And slowly my faith in YA fantasy is restored. I had known about Holly Black for years but never did start her Tithe series. Then I saw a post about The Darkest Part of the Forest which ticked off all sorts of boxes. But I couldn’t wait to try out this author – throw in a handful of great reviews of her vampire novel (yes, I picked up a vampire novel!) and here we are.
Published by: Little Brown, 2013
Ebook: 306 pages
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: Tana woke lying in a bathtub.
Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.
One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.
I think it’s safe to say the world is over vampire romances. Which does not mean that when a good one comes along, we won’t enjoy it. Holly Black has taken the vampire myth and put it firmly into the modern world. People in this world know that there are vampires and, in order to keep them from spreading all over the place, have created Coldtowns. But like any other town, big or small, these Coldtowns don’t just exist within their own closed-off culture, they share something with the rest of humanity that many novels still like to forget or ignore: the fucking internet!
The story begins with Tana waking up in a bathtub after a long (and apparently wild) party. A few minutes and one walk through the house later, she realises everybody is dead. Everybody, that is, except her newly infected ex-boyfriend and a vampire in chains. Being a decent person, Tana rescues both of them from the group of vampires responsible for the bloodbath. Being in danger of infection herself, the only place of safety – hers and that of her family – is the nearest Coldtown. So that’s where they go. On the way, they pick up two bloggers desperate to be turned into vampires – it’s a regular Coldtown party.
In Coldtown, things are very different from what I expected. It becomes clear early on that the place is full of both vampires and humans, some of them out for eternal life, others just to report the news from the inside. Bloggers, Vloggers, Reality TV vampire hunters – you name it, Coldtown’s go it. The amount of social media, camera coverage, celebrity status and murder-on-tv is both disconcerting and realistic. That’s what the world is like, after all. You see a picture of someone saving someone else from drowning and wonder why the person taking the picture didn’t drop the camera to help. Coldtown is like that.
Holly Black doesn’t ride on the vampire myth for long, expecting some basic knowledge from her readers. Drinking blood is terrifying and sexy and messy and a necessity of un-life. We know that. But there is one scene – my favorite in the entire book – that encompasses all of these aspects with utter perfection. All I’ll tell you is that it involves a kiss.
Gazing at her for a long moment with something like horror, as though he was seeing her for the first time, he spoke.
“You are more dangerous than daybreak.”
As my readers know, what I care most about in any given book is the characters. Tana made a great protagonist, in that she is a decent human being who doesn’t let friends die to save her own ass. She has almost lost her life and did lose a parent because of the infection but there is no denying the positive aspects of eternal life. Tana’s awareness and her constant questioning of her own feelings and wishes was refreshing to read. She doesn’t blindly run into the new life as a vampire, she tries to remain human. Because she knows that she doesn’t know just what being a vampire entails. I was particularly impressed with the description of her relationship with ex-boyfriend Aidan. Boy, oh boy, I used to know someone just like that – which made the description all the more vivid and believable. But Aidan (unlike that person I knew) has redeeming qualities that make him an acceptable sidekick. In fact, he is almost annoyingly sweet when he wants to be.
Mysterious and sexy, Gavriel is the picture-perfect romantic interest. I didn’t really see any sparks flying until Tana took the initiative (which was awesome), and generally felt we didn’t see enough interaction between Gavriel and Tana to explain their feelings. In the end, very deep feelings seem to already be there. Yes, there is an explanation for their attraction to each other, but love? Nah. But a little suspension of disbelief is necessary for most romantic fantasies I’ve read. Maybe I’m just cold-hearted… Gavriel’s past, however, was highly interesting and the chapters recounting it among my favorites in the entire book. He walks the edge between cunning and insanity and because of that, turned out not to be the stereotypical romantic hero. I loved his unpredictability, the mystery surrounding him and the slow unravelling of his past.
What didn’t sit well with me was how small Coldtown felt. We are told several times that politics within Coldtown are complex, how large it’s grown, how many diverse people and creatures populate it. But the plot sticks with only a handful of settings, remaining much more small scale than I had hoped. Blog coverage is instant so anything that happens to Tana in the vicinity of cameras gets out to the wider world immediately. But being told “You’re famous now” and actually seeing the results of that fame are two things that make a lot of difference. I would have liked more showing, less telling when it came to certain aspects of Coldtown. And I would have loved if one of the settings wasn’t the most famous vampire’s villa. You know, just to mess with readers’ expectations.
The novel touches upon many topics that invite you to think for yourself and for that I applaud it. Eternal life, insta-romance, fame and surveillance, sacrifice and love, it’s all in there. But a little more depth wouldn’t have hurt. Add a couple of hundered pages and you’ve got an excellent book whose merit even YA-haters can’t deny. The ending was surprisingly quiet and, at first, a little disappointing. But the more I think about it, the more I see its perfection, its inevitability. There is beauty in how this story ends. Holly Black doesn’t outright tell us what Tana’s future will be like but for my part at least, I felt an overwhelming rush of hope.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good