Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Vampires. I have a love/hate relationship with them. Once upon a time I enjoyed Anne Rice's sexy, brooding, glamorous vampires. I loved Matt Haig's suburban vamps in The Radleys; his portrayal of an abstaining vampire family and their struggles to fit into the vanilla world of everyday life was a funny and incisive take on contemporary society. And I like the feral vampiric creatures of Justin Cronin's The Passage. I even kind of like the vampires that Sookie Stackhouse plays with in Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series (and I really like Sookie, who's a tough little cookie). But Stephenie Meyer's glittery Twilight vampires and the vapid Bella, she of the ever-dimishing returns, pretty much ruined them for me.

I'm happy to report that Holly Black, in her latest novel The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, has restored the allure of the vampire for me. It opens with a bang--blood, death, white-knuckled heart-racing terror--as 17-year-old Tana Bach awakens cotton-mouthed, muzzy-headed, and hungover in a bathtub. As the previous night's sundown party--that's a party that goes into lockdown at sunset, because of the curfew...and the vampires, doncha know--comes back to her, she's somewhat relieved. At least she's still wearing her clothes, and she's pretty sure she didn't do anything, besides playing a stupid drinking game, to regret. 

'Tis a pity, then, that the morning's dead silence is quickly shattered by--the silence of the dead. That's right, the dead, who were once Tana's friends and are now strewn about the floor in pools of their own blood, crumpled among their own entrails, room after room full of the dead. But as it turns out Tana isn't the last living person at the party; she stumbles into a darkened bedroom (opaque garbage bags duct-taped to the windows to keep the rising sun out) and discovers her ex-boyfriend, the very pretty, very charming, Aidan tied to the bed. Nearby, also trussed up, is a ruby-eyed vampire boy.

Things start happening very fast and Tana makes the decision that any honorable, brave, foolhardy person would: she races to save these two dangerous men--oh yes, Aidan's been bitten and all he needs is a good drink of human blood to complete the transformation to vampire. See, that's how it works. You get bit, you get the hunger, and you either feed and turn or sweat it out for eighty-eight days and get cured. During that time between infection and cure (or curse) one is said to be cold.

Which leads us to Coldtown. Coldtowns--for there are a number of them across the United States--are places where vampires and the infected and wannabes live in gloriously, glamorously, unabashed debauchery. If you're infected, death or Coldtown are your options. Either way, it's a life sentence.

Tana's journey involves getting from death scene to death scene--and what a glorious scene Coldtown is!-- with her passengers intact and her humanity unscathed. And, maybe, to kill a couple of vampires. And keep her little sister Pearl safe. Falling in love would be nice, too, although it's not even a blip on her radar for most of the story.

Holly Black has given us an original, well-written, and only very occasionally angsty novel, which has all of the great vampire tropes--immense beauty and power, behavior that's at best amoral, at worst evil, and one of my favorites, aversion to sunlight--without being cliched. Tana is a great heroine: strong, loyal, persistent, honest, funny, and not at all enthralled by the idea of being subsumed by a man, be he human or vampire...which may be the most important quality of all in the heroine of a young adult novel. 

A quick  note on the audience for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown: the publisher classifies it for ages fifteen and up, and I concur. The overt violence is minimal (but present), but the descriptions of its aftermath--delicious though they may be--are often over-the-top and quite graphic. There's an awful lot of talk about kissing, but no actual sex, and the language is fairly tame. If your young reader is under fifteen, make sure she or he will be okay with the gross-out factor.

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