Strain, Amelia C Gormley
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Genre: Gay Erotic Romance
Tags: Dystopian, Older/Younger Protagonists, Contagion, Religious Themes, Interracial MC’s, Dark Themes **Trigger warnings – Rape, Dub-Con, Strong/Harsh D/s Sex, Multiple Partners,
Length: 385 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
For a moment, he considered telling Darius to just go ahead and kill him. What was the point of trying to live if he was going to be degraded and dehumanized this way, violated not only by people he didn’t want and couldn’t care less about but by inanimate objects, not allowed even the tiniest bit of privacy and dignity?
Rhys Cooper is in a chapel – not feeling terribly inspired by God – and thinking of ways to deal with an attack by revenants who have finally broken into the monastery-cum-compound-cum-home Rhys has known for seven years. His primary goal is to get the revenants away from his sister and his young nephew. He will sacrifice himself so they can live. Suddenly, as the revenants attack him, there is a blast, Rhys is temporarily deafened and there is a someone standing over him –
God appeared before him, stern and mighty enough to justify all the fuss people made about Him. His dark face was concerned in a detached sort of way. That made sense: Rhys had never seen any indication that God actually cared for him. He didn’t know why God would be wearing camo fatigues or why he had His holy hair pulled back in a ponytail, but who was Rhys to question the Almighty?
Well, it isn’t God. It is forty three year old Darius Murrell a former army sergeant and now the mobile leader of Delta Unit. Delta is comprised of Jugs, super soldiers, who are immune to the Beta and Gamma strains of the plague that has acted like a pandemic and wiped out much of the population. It has also created revenants. The Jugs are the original source of the plague as the government looked for greater advantage in an increasingly war-torn Earth. Darius is looking at Rhys like someone who is now infected and if someone is infected then they are put down. Delta is one of several units patrolling the US and their role is to wipe out those infected with the Rot or the revenant strain, save uninfected civvies and bring them back to quarantine before they get shipped out to Colorado Springs.
When the dust settles, Rhys quickly assures them this is his first attack by revenants. His first exposure at all. Rhys shows a lot of courage. His sister and his little nephew, Caleb, have literally just been killed while he was trying to protect them, and he is devastated at their loss. He will probably become a revenant now after he has been exposed and covered in blood by one, but he handles himself with dignity and bravery. Xolani, the 2IC to Darius, and the one with the medical training, convinces Darius that he may well be worth trying to save. She knows of situations where those exposed to Beta or Gamma strains have been given immunity if they are then exposed to Bane Alpha immediately and constantly. Bane Alpha is where the Jugs come in. It is like HIV in reverse – here you want someone exposed to Bane Alpha via semen to change the mutation of the virus in a positive way. The Jugs are walking, talking, breathing Bane Alpha – they are big, fast, strong, enhanced soldiers in every way. This could easily have been an eye-rolling scenario but the microbiology and the background is flawlessly presented by the author.
The other survivor is Jacob Houtman. He is the brother-in-law of Rhys. It is his wife, Rhys’s sister Cady, who has been killed and his young son, Caleb, however Jacob seems to have left them to defend themselves against the revenants. But if they are saving Rhys they have to save both. Besides, they aren’t exactly sure whether Jacob just panicked or whether it was too late and he tried to then save himself. They can see that there is no love lost between the two, but Rhys is not talking about Jacob. So, Jacob is in as well. They get a choice, of sorts, and they both choose to live. The problem is, living means exposure through sex and as they soon discover not just with one person, but multiple Jugs. They are on the road which means no privacy, no luxuries, no getting to know someone. They fuck you and that is that, and multiple times a night with multiple unit members.
Rhys is nineteen years old but in all honesty he is much younger in many ways. Malnourished and thin to the point where his ribs protrude and his spine is visible. As a result, his physical development has been somewhat stymied. Emotionally, he literally has no idea about the world outside the monastery. He has lived in a compound with a religious zealot and despot, Father Maurice, and his even bigger bully of a son, Jacob, since he was twelve. His parents are long dead and now his only other family are burning on a pyre outside the monastery. All he has ever known is a plague-filled world.
“How much do you know about where they came from?”
“I was just a kid when we went into hiding. Father Maurice just said it was God’s punishment for, you know, immoral…stuff.” He blushed, unwilling to get into what particular sins Father Maurice had claimed the plague was punishment for.
He also has no idea about sex, other than the immoral perversions Father Maurice has preached. He had an attraction to a slightly older boy, Gabe. Gabe used to be at the compound but left approximately four years ago. Rhys is a virgin and any books he might have had about sex education were confiscated by Father Maurice. So nineteen year old Rhys has to be fucked in the open, and often, and by large, powerful men who are in Delta Unit. Everything that goes against what he’s been indoctrinated with for seven years. Everything he has been punished for – when he has done nothing – he is now faced with having to do. He may be same-sex attracted but it flies in the face of his brainwashing. The terror of what lies ahead for Rhys is palpable.
This is where a lot of grey areas come into play. Having said that, the men in Delta are decent enough men who try to make it as reasonable as they can. However, they have little-to-no-time for sentimentality and they don’t see it as a problem to have sex in the open. They are mostly sexually fluid, they have to be, serving long periods of time out in the field together. They also do not see having sex with Rhys as anything more than a panacea for something that will kill him otherwise. To them it’s that logical. Rhys knows what he has to do, but he is miserable and the men don’t want to feel like rapists, which is exactly how they do feel with him. Jacob, on the other hand, the bastion of righteousness, is happy enough to do whatever it takes, as long as he is all right, but he is quick to criticise Rhys as a “faggot.”
The only one that makes Rhys cum is Darius, and while there is a growing attraction it’s still complex and a fight. Darius has to be brutal with him. But the book is deeply erotic, especially when Darius finds the key to Rhys. Darius does not want to become attached. Rhys is young. Rhys is soft and gentle. He is physically much weaker. Rhys brings out a dominant side that is dark within Darius….Rhys could die any day and the reality of that for Darius is too much.
There are various arcs going on that all entwine and are about survival in brutal, unforgiving, and dangerous times. About bonding. Not abusing power, as another unit has – creating more Jugs is about saving these men at this time, not about building a powerbase or abuse. It is also about learning to trust. About accepting who you are and where you fit. Every single person in the book is multi-dimensional and so very real. The names are all easy to remember and so are their stories. The unit grows close to Rhys, but never Houtman. There’s some humanity still left in Delta and Rhys brings it out in all of them but, nevertheless, Rhys was in for a baptism by fire once he made the decision to go with them and hopefully be saved. Jacob Houtman continues to be smarmy and loathsome. The men in the unit don’t trust him but he is clever in the way he bullies and behaves, never in front of anyone else. The power and abject fear he holds over Rhys, the psychological conditioning that has taken place over seven formative years, is very well written.
The sex is scorching between Darius and Rhys but it is complicated and a hard D/s relationship develops. Rhys likes being dominated by Darius but he does not like his feelings of being “perverted.” He doesn’t want others to hear him. He fights for his dignity, amongst other things –
Sickened with himself, he pushed his body off Rhys and pulled up his fatigues with jerky movements. He looked down at the pale belly streaked with jizz, at the dingy carpet, at anything but those wide eyes, where he was certain a hundred accusations must be written.
“We all make sacrifices to live in this shithole of a world, boy.” Even through his remorse, Darius’s body hummed with satisfaction. If not for the circumstances, he would have called that the best fuck of his life. “Told you from the start I didn’t have time to be a good man. Now I’ve gone and done the one thing I swore to myself I’d never do. At least you’ll live. Sure as hell hope that’s worth something.”
He walked away to the other half of the room, beyond the partition, before Rhys could answer.
For the longest time Rhys feels sex should be about a relationship with one person, which is not something that can be afforded him. He wants Darius but he can’t say it. I wanted to slap Darius and tell him to tell Rhys this wasn’t just about the Alpha strain, to tell Rhys it had become so much more. But I also empathised as to why he didn’t. I wanted to feed and hug Rhys and make the pain go away. I thought Xolani was an amazing woman, kind, compassionate, strong, tough. Toby and Joe, Kaleo, Titus, all of them had so much character. Some more subtle than others but I felt like I knew them all. Joe’s nod to Rhys…
Strain contains many things – action, a hunt, conflicted feelings, issues about humanity – how important is it for us to keep it within grasp. Also friendships forged out of hard times, and letting ourselves be who we are, not who someone else tries to bully us into being. To stop and smell the roses. Rhys is not guaranteed to live through any of this. It has strong erotic content. Darius talks about others breeding Rhys’ arse, so it doesn’t shy away from what I considered to be true for the characters and environment. Darius makes Rhys wear a butt-plug to stretch him and to keep the semen within him –
The next morning, on Darius’s command, he resumed wearing the plug throughout the day…. His wearing it wasn’t functional, and they both knew it. He wore it because Darius wanted him to wear it. It pleased Darius to have Rhys walk around all day filled with Darius’s semen. And it pleased Rhys for Darius to flex that sort of control.
This is a wonderful piece of writing. It so easily could have been ludicrous and lurid and yet it is neither of these. It is beautifully written and the premise and story within are given the utmost respect – the prose, tight inner monologues, dialogue, psychology and world building are powerful.
I could wax lyrical about Strain. But a review cannot hold a candle to the writing of the book. I am serious, if you do not like the tags I put at the top for this book, do not read it. There are times when people have to be cruel to be kind. There are times you have to fight someone for their own good when they are sabotaging themselves. There are times when life simply sucks. I will also say that I out-and-out sobbed at one point and shed a tear at several others… and I got really mad. I like my reading passionate and I was given plenty of passion. Strain will be on my Books of the Year list for 2014. This I already know. More than 5 stars if I could.
Crumbling, abandoned bars, abandoned offices, abandoned hotels, abandoned homes. The haunting and the haunted remnants of an abandoned world.
And in Darius’s arms each night, when reason returned, and they lay together, drained and weary, Rhys decided there was something inescapably beautiful about the fact that they made these memories in ruined places.
This book was supplied to me by Riptide Publishing in return for an honest review.
I have since pre-ordered a copy for February 2014 release