Sunday, January 18, 2015

Nothing can happen more beautiful than death

I've listened to quite a lot of Holly Black here at this blog (seven books). I like her blend of the fantastic and the everyday, i.e., fairies live among us, your neighbor could be a curse worker, dolls can come alive. It was on the basis of a rave Booklist review (sorry about the paywall), however, that led me to overcome my aversion to vampires and listen to The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

In a quite splendid opening, Tana awakens after a "sundown" party where she's passed out in the bathtub behind the shower curtain. This has saved her life, because the vampires who crept inside after someone had cracked a window after dark have slaughtered everyone in the house. Frantic to get back home before dark again, she finds two boys chained up in a bedroom: Her ex-boyfriend Aiden -- who appears to have been bitten but not killed -- and the mysterious Gavriel, already a vampire but weakened.

After a truly nail-biting escape out a window and into her car, where Tana felt the scratch of vampire teeth on her calf, the trio make their way to the nearest (and the original) Coldtown in what once was Springfield, Massachusetts. Coldtown is where Aiden will complete his transformation, Tana hopes to endure the 88-day quarantine to rid her blood of its vampire taint, and Gavriel, well Gavriel's got some unfinished business.

Once vampires emerged (hazy on the details of when and why), the U.S. government created Coldtowns, or places where vampires could live in peace. Outside of Coldtowns, vampires are hunted and staked. Such is the attraction of the undead, however, that many living people seek to enter Coldtowns in order to either become cold themselves or to offer up themselves as sustenance in order to experience the glamour of the Eternal Ball, shown nightly on live feeds watched by those inside and out. Tana's younger sister is a particular fan. Unfortunately, it is only under the most special circumstances that one can leave a Coldtown. Tana has the token, but will she survive to be able to use it?

The remainder of the novel does not live up to its wild, exciting opening, evolving into what to me is a conventional vampiric storyline: our heroine glams and muscles up, suddenly capable of feats of physical prowess; drop-dead gorgeous Gavriel is a humanist bloodsucker who only wants justice; betrayals, bloodshed and bodaciousness occur; topped off by the appearance of baby sister Pearl in Coldtown. Now it's personal.

Much, much better than the teen vampire novel you are all thinking of (no sparkling here), The Coldest Girl still exhibits the drawbacks of the teen vampire story. It's one story, it can't be any other. Authors, like Black, may add originality (like Homeland Security patrolling Coldtown), but the bones of the story stay the same: Human girl finds herself in contact with vampire boy who is unbearably attractive but also sensitive. Human girl becomes (super) heroic in some fashion and must decide whether to go cold or not. Other vampires are spectacularly evil, but incredibly glamorous. Maybe I've not read enough vampire books, but the ones I've read are ultimately all variations on this theme. And it just doesn't send me.

Now the audiobook -- while good -- does not overcome the weakness of the story. The narrator, Christine Lakin, is a great reader. She's got a memorably husky voice that is pretty perfect for a story from the third-person perspective of the slightly goth-y and angry Tana. Her pacing is terrific; as I said earlier the original escape from the farmhouse is excellently tense. There is a large cast of characters and Lakin admirably gives everyone a unique, natural voice, unless of course, they aren't natural. In which case, the vampires have an appropriate edge ... an edge of evil and ennui. Gavriel does have a bit of a portmanteau accent, a slightly awkward melange of French and Russian.

But even Lakin's reading can't help a story that feels too long, and yet paradoxically ends too fast. After feeling that it couldn't end soon enough for me, I was buffeted by a rapid series of events that bring the novel to a quick conclusion, and still affords me some confusion.

Some slightly ominous, driving, electronic music underbeds the opening and closing credits.

Black has done a terrific job of locating a marvelous collection of aphorisms about death; profound, funny, pertinent, that begin each of her chapters. This post's title is the first you hear, and comes from Walt Whitman.

[There's a Coldtown in northern England and this is its "carved stone name sign." The photograph was taken by Phil Catterall as part of the project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Narrated by Christine Lakin
Hachette Audio, 2013. 12:06

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