‘Maybe it’s just us, us with a raging hunger, us with a couple of accidental murders under our belt. Humanity, with the training wheels off the bike, careening down a steep hill. Humanity, freed from the constraints of consequence and gifted with power. Humanity, grown away from all things human.’
After reading ‘The Darkest Part Of The Forest’ and really enjoying it, I knew I needed to check out Holly Black’s take on the vampire mythology. Boy, was I impressed.
When the book starts we join our protagonist, Tana, passed out in a bathtub at her friend Lance’s sundown party. Normally after a sundown party there are people queuing to get into the bathroom, so she’s dumbstruck by how quiet the house is. Stumbling down the hallway she goes on the search for her friends, and when she walks into Lance’s living room… There’s been a massacre. Forty-eight of the people she’s closest to have been murdered by vampires, blood completely drained, bodies sadistically placed to look as though they’re still partying.
Tana hurries to the bedroom where she left her bag, wanting to get her car keys and drive to safety. However, she finds her ex-boyfriend Aidan tied to the bed, with Gavriel, a vampire, unceremoniously chained up on the floor next to him. Aidan has been bitten and he’s gone Cold, meaning the desire for blood is overwhelming – if he ingests any, he’ll die and be reborn as a vampire, but if Tana can get him to a Coldtown and keep him in quarantine, she can help him recover and get him back to being a human.
Springfield, their nearest Coldtown, is the most famous of all the Coldtowns. Live video feeds are broadcast out every night, showing the Eternal Ball and celeb-vamp Lucien Moreau’s house party, where vampires indulge themselves to excess and humans are promised a chance at immortality. It sounds like the home of glitz and glamour, but when Tana arrives at the Coldtown she realises all is not as it seems, and there’s a lot of awful things happening off camera.
The first third of the book is Tana, Aidan and Gavriel travelling to the Coldtown, meeting twins Winter and Midnight who have run away from home with the hope of being turned in vampires. Midnight live blogs their entire experience meaning she has rather skewed priorities – Aidan nearly bites her, and instead of going into panic mode she just calmly discusses the experience with her video camera. With the obsession with updating statuses and writing tweets that is currently suffocating the world, it was a lovely piece of social commentary – how many of us would do the same thing in her position?
Once the gang get into Coldtown, a little over twenty-four hours after the murder spree at the party, Gavriel splits off: he has work to do, and an old friend that he needs to kill. Casual. Midnight has a group of friends inside the walls that she met online, so she knows they’re all able to stay at their place – Aidan ends up turning, murdering half of them, and then after Midnight successfully transitions she ends up draining Winter and killing him.
There was a lot more action once the group got inside the Coldtown walls, but it still seemed like violence and gore for the sake of violence and gore. That’s what it was meant to be – the vampires were overwhelmed by blood, so they couldn’t control their actions – but it seemed like the shock value took away from the emotional impact of losing characters that we’d spent a bit of time with. If Winter’s death had been on the page rather than off-screen, it would have been much more effective, but instead I just came out of it feel a little bland.
Then again, I had the same feeling with Aidan’s transition. The characters that we spend the most time with are Aidan and Tana – we join them at the same time, and we follow their stories through right up until the final chapter – but I just didn’t feel connected to Aidan at all. We knew he was Tana’s ex, and we were constantly reminded of how cheeky, charming and charismatic he was, but he didn’t really show it. His character was rather flat and I kept forgetting about him: he’d pop up again and I’d think “oh yeah, there was another survivor at the party!” but until he was on the page he was very forgettable.
To give some more context: Tana’s best friend, Pauline, is never actually seen. We get a reminiscent chapter on Tana and Pauline’s friendship, but other than that we just have three or four phone calls with her throughout the duration of the novel. Despite the fact that she was such a minor secondary character, I felt more towards her than I did towards Aidan – she was more convincingly written, and she really came alive on the page, whereas Aidan did not. I do think one of the biggest shames in this novel was that Pauline didn’t have more page time.
In the last half of the novel, the violence just spirals even further into the unconvincing and unnecessary. Tana starts brutally murdering vampires (to defend herself, sure, but it’s still excessive) and we lose Midnight, who was actually one of the most intriguing characters in the story. Her obsession with death, her morbid obsession with keeping hold of her brother’s decaying body, and her constant videoing and blogging – she was certainly something different, but she wasn’t used to her full potential which was disappointing.
It seemed like there was going to be a climactic ending fighting a ‘big bad’, because the menacing Spider – ancient, strongest vampire of all time – is mentioned as coming to the Coldtown to deal with Gavriel and Lucien. It ends up being completely anti-climactic, yet an extremely intellectual and well-written twist: it just so happens that Gavriel murdered the Spider and took most of his powers, meaning that Gavriel has been the Spider the entire time. Lucien gets murdered – by Tana, not by Gavriel – and there’s a semblance of a happily ever after, even though the ending is left open enough to merit a sequel.
It might sound like I have a lot of gripes with this novel, and you’d be right about that, but the thing is that even with all of these complaints, it was still a fantastic read. I love Holly Black’s writing style: the attention to detail; the way she incorporates all of the senses and really brings the scene alive; the fact that her protagonist is a badass despite the fact that she messes up rather frequently and get herself into bad situation; the romance that isn’t the focal point of the plot but still makes so much sense. I adored it.
I particularly loved the famous quotes about death at the beginnings of every chapter: definitely one of my favourite parts of the novel, because the quotes added beautiful things to the context and were definitely thought-provoking.
Yes, the felt slow at points. The never-ending road trip was a bit of a drag, but it was necessary – it built up the characters and helped the feeling of fear and desperation grow, and the novel wouldn’t have been as successful without that.
But with the twist on the mythology (have you seen any other novel where humans can recover from being bitten?!), the beautiful flashback scenes to Gavriel’s human life and past escapades as a vampire, and the shocking twists that you can’t see coming until they hit you right in the face – it’s a brilliant read.
If Holly Black chose to write a sequel, I’d really, really appreciate that. The ending leaves off on a bit of a cliffhanger, and while most of the ends are tied up, it would be nice to see them unravel again and give Tana and Gavriel some more adventures. Having Gavriel as one of the most – if not the most – powerful vampires in the world? He’ll have some enemies, and I’d love to see them deal with that.
If you like vampires, but you want to read something where they’re dark, seductive and scary, read this novel.