Review of THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by HOLLY BLACK
(review based on an advance reading copy)
First, some background about my tastes and why I chose this book. Well, I chose this book because Holly Black wrote it. I loved her CURSE WORKERS trilogy enough that she’s made my list of authors whose books I snatch up and start reading without even glancing at the back to see what it’s about. So, yes, I started this book without having a clue about the premise and realized with a start during the first chapter, “Oh! This is a vampire book.” I hate vampire books. The very concept behind vampires bothers me: that they have no self-control and simply can’t help their evil tendencies. It also makes me cringe when the male vampire apologizes for biting the human girl when she didn’t want to be bit and she says, “It’s okay. You couldn’t help yourself.” with the subtext being that it’s her fault for existing: for being there to be bit. (I doubt I need to state the parallels that jump out at me.) A few times when I admit this vampire prejudice, someone insists I must read [insert title of vampire book], because “it’s an exception to the rule.” In every case, it has not been - at least for me - and I’m frustrated at having read a book all evidence suggested I wouldn’t like in place of one I might have actually enjoyed. Back to THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN, I might have tossed this novel aside the moment I realized it was a vampire book, but the story had already hooked me - with both a brilliant protagonist whom I loved after the first few pages and by describing the vampires less like the romanticized, tormented souls of modern novels and more like the monsters originally intended by Stoker and earlier portrayals.
Now a brief tangent about the title. Whenever I read this book in public, someone or other would interrupt me to comment, “THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN? What a God awful title!” I admit that I had an initial mildly negative reaction to that title as well before I saw the name Holly Black and snatched it up anyway, promptly forgetting the title completely. Marketing-wise, though, I doubt THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN is as a bad choice as people think, because every time a stranger criticized the title I would then proceed to tell them how much I was loving the book.
Regarding said monsters, be forewarned that this is a gory book. The carnage in the very first chapter gives readers their chance to turn back. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to describe the first chapter since reading the back tells you all this. (But if you do like to go into a book knowing next to nothing, as I sometimes do, skip this paragraph.) Tana wakes up in a bathtub the morning after a party. She realizes she passed out there, behind the drawn shower curtain, in an effort to avoid her ex Aidan and his new girlfriend. When Tana emerges from the bathroom, however, she discovers a horrifying massacre with only herself and two other survivors, one being her ex-boyfriend and the other as likely an enemy as an ally.
While I’m not one for gratuitous violence, I did appreciate the vivid description of bloodshed in this book. I suppose that’s a great part of what frustrates me about many vampire books: when the author/narrator tells you that vampires are horrifying monsters rather than showing you and also when “monsters” are idealized as sexy more than scary. I even marked a quote in THE COLDEST GIRL that acknowledges this trend with some disturbing insight: “People liked pretty things. People even liked pretty things that wanted to kill and eat them.” Black hits an impressive balance in her portrayal of vampires. In this world, most of the time vampires kill the humans they bite. In fact, for centuries vampires existed in much smaller, secret communities, carefully monitoring their ranks and kills. If a vampire bites someone but doesn’t drain them, that person becomes infected. If they don’t drink blood through their infection period (up to 88 days), they will remain human. If they do drink blood, they will turn into a vampire. Of course, refraining isn’t so easy as one may imagine, since infected humans will do just about anything for blood. That’s where the impressive balance comes - between compassionately showing vampires as individuals who were once humans and as terrifying monsters with their own instincts. An infected person could be your friend, your lover, or - as in Tana’s past - your own mother, but they aren’t themselves. They might act like themselves at times, but as often as not it’s a trick, a manipulation meant to earn your trust enough so that you will come closer, close enough to bite, close enough to kill.
Another big reason I liked THE COLDEST GIRL despite my vampire bias is the humor. This book made me laugh more times than I can count. And yet it’s far more than a vampire parody that earns points only by mocking other works. Sincerity interweaves among the jokes and jabs, elevating this book into a story that tugged at my emotions as much as tickled my funny bone.
Vampire fiction also often loses my interest for the overdramatized romance, most often between a vampire and a human. I’m pleased to say that any romance in THE COLDEST GIRL develops satisfyingly slowly. In fact, romance lurks far from center stage, though a certain amount of romantic tension adds more layers to the story. There’s the implicit possibility of some reunion between Aidan and Tana, though that’s providing Aidan doesn’t kill her while infected or if he turns and they certainly had a complicated relationship before all this, anyway. There’s also some underlying attraction between Tana and the vampire she helps early on, though nothing like the overt love-at-first-sight played up in some vampire books. (Their first meeting involves Tana keeping firm hold on a tire iron in case he gets any ideas about attacking her.)
I found all the characters and relationships in this book wonderfully rich and complex. Tana and Aidan’s dynamic in particular struck me as very realistic but not one that I’ve seen in fiction before. Definitely not cookie cutter.
Focusing on Tana, though, do I ever love her. Sometimes you read a book in which everyone in this fictional world finds the protagonist so special, but you’re thinking, “WHY?” With Tana, I entirely understand why she’s so special. She has an incredible will to live. That may sound like nothing, but many life or death situations come down to whether you keep fighting or you give in to despair and give up. (And luck. I’m not dismissing luck.) Tana finds herself in numerous horrifying situations in this book (Sidenote: THE COLDEST GIRL did strike me as what I’ll call “Light Horror.”) and in many instances it occurred to me that a different person would give up. Death seems so inevitable at some of these pivotal moments that another person might either passively accept their fate or take their own life to prevent a more gruesome alternative. Even at moments when I started writing her off as a goner, Tana keeps fighting, sometimes skillfully and sometimes with an incredible fortitude that compensates for lack of skill. Some of these battles are physical, a vampire lunging at her, for example. Some are intellectual, when Tana sees a way out of a situation that I didn’t consider. And some are emotional: If a few people might give up during one near death experience, even more would do so at the second in under an hour, the third and fourth and fifth in under a day. While there are more intense danger peaks, Tana finds herself in what can only be called a perpetual near death experience, a psychologically draining phenomenon to say the least.