Rating: 5 stars
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In a world where a werecat virus has changed society, Roan McKichan, a born infected and ex-cop, works as a private detective trying to solve crimes involving other infecteds.
While Roan remains comatose in the hospital, his status is grievously affecting all those around him. Dylan, his husband, remains at his side, waiting for him to wake up. Holden, prostitute and sidekick (as much as he would hate the word) is trying to handle a tentative relationship with one of Roan’s hockey player friends, and not handling it well. Fiona, friend and secretary, is trying to figure out if her life is with Tank, the hockey player traded to a new city, or with her old life here. The new head of the Church of the Divine Transformation is causing problems for infecteds and noninfecteds alike, including a connection to an illegal fighting ring. All is in turmoil as Roan finally wakes up.
When Roan awakes, it is to a reality in which his virus has mutated once more. The lion/virus has strengthened and Roan must fight against his belief that he is turning into a monster while holding on to what is left of his humanity, as well as his relationship with Dylan. And as Roan struggles to deal with his new reality, new cases arrive needing his help. It will take all of Roan’s emotional strength to adapt and continue on with his life, no matter how much the undertow threatens to pull him under.
Undertow is an astonishing addition to the outstanding Infected series. Really it is hard to know where to start with the acclamations. In Roan McKichan, Andrea Speed has created one of the most haunting and extraordinary heroes in recent fiction. A virus has swept the nation that forces people to regularly change into different species of big cat, a torturous transformation and one that shortens the infected persons life. No one is sure of its origin in this world. All the reader knows is that one day it just appeared. Unlike those who acquired the virus through unsafe sexual acts, dirty needles, or blood transfer (just as the AIDS virus), Roan was born with it, a virus child. The author has created Roan as a being set aside from both populations, giving him a unique status with an ever changing physicality to go along with a separate entity that shares his body. And with each book, we watch as the virus mutates and changes Roan along with it. Roan’s struggles to adjust to the changes in his body and the increasingly strong virus are Herculean, both for the character and the reader. Roan’s transformation reaches into the most primal of questions about identity, self, and what it means to be human. It asks what is more fundamental? Is who you are dependent upon what species you are, a question becoming more central to Roan emotional makeup by the day. Roan was a remarkable character in the beginning: intelligent, wry, and so adaptable that he survived an abusive beginning as well as the loss of Paris, a man he continues to mourn even as he found another. Roan has so many layers and facets to this personality that detailing them would take a book of its own at this rate.
And Roan is surrounded by a cadre of characters almost his equal in complexity. I have to admit that Holden is my favorite. Holden is a lethal combination of charm, brains, and survivability, as well as a flimsy, flexible morality that makes him a perfect companion for Roan on his endeavors to help those who come to him in need. But Fiona, Gray, Scott, Seb, and all the rest stand on the platform with them. I often forget that these people and their situations aren’t real, so involved do I feel in their current situations and futures. Really, its just a parade of people so indelible that they will leave their marks in your heart and memory long after this story is finished.
And the world in which Roan lives is equally astounding. Speed has created a universe so densely layered and complex, that each book can continue to build on the foundations laid out at the beginning, and still expand, growing ever more complex along with the virus and Roan. We are hearing hints of concentration camps or bills in Congress meant to incarcerate infecteds to protect the public, specific overtones of WWII with the Japanese Internment camps in California and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. At first it was mere whispers in the beginning books, but the possibility has been increasing through each addition to the series as the public backlash grows against the infected population and Roan’s solidification as something so new, so extraordinary, that those closest to him are having a hard time wrapping their brains around it. Of course, Holden is already aware of the ramifications to society and enjoying the heck out of it. Undertow breaks out of the others before it as we really start to see the possibilities ahead for Roan and for all the infected populations. It’s chilling, it’s exciting, and it’s tantalizing in the hints laid out throughout the narrative. I mean, there are parts here I kept rereading, not only for the power of the moment but also for the implications for the future.
Undertow has several threads running through it, just as the other books. There are several mysteries to solve, including a woman haunted by the unsolved death of her mother, and a sordid fight ring that uses infected as combatants to stop. As always the Church of the Divine Transformation is at the heart of at least one of Roan’s problems, an organization that never fails to live down to its reputation. Several characters are undergoing transformative events in their lives to mirror on a lesser scale the major ones affecting Roan, which is perfection given that Roan is the central focus in each of their lives.
Normally I like to add in a few quotes to give a feel for the author and characters involved but the Infected series almost defies me to do that. Taking the words out of context removes some of their power and put into context, the quotes contain far too many spoilers. The narrative is powerful, angst filled, humorous, wry, and concise, even to the names of the chapters like Subterranean Homesick Alien, Tiny Violin, Pretty Nettles, and St. Matthew Returns To The Womb. Just trust me on this, quotes aren’t needed for something this great.
Unlike Lesser Evils (Infected #6), this is a complete story, with no cliffhangers (as such) to worry about. That’s on the surface, of course. Because the underlying issues remain, lying just ahead like fissures in the ice, or an undertow in the ocean current, waiting to pull the unwary down. That’s what makes Roan and this series so exciting, so compelling and ultimately so addictive. I finish one and then keep thinking about all the possibilities that lie ahead for Roan, Holden, and everyone involved, including humanity. Where Andrea Speed will take Roan and us, I have no idea but I can’t wait for the next part of the journey to continue.
If you are new to Roan and the series, go back and start at the beginning. These books must be read as part of a series in order to understand the characters and the events that occur. Trust me when I say there are NO stand alone books here. Here they are in the order they were written and must be read:
Andrea Speed has also created an Infected Undertow soundtrack that can be found at http://8tracks.com/notmanos. There are over 28 tracks that you do not want to miss out on, including Wolf Like Me by TV on the Radio and so much more.
Cover art by Anne Cain. This cover is outrageously splendid, one of the best of the year as far as I am concerned (and considering how good all the covers are for this series, that is saying something).