The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

About this time last year, Anna reviewed a series of YA fantasy books by Holly Black that started out with White Cat. We both finished that trilogy this year, and really enjoyed them. So imagine how happy I was to see that Black released a new book this fall! It’s a YA book about a teenage girl who gets swept up into a whole adventure with vampires. Yes, another one of those. But this one is awesome, and rather than try to explain why by describing the plot, I’m going to list just a few of the ways this book is better than Twilight:

1) First and foremost, the main character, Tana, is the totally kickass opposite of Bella Swan. She takes care of herself and others and doesn’t particularly need saving. And it’s not that she’s a superhero–she’s terrified most of the time–but she sees things that need doing, so she just does them.

2) There is a bit of romance, which I like in my books, but it not the main point of the story. Also, it isn’t a love triangle. Why do books and movies so often involve love triangles, when my experience is that they are just not that common in real life?3) In this book, the public is aware of vampires, because although the old vampires had managed to keep themselves secret for years, they eventually lost control and it all came out and vampires ended up being celebrities. You know that if vampires were real they would be all over YouTube and People.

4) Being a vampire isn’t particularly romanticized here. There are characters that do glamorize it, but it’s actually presented a lot like fame: it might seem exciting, but the reality is not that much fun. The main character spends most of her time trying very hard to not become a vampire, which I found refreshing.

So, overall, a little gory, but very entertaining and way way way better than a lot of vampire stuff out there.

Kinsey’s (Approximately) Three Word Review: A fun, dark ride.

You might also like: Sunshine by Robin McKinley, which Anna already told you to read.

Magic Rises

By Ilona Andrews

Book Cover: Magic RisesThis is the sixth book in Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniels series, and Rebecca has previously introduced the series here.* It is my favorite in the over-abundance of series about spunky women in a werewolf- and vampire-populated world, but to my mind the series peaked at book 3 and went downhill from there. (As an aside, Rebecca and I had a lengthy discussion about whether this is a common phenomena; are trilogies so standard because authors tend to lose steam after the third book? There are a lot of series that support that thesis, and only a few that belie it.)

Maggie Q as Nikita

As an aside on first impressions, when I first got the book, I was somewhat taken aback by the cover. The featured woman looks somewhat different than previous illustrations of Kate Daniels, which is fine, artists change visions, etc., etc. But, doesn’t she look strikingly similar to someone else instead? I feel like, as an artist, you should take your inspiration from wherever you like, but maybe don’t make it so blatant.

A very mild spoiler for the series: book 3 settled a romantic tension that had run through all three initial books, and all the subsequent books have had relationship drama that I don’t care for, and increased violence, possibly to counter-balance the relationship drama, now that I think about it. A lot of the violence, too, was starting to be directed toward various magical (and deadly) creatures that populate the world, and I have a big problem with violence against animals, even fictional ones. A true hypocrite, I don’t have nearly the same problem with violence against people, which is why I was fine with the earlier books. I was still committed to the series, but was not anticipating this book with the eagerness I had earlier in the series.

In fact, this book way exceeded my expectations, and I believe rejuvenated the series a bit in a very clever way. Andrews changes the setting from Atlanta, Georgia, where all previous books are set, all the way to Europe, so there is a freshness just in the change of scene. With the new setting, she also constrains the number of characters, which had been expanding exponentially with each book, until the action started to get muddled with so many players. Magic Rises is pared down to just a cleanly written and plotted, extraordinarily fun supernatural adventure, and I am just so, so happy to have my favorite fluff series back.

One caveat to all of my praises: I went back to the earlier books to double-check a minor character’s name, and it reminded me of the casual humor and one-liners that made the early books such a pleasure. As the books have ratcheted up the drama and tension, that humor has mostly disappeared and I miss it. I almost feel like that as the authors have become more accomplished, they perhaps have edited out those parts as being less polished, and that makes me sad.

* There has been some update in information from this original review. The series has been expanded to ten books instead of the previously planned seven, when the authors realized that they would not be able to wrap it up conclusively in just two more books.

Those Who Hunt the Night

Those_who_hunt_the_nightThose Who Hunt the Night
By Barbara Hambly
1988

This is an excellent vampire book. There are a lot of fun vampire books, but this one is actually good. I love the characters, I love the way they interact, and I especially love the way that the author presents the vampire characters.

The book is set in Edwardian England and our main character is Oxford professor James Asher. He’s living a calm quite life, but has a rather gritty past as a secret agent for the British government. At the start of this book, the vampire Don Simon Ysidro approaches Asher, informs him that (1) vampires exist, (2) someone has been hunting the vampires of London, and (3) Asher is going to be Ysidro’s agent in tracking down the hunter or Ysidro is going to kill Asher’s wife Lydia. The plot progresses from there.

The problem with vampires (as it were) is that they eat people. Humans are their prey. There just can’t be any sort of natural alliances between predator and prey. Most vampire stories hand wave this away: the vampire just feels terrible about it, or refrains from following his natural urges, or some such. This book, though, directly confronts the fact that these vampires kill people; both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vampires kill people.  The alliance between Asher and Ysidro is necessarily deeply coercive and fraught.

Very much related to the previous point, I like a certain amount of ruthlessness in my characters. I don’t want them to be mean or cruel, but I like characters who are smart and determined and accept personal responsibility for their actions and the repercussions of those actions. Asher, Ysidro, and Lydia are all like this. They have goals and they do what they need to do in order to achieve those goals. They know what risks they take with their actions and they are very careful in how and what they do.

Another wonderful thing about this book and these characters is that Lydia, Asher’s wife, is an excellent character in her own right and the marriage between her and Asher is equitable. They not only love each other but they also respect and support each other. They are honest and forthright with each other. They trust each other, not just to be faithful, but to be capable.

Anyway, the investigation that makes up the actual plot itself was good, but what makes this book shine are the characters and their interactions with each other. I definitely recommend it.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

Book cover: Vampires in the Lemon GroveMy wonderful friend Lori sent me this just because she thought I’d like it and it arrived in the mail in the middle of my Atlas Shrugged doldrums, and it was such a mood lifter, just having it on my to-read shelf. The cover is just so bright and graphic!

I had heard of the author, Karen Russell, through a brief review of her previous book Swamplandia!, which I had assumed was a comic narrative of Florida craziness á la Elmore Leonard. If it is anything like this book, though, (and I believe it is, according to the blurbs on the back cover) my assumptions are way off. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the strangest book! It is a collection of short stories, and when I described the premise of each story to Rebecca, they just sounded kind of absurd:

“All silkworms in the Western hemisphere have died, so China is now the sole proprietor of silk, and in order to meet the now increased demand, they have discovered a way to turn women into more efficient silk worms.”

Rebecca said, “hmm.”

But, this story and the others are just beautifully written and poetic, even. Russell emphasizes the senses in her writing, describing not just the sights, but also the sounds, smells, tastes and touch of the worlds she builds. In the titular lemon groves, she describes the sun on the fluttering leaves, the feel of the wind that blows through the grove, the smell of lemon that pervades, and the sweet tartness of the lemons and lemonade.

The silkworm story took a bizarre and, quite frankly, almost silly premise and created layers upon layers of symbolism. The disenfranchised, used for production and others’ profit, find hope in self-identity and transformation. Each story was like this; reading them felt like scuba diving or spelunking, moving deeper and deeper through layers of alien landscapes. The stories themselves, too, seemed to each move a little deeper into the human psyche, getting darker and darker, until the last two broke my heart. So, take that as a caution: don’t avoid reading the book, by any means, but just be emotionally prepared.

It wasn’t a quick read because I wanted to savor each story for several days after reading it and before reading the next one. The only criticism I have is that each story ended too soon, almost abruptly, and each time I was left sort of blinking my way out of the story’s world and wanting to know far, far more about the characters.

Three word review: “otherworldly, emotionally devastating”*

*I’m not promising to always follow Kinsey’s lead with the three word reviews (though I love her addition), but I found these in the NPR review, and they just seem spot-on.

—Anna

Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

Frost_burnedFrost Burned
by Patricia Briggs
2013

There are a lot of girl-vampire-werewolf series out there, with a wide range regarding quality. Frost Burned is the most recent book in one of those series, that started out excellent, backslide into generic, but has managed to recover.

This is the tenth* book set in this particular universe, the seventh that follows the character Mercy Thompson, and I was impressed. The first few books in this series (Moon Called, Blood Bound, and Iron Kissed) are the best ones, while some of the most recent ones (Bone Crossed and River Marked) have felt rather bland, like Briggs was forced to write them in order to fulfill a contract, without having any particular plan or goal with them. In Frost Burned, Briggs is back with energy and interest.

I’m guessing it’s due to the major happening that concluded her most recent book set in this universe, but following a different set of characters. The Alpha and Omega series only has three books so far (Cry Wolf, Hunting Ground, and Fair Game) and these keep on getting better. The end of Fair Game was so spectacular, in fact, it drew me back into reading the Mercy Thompson series, just so that I could see what happens next in this universe.

And, without giving any spoilers: there is definitely a lot of fall-out.

I’m very excited about Briggs revamping (hee: re-VAMPing!) this universe, and think it was probably pretty important that she started alternating which series she was writing, so she could approach the characters with excitement rather than getting bored with them. However, I’m not entirely sure how readable any of her books are, at this point, without going back and reading the earlier ones.

Frost Burned did a pretty good job of filling in the blanks for what happened before, but it was enough that I think I need to go back and read the earlier Mercy Thompson book that I skipped entirely (Silver Borne).

Although, if you want to jump into this universe without having read any of the previous books, I would start out with Fair Game, just because it was a good book, delightful characters, the climax/epilog is really spectacular, and it sets up a whole new situation that is going to continue percolating through any future books in this universe.

* Or eleventh, if you count a novella in an anthology. Or fourteen, if you count short stories in anthologies.

Sunshine

By Robin McKinley

Book cover: SunshineYou know those Eat This, Not That books? This is a Read This, Not That book review. During the height of the Twilight craze, whenever I saw someone reading or talking about the Twilight books, I wanted to grab them and shout, “Go read Sunshine!”

It is definitively the best spunky-young-heroine-and-vampire novel I’ve yet read, and that is saying a lot considering both how saturated that market is and how many of them I’ve read. McKinley has a long history of writing strong female leads (The Blue Sword was one of my favorites growing up), but lately she’s been sort of dicking around with dragons and pegasus, when she must know perfectly well that her fans all want a sequel to Sunshine.

The heroine, nicknamed “Sunshine,” is just out of high school and working as a baker in her family’s cafe (there are lots of extraneous but delightful descriptions of pastries) in a post-magic-war world where various magical creatures are an acknowledged reality but avoided if possible. The world-building is solid and interesting, and the action begins fairly quickly when she gets randomly kidnapped by a gang of vampires.

Avoiding spoilers, but attempting to describe what makes this book so much better than the Twilight series, especially for teen female readers: Sunshine acts almost entirely on her own recognizance at all times, relying on her own intelligence and summoning up unexpected personal strengths when the situations call for it. The particular vampire she aligns with is both frightening and intelligent, and their alliance is born out of need and not romantic in any sense (at least not right off the bat).

Sunshine actually takes three-dimensional characters, puts them in fraught situations, and then fleshes out how that changes and matures them. It is seriously the anti-Twilight, and everyone should read it (although perhaps not young kids, because it does have sex and violence).

—Anna

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers

Twilight
By Stephanie Meyers
2005

In honor of the last of the Twilight movies coming out, Biblio-therapy is going to be posting two reviews: one positive and one negative. I’m posting the negative review. I read it when the series was only just becoming a phenomenon. Someone told me that I’d love because I like young adult fiction and I like vampire books.

Alas, I did not like it, but I also wasn’t horribly offended by it.

There were a few good scenes, a few interesting premises, but overall the characters and plot didn’t hold together for me. The only character I actually felt any empathy for was the main character’s poor beleaguered father. I took this as a sign that I was, perhaps, finally aging out of my YA fiction reading days, and got on with my life.

It’s not that it’s a bad book, per se, because, let’s face it, I have read and enjoyed many quite bad books. The problem is that it’s bad in ways that I can’t wave away with a thoroughly suspended disbelief or a good faith effort to believe some character is not an idiotic milksop in need of a spine.

I am perfectly capable of overlooking all of the weird and outdated sexual advice presented in metaphor that has offended so many readers. At least the advice is presented metaphorically and in regards to vampires rather than outright (I’m looking at you, Barbara Cartland).

Belle is something of an idiot, making peculiar and random decisions, trusting strangers too much and her family too little. I found her mostly confusing. Why does she do the things she does? Is it just the “she’s a teenager” excuse that lets her get away with random acts of idiocy? I have apparently become an old woman, shaking her head at “kids these days.”

Edward is an unfortunately standard paradox of a stoic individual, putting great effort into showing how stoic he is so that everyone else can look at him and see that he’s really hurting inside and is a soft woobie. Also, as any strong guy (vampire or not) should know, that excuse of “I can’t help myself” is not a valid excuse for anything. If you have the strength to hurt someone then you had damn well better have the control to refrain from doing so.

Some of the basic premises of the story are even more problematic than having characters that I simply didn’t care for.

Bella enters school as a new student, having been nothing special before, and is suddenly the most popular and desirable person there. This is completely random. There’s no reason for it, either internal to the high school social structure (why did the kids like her?) or external to the plot arc (what did it bring to the plot?).

Despite first appearances, the trope of instantaneous and unexpected popularity is not inherently terrible; it can be done well. In fact, Meg Cabot has a few books that deal with exactly that issue and do it well: How popularity occurs and/or is manipulated, and what some of the related issues are. Stephanie Meyers, in contrast, avoids all of the real complexities and looks at the issue of popularity very much from the perspective of an unpopular student: I want to be popular but I don’t want to be like those popular girls*, and if I were suddenly popular I would show a becoming amount of humility and talk about how I really didn’t want it, so there.

Then we come to the sparkly vampires. This is possibly the best thing ever since the Care Bears and/or My Little Ponies. I’m not even joking. Here are Vampires that can’t go out into the sun because they Sparkle! How is that not awesome?

However, it does raise the question: why can’t they go out into the sun and share their sparkly magnificence with the world? They have none of the traditional vampire weaknesses:
• They don’t fall dead during the day.
• They can’t be staked.
• They’re too fast to be snuck up on.
• They’re too strong for it to matter if they are snuck up on.
• They have family and community ties.
• They aren’t creating enemies by eating anyone.

So why are they hiding?

If you answer: “Edward is a teenage boy (no matter how long he’s been that way) and doesn’t want to let anyone know that he naturally looks like he’s covered in glitter,” I would definitely agree with you. That would be an awesome answer. Unfortunately, it’s not Stephanie Meyer’s answer.

She doesn’t give an answer. Vampires hide because they’re vampires and hiding is what they do.

Admittedly there are bad vampires, too, who do go out and make enemies by killing people and fail to make allies by, you know, killing people. However, they still have all the other strengths of these Meyer Vampires. So why are they hiding out in the wilderness rather than simply living in a house and eating anyone who tries anything?

The vampire culture, such as it is, is a hold over from the traditional vampire cultures of other books, all about angst and dark secrecy. The problem is that Meyer has changed the vampire mythos so much already that it’s disappointing that she didn’t follow through on the repercussions of those changes.

So, to sum up, it was a story about stupid people making random decisions in a world that didn’t make sense. This was not, alas, the worst book I have ever read, or even real competition for the title, but it was still pretty bad.

However, one good thing about this book (and movie) is:

It’s very popular and has gotten a lot of creative people talking about it (positive and negative) and a lot of those responses are quite hilarious.

* I must have been really lucky in my high school because the popular girls that I knew (not very many of them, admittedly) were all very nice. They were popular because they were nice and outgoing and people wanted to be their friends. That’s what made them popular.