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I’m late to the party – Vampire Academy

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OK, so let’s just call this a lesson in not judging a book by its cover.

I’ve been walking past Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy books at my favourite book store for a while now (two years, in fact). The covers didn’t grab me, and neither – to be honest – did the synopses.

Granted, I picked the first one up in the middle of Twilight mania, and wasn’t quite ready to become so vampire-centric in my reading (a quick flick through this blog will reveal I’ve since overcome any such concerns.)

But with all the fuss over the release of Spirit Bound in recent weeks, I thought it was time to check out the first book.

A week ago I ordered Vampire Academy from the library. Devoured it. Immediately ordered the second book (Frostbite). Devoured it. Today, I went to the aforementioned book shop and bought all five books.

The only good thing about dragging my heels for so long on this is that I now have immediate access to all five books (with a sixth due out in December, I believe), which doesn’t bode well for all the other things I need to do in my life…

So, for those of you catching on late, like me, here’s a quick overview (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers):

The series is set in a meticulously imagined world of elite pacifist vampires (Moroi), their not-quite-human guardians (dhampirs) and the murderous vampires who stalk both classes of beings (Strigoi). Rose is a dhampir and the guardian of Lissa, her best friend(who’s also a member of a royal Moroi line). The story opens with their recapture after being on the run for a year, and then explores the threats that drove them away from their home – the academy of the title – and the threats that still linger.

I know I’m forever talking about great narrative characters, but Rose is particularly unique in the world of YA. She’s tough, smart-mouthed and promiscuous, and frequently makes bad decisions. But underneath her abrasiveness and hot-headedness is a fierce protectiveness of Lissa, which anchors her erratic and impulsive life.

Things for Rose become increasingly complicated when she’s forced to train with experienced dhampir guardian Dimitri. They fight (verbally and physically), and even as she resents his discipline and focus, she craves his approval – and ultimately his affection.

The best thing about Rose is she’s real. She behaves like a conflicted teenager. She doesn’t always do the right thing, even in the face of her growing responsibilities as a guardian. Of course, her bad choices always come to back to bite her, and she’s not oblivious to the irony.

Contrasting Rose’s strength is Lissa’s fragility and vulnerability (in the first book at least). The nature of first person narrative means she’s a more distant character (although there’s a clever plot device that offers occasional glimpses into Lissa’s view), yet it’s easy to understand Rose’s desire to protect her.

Richelle Mead doesn’t shy away from tough topics in Vampire Academy, tackling self harm, bullying and teenage sex, which really gives the opening book an extra edge.

The tension increases in Frostbite with a brutal Strigoi attack on a royal Moroi family. It not only puts the vampire community on edge, it brings Rose’s estranged mother (who happens to be a legendary guardian) to the academy. The entire school heads to the snow for the academy’s annual ski trip, and with Moroi, guardians, parents, rejected lovers and competing egos thrown together, it can only lead to trouble.

For Rose, of course, not all of that trouble comes from external sources. In this second book, her biggest challenge is learning self control. She’s caught between the pull of two worlds:  that of a rebellious and reckless outsider, and that of selfless, disciplined guardian.  What makes her such a textured character, is that she also doesn’t necessarily learn her lesson the first time around.

And in Frostbite, the learning curve is steep, with much higher stakes.

So, yes, there’ll be more reviews to come as I read the rest of the series.

(And yes, I’ve also bought a copy of Succubus Blues, the first in Richelle Mead’s adult series, so I’ll get to that soon too.)


Politics of the paranormal in Deadtown

Nancy’s Holzner’s Deadtown is not just another tale about a sexy demon fighter in leather pants (although the cover does feature pretty cool cover art of our hunter in leather pants, brandishing a smoking semi-automatic rifle and a flaming sword).

While it ticks all the usual boxes – zombies, vampires, werewolves, bad ass demons, witches, sorcerers et al – it also has a social conscience.

Like the vampires in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and the mutants of the X-men, the assortment of paranormals in Holzner’s world are struggling for equal rights.

Ever since a virus turned a large chunk of the city’s population into zombies (or “previously deceased humans” as they’re known in politically correct circles), life in Boston has changed dramatically. The zombies, and the paranormals who emerged to deal with them when the humans could not, are now quarantined in a part of Boston nicknamed Deadtown, where only those with permits are allowed to leave – and even then under strict conditions.

Among them is Vicky, a shape-shifter, who makes a living hunting demons. She shares an apartment with a centuries old vampire, occasionally goes bump in the night with a white collar werewolf, and is shadowed by an annoying teenage zombie who wants to be a slayer.

She also has a creepy geneticist trying to turn her into a lab experiment, a sister ashamed of their shape-shifting bloodline, and a nasty hellion out for her blood. It’s a complicated and occasionally frustrating life.

Almost as frustrating are the politics the paranormals’ presence has created, which have a habit of interfering with Vicky’s love life. Her workaholic werewolf’s role as a lawyer/paranormal rights activist has turned him into a political animal (the scariest beast around…), and an upcoming election has him fully pre-occupied.

Deadtown has enough action, wit and snappy dialogue to stand out from the crowd and Holzner has created a world that’s cleverly and logically constructed, complete with politics and social agendas.

The author is already busy working on a sequel, and given the warm reception this book has already received online, there’s clearly an eager audience waiting for the next instalment.

(I had to order this in specially at my local bookstore, so let’s hope Deadtown gets the exposure it deserves here in Australia.)

Fallen – Lauren Kate

It seems it’s all about fallen angels at the moment, and one of the most prominent recent releases is the dark and atmospheric Fallen, by Lauren Kate.

Like Hush Hush (see review), it’s got an evocative cover, but while there are similarities between the two novels, it’s not fair to compare them as each has its own rhythm, style and intent.

Quick synopsis: When troubled Luce is sent to a bleak reform school, she’s immediately drawn to Daniel, convinced she knows him from somewhere. The handsome stranger acts indifferent to her, but it’s clear he’s hiding something. But Luce is also grappling with dark shadows that have haunted her for years, and which seem to be growing in strength since her arrival at the gothic reform school.

It’s not giving too much away to say that Luce is one half of a couple doomed to fall in love over and over again – and each time she must die. And each time, Luce has no idea what’s happened in the past, or what’s ahead. That burden is carried by her celestial lover, who’s incapable of preventing her death.

Fallen has one of my least favourite plot devices – the love triangle – but by the end of the book it’s clear there’s much more to this one than meets the eye.

(And the idea of fated love – whether it’s doomed or not – to me raises the question of the value of falling for someone you were destined to be with. Where does choice and free will come into it? I’m hoping Kate tackles this theme in future instalments.)

There are plenty of mysteries, morally ambiguous characters and red herrings throughout Fallen. In this first instalment of a planned series (Torment is due out in September), some of the big questions are answered, but even more are raised.

Fallen is a compelling read. It starts in the claustrophobic world of the reform school, and ends with a violent celestial battle in a cemetery. But all of this seems to be merely setting the scene for a story of far broader scope.

The proof of how well Lauren Kate unravels her gothic mystery will be in future books… which I’m looking forward to reading.

The vampires you’re having when you’re not having vampires…

If urban fantasy has taught us nothing, it’s that vampires are either terrifying or sexy, or both. And, of course, they’re generally violent and dangerous.

But in Catherine Jinks’ excellent and funny novel The Reformed Vampire Support Group, the vampires are far from powerful. In fact, they’re sickly, socially isolated and living on a diet of guinea pigs, barely able to defend themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Nina has been a vampire since 1973. She’s part of a fairly pathetic group of vamps who meet once a week for therapy sessions to help them refrain from ‘fanging’ humans).

But the vamps’ tedious world is threatened when one of their members is murdered by an unknown – and unexpected – vampire slayer.

Terrified they’ll each be hunted, they decide to track their enemy (supported by Nina’s aging mother and a sympathetic Catholic priest), assuming that once the slayer sees how pathetic and harmless they are they’ll be left alone.

Outside of their comfort zone and ill-equipped for danger, Nina and her fellow vamps stumble into a world of guns, thugs, werewolves and vicious humans.

The classic about-face for this book is that the tension comes from the vampire’s vulnerability, and Nina’s efforts to rise above her fear.

Jinks even manages to have fun with the whole vampire-werewolf love triangle. Nina’s best friend is the cool but downbeat Dave – also a vampire since his teens – and together they rescue a volatile werewolf, who is actually a teenager. Nina’s lack of experience with romantic feelings makes her reaction to both guys frequently entertaining.

While the vampire mythology here deviates from pretty much everything in the literary world at the moment, it is deftly constructed and Jinks keeps within the lines she’s drawn. When Nina and Dave show moments of heroics, it’s in spite of their vampirism, not because of it.

Jinks is a well established Australian author with a long list of books for children and young adults. This one sits in the YA shelf, which is interesting given the narrative character is actually 51 years old (trapped in a 15-year-old body). As such, it should also find an older readership.

The Reformed Vampire Support Group is a fun read, packed with plenty of suspense, a clever plot and a nice sprinkle of understated romance.

Definitely one of my favourite reads of recent months. (And the good news is Jinks has The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group due out this year.)

Covers are from Margaret Connolly & Associates (the first one is the Australian version, and the second, an edgier version is for the UK market).

Lili St Crow – Strange Angels

Urban fantasy fans looking for fresh mythologies, sharp dialogue and plenty of action shouldn’t be disappointed with Lili St Crow’s debut young adult offering, Strange Angels.

Crow, who’s written a swag of adult urban fantasy series as Lilith Saintcrow, rarely misses a beat as she hurtles narrative character Dru Anderson into a world of constant danger in the first two novels of this addictive series.

The story starts off like Supernatural for chicks, with sixteen-year-old Dru moving to yet another new town as she and her father ‘hunt’ the things that go bump in the night. But it all goes bad one icy night when Dru’s Dad hunts without her and returns home a zombie.

Dru must kill her father and then go on the run from whatever killed (and then re-animated) him. There’s no doubt Dru’s tough, and skilled in using a range of weapons, but she’s still a teenage girl who is alone, grieving for her father, and increasingly aware she has no idea what she’s up against.

With fledgling supernatural gifts of her own, Dru isn’t defenceless, but she’s out of her depth. Also out of options, she reluctantly accepts help from Graves, a loner goth boy. When he’s attacked by a werwulf, he turns into a loup garou (part-werwulf), becoming part of her world whether he wants to or not.

Tracking her father’s killer, Dru clashes with Christophe, a mysterious teenager who clearly knows more about what’s going on than she does. He eventually explains Dru is being hunted by a powerful vampire, who in turn is being hunted by an organisation called the Order, an alliance of djamphir (part-vampires), werwulfs, and human hunters.

Christophe, himself a djamphir, knows things about Dru’s family and about Dru’s value to both sides. Despite the fact he saves Dru and Graves from a gruesome death on more than one occasion, both teenagers are hesitant to trust him.

Strange Angels is all about Dru discovering she’s more than just another hunter. It’s also about her growing relationship with Graves and Christophe.

In Betrayals, she’s secreted away to a school operated by the Order, where she learns more about her heritage and grows increasingly suspicious of everyone around her. She also discovers a simmering bigotry between the djamphir and werwulfs, which adds another layer of tension and depth to the cleverly constructed mythology.

While action and suspense drive this series, there’s also steadily building love triangle involving Dru, Graves and Christophe, which seems likely to come into sharper focus in the forthcoming third novel (due in 2010).

Dru might be handy with a knife and a hand gun, but she’s not so good when it comes to matters of the heart, so this is no sweet love story. Instead, it’s about the bonds she’s forging with both through battle, and her need – despite her own strengths – to have someone she can trust and rely on, in her father’s absence.

Strange Angels and Betrayals are fast-paced page-turners. But while the often graphic action is paramount, each violent confrontation either progresses the plot or strengthens the characters’ connections.

This series isn’t for readers easily unsettled by violence and horror (even if Dru’s conversational narrative provides unexpected flashes of humour), and there’s also plenty of profanity. Younger readers keen for more vampire-based love stories should probably check out Claudia Gray’s Evernight series instead.

The two novels have piqued my curiosity to check out Saintcrow’s other urban fantasy series, and I’ll be grabbing the third Strange Angels novel when it arrives on shelves in 2010.

(The Strange Angels series seems to share some mythology elements to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series – Read actually provides a cover recommendation on Strange Angels, but not having read Read’s work, I’m not sure how similar the books are. Happy to be enlightened.)

Urban fantasy – a new form of spirituality?

Originally posted on Great Stories, 24 July 2009

So, what is it about paranormal and urban fantasy that appeals so strongly to teenagers?

Bookstore shelves are groaning under the weight of these series – mostly involving vampires.

Of course, the better ones can be equally enjoyed by adults, but there’s no denying most of the bestsellers target the YA market.

Yes, there are the usual YA elements: the coming-of-age angst of finding acceptance, falling in love and finding meaning in life … but why are these aspects so much more appealing to teens when woven into a story about vampires and werewolves?

Is it a natural progression from classic horror stories (I certainly spent plenty of hours reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Peter Straub as a teenager), even if most of the new breed of stories aren’t actually about horror?

Or is it a symptom of something else? A need to live – albeit fleetingly – in a world where there is more to reality than we can see? A place where greater forces are at work and ordinary teenagers can discover they have epic destinies?

Which leads to me to wonder if these stories are, in some bizarre way, replacing religion (there’s no denying the religious-like zeal associated with the Twilight series). I’m not talking about urban fantasy themes as a doctrine, but as an experience.

In these alternate worlds, there’s meaning in life, death and suffering, even if it all takes place as part of a narrative far removed from reality. For a while, teens can exist in a world where there are clearly defined rules (even if the characters break them).

Otherworld fantasy also offers this level of escape, but seems to be the domain of older readers, with teens more interested in stories taking place in worlds that resemble their own (happy to be corrected on this one).

Personally, I enjoy both forms of storytelling, but I’m curious to know if readers of these types of stories prefer one type over the other – and if so, why?

And do you have any theories on why teens (and adults) are drawn to this new genre? (see original post on Great Stories for past comments).