Take one part science, two parts mystery, and a half portion of teenage angst. Mix in water travel, adventure, and an uninhabited island wildlife preserve, and what do you get? Non-stop action!
Now let me back up. I’ll be upfront: I never would have read this novel from the description on the back cover alone. Or even that description I wrote in the paragraph above. No, I picked this one up because it had a mesmerizing cover and a snappy title. It was sitting there, unloved, in a stack of ARCs at the Razorbill booth at ALA last summer while everyone shimmied and squirmed past to reach that last, elusive copy of Robin McKinley’s Pegasus.
Lucky me, I’d already scored my copy, so I was wandering (as all natural born book lovers will, in a bookstore, library or at a conference), letting my eyes drink in the scene and the books. Then out of nowhere – BAM! I’m looking at a girl running away, in a book cover that reminds me of, oh, the movie poster for every action flick ever. But probably most strongly of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. What can I say? It looked dynamic.
So that’s how I came to be in possession of this book. And I will say that I like it best as a paperback (having gone to the bookstore now and picked up a hardback for comparison, of course). It feels immediate and changeable, just as the cover art suggests. But enough musing on the outer wrapping – what’s the book ITSELF like?
Tory Brennan, niece of acclaimed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (of the Bones novels and hit TV show), is the leader of a ragtag band of teenage "sci-philes" who live on a secluded island off the coast of South Carolina. When the group rescues a dog caged for medical testing on a nearby island, they are exposed to an experimental disease strain that changes their lives forever.
As the friends discover their heightened senses and animal-quick reflexes, they must combine their scientific curiosity with their newfound physical gifts to solve a cold-case murder that has suddenly become very hot--if they can stay alive long enough to catch the killer's scent.
Fortunately, they are now more than friends – they're a pack. They are Virals.
Virals was lively action in a captivating setting with mystery, science, and a sprinkling of danger to make life interesting. In other words, plot-driven excitement that put me in mind of the best that a Nancy Drew/CSI/Lost sort of adventure could conjure. For what it was, it was entertaining.
So – down to the meat – what wasn’t it? Number one: a love story. Not that it couldn’t develop in the future, mind you, but this one isn’t it. Number two: big on character development. You may have seen the words ‘plot-driven’ above. I meant them. The book isn’t shallow, but it’s not a platform for deep thoughts or character change, either. It’s an adventure story. Number three: girls-only reading. I think that Virals will appeal mainly to guys. I KNOW it’s got that tomboy and science geek thing down pat, but the next most likely audience (in my opinion) is the male half of the teenage equation. Great adventure reading, mysteries, and unexplained diseases? Should appeal to both sexes.
Final verdict: worth the read. While this wasn’t one of my typical choices, it entertained me for a couple of hours on a rainy day, and the non-stop action was a great diversion. I’ll be looking out for the next installment.
Recommended for: mystery and action lovers, those Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys readers all grown up, fans of Bones, CSI and other mystery/forensics shows, and perhaps that reluctant teen reader you know – guy or girl – who might be thrilled by a little bit of action adventure.
[Full Disclosure: I picked up this book at the Penguin booth at the American Library Association Annual conference in June 2010.]