The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Host book cover
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Rating 7.4/10
It’s my body and I'll cry if I want to

Though I will confess to a morbid curiosity about the Twilight books, none of the opinions I’ve heard from those who’ve read the series (including my lady), have quite persuaded me to brave the world of sparkly vampires and romantic clichés in order to form my own. So I was a little surprised when Mrs. Dark read The Host and not only enjoyed it but specifically recommended it to me, knowing my love of very alien aliens and ordinary characters in fantastic situations, and certainly The Host is built on a most intriguing premise.

Earth has been successfully and bloodlessly invaded by the Souls, a parasitic alien species who live by implanting themselves into the bodies of human hosts. Usually, when a soul is implanted the host’s original consciousness is erased, and the Soul is able to access the bodies memories and senses. When the Soul Wanderer however, an ancient being who has experienced host lives on several different planets is implanted into the body of 21 year old Melanie Stryder, to Wanderer’s intense shock Melanie’s consciousness is far from gone, furthermore Wanderer finds herself rapidly overcome with unfamiliar and powerful human emotions for Melanie’s little brother Jamie, and her lover Jared.

Forming an uneasy truce with her unwelcome tenant, Wanderer leaves the peaceful society of the Souls and seeks out Jared and Jamie, now living in hiding with a group of human survivors, humans whom Wanderer sees as violent monsters.

One slightly ironic thing about The Host, is that while Meyer herself calls the book “science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction”, the broadly science fiction aspects of the book are carried through exceptionally well.

We get a distinct sense of the Souls society and culture, both through some wonderfully tantalising descriptions of other planets they have conquered with different and very alien hosts, and through their almost unnaturally perfect version of human society where money is unnecessary since greed does not exist and violence is an anathema.

Told in the first person, Wanderer is quite a unique protagonist, particularly since as she begins the book, on the one hand decrying human violence whilst on the other wishing to be free of Melanie’s meddlesome presence she actually is fairly dislikeable, even spoiled without quite being villainous.

We also, through flashbacks begin to understand and sympathise with Melanie, a tough, independent minded survivor who has been living on the run for several years, acting as a surrogate mother to her younger brother. With a fascinating protagonist with a journey to go through, a world that is interesting to explore and the potential for character conflict the stage seems set for something quite unique, especially considering Meyer’s style.

Giving each chapter a title derived from a verb, Meyer has a short, engaging style which emphasises pace and immediacy of experience. I can see why she was able to become such a popular author since she undoubtedly has a gift for keeping a reader’s interest and for putting you squarely in the head of her principle character; crowded though it is. Indeed, though not exactly poetic in description I do have a definite sense for the world Wanderer comes from and the way she experiences it, indeed in both her ability to describe Wanderer’s memories of her previous hosts as diverse as a sentient seaweed or an alien bat who experiences the world through ultrasound, as well as in her view of human life and society (peppered though it was by Melanie’s memories), Meyer shows herself to have quite the gift for the more speculative side of sf despite her claims to the contrary.

Not far into the novel, Meyer introduces the central conflict when Wanderer finds herself joining a group of survivors living in a cave complex, a group which includes Melanie’s lover Jared and her brother Jamie. This sets up the main theme of the novel as Wanderer needs to grapple with feeling accepted, with Melanie’s feelings for Jared (feelings communicated to Wanderer’s body), and later with the romantic attention of another survivor towards Wanderer herself.

Unfortunately, it is in her portrayal of character and romance that Meyer’s book is somewhat lacking, since however well-crafted her prose, however well put together her world, she seemed unable to portray romantic attraction, or even Melanie’s memories of such without plumbing trite descriptions and rather cliched relations. I began to dislike Jared right from the second he appears in one of Melanie’s flashbacks, a beautiful manly man who interrupts the otherwise tough and competent Melanie during a raid for food supplies with a heart stopping kiss while under threat of capture by the Souls (Really, time and place!), and then proceeds to “take charge” because (as Melanie reminds us), he’s a man!

Needless to say, when Jared himself puts in an appearance, he was no more appealing in person, indeed however many times Wanderer/Melanie spoke of “the fire when they touched” or repeated her undying love for Jared I couldn’t muster any sympathy for this relationship, particularly when Jared’s “take charge” attitude morphed into a thuggish and slightly petty streak.

As the book continued, it almost felt as if it were written by two people. The one a richly competent and nuanced stylist, the other a rather trite (and somewhat dated), romance writer. Thus, a worryingly believable description of Wanderer’s isolation from the human survivors was suddenly interrupted by her remarks about how comforting the presence of the beautiful Jared was.

Though when another survivor becomes interested in Wanderer, Meyer does do a little better at depicting him in a sympathetic light, even here she tended to fail, likely due to old fashioned assumptions about gender. For example after a quite insightful discussion by Wanderer’s admirer remarking how confusing it must be for her to share a body with a mind who’s in love with someone else, he still is forward enough to start kissing her at once with no invitation, something she finds at the least confusing at worst (in Melanie’s case), actively unwelcome.

Romance writer Meyer also unfortunately created issues in the depiction of Wanderer’s motivations. While the world at large seems to regard “proactive” as a virtue, I personally don’t have a problem with passive or reactive characters, indeed Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, probably my personal ideal of a hero is in some ways a very passive character.

To an extent, Wanderer’s passivity is understandable, and her almost inhuman selflessness and atavistic dislike of violence can be attributed to her alien nature as a Soul.

The problem however, is that with a general depiction of all male characters as stereotypically masculine, sparring, playing with guns and prone to anger, Wanderer’s passivity also felt worryingly like idealised femininity, especially when, for example, her two suitors were jealousy sparring over which was quite literally going to carry her off to sleep in his cave. Even Wanderer’s alien selflessness and dislike of violence could equally fall into a rather traditionally feminine pattern, as when she observed that she would do literally anything for Jared and Jamie including risk her own life without a thought.

Yet for all that, the characters do remain extremely engaging, and outside of romantic dealings Wanderer’s relations with the group of survivors make a compelling and often poignant story, especially with her realistic view of what a life in hiding is like, raiding for food and supplies which are always scarce, growing plants in secret in caves by use of mirrors, always under the threat of capture by the Souls. Also, when not indulging in over wrought romance, Meyer did have some genuinely interesting and very human relationships which change throughout the book, such as Wanderer’s evolving attitude towards her seeker, another Soul bent on tracking her down, or the way that her alien lives become almost mythologised stories among the survivors in their enclosed world. Meyer even included a romance between two secondary characters that was genuinely sweet and extremely touching, mostly because we had it described from Wanderer’s perspective and so missed out on all the feelings of “burning passion”, and just saw how one aggressive and angry man changed for the better. Indeed, in her subtle allusions, such as her observing the girl’s unwillingness to be too far from the guy or the gentle way they touched each other, Meyer showed that she actually could depict romance delicately.

I also appreciated that Melanie’s brother Jamie was far from an expected emotionally stunted teen male, being perhaps the first to recognize Wanderer and Melanie as separate people.

Unfortunately though, Stephenie Meyer the romance writer didn’t confine herself to romance alone, and in describing Wanderer/Melanie’s maternal feelings towards Jamie she also added several tablespoons of treacle. Indeed, even were a mother speaking of her teenage son as “part of her own body within one skin” it would be a little disturbing, speaking of a brother six years younger started to make Jamie Stryder’s relationship with his sister feel more like that of Jaime Lannister!

With assertions such as Wanderer’s realisation that her body ”belongs to Jared” and her hope for the future founded on humans’ “family instinct” I suspect Stephenie Meyer was writing characters from a conservative, and rather gender traditional background; possibly due to her Mormon beliefs. Unlike many conservative writers however, Meyer does not preach her views directly to the reader. It could be argued that it was simply those particular characters who fulfilled traditional gender roles, rather than a more universal perspective, indeed had Meyer included more of a range of male characters and shown relationships on a more equal footing I likely would have just assumed that it was Wanderer who happened to be a passive and gentle character who was female (I am after all married to a very gentle; though by no means passive lady myself).

The Host’s ending was like much else in the book, something of a dichotomy. On the one hand, a major conflict was solved very neatly and satisfyingly, matters in the world progressed, and we even ended on a cliffhanger that promised there was perhaps more nuance in the world of The Souls than Wanderer believes. On the other, the ending was very much a faerie tale one which made quite a point of emphasising shy, delicate feminine virtue, although given I’d grown fond of the characters (sometimes in spite of myself), the ending was less of an irritation than it might have been had the characters been less engaging.

The Host is a frustratingly two sided book. Meyer has shown herself to be a more than competent writer, and one who can deal in completely different worlds and the experiences of characters who inhabit them in a rich, textured and even compelling way. On the other, Meyer’s adherence to the formulaic fashions of romance fiction and the rather joyless relationship beats of trite passion with little actual connection kept bogging down the plot and serving as a source of frustration. Though the ending resolved the romantic tension and therefore very much promised that Meyer’s more serious, more adult and generally better quality writing would be emphasised later in the series, Meyer unfortunately has remarked that she doesn’t know if she’ll continue with The Host trilogy since she fears having to write bad things happening to major characters. This is a huge disappointment, since undoubtedly Meyer could be a genuinely complex and compelling writer if she tried. Indeed, while I suspect there are those who thrive on safety, cliché and reinforcement of traditional beliefs, for the rest of us, who appreciate fiction that explores flawed, realistically human characters in a vast and alien world without limits, Meyer has actually shown herself to be a more than able science fiction writer. Hopefully she will return to the world of The Host in the future to explore it in more detail, and perhaps leave the traditionalist romance behind.
Dark, 7.3/10

The Host is Stephenie Meyer’s first non-Twilight Saga publication. Touted as science-fiction for those who don’t do science fiction, The Host is another love story against the odds. Earth has been invaded by aliens, who call themselves Souls. The Souls are inserted into human brains, becoming the human, keeping their memories and using their bodies. Melanie Stryder was one of a group of renegade humans until she was caught by the Seekers (Souls in human bodies whose Calling, or job, is to seek out and capture all remaining humans).

The soul chosen to be implanted into Melanie’s body is Wanderer, a soul whom, as her name suggests, has been on many planets and is 1’000 human years old. The Seekers believe that by inserting such an experience Soul into Melanie’s mind and body, Wander will be able to extract important information from Mel’s memories that the Seekers can use to seek out and capture more of the remaining native humans.

“I hate you,the voice snarled in my head.

“Then maybe you should leave,” I snapped. The sound of my voice, answering her aloud, made me shudder again.

She hadn’t spoken to me since the first moments I’d been here. There was no doubt that she was getting stronger. Just like the dreams.”

Quote from The Host by Stephenie Meyer

Wanderer doesn’t find the insertion and acclimatisation to the new host difficult as Mel will not just lie down and let Wanderer let her mind be used as an open book. The reason for this is that Mel doesn’t want to give information to the Souls that will lead to the capture of her lover and brother, Jared and Jamie. Melanie’s strength within their shared mind keeps growing, and she begins to influence the Soul with memories that come through to Wanderer in dreams, inadvertently causing the Soul to gain strong feelings towards the two humans that Mel loves.

The Soul and Body begin to empathise with each other and they realise that they must work together if they are to prevent the capture of Jared and Jamie. Love and longing drive both the Soul and Human to go in search of their shared loves, but can they work together in the shared mind and body to act effectively.

Anyone who has read any of the Twilight saga will recognise Stephenie Meyers signature style. The love story, the impossibilities for the love to continue, as well as her distinct changes in pace. With Meyers books, it seems that you can be doing 100 miles per hour, flying through the pages and then she hits the brakes. In my experience, her books are hard to put down because even in the slower pages which seem a bit boring, you know that the writer will put her foot down on pedal at any point. This book is over 600 pages long, which I think is probably a hundred and fifty pages too many as some of the detail is a little unwarranted.

If Melanie and Wanderers troubles do not grab you from the start it would be a hard book to finish, but I think the author has done a brilliant job of tearing us between both of the protagonists in this story, forcing us to read and read until we have a conclusion. Some of the descriptions of the humans and how we do things is fascinating and thought provoking and the story makes it easy to see things from the point of view of the invaders.

It is easy to see why Stephenie Meyer has become such a big success. Her books may not be literary greats, but as seems to be the case with most authors of bestselling books, the story grabs the reader so much that the lack of writing quality is more than made up for in the story. For you fans of fantasy it may seem a little bit too sci-fi for you, but if you enjoyed any of the Twilight saga I’m certain you will enjoy this.

Overall I would rate The Host 7.5/10. An alternative look at the question “Can love conquer all?”
Stephen Messham, 7.5/10

This The Host book review was written by and Stephen Messham

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The Host reader reviews

from USA

10-stars

This book made me cry at least 3 times. You feel the pain Melanie feels and it makes you think about reading more all the time. I couldn’t put it down and once I was done I was in excruciating sadness it was over I wanted to read more.

from Sri Lanka

9-stars

I thought the book was so amazing. I was nvr a book reader and this is my second book to read. It was truly fascinating. I liked the way stephenie ended the story. Pretty great

from Germany

9-stars

I would recommend the book to people who are not overly into sci-fi, since it is quite mild and not too science-ish. It is well written, which was obvious since it is by Stephenie Meyer. Definitely one of my favorite books. The characters are so lovable (and hateable) and they really makes you think about our human traits, such as aggression, selfishness and arrogance. Th only relatively (but not overly) contra point is that it gets quite sappy at times.

8.9/10 from 4 reviews

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