Hugo Novel Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

written by David Steffen

In the near future, The American medical corporation Symbogen releases a product that dramatically changes the medical industry–the Intestinal Bodyguard, a a genetically engineered tapeworm that manages most of your medical needs, including suppressing allergic reactions, and producing insulin for diabetics. Within a few years, the tapeworm implants are so ubiquitous, you would be hard pressed to find an American who doesn’t have one, and cheaper models have even become popular in third world countries where they help keep people healthy who have never known good health. They are the universal cure-all elixir. There can be no doubt that they have all the marvelous effects that are claimed–these are well documented. What may not be so well documented are the side effects that may come with that little traveling companion in your gut.

Sally Mitchell owes her life to the parasite, even more than most. She was involved in a terrible car accident, after which the doctors pronounced her permenantly braindead and urged her parents to remove her from life support. During that very discussion, she wakes up. She suffered from complete memory loss, to such an extent she had to relearn how to speak from scratch and had no memory of her previous life. Lacking memories of her old life, she became a completely different person but one who has learned to be completely functional within a few years, even holding down a job. She has to live with her parents and must make regular visits to Symbogen for them to study her condition further.

Symbogen’s interest in her has only increased with the recent increase in reports of the “sleeping sickness” which seems to be related to the parasites. Those afflicted with the sleeping sickness take on a state like sleepwalking without warning, even when they hadn’t been sleeping. And, sometimes, these sleepwalkers can be dangerous.

I’ve been looking forward to this novel, the first in the Parasitology trilogy, since I saw it on the Hugo list–the complete novel didn’t end up being in the Hugo packet, but I was able to get a review copy. I haven’t been familiar with Mira Grant’s (aka Seanan McGuire’s) for very long, but she’s gotten several award nominations these past few years that I’ve been following the award closely and her work has been good enough that I was very interested in reading a novel by her.

I thought that this was a solid novel, good through and through. I found Sal Mitchell a very relatable and interesting character, in a very interesting situation. She has learned enough language to be able to communicate fluently, but the youngness of her mind is clear in her spotty education on expressions and colloquialisms, and when she is lacking in some of the social norms that we generally take for granted. Her relationship with her boyfriend (Nathan Kim) is certainly not the point of the book, but was probably the part I enjoyed the most–a great example of a mutually supported relationship tuned to the individual people in it. All of the characters in the book were completely believable, even the ones with less savory aspects. I could believe everything in this book could really happen. Some of the characters gave me a strong enough impression that I had Hollywood actors picked out for their movie portrayals–for those reading along, I pictured Andy Serkis as Sherman and Ben Kingsley as Colonel Mitchell (Sally’s father).

Although this book has been billed as horror, I didn’t find it terribly horrific. Of course with tapeworm implants being a major factor there is potential that some might get grossed out by those parts, but I didn’t think anything was going for a squick factor in that. I think it would do just as well with a general SF audience, unless you’re particularly sensitive to the idea of the tapeworms, in which case you probably haven’t read this far anyway.

My first complaint is that there was a twist reveal late in the book that perplexed me a bit because I thought the knowledge given in the reveal had been a foregone conclusion since page 1 of the book. Understandably, that is from my perspective as a lifetime SF fan looking in from the outside of the situation, so it’s understandable if people in the actual story wouldn’t see it right away, but I thought there was enough evidence even within the story itself that some of them should’ve figured this reveal out long before it was handed to them–that was the one area where the characters didn’t behave as I thought they would.

My second complaint, admittedly a minor one, is that this doesn’t stand alone as a single book. My favorite series are those where each book is its own complete arc while also being part of the larger arc of the series. That’s not the case here–rather than resolving anything at the end, several more cans of worms are opened and then the book is over. Of course, wanting a full arc per book is a personal preference and certainly not a requirement of a writer.

I would highly recommend this book, and I eagerly await reading the second and third books in the series.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

3 thoughts on “Hugo Novel Review: Parasite by Mira Grant”

  1. “there was a twist reveal late in the book that perplexed me a bit because I thought the knowledge given in the reveal had been a foregone conclusion since page 1 of the book”

    That drove me up the wall, and will likely keep me from reading the sequel. Although I mostly enjoyed the book, I thought the characters should have figured things out much earlier. I also thought the boyfriend had figured it out, and was confused when he apparently hadn’t.

    I agree on the horror aspect. I don’t read horror because it gives me nightmares, but I didn’t find this frightening or icky at all.

  2. Yes, the boyfriend Nathan was the one in particular who I felt should’ve figured out the twist far ahead of time. He is a career parasitologist who even aside from his work experience and training, has been fed all of the pertinent information halfway through the book.

  3. I enjoyed the book while reading, but that ending has really curdled in my mind over time and makes me like it less and less. I don’t think it has anything to do with being familiar with SF (my 11 year old niece could have figured this thing out), it’s just a poorly executed twist.

    As for the horror aspect, I did find it odd that the “blank stare” people were treated as such a big deal, but the parts where they are a little more aggressive (which are inconsistent and seemingly only occur when the plot requires it) could certainly be termed horror. Or at least, zombie horror, which I’ve never been too scared by…

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