Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
So, there's this guy, right? Ex-football player with an injured knee, now paying the bills with a tech support desk job in small-town Michigan. Then he gets infected by triangle-shaped alien parasites that hijack his body, drive him crazy, and want him to meet up with other hosts so they can build a giant gateway and welcome Earth's new alien overlords. Suddenly, Perry Dawsey isn't having a good day anymore.
At first glance, Scott Sigler's Infected is little more than a standard alien parasite infection/invasion story. The CIA's conducting illegal operations on American soil. The gore is more than gratuitous and complete with penis mutilation. The characters are stereotypes present more for plot development and snappy dialogue than pathos.
At second glance, Infected is still your standard alien invasion SF/horror story. The nefarious, networked Triangle parasites always seem one step ahead of the protagonists, often with squishy, blood-drenched side-effects. Any sort of extraneous character dies off-screen or is marked for death and then killed in a slow, painful manner. And everyone, everyone with a little authority is a jerk.
At third glance . . . well, I hope you see where I'm going with this. I'm not going to praise Infected for being original or even for being amazing, because I can't. However, it does deliver precisely what it promises in the teaser. It's exactly what I was expecting going into the book. While I love it when a book exceeds my expectations, I can't fault a book for just meeting them. Infected is solid, predictable, and entertaining.
The pacing is hit-and-miss. Much of the book consists of watching Perry Dawsey discover and battle against the infection of his body. Meanwhile, the CIA and its CID-drafted allies struggle to find the source of the infection and capture a live host for study. While I enjoyed the former plot, the latter is slow and often uninteresting, despite additional special effects like gas explosions and gunfire. There's a long middle stretch during the manhunt for Perry that lasts far longer than it should, delaying the conclusion and climactic missile-bombing of the alien gateway for an interminable period of time while we watch Perry continually evade capture.
Sigler devotes a great amount of space to describing how the Triangles interact with their hosts' bodies. He takes us from the germination of the seed organisms all the way to the achievement of sentience, at which point the Triangles in a body can communicate with each other and with Triangles in the bodies of other hosts. There's a nice mix of neurological jargon with simple, graphic descriptions of what was going on, both inside and outside Perry's body. The result is a visceral experience as we follow Perry in discovering more about the Triangles and their purpose on Earth.
Perry's struggle to retain his volition and identity in the face of the "mindscreams" of the Triangles is harrowing. I couldn't enjoy Perry much as a person. Despite the fact that Sigler holds him up as a reformed man with a temper who had an abusive father, Perry's still a jerk. Nevertheless, that didn't stop me from being alternatively disgusted and dismayed by the transformation Perry undergoes and the physical and psychological toll it exacts. In Perry, we see the full course of the infection from beginning up until when the Triangles will "hatch." Unlike many infected, who give into the Triangle-induced paranoia quickly and begin killing whomever they see, Perry fights against his Triangles. He begins cutting them out of his body—not easy, and definitely not pretty. Even when he loses ground against the Triangles, gives into their demands for food and death, he takes revenge even if it means hurting himself. I may not agree with everything Perry does, but his ordeal provides the only real character development in the book.
The other characters, and their relationships, are shallow in comparison. Murray and Dew, a CIA deputy director and his field agent, respectively, are fellow Vietnam veterans, the last surviving members of their group. They have slightly different methodologies, as evidenced by their choice of career paths. Yet they are their roles: hardboiled, hardline veterans fighting the good fight for America. Murray will do anything to protect the country even as the situation hits FUBAR levels and above; Dew is out for blood after one of the Triangle hosts mortally wounds his partner.
Then we've got the two scientists, Margaret Montoya and her partner Amos. The latter fits the role of comic-relief sidekick to a tee, right down to being the one who calls for a moratorium on levity the moment the protagonists realize what they're really up against (it's always the funny one who realizes it's not a joke). The trouble with these two, aside from Amos' constant wisecracks, is that they are superfluous to the story. Nothing they tell us really makes a difference, since most of it is repeated in what Perry learns about the Triangles from their own wacky dialogue with him. And since Montoya and Amos only react in this book, arriving on the scene after the action is over to perform an examination and provide an explanation, they don't contribute toward the resolution in any way.
Perhaps the only character who doesn't conform to a stereotype is Agent Otto, Margaret's CIA liaison. Otto provides some tongue-in-check observations that contrast Amos' more sarcastic witticisms, and he's also the Watson for Margaret and Amos' jargon-laden exposition. But there are times when he completely belies his stoic CIA exterior and begins acting like a kid, spinning around in a big plush chair and advising Margaret to take charge and stand up to Murray (his boss). While I have to admit I was pleased by Otto's speech, his behaviour did feel incongruous. In other words, he does defy stereotypes, but he does it in such an obnoxious, loud manner that I'm still not satisfied.
Infected is a story precariously balanced between realism and escapism. At times, it feels like it desperately wants to be regarded as a serious SF thriller. Mostly, as the chapter titles and narrative voice reflect, it's lighter horror, comfortable in its own hokeyness and content to play its tropes straight. There's nothing wrong with that. So if you're considering reading Infected, the best recommendation I can make is to trust your instincts. If it sounds like something you'd like, you probably will.