Gorgeous, Gory, & Gothic: Review of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

coldest girl in coldtownOnce vampires were just stories–imaginary menaces lurking in horror novels and films. Sadly, those days are long over; vampires are very real–and very dangerous.  Tana can barely remember a time before the sudden outbreak of vampirism and establishment of Coldtowns–locked down but decadent ghettos where vampires, the recently infected, and vampire groupies live.  So when she wakes up after a wild party surrounded by drained, dead bodies, Tana knows that she is very deep trouble.  Escaping the bloodbath with her  infected ex-boyfriend and a vampire on the run from his own kind, Tana decides to take the only risk left to them: journeying deep into the voluptuous and violent world of the original Coldtown.  

Since their emergence into popular Western literature through Dracula, vampires have risen out of the myths and scary stories of various cultures and gained an extraordinarily strong hold on the human imagination.  While vampire tales seems to ebb in and out of mass popularity, they never quite disappear;  no matter the current trend, there will always be readers on the hunt for new vampire books.  A few years ago, vampires were on the upswing, especially in young adult literature; as with any big trend, the influx of related titles can become overwhelming and so we might assume that there’s nothing fresh to be written about vampires.

Thankfully, Holly Black has demonstrated how very foolish such an assumption would be!  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a refreshingly complex take on the contemporary vampire novel.  In her newest novel, Holly Black explores the roots behind humanity’s long standing fascination, obsession, and fear of vampires: Why do we keep wanting to read and/or watch stories about them? Why are they simultaneously objects of desire and terror?

But don’t let me mislead you–this is no dry philosophical treatise on the concept of vampires.  Coldtown is an incredibly compelling story, full of richly crafted characters, gorgeous language, and heart-pounding action.  The world is clearly and specifically imagined, from the history of the unexpected outbreak of vampirism to the simultaneously highly commercialized and chillingly savage Coldtowns.  The use of contemporary technology, especially the internet/social media, is creative and interesting. While such details might eventually date the novel, for now, its inclusion both makes the world more realistic and provokes interesting questions about media and technology’s intense integration into our lives.

But it’s the characters that truly make this novel’s world believable.  Tana is brave and smart; she’s a good person but she’s not ‘nice.’  She’s forthright about her attraction to the mysterious Gavriel and she openly acknowledges her choice to to play–and sometimes enjoy– her ex-boyfriend Aidan’s manipulative games.  She is courageous and kind but not innocent or sweet.  It’s refreshing.  The other characters are equally complicated;  nearly none of the characters are purely good or evil–instead each reveals unpredictable complexities of motivation and personality.  Additionally, Black creates a wide range of characters, portraying a fairly realistically diverse cast.  Valentina is a great trans teen character whose gender identity is an important aspect of her story without being her only story.  I also found Aidan’s bi or fluid sexuality interesting.  The characters also seem to be a fairly realistic range of ethnicities and races.

Finally, Coldtown reminded me that vampires can be truly frightening.  As expressed in one character’s contemplative blog post, it’s not their inhumanity that scares us but their magnified humanity (their lust, gluttony, etc).  They are exaggerated versions of ourselves and our most intense desires.  And in Black’s version, they aren’t necessarily soul-less or without memories of their past.  In this world, there are no ‘nice’ vampires–although they are not necessarily purely evil either. Above all, vampires are hungry–they do not have human levels of self control  and Black does not gloss over this reality.  After all, it’s that lack of control which frightens us.  Vampires are us–with our appetites unleashed and unlimited.

The language helps to heighten the scare quotient as well.  Black’s writing is sensual and gothic–full of sharp sentences and rich sensory descriptions of everything from the rusty scent of blood to the lush touch of velvet.  The plot is twisty and well-structured and the shifting points of view work well in this complex but not convoluted story. I especially enjoyed the ending–nothing is tied up in a neat bow but the reader still feels satisfied.

All in all, a perfect Halloween read!

5 out of 5 spooky stars from me–and many of my biggest teen fantasy fans!

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