The Hatching

    It looked to Miguel like a black river rushed up behind him. The man had only managed to get to his knees before the dark mass rolled over and around him.
    Miguel took a few steps backward, but he found that he didn’t want to turn away. The black river stayed on top of the man, roiling and building, as if it were dammed by something. There was a lumpy movement, the man underneath still struggling. And then the lump collapsed. The black water splashed out to cover the path. From where Miguel was standing, it look like the man had simply disappeared.
    And then the blackness started streaming toward him, covering the path and moving quickly, almost as fast as a man could run. Miguel knew he should be running, but there was something hypnotic in the quietness of the water. It didn’t roar like a river. If anything, it seemed to absorb sound. All he could hear was a whisper, a skittering, like a small patter of rain. The way the river moved was beautiful in its own way, pulsing and, at certain points, splitting and braiding into separate streams before rejoining a few paces later. As it got closer, Miguel took another step back, but by the time he realized it wasn’t actually a river, that it wasn’t water of any kind, it was too late.

Introduction:

Surprise!

No, it’s not a joke. I already have another review for you! How can this be? Thank my mother. Not just for having me so you could someday read my reviews, but because she’s responsible for this book jumping the queue. That’s why it’s by far the most modern book I’ve reviewed, one you can easily find in booksellers right now. Bonus: it cost me nothing!

So, as you may recall, I was just a wee bit dissatisfied with my previous book. My mother was in the room when I tossed it aside, and after I let her know my feelings on it, she suggested a book my sister had read, then given to her. She said it’d be right up my alley. How well does my mother know me? Well, let’s find out.

Review:
Today, we’re looking at 2016’s The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone, a Canadian gentleman who resides in northern New York with his family. Although this is the first novel under his name, he wrote a couple of short stories and two novels as “Alexi Zentner”. One sounds like a drama set in a fishing community; the other, which has piqued my interest, features a man sitting by his dying mother’s side and recalling his childhood, interspersed with more fantastical tales from another character. So, he’s taken a bit of a leap here from his previous content with this in-progress trilogy.

At an archaeological dig near the Nazca Lines (I’m sure you can guess which one in particular), what appears to be a fossilized egg sac is discovered. Around the same time, a few areas around the world are suddenly besieged by a previously-unknown life-form, one which has a ravenous appetite for flesh. It also turns out the egg sac isn’t nearly as fossilized as first suspected. If you think that’s bad, though, wait until you find out the other little trick these creatures have in store for those who think themselves lucky enough to escape with their lives…

Real quick, they did a better job than the previous book I reviewed, as I only recall a couple of errors. Good show!

Okay, so, science is more or less going out the window as far as this book goes, since the go-to excuse is pretty much “unknown prehistoric critter.” What are the critters?  Spiders! Yay!  Now, before we get into their intricacies, I should warn you:  if you’re wanting to read this, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs, as finding out how these buggers work is part of the entertainment. Pick up at the paragraph that begins, “At least the spiders…”

So, spiders. But not just any spiders…spiders that act like army ants, with a touch of parasitic wasp! Oh, for fun! Well, let’s see what we’ve got here. First, these spiders are eusocial. There are a few species of spider known to work in social groups, building webs together in colonies to catch larger prey than one spider could handle on its own, and possibly for better protection of their broods. Anelosimus eximius is called out in the book as one of these, which is correct. However, no species are currently known to be eusocial, like ants or bees. Well, these spiders are.

Further, just like those insects, they’re specialized. We’ve got the workers…well, “feeders” is a better name for them, as they do nothing but find things to eat, and then eat them. Not like normal spiders, either, which employ digestive juices to help break down the bodies of prey, and then use their chelicerae to tear up the softened prey into bits for easy swallowing. Naturally, anything liquefied is slurped up as well, because you don’t want to waste a drop! That’s actually pretty grotesque, but to do that the spiders usually inject their prey with venom and wait for it to die. We don’t have time for that! Also, the spiders don’t have venom to begin with. Instead, these spiders have particularly well-developed and powerful…well, they don’t quite describe what they have. A non-scientist thinks of them as mandibles the first time they see one of the spiders. I guess they could be modified, unusually large chelicerae. Whatever the case, the spiders bite out chunks and chew them up. Yes, chewing spiders. Just like those chewing giant gila monsters. Well, like I said, “unknown prehistoric critter.”

Now, we may get an explanation later, but right now this seems to be pointless. They don’t bring food back to a hive, and they don’t store it like a honeypot ant. They just eat and eat and eat. By the way, they don’t go for insects. They want warm flesh.  MU-WHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!!! Birds, rats, humans…whatever is handy.

Oh, and remember when I mentioned army ants earlier? These spiders travel in enormous swarms, thousands strong, possibly tens or hundreds of thousands.

Although it’s never explicated, it’s safe to assume these spiders are super-sensitive to vibrations, which would make sense. However, at one point someone studying the spiders notices they can pinpoint prey they can’t detect normally. The ability to detect body heat is bandied about, as is their sense of smell. I’m not aware of a species of spider that can sense body heat, but they do have a pretty good sense of smell, so that’s more likely. The odd thing is, this never really comes up outside of the research center, and even then it seems incidental. The spiders tend to attack in swarms so large that they’re bound to find something to snack on. Maybe it’ll be more important in a later book.

With the feeders come two different types of reproducers, one standard type that lays egg sacs, the other…well, that’s where the wasp thing comes in. I actually predicted this when a particular character survived an attack, because it seemed unlikely he’d be the one to do so. I then got an evil grin on my face as I realized what had most likely happened…but I have to say, the reveal was more delightfully gross and hilarious than I could have imagined. The process turns out to be a lot more complicated, intricate, and quite frankly improbable than something as simple as implanting prey with eggs. The only benefit the process bestows is making it very, very hard for them to be surgically removed. Really, that’s the only reason I can come up with for why they do what they do; it’s not like other animals could do much of anything about becoming a walking incubator. Naturally, the other benefit of this is that it lets them spread to areas they didn’t originally surface in, so more people can be threatened, although they mature and hatch so damn fast it’s a good thing they didn’t surface in a time before intercontinental jet travel.

For now, those are the only types we encounter.  I’m guessing we’ll be introduced to some others in the future, just to keep things interesting.

You know, “prehistoric critter” doesn’t quite cut it. I’m calling it right now: These spiders are going to turn out to have been bioengineered.  Like ’90s Gamera, except that it’ll be aliens instead of Atlantis. Along with the anomalies with the spiders themselves, we also have the fact that they find out the Nazca spider is actually much, much older than the rest of the lines. See? Aliens!

At least the spiders are of a realistic size, somewhere around that of a red-knee tarantula. One is described as having a golf ball-sized body.

Turning to the characters, this book juggles quite a few of them, focusing on one or two per chapter. In that way, it’s kind of like reading a TV mini-series. Mr Boone does a good job of keeping the story going in pretty much chronological order, and I never got confused about when something was happening, or to whom. I’ve seen that happen with this style of storytelling, and it was a relief to not have this be the case with The Hatching.

The major players include Mike Rich, an FBI agent investigating a private plane going down in Minneapolis; Professor Melanie Guyer, the scientist who ends up investigating the ancient egg sac; President Stephanie Pilgrim, who has to deal with the growing crisis, assisted by Melanie’s ex-husband Manny; and Lance Corporal Kim Bock and her unit of fresh Marine recruits, who’ll soon be dealing with something they could never have imagined.

We also have a smattering of minor characters we follow from time to time: a few of Melanie’s students, who end up helping her out; an old man and his dog living in Los Angeles; a young man bringing his girlfriend to meet his grandfather on the Outer Hebrides; a television producer at CNN Studios in Atlanta; seismic researchers in India investigating mysterious tremors; and a community of doomsday preppers in Desperation, California, who think their day has finally come. There are a few others who feature in maybe one chapter, if that, and are mostly there to get eaten up by spiders.

The characters are an interesting mix, in that they’re mostly stock, if not stereotypical, but they aren’t always used the way you’d expect. As the scientist, Melanie is fascinated by this new discovery, although happily she recognizes the threat they present and never talks about trying to preserve them. She presents her findings to the President, who despite how crazy things sound is willing to go along with what she’s told when given sufficient proof. It may help that her Chief of Staff is Melanie’s ex, who would know better than anyone that, with this being her field of study, she wouldn’t be prone to exaggeration. There’s no refusing-to-listen-until-it’s-too-late nonsense, which actually helps the threat seem more dangerous. Even with various nations doing their best to confront the peril, the spiders have things go their way more often than not. It’s also nice that the ex-spouses can work together and don’t seem to bear too much ill will towards each other.

That is not the case with Mike. He’s the gruff, no-nonsense cop…okay, agent…and he and his recently-remarried ex-wife are rather antagonistic nearly every time they interact. Usually over their daughter, because of course there had to be a child in here somewhere. At least she’s innocuous, not annoying, and never directly put in danger. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her put in jeopardy in the future, though.

By the way, if you guessed that Melanie and Mike meet and become the romantic leads…you’re wrong, smart-ass! Ha! Don’t worry, though; while they don’t hook up or even spend much time together, it’s made quite clear that each is very attracted to the other, so it’s going to happen. Mark my words.

Kim and her Marines are your typical young military folks about to get their trial by fire. They’re given enough personality to make us interested in them, and were probably the characters I found myself most drawn in by, since they have to deal with some pretty strenuous crap towards the end as things threaten to spiral out of control on the West Coast.

I also enjoyed the preppers, who are not lazily presented as wacky nutters, even though they all have their own conspiracy-based reasons for living in the middle of nowhere with well-stocked bomb shelters under all their homes. I’m kind of hoping we get to see them deal directly with the spiders. This could be because I’m hoping we get something like Burt and Heather’s graboid battle from Tremors, though.

The rest of the people in the story don’t really stick out, but then again most of them are spider chow, so I suppose it isn’t particularly important.

The one surprise here is that, despite being about spiders devouring people like movie piranhas, the novel is not a particularly graphic read. The spider attacks tend to be people just being swarmed completely, which puts me in mind of the scarabs in 1999’s The Mummy except we don’t see the results. There is one big attack scene where we get some blood and such, and of course that one delightful moment I mentioned way up there in the spider section. More than once we get people dwelling on the chewing sounds these spiders make, which is a macabre little detail. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was the reason Mr Boone had them eat things this way.

As far as animals, the spiders get a bird in the first chapter, but as we’re still in the “What is going on?” stage it’s not presented in a detailed fashion. The scientist feeds rats to the spiders that hatch from the egg sac, which makes sense. The one time a rat is actively fed to them, it’s not dwelt on. There is a moment where a rat is left in abject terror, though, that I didn’t particularly enjoy, especially because of why it was terrified. (Gotta love how I don’t care about all the humans that happened to, right?) Oh, and spiders die, too, naturally.

The Bottom Line:
The hardcover version I’ve got is about 330 pages, with fairly large print, so this is a breezy read. Maybe not as quick as Gila! Admittedly, this does have twice as many pages. The story clicks along, switching between characters and locations smoothly and in a manner that is simple to follow. The characters are generally used well despite not being incredibly original, the spiders are a very fun menace that come off as an actual danger to the world, and the writing is just solid overall.

The biggest detriment is that some of the characters could have used more personality, but compared to the ones in Gila! they’re perfectly serviceable. It didn’t stop me from enjoying Gila! and it didn’t stop me here. I personally would have liked more gore, what with people being devoured by hordes of spiders, but I’m probably in the minority on that. On the plus side, the restraint did make those few more graphic moments stand out.

The Hatching came as a nice follow-up to the disappointing Deadly Nature and I would definitely encourage you to pick it up. The sequel just came out in November of this year, and the final book in the trilogy is due at the end of February 2018. I will definitely be snagging the next one, and unless something goes horribly wrong, anticipate finishing the trilogy. So, don’t be surprised if you see Mr Boone’s work popping up in a future piece.

Not the immediate future, though; I’ve had a book waiting patiently for over a year for its turn, and it’s time I got started on it…

 

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