Rating: 4 stars out of 5
When a deadly virus is unleashed, it spreads and mutates quickly, wiping out most of the human race. Rhys Cooper and his small family has escaped the virus and its consequences by living in a small compound under the rule of a puritanical preacher and his son. But soon the zombie like plague victims discover them and all are killed except Rhys and Jacob, the preacher’s son. They are rescued by a special militia corp, but not before Rhys and Jacob were exposed to the virus themselves.
Sergeant Darius Murrell belongs to a group that used to be Army and nows roams the country looking for survivors. They are also charged with finding and killing the people the virus has turned into cannibalistic murderers who spread the virus by various means including blood sprays. When Darius and his unit find Rhys, he is covered in the blood of a revenant, their name for the infected. Rhys and Jacob are surely infected themselves by their exposure to the revenants that killed the rest of their group. When the militia’s medic comes up with a last ditch experiment that might save Rhys and Jacob’s lives, Rhys is begins to think that dying is preferable to the experiment the soldiers propose.
Xolani, the medic present, knows that her squad cannot return to base with the survivors in time to save them so Rhys and Jacob’s only hope is to be infected by another strain of the virus and that the combination might confer immunity. The problem? The virus needed is one that’s sexually transmitted, and the only means to obtain it is to sexually submit to the entire squad of soldiers as many times possible daily over a six-week time period. At what cost is his survival, Rhys wonders. Would he rather die than become the sexual plaything of a bunch of hardened soldiers? And if Rhys chooses to try the experiment, will he be able to live with the memories and the humiliation afterwards?
Of all the thoughts that crowded into my mind after finishing this story, first and foremost is the one that said that Strain is a story people will either love or hate or even possibly hate to love. The plot alone is one of such emotional impact that the blurb itself just might be a turn off that will leave some would be readers cold. At its barest outline, you have a teenager who has just watched his family killed by revenants and is now forced to have sex with multiple partners and not yet once but as many times a day as his body can stand. Throw in the fact that he is a virgin and I can almost see potential readers cringing in dismay, wanting to avoid any emotional involvement this story will demand.
This is not a story for the faint of heart or stomach. It rears up and commands a reaction from its reader. And gets it. At almost 400 pages in length, the reader, once committed to the story, will find themselves on an emotional roller coaster that will include a range of responses, from disbelief to distain, hopefulness to despair, and even moments of hostility towards the author for putting Rhys through such torment for such a long duration. But if you stick with this story, then it also had its own rewards.
Some of the issues that crop up at first glance are blatantly in your face huge. First, there is Rhys. He is 19 and a virgin. Raised in a religious sect environment, he has been abused, starved, and finally deprived of those he loves when they are killed by the revenants that infect him. And in order to live he must whore himself out to a group of unknown hardened soldiers, trusting that the experiment isn’t just a falsehood used to gain his services. I defy any one out there to to deny the emotions that arise within themselves just by reading that description.
Secondly his rescuer, Darius, that Rhys comes to have feelings for, is 42 years of age. Think of that difference in age, experience and outlook on sexuality and morals. Once the reader adjusts and gets past those elements, more arrive to be dealt with. Additional issues will depend upon how your tolerance and acceptance of the fact that the only method available to transmit the virus is near constant coitus, the more partners Rhys has the greater exposure to different variations of the strain he requires. I will admit that I was skeptical of the science behind this experiment at the beginning. Thoughts of injections, blood exchanges or other field methods that an army medic would have at their disposable, even on the go as this company is, rose up to make me question the plausibility that such extreme measures as they require of Rhys and Jacob. But again, the author managed to answer all my questions, convincing me of the science behind it and the medic’s explanations as the story progresses. All it takes is sticking with the story, even if you have to stumble past those sections that make you cringe.
Then there is the sexuality that prevails throughout the story. It is crude, harsh, with elements of voyeurism, D/s, bdsm, and other kinks. It is noncon, almost noncon, sprinkled with “boy”, dirty language, and the need for pain and humiliation. That is most likely the biggest hurdle of them all. Rhys and his initiation into sex by such a horrific requirement is the element that will give most people pause. I think my take on the events and changes that occur within Rhys might vary from those found within.
Gormley takes Rhys from virgin to one who adjusts his morality to include casual sex among partners while still needing to have relations with someone who cares about him, all within a month’s time. Towards the end he has adjusted his outlook to become more flexible in his thinking and morality. Here is Darius’ take on Rhys somewhere in the middle of the story:
“Of course given the way that Rhys seemed to like a rough and dangerous edge to his sex, maybe it was time for that to change. Toby and Jie might be right up his alley.”
For me this is by far the largest issue here. My opinion is that if you take a 19-virgin who has been isolated from others and made to feel that sex is for procreation, including the idea that same sex feelings are a perversion, you have an almost fragile blank canvas in the person of Rhys. Then by subjecting him to constant near rape, you are practically hardwiring him to not only accept the role he has been made to play but also that casual rough sex and domination are the norm because he doesn’t have any other frame of reference. It verges on Stockholm Syndrome in my opinion. That odd lack of recognition that Darius and the group’s treatment of Rhys might have played a role in the formation of his sexual preferences makes this aspect of the story its biggest obstacle in my opinion.
So why stick with this story and why give it such a high rating? Because for all those elements, and distasteful to some, storylines, Strain is a well written and absorbing novel. The further into the novel the reader gets, the deeper the reader sinks emotionally. It grabs onto your heart or should I say Rhys does, and, refuses to let go. Trust me when I say you will be sobbing at certain junctures within this story. Rhys will break your heart over and over. And not just because of his current situation either.
You will find yourself getting angry or disgusted at times during the narrative. “Why should that happen to Rhys? It’s all so unfair” you might find yourself saying, conveniently forgetting that Rhys and the injustice of his situation are the product of a fine imagination. Truly despicable characters along with those that pull at your heartstrings come not from poorly layered constructs but from wonderful characterizations. If at times you forget everything but the world the author has created, then that person, in this case, Amelia C. Gormley, has done their job and then some.
This is a HFN story. Indeed given such a post apocalyptic world and constant peril, it is the only reasonable ending the author could apply. For some people, Strain will be a difficult book to read, for others a complete joy and for still others, the wide array of strong elements pose just a mild discomfort, a small price to pay for such a complex and compelling tale. Take a moment to think and make the decision for yourself.
This is how it all starts:
D eath smelled like old wooden pews whose varnish and cushions had become saturated with acrid layers of dust. It smelled like mildewing carpet rotting from rain that had leaked through a roof he’d never had the skill or resources to repair. The hymnals had long since been used for tinder, but the musty scent of old books—once so comforting but now vaguely nauseating—remained.
Cover Art by Kanaxa. I think the cover fails to deliver any idea of the story or character within. Rhys is rail thin, disheveled, a survivor. The model here looks the very antithesis of Rhys Cooper.