“The Host” by Stephanie Meyer: A Legitimate Review – NOT Just a Desperate Justification of my Shame
Let it never be said that I won’t give an author a second chance.
This review calls for some back story. A few years back, because everyone and everyone’s extended family were talking about it, I picked up a used copy of of Twlight, and started to read it. Everyone seemed to either love it or hate it, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
I fell firmly into the “hated it” camp. It’s one of the few novels I have ever just stopped reading and never picked up again because I realized it was just never going to get better.
But I’m not here to review Twilight. If you want my review of Twilight, I recommend looking up Roger Ebert’s legendary review of “North” and just substitute Twilight references in the appropriate places. You don’t even have to substitute “book” for movie, because I gave that a shot, too, and had exactly the same reaction. I only bring up Twilight because I feel the need to explain why this review is so difficult for me.
I became aware of The Host a few years ago while working my current day job in which I sell used books online for a large non-profit organization. We were regularly getting copies donated to us, and I saw the title and read the summary on the back. It sounded intriguing, but then I saw the author’s name and all but flung the book across the room as if I risked developing Unbearable Protagonist Syndrome.
But that wasn’t really fair of me. I had read Twilight knowing that I was not its target audience, as I was neither twelve years old nor a fan of vampire romance. In fact, I don’t really care for vampire stories with rare, usually manga-based exceptions. The Host, however, was about invading alien parasites who take over human minds and bodies, and the experiences of one of these creatures sharing a body with a resistant host who refuses to let herself be erased. That is exactly the sort of story that would generally interest me. The fact that I kept thinking “It’s a shame that this is a Stephanie Meyer book, because it sounds like it could be decent” was just pure stubbornness. Finally, I caved and flipped through a few pages one day on my lunch break. When I got home, I downloaded the Kindle sample. When I finished the sample, I saw that the Kindle edition was pretty cheap, so I swallowed my pride and read it. Make no mistake, though, I was very prepared to hate this book.
It exceeded my expectations.
Granted, the bar was set pretty low, but it even did better than the bare minimum of “didn’t make me want to remove the parts of my brain that still remembered some of the dialogue”. I actually enjoyed it.
I know, I know. It took me a while to accept that, too.
** PLEASE NOTE: Beyond Here There Be Spoilers **
First, the promotional summary is a bit misleading. It plugs the story as being about the resistant host’s yearning to get back to her true love. It gives the impression that this is going to be another “Girl obsesses pretty guy for 700 pages”, and while there is a fair amount of that it is more complex than that. The motivation of the dual protagonists of Melanie and Wanderer focuses both on Melanie’s drive to protect and find her lover Jared and other surviving members of her family. As time goes on, Wanderer makes her own human connections and friendships.
This leads to an interesting twist on the love triangle trope that is so popular right now. Actually, it’s not so much of a love triangle as it is a… rectangle? No, rectangle doesn’t sound right either. I’d say it’s more of a love trapezoid. Melanie and Wanderer are two very distinct consciousnesses crammed into one body. Melanie’s love with Jared is mostly expressed physically. At first I rolled my eyes at the flashback to their fist meeting, as it seemed to have “love at first sight” written all over it. As it went on, however, it was very clear that it was crazed lust at first sight. Wanderer experiences these feelings as well in the “burning” the body feels when they touch. Melanie, aware but usually unable to take control of her body, desperately wants to reach out and touch him. I find their relationship believable as two people meeting in an circumstances of extreme isolation (being the only other person they’ve run into who hasn’t been implanted) and have a strong physical attraction to one another. I can accept a strong emotional bond forming under those circumstances. In contrast, Wanderer gradually forms a very intellectual romance with another rebel human, Ian. Melanie’s body is lukewarm to Ian at best (Melanie’s consciousness is vehemently Not A Fan). This gives way to discussion between the two love interests of the ethical implications of either of them attempting to pursue their romance given the circumstances, in addition to both Melanie’s and Wanderer’s conflicting emotions on the subject. The romances play a bit part in the story, but the are respectably complicated relationships.
I find the parasitic aliens were interesting as well. Despite their takeover, they are mostly non-violent. They are altruistic among their own kind and live in a society based on trust and compassion. They need living hosts to live, and live by a code in which the exchange for conquering a world is to make that world better for their being there. Their worlds lack violence and minimize wastefulness. They genuinely do not see their inhabiting human bodies and erasing the original consciousness of their hosts as murder, as the humans do. This leads to the expected internal struggles for Wanderer as she tries to acclimate to living among humans while also trying not to outright betray her own people, particularly when she discovered some of the experiments that have been performed on captured implanted humans.
The premise is very derivative of other sci-fi. It strikes me as a little bit “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” (for, y’know, the body-snatching), and a little bit “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (for the aliens who consider humanity undeserving of, and even toxic to, a perfectly good life-sustaining planet). That is really a neutral point for me, as I don’t particularly mind a story having many derivative elements as long as it has enough of its own spin to it. For me, this novel had that.
All that said, the book was far from perfect. The writing style is still pretty lackluster and repetitive. The characters do an awful lot of “raising eyebrows”, speaking in “flat even tones”, and “looking fierce”. Likewise, for a novel that is mostly dialogue, there are a lot of conversations in which it is difficult to keep track of who is speaking unless who is speaking is explicitly noted. This is because with the exception of Melanie, Wanderer, and Uncle Jeb, most of the characters really speak with the same “voice”.
There are a couple of scenes where, upon Wanderer/Melanie’s being discovered by the rebel humans including Melanie’s Uncle Jeb and Jared, that Wanderer/Melanie is the target of pretty severe violence and threats from Jared. The violence makes sense in the context that Jared (and at first, all of the humans) believe Melanie to be gone, and Wanderer to be the enemy who murdered his lover. Still, these scenes were extremely uncomfortable for me to read. I suspect they were supposed to be, but at a couple of points it seemed overdone and gratuitous. I would caution that these scenes could be very triggering for those sensitive to depictions of abuse. This was made even more uncomfortable due to Jared’s later justifications for his previous behavior.
With the exception of Melanie and Wanderer, there is a very distinct lack of likable prominent female characters. There are some female background characters who treat the protagonists well, but they do not play any major part in the story. All of the other important female characters, in particular the obsessed “Seeker” alien (from whom Wanderer is escaping), and Melanie’s female relatives are portrayed as only petty and vindictive. Even the male antagonistic character, Kyle, has depth beyond his seething hatred of the parasites and his desire to kill Wanderer.
Finally, I have to say that the fact that the “significantly older man with a not-quite-legal girl” theme popped up 2.5 times is a little bit unpleasant. I put the count at 2.5, because I feel it is strongly implied that one character ultimately hooks up with the implanted body of his erased wife, and while the body is an adult, the alien mind inhabiting it comes off as extremely child-like. In fairness, Meyer does also include a relationship of a man with a significantly older woman, but she kills her off so the older woman can have an anguished moment of grieving with Wanderer.
** Spoiler-laden section ends here **
Despite the somewhat bland writing style, and some of the themes which I found uncomfortable and potentially triggering, I did enjoy the book. I don’t think it is a great book, but I found the story compelling enough to get me to the end. I found that I did care what happened to the main characters. While I did find most of the resolutions at the end of the book to be fairly predictable, I was taken somewhat by surprise by one revelation about the main antagonist (perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I was). There were a snarky lines that got an audible chuckle out of me, and I’ll even admit to getting teary-eyed in one or two spots. It was mostly an easy, enjoyable read. I’m glad I did break down and read it.
I know that there is gong to be a series, and I am torn on whether I will read the next one. I feel like the ending of this book tied off the necessary ends and left just enough open to be a comfortable stopping point. I am skeptical that the story can be continued in a way that won’t become too contrived and forced.
But then, I’ve already been surprised by this series. The bar will be a little bit higher the next time around, though.