by Susan Carpenter
for The Los Angeles Times
After 13 books that have netted her as many bestsellers and a hit TV show that is now in its fifth season, “Bones” author Kathy Reichs once again gets forensic with her latest, only this time the book is for young adults.
Reichs is a master storyteller who, with the kickoff to her new series, “Virals,” ratchets up the thrill-o-meter on the well-trodden young-adult trope of prep school outsiders negotiating the hormonal minefield of crushes and popular kids. Adding science, intrigue and a dash of wolfen fantasy to the mix, “Virals,” in bookstores this Tuesday, is a thrill ride of a murder mystery that is likely to appeal to her adult fans as much as it will to kids.
“Virals” is the latest incarnation of a trend that has seen dozens of literary heavy hitters applying their talents to books for younger readers, although only some of these writers have successfully translated their styles and sensibilities into plots populated with characters that resonate with tween and teen audiences. Reichs’ newest hits all the right marks.
Leveraging the smarty-pants heroine at the heart of her “Bones” bestsellers — legendary forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan — “Virals” stars her niece, Tory Brennan. Aunt Tempe, as she’s known in “Virals,” is referenced throughout the book, providing a genealogical connection that enables Reichs not only to bridge readership between her series but also explain how Tory, a freshman in high school, has such an unusually deep knowledge of the biological sciences.
Every bit as headstrong and intelligent as her famous aunt, Tory is only 14, but what she lacks in life experience she makes up in guts as she faces the classic collision course of corrupt government, old money and big business, all of it unwittingly.
Tory recently lost her mother in a car crash. She now lives with her workaholic marine biologist dad on a small island off Charleston, S.C. — Tory knew nothing about her father until her mother’s death. Finding common ground with her father is a struggle, but at least Tory has no trouble making friends. She is down to earth, pretty, sarcastic — an engaging protagonist who tells her story in an energetic, conversational tone employing ample use of sentence fragments.
Her best buddies are a trio of geeks who also live on the island. Together, they spend their off-time doing what bored, intelligent teens tend to do: exploring things they shouldn’t and, as a result, getting into trouble. After finding an old dog tag, Tory persuades her friends to break into a research lab and use some of its equipment to decipher the tag’s engraving. At the research lab, they discover a caged dog. They free the dog, not knowing the dog is infected with a top-secret, experimental virus. The kids catch the virus, but they’ve also caught something else: major heat from the guy who runs the lab.
The kids and the dog are now pursued by the authorities, and just staying alive is difficult. That problem only worsens when the kids unearth a corpse connected to a powerful senator whose son is one of their classmates — a classmate on whom Tory has a crush.
Complicating matters even further is the tendency among Tory and her friends to “flare.” The dog they rescued infected them with canine DNA that is now part of their genetic makeup, and now, whenever they experience stress, which is often, they turn into golden-eyed, quasi-animals who have the sensory and physical capabilities of wolves.
One minute they’re eating in the school cafeteria, the next they’re uncontrollably drawn to live squirrels and can hear flies’ wings flapping from long distances. This flaring tends to happen at the most hilariously inopportune times, such as the dreaded debutante ball Tory is forced to attend. At least the flares have an upside. Often they lead to clues that help them unravel the mystery.
“Virals” is a fast-paced and truly apocryphal tale, but it’s enormously inventive and entertaining. Although there’s quite a bit of profanity for a book targeting readers as young as 12, there’s even more use of some popular faux profanity. Sexual content, at least, is nonexistent. In all, it’s quite a spirited romp. It will be interesting to see if this self-described group of “Virals” learn to flare on demand and, if so, how that will help its members solve the series’ upcoming forensic anomalies. If the “Bones” series is any indication, the series’ second installment, “Seizure,” out next summer, is likely to continue this wildly enjoyable adventure.