Review Corner: Assimilation by James Stryker

Months ago, I was approached by James Stryker about possibly reading and reviewing his debut novel Assimilation. After being given a brief synopsis:

ASSIMILATION, a dystopian thriller with LGBTQ elements, follows the struggle of a man who is reanimated in a woman’s body following a cryogenic error. The story’s main character, Andrew, must fight to assert his own identity against the husband who paid to have his wife returned.

I was intrigued and more than ready to dive in.

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It was a slow start for me, though admittedly, it was a very difficult place to take up the story since the reader is not familiar with it or the characters at all yet. It opens with the emerging consciousness of recently remade/reanimated Natalie, except that it’s Andrew….as I said, it’s a difficult place to dive in, but once I was in a chapter or so, past the foggy uncertainty, and into the ability to learn about and connect with the characters and the story, I was hooked.

In fact, I still blame Stryker for essentially missing a few days of writing progress because I was either reading the book, or distracted by thinking about it…

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The novel is told in three perspectives; we start with that of Andrew/Natalie. There are a couple of chapters with Natlie’s husband, Robert’s, perspective to illustrate his inner thoughts concerning the changes he sees in his wife, and what he thinks about doing to make things the way he wants them. Lastly, we have a few chapters from Oz’s perspective (we’ll talk more about him in a bit).

I was a bit jarred at the first switch in perspective because I was not expecting it. In particular I was not expecting Oz’s perspective, but it didn’t take long to get into the swing of it and not be as jolted by the shifts.

It was soon evident that the author has a gift for evoking an emotional response from the reader, swiftly pulling you into the strange situation at hand; Robert wants his submissive, ‘perfect’, wife and caretaker, mother of his remaining son, returned to him just as she was before the car accident that killed her; Andrew wants to find who is, be who he is, despite his outward appearance being that of Natalie.

While Andrew, attempting to play the role of Natalie, continues to get better and grow stronger while recovering in the hospital, he must face the looming and terrifying circumstances he is in; being “restored” and reanimated by Cryolife comes with a lot of signed paperwork, but also the fact that “Natalie” is under conservatorship for a six month period, where the conservator then decides whether or not to grant full benefits and entitlements to “her” ……just simmer on that one for a moment…

Robert, Natalie’s husband, is the conservator. It is up to him to decide if his wife is “acting appropriately” for the six month period that she will be under observation…packaged as for the sake of safety. Andrew is faced with the task of conforming to Robert’s ideal version of Natalie in order to keep from being returned to CryoLife and “helped” by being put through a process that would essentially kill Andrew and result in any number of possible issues with the newly “restored” Natalie.

Even once deemed well enough to return home, “Natalie” must continue taking antibiotics and other medications, as well as return regularly for sessions with Dr. Zuniga, head of the psychiatric board for Cryolife, and one of the Brigman team that controls the medicines and therapy that Natalie receives, all shaped by Robert’s desires.

It is while picking up the refill of one of these prescriptions that Andrew (in Natalie’s body of course), meets Oz, the pharmacist, and that’s where things start to take a turn for Andrew.

After a most shocking in depth introduction to Oz, “Natalie” begins sneaking out to spend time with him, where Andrew also meets a ragtag collection of fellow reanimated CryoLife subjects, all “returned” more than a little different; one hears an unending loop of the same music in his head, sometimes growing louder to the point of madness, and another with an affinity for things no longer living. For the first time since coming to being, Andrew finds comfort and a sense of belonging, but it’s not with the family that Natalie had made and elected to go through the CryoLife procedure for.

“Natalie’s” odd behavior does not go unnoticed by the demanding, controlling Robert. Behavior such as a complete disconnect from their son, Simon; before, Natalie had been doting, quintessential mom and housewife, but after, she was nearly negligent if not blatantly abusive (secretly drugging Simon with cough medicine to make him sleep instead of clinging to “Natalie”), not cleaning up to Robert’s usual standards (dust on the electric socket…not even joking….), etc. Stryker does an excellent job at portraying a character as a narcissist, one that believes that they are infallible and acts accordingly, including forcing their own desires on other people the way Robert does with Natalie.

Things eventually devolve when Robert finds out that “Natalie” has not being visiting with her best friend, Shelly all the times she’s gone out, but is instead visiting Oz. Again, Stryker knows how to paint a horrifying picture of abuse and abduction, to the point that, as a survivor of abuse myself, I wish I’d had a little more warning, but that’s a personal thing. There’s nothing too terribly graphic, but the inferences and some of the actions and conversations are enough to horrify a reader.

One thing I had a problem with while reading were some confusing uses of pronouns. There were many occurrences where “him/he” were often used without being sure of who was actually talking or being referred to. This seemed to be a particular problem when Andrew is telling the story, especially since Andrew is sometimes referred to as Andrew (he/him), while other times as Natalie (her/she). Using names a little more often would have been helpful in these situations.

Another thing I noticed was an occasional issue with story tense and marking the passage of time. When a character recalls something from the past, there isn’t always a clear marker or segue, or even consistent past and present tenses, to move the reader back and forth between them. Also, things seem to sometimes happen on top of each other; an unexpected and unstated amount of time can pass from one paragraph to the next without it being marked and left to the reader to divine whether it’s been minutes, hours, days, or weeks. This is probably heightened by the switching perspectives without a firm grounding of time.

One other big thing that was difficult for me to go along with is some of Andrew’s reactions; they can be incredibly aggressive, sometimes over the top, often without provocation other than Andrew mistaking something someone said, did, or is thinking instead of asking for clarification (except the pizza throwing, I understand the reason, but the action still felt unnecessary, and there are other reactions that would have been more plausible to me). That aspect was a bit frustrating for me, unless Andrew is supposed to be acting like someone that could have borderline personality disorder. I’m not sure if this is intended to speak to the various drugs “Natalie” is being given by CryoLife doctors, a comment on Andrew’s personality, the damage CryoLife did, or just an attempt to illustrate more conflict, but it didn’t work for me very well.

One of my favorite things about Assimilation, though, is the love and connection forged between Oz and Andrew. Despite the bizarre way they came together, there’s something beautiful about how they are able to connect. At one point, Oz was a mathematician, it was his art, an art lost to him after being reanimated, and Andrew is able to appreciate and see it for that. That really got me, I have to admit, and my description of is it atrocious in comparison to the picture described by Stryker.

I have a few other comments that are or could be possible spoilers so, if you don’t know the drill and you don’t want to see any spoilers, just scroll down until you see the kitten in flannel.

Spoiler-Alert-Discussion

At one point in the novel, after a relationship between Andrew and Oz has been established, it comes to light the Dr. Brigaman, the same man responsible for CryoLife, is Oz’s father. When this is revealed to Andrew, he makes no real comment about it and has essentially no reaction to it, which I find incredibly hard to believe.

As the reader switching into Oz’s head on occasion, it was no surprise that Brigman was his father, but to Andrew, I can’t imagine that’s expected news.

I’m also curious as to what kind of place Robert takes the abducted “Natalie” to that has doors that lock from the outside, or if Robert changed the locks. I don’t remember seeing any mention of that, or signs that it had occurred. I feel it needs to be explained in some way or else it feels like an added detail just to keep Andrew trapped without having a real basis for it.

The only other issue I have is why Santino, one of the group that has been reanimated by CryoLife and is friends with Oz and Andrew, leaves Oz at all in the Savanah General Hospital after he is hurt; it’s connected to CryoLife, which they all know. I just found it a little hard to believe given the parameters of knowing that Brigman is too close, and that the unconscious are vulnerable.

Other than that, I found the ending incredibly sad, but understandable, especially given the way it ends; since Tinks is the one that hears the music and routinely wants to end things in order to make it stop, it’s a difficult ending, a crushing one, but worthy of the characters in it. I really wish Oz and Andrew could have been together in life and happy; it was a poignant ending, but it worked in a strangely love soaked (and thus beautiful) way.

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Okay, it’s safe to come out and read from here if you wanted to skip possible spoilers.

I know I’ve mentioned a lot of things that may not have worked for me, but I need to make clear how strongly invested I was in this novel once I get into the characters. There are always things that could make a novel stronger in hindsight, but the core story-telling, and the characters, were well written.

If you don’t like sad endings, you may want to skip this one, it’s a heart breaker.

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But if you are willing to brave through it, it’s worth the read, my friends.

Those looking for LGBT+ related books might find it of interest, given the involuntary/voluntary switch from Natalie to Andrew. Also, fans of dystopian sci-fi, but really, anyone that wants to walk away with a story and characters you won’t forget, then Assimilation is worth your time.

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James Stryker has a new book coming out called Boy: A Journey, which I’m also personally looking forward to emerging myself in, if you’ll excuse me….

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