Review: Virals by Kathy Reichs

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ViralsI got a few good ARCs from the exhibit hall at ALA Annual in Washington, D.C. and Virals by Kathy Reichs, the new YA tie-in novel to her Temperance Brennan series due to be published on November 2nd, was among my swag.  Needing bath reading tonight, and knowing the latest issue of Country Living magazine wasn't going to last the requisite amount of time, I brought the book in just in case.  Two and half hours and a serious case of prune feet later, I was finished.

I'll admit I was a little nervous.  The first 30-40 pages felt like Reichs was struggling to find the voice of her protagonist but by page 70 or so (I use the 80 page rule for my book reading - if I don't find myself into it by page 80, I put it aside and move on), enough science had kicked in that it all clicked, because let's face it, that's what Reichs does incredibly well.

From a librarian standpoint, Reichs is a good sell to teen readers, many of whom who are vigilant watchers of Bones and other crime lab dramas involving forensic anthropology.  Most high schools and public libraries know that she is a proven author with her Temperance Brennan series (which begins with Deja Dead, a book that became a New York Times bestseller upon its debut in 1997 and won numerous awards).  Here's the promotion copy for Virals, as shown on (the book isn't up yet on the Penguin/Razorbill website yet):
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 strain of canine parvovirus 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.
Chilling copy, eh? Tory is a young protagonist but brilliant.  She's fourteen but, when we meet her at the end of her freshman year of high school, she's busy taking AP Biology and AP British Literature.  Her three closest friends, all boys, live in the same isolated area of Morris Island, off Charleston, South Carolina where families associated with the University of Charleston get housing near the old Civil War forts.  This group of friends commutes by ferry to a very elite and pricey private school where they are seen as charity cases since they don't have to pay full-tuition as university faculty kids.  Add to this popularity blow their high I.Q. and you can see that the four of them jumped pretty quickly from outsider to pariah.

As mentioned, the text seemed to suffer in the beginning of the book.  It was rather staccato in nature so it felt a little herky-jerky to me and the level of teen snark was rather high.  The reader is introduced to Tory from a first person point of view and we quickly learn that her hard working mother died in a car accident only six months ago and she has been sent to live with her father, who she didn't know and if fact was unaware of her existence, Dr. Kit Howard. Kit happens to be Temperance Brennan's nephew, hence the tie-in to Kathy Reichs' other books, and there are plenty of references to Tempe for readers who've enjoyed the series.  Both father and daughter are struggling with the adjustment to one another, and Dr. Howard, a marine biologist, is occupied with his research on a nearby island.  Tory and her friends are fascinated with that island too, and when a wolf-dog puppy they named Cooper goes missing, they won't rest until they get to the bottom of what's going on.

The friends are pretty well-drawn and the writing improves as soon as Tory's fascination with science comes into the picture.  The bad guys are for the most part just shy of cartoon villains but the book is strong in describing the sense of isolation and awkwardness a rather pretty Tory feels from her peers, both due to her intelligence and her socioeconomic status compared to the other students at school.  The bond she feels to the wolf-dog pup is extremely strong and the enthusiasm and intensity of her interest in science and her worship of Temperance Brennan comes across as very genuine.  The slight paranormal twist of the virus altering the kids' DNA is a great plot device since so many questions arise from it - what else will they discover they can do? Are they in danger from it? Will they be discovered? Are they in danger?  Will their families find out?  A sequel is due out Summer 2011 to begin to answer some of those questions. The reader ends up suspending disbelief on more than one occasion (okay, a lot of occasions) but it's an page turning adventure once you're 70 pages in and probably very appropriate for the middle school age group who finds themselves fascinated with forensic anthropology topics.