Published by Orbit on November 25, 2014
As we learned in Parasite, Sal the Tapeworm is inhabiting the body of Sally Mitchell the Dead Girl. Her identity crisis continues in Symbiont. Sal is a chimera, a genetic mixture of human and tapeworm. Most others who are being taken over by tapeworms lose their cognitive abilities as their brains are eaten, but Sal is a special case. In fact, most humans who have been taken over by tapeworms shamble, a sure sign that they are zombies, even if they are known here as "sleepwalkers." A zombie by another name ... Another clue to the zombie-like nature of sleepwalkers is their drive to gnaw on people who are not being controlled by tapeworms. Again, Sal feels no such urge.
Although a zombie apocalypse is unfolding in the background, Symbiont, like Parasite, isn't really a zombie novel. Since the world has enough zombie novels, readers should be grateful for that, although it isn't clear that the reading public's desire for zombies is satiable. Parasite was more of a medical thriller than a zombie novel while Symbiont is a compilation of chase scenes, escape scenes, and "am I human or am I a tapeworm?" scenes.
Symbiont feels like a bridge between the first and last novels. Given the novel's length, surprisingly little of significance happens. The meaningful aspects of the novel could have been distilled to 50 pages and incorporated into the last novel or the upcoming one. Mira Grant admits she intended to write a duology but ended up writing a trilogy (perhaps because book buyers like trilogies, making them easier to market). Most of Symbiont gives me the impression of filler designed to turn two books into three.
Sal spends the first part of the novel bonding with her tapeworm family and with her uninfected boyfriend while reminding the reader of her automobile phobia (a theme that recurs with tiresome regularity). The conflict that Sal feels -- she knows she's a tapeworm, sympathizes with tapeworms (to a degree), and even thinks from a tapeworm's perspective (although the perspective is informed by human intelligence) -- makes Sally a more interesting zombie than most. Later in the novel she confronts her daddy issues, daddy being a military researcher of infectious diseases who views Sally as a lab rat rather than a daughter. This leads to some weepy feeling on Sally's part and several repetitive scenes that could have been productively excised from the novel.
The evil scientist who still thinks he can profit from the zombie apocalypse (apparently failing to realize that zombies have no buying power) is too daft to take seriously. Surviving consumers will be eager have tapeworms implanted in their bodies, knowing that tapeworm-infected people wiped out San Francisco? I don't see it.
There are, however, some clever moments in Symbiont. I particularly liked the notion of crows luring sleepwalkers to their deaths as they tumble from a bridge, where waiting sharks put an end to their miserable lives. I also like Sal's divided loyalty between humans and tapeworms. Grant's writing style is fluid and she avoids the worst excesses of zombie novels. Although I was indifferent to most of the novel, I'm looking forward to the final book's resolution of the mess that Sal's creators have made.
RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS