to raping someone under threat of death for my comfort. Hell, I suppose that’s exactly what it is. I don’t consider that much of a choice to give someone. But if you don’t agree to this tonight, or if you agree to this and back out, sooner or later I’ll end up putting a bullet in your head. I’ll have to. Now do you understand?”
Worried for a moment that he might faint again, Rhys waited for the dizziness to pass and nodded, his mouth dry and the sour taste of terror on his tongue.
“All right, then.” Darius pushed himself up off the altar. “We’re all in, both of us, or we’re finished. So for the next five or six weeks, or however long it takes, your ass is mine. If I give the word, you drop everything and do what I say. I don’t care if we’re in the middle of the fucking mess hall. If I tell you bend over, you do it. We clear?”
Sometimes accepting an alternative lifestyle isn’t easy…
When I first met you, I wasn’t—” Rhys shook his head and began to gather more, too bewildered to make sense of himself, much less express anything that would make sense to someone else. “I didn’t understand.”
“Now you do?”
“I think I’m starting to.”
Joe nodded, and Rhys fell into step beside him as they carried the lumber they’d gathered back toward the pile of revenant bodies. Rhys almost dropped his when Joe spoke. “Sheltered kid like you, coming that close to death. Surprised you didn’t fall apart back there after it was all over.”
Rhys’s mouth tightened. “I can’t. I’ve got to pull my weight, not be a burden. Right?”
“Don’t let anyone see your weakness.”
“Well, yeah. At least, I’m trying not to. Kinda hard when you’re about five times weaker than everyone around you.” Rhys ducked his head again.
“That wasn’t advice.” Joe dropped his boards on the growing pile where they’d burn the bodies. Rhys wanted to ask what he meant, but there wasn’t time as Darius lit the fire.
If you liked…
If you like your romances set in dystopian universes, or just enjoy a little zombie action, check out Julie Kagawa’s Blood of Eden series (starting with The Immortal Rules) and Gena Showalter’s White Rabbit Chronicles (starting with Alice in Zombieland). Blood of Eden is more predominantly paranormal, featuring vampires rather than super-soldiers or enhanced humans, but both are Young Adult so the heat level is much lower than that of Strain. If you want to stick to dystopian but like a little more naughtiness (okay, a lot more!) check out the Beyond series by Kit Rocha, starting with Beyond Shame. Not a zombie in sight, but you’ll definitely get your fill of voyeuristic sexual encounters and a hedonistic “live for the moment” lifestyle, much like the Jugs in Strain. Finally, if you’re looking for another male/male romance set in a survival scenario, try Storms and Stars by Neena Jaydon.
Strain is available February 17, 2014. You can pre-order it directly from the publisher here.