Occasionally I read a book and I find myself having to take a time out after I finish it because I just can’t get my head around everything I’ve just read and images and thoughts won’t stop spinning through my head. ‘Strain’ is one of those books. Although there was some time between finishing the story and going to bed last night, I found myself dreaming about this book; the characters and the world they inhabit were the first thing on my mind the one or two times I woke up. And one question wouldn’t and still hasn’t left my mind; how far would I be willing to go to save my own life, or to try saving someone else’s.
I should probably begin this book with a warning. This is not an easy or light read, quite the opposite in fact. This is also a book that could easily offend and/or shock a lot of readers. Ultimately though this is a very powerful and memorable story; one I’m very glad to have read and one that will probably continue to play in my mind for a few more nights at least.
The world ‘Strain’ is set in is a horrible place. A lethal and very contagious virus has killed most humans and is still being spread by ‘Revenants’; infected humans who have turned into monsters driven to kill the remaining uninfected population. Contact with a Revenant is a death sentence; if they don’t kill you on the spot they will infect you and seal your fate.
When 19 year old Rhys Cooper sacrifices himself in the hope of protecting others he survives his encounter with the Revenants only because a troupe of ‘super-human’ soldiers arrives in time to kill them. Survival isn’t necessarily a blessing though; those Rhys was trying to protect have died anyway, his arch-enemy and bane of his young life, Jacob, is the only other survivor and both of them have almost certainly been infected with the virus that will turn them into Revenants before killing them.
The soldiers offer both Rhys and Jacob a slim hope of survival. It is possible that the virus can be counteracted if they manage to get infected with another strain; a strain the soldiers carry. The only sure way to get infected though is through frequent sexual contact with as many of the soldiers as possible.
Darius Murrell is the 43 old leader of the squadron of soldiers who rescued the two men and is determined to save them. He’s spent his life fighting and killing to protect the remaining uninfected humans and would do anything to ensure he won’t have to put a bullet in Rhys’ head once the plague sets in.
It is difficult for Rhys though. While he doesn’t want to die and is interested in men, he has huge issues dealing with the multiple partners he needs to have in order to optimise his chances of immunity. Sex with Darius is something he, reluctantly, enjoys. With anybody else he can barely make himself endure it, putting Darius in a position where he has to force the young man to have sex if he wants to save him.
“Look, far as I’m concerned, only thing evil about sex is rape. Now, that puts us in a real gray area but I’m trying to avoid it.”
Darius and Rhys may be discovering feelings for each other; it is an impossible situation for both. Darius can’t afford that get attached to a man he may have to kill and Rhys is at best a reluctant participant in his own rescue.
I have to admit this was, at times, a very difficult read for me. Reading about Rhys, his insecurities, fears and shame at having to be intimate with all these men who, as far as he can tell, are only with him out of a sense of duty, was heartbreaking. In fact, the only thing that prevented this book from turning into a very dark story about institutionalised rape was the fact that the soldiers volunteering their services to Rhys grow ever more reluctant to do so as his distaste for the act becomes more obvious.
“I fought it for a long time because I didn’t want the only sex I ever had before I died to not mean anything, especially when it was already something I didn’t have a choice in. Then it didn’t feel meaningless anymore, and it was okay. Better than okay.” – Rhys
Despite appearances earlier on in this story, this isn’t ‘just’ a book about sex. Nor is the story-line an excuse to introduce as many sex-scenes as possible. Ultimately this is a story about love, finding it under the most unlikely of circumstances and the things we are willing to do and endure for those we love. It is also a book about what it means to be human and how to hang on to that humanity even when the world around you doesn’t appear to have room for ‘luxuries’ like that.
“Knowing people like you exist, people who won’t lie or kill or whore themselves out for another day of pointless breathing, people who actually believe in something – even if it’s just yourself and what you know is right – it makes it worth it, boy.”
This story broke my heart, forced me to look away in horror but ultimately made me rejoice because of the sheer beauty of it. It was a joy to watch Rhys as he tried to hang on the things he valued. I lost myself in his journey from scared boy to sensible young man. And I may just have fallen in love with Darius, the tough soldier who turns out to have very deep feelings despite his job and the things it forces him to do.
I have to applaud the author for releasing a book with a story-line that was likely to find as many detractors as fans. I’m in awe that Amelia C. Gormley managed to put this much beauty in what was for all intends and purposes a horrific story, and find myself deeply grateful for having found a tale that will linger for a long time to come.
“None of us have much worth holding on to, which makes us hold on even tighter to what we can.”