Saturday, March 19, 2011

Virals, by Kathy Reichs

One of the genres I like least on television is the myriad clones of CSI and NCIS.  I'm not overly fond of cop shows and police procedurals anyway, and the CSI-type shows are at the bottom of my list.  Superficially, since I'm a science geek with a great interest in things technological, it seems like these shows might appeal to me, but they don't.  For a lot of reasons that aren't really relevant here.  I'm really bringing all this up as a way of saying that there is one exception to this rule of mine, and it’s a big one. 

I love Bones.

Okay, so part of my fondness for the shows is, I'll admit, Emily Deschanel.    I'm more than a little bit infatuated with her Temperance Brennan character.  (And knowing that Ms. D is, in her personal life, a devoted vegan and supporter of PETA doesn't dampen my affection.)  But beyond the main character's appeal, Bones is just one of the smartest, funniest and most engaging crime shows I've ever watched.  It has a great ensemble cast, good writing, smart use of science and interesting stories.  My few quibbles with the show only highlight how much I like it. 

Bones, of course, is based on the work (and life, according to the credits) of forensic anthropologist and mystery writer Kathy Reichs.   (In one of the TV show's funnier twists, Temperance Brennan is also a mystery writer, who writes books about a character named Kathy Reichs.)  Reichs has been writing the Temperance Brennan novels which inspired the show since the late '90's -- the most recent, Spider Bones (Scribner 2010) -- is the 13th.  The series still seems to be strong, both creatively and in its appeal to readers.

Now, however, Kathy Reichs has done something different.   Virals (RazorBill 2010) is a science fiction action thriller aimed at young adults.  Set in Charleston, S.C. and the islands off the Carolina coast, this book has a tone and style quite distinct from the Temperance Brennan novels.  But Reichs hasn't broken with her familiar world altogether.  The heroine of this novels is fifteen year old Tory Brennan -- yes, Brennan -- the great niece of Temperance Brennnan and a girl very much in the family mold.  Smart, a self-styled science geek, Tory has recently come to the Carolinas to live with a father she barely knows following the death of her mother in an auto accident.  Her father is a marine biologist working for a research facility on one of the islands.  Tory has good friends -- three young men as bright and geeky, in their own ways, as Tory.   And she faces the usual challenges of adolescence -- negotiating the ranks of popularity at an exclusive prep school (which she attends only by virtue of their father's academic position), dealing with the "mean girls", and the confusions of young love (or at least infatuation).  She also has the less common problem of working out a relationship with a caring but sometimes distant father who didn't know she existed until after her mother died.  And she has her scientific interests, including a fascination with the small pack of wolf-dogs that roam free on a nearby island. Plenty of things to keep a smart young woman busy.

But Tory's life is about to get much more complicated.  When she and her friends break into the research facility to use some equipment without authorization, they stumble onto a secret lab where  one of the centers' scientists is conducting unauthorized medical experiments on a wolf-dog puppy captured from the island.  Outraged, Tory convinces her friends to help her liberate the puppy -- who seems to be infected with a form of canine parvovirus-- so they can take him (named Cooper) back to their secret club house and try to nurse him back to health.

And this is where the story takes a hard left into science fiction.  The virus infects Tory and her friends, and alters them genetically, fusing their DNA with Cooper's canine DNA and changing them forever.  It gives  them new abilities -- heightened senses, speed and strength -- that flair unexpectedly.    In addition, it links them all, including Cooper, telepathically. They become a pack -- Virals, as they name themselves -- and their attempts to find out more about what has happened embroil them in a mystery involving a decades old murder, illegal experiments, environmental cover-ups, one of Charleston's most respected and prominent families, and more. 

I was a little put off by the slow beginning of this novel -- there's an information dump in the first pages that I felt could have been doled out more judiciously as the story went on -- but once I got past that I was captured by the story and by the main character.  Virals is the sort of book that I would have loved reading when I was a kid -- very much the descendent of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys style of mystery, brought up to date with science and much more modern attitudes.  The kids are smart and funny, and they make a good team.  Tory is a natural leader, as determined and perceptive as her Aunt Temperance (in one scene, where the kids unearth a skeleton and Tory is examining the bones, the resemblance is most striking).  The plot is engaging, the action entertaining, the animal rights and environmental subtext clear but never heavy-handed, and even though I figured a few of the secrets out well ahead of time, Reichs still managed to deal a surprise or two along the way. 

What I really loved about this book though, what it's clearly, unmistakably science fiction. Though the DNA transformation is a little far out (and the "canine" enhanced senses not completely consistent), it is handled well, with some interesting information about parvoviruses thrown in for color.   In a market saturated with wizards and vampires and shape shifters, this is a book about science and about tackling problems with reason, intelligence and knowledge.  That's a very refreshing change. The almost total eclipse of science fiction by fantasy is one of my pet peeves, and  I have often wished  for a really good science fiction series that could capture the imagination of young people the way Harry Potter has.  Something that could really turn kids back toward the excitement of science and the possibilities of the future.    Virals (with sequels obviously in store) is not that book.  But it is a lot of fun, and I look forward to seeing Tory and her friends again.  (And a guest appearance by Aunt Tempe?  Oh boy.)

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