“Tana woke lying in a bathtub.”
Tana is a human girl living in a world just like our own, except for the fact that it is infested with vampires forced to live in ghettos called Coldtowns. One morning she wakes up disoriented in a bathtub, and when she emerges from her hangover coccoon she finds that everyone else in the party has had their throats ripped out and blood drained by vampires. Everyone, that is, except for her ex-boyfriend (Aidan), tied to a bed and infected (bitten but not drained), and a half-crazed vampire (Gavriel) chained on the floor next to him. In a moment of impetuous decisiveness (a character trait that continues throughout the book), Tana decides to rescue both before the culprits of the killing spree, nesting in the basement til nightfall, wake up and finish the job. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the story of Tana, Aidan, and Gavriel’s adrenaline-charged flight to the dangerous safe haven of the nearest Coldtown, a race against the clock as Aidan descends into vampirism and Tana waits to see if she, also, has been infected. And what a ride it is.
First sentence: eh.
Now, I know that vampire books are kind of passe right now thanks to Stephenie Meyer’s sparkly contribution to the genre. However, this book is a legit love letter to the long and venerable tradition of vampire stories while being, at least in my opinion, a fresh and terrifying contribution to it. These vampires aren’t sparkly, and while they can be sexy Black never allows the reader to lose sight of the fact that they are monsters. I loved the way in which the vampires became bloated after feeding – the comparison to ticks was particularly disgusting, and when combined with the sexually charged description of the feed itself made for a particularly effective combination of revulsion and sex appeal (just trust me on this one – at least they’re not bloated WHILE everyone’s all moaning and shit). The grotesqueness of the vampires contributed to one of my favorite themes of the book – namely, the nature of the monstrous, and why we are drawn to and terrified by it. There was a touch of Jungian Shirley Jackson in Black’s vision of the vampire – that when human nature was eclipsed by the monstrous, the essential self wasn’t erased but amplified, bringing the id-fueled shadow self into light. I loved the following passage in particular:
“There’s something easy about the idea that vampirism is some kind of disease – that they can’t help it that they attack us, that they commit murders and atrocities, that they can only control themselves sometimes. They’re sick; it’s not their fault. And there’s something even easier about the idea of demonic invasion, something forcing our loved ones to do all manner of terrible things. Still not their fault, only now we can destroy them. But the third option, the possibility that there’s something monstrous inside of us that can be unleashed, is the most disturbing of all. Maybe it’s just us, us with a raging hunger, us with a couple of accidental murders under our belt. Humanity, with the trainings 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.”
Beautiful and frightening, yes?
Another interesting aspect of Black’s vision of vampirism was that of elective vampirism – people could choose to abandon their human lives in order to enter Coldtowns in the hope of someday being transformed. There were myriad reasons for this, from a fascination with the deceptive, glamorous depiction of Coldtown life on reality-show style televised feeds (another fresh way in which a very old myth is used to comment on our present), to the traditional obsession with the macabre (so goth), to a decisive giving up of hope. In a way, willfully entering a Coldtown as a human feels like an alternative to suicide – it’s a way to turn your back on your human life while still keeping the possibility of continued life, of dying but rising again as an eternal variant of your former self.
Moving away from the exploration of monsters, let’s talk about characters. Tana is a fierce heroine, decisive and impulsive, who hesitates only the merest fraction of a second before taking responsibility for herself and others. I loved the transformation of taking responsibility from beginning to end. When we first meet Tana, she is a character who is haunted by a misplaced sense of responsibility for her mother’s death – something that occurred before she was old enough to be fully responsible for herself, let alone the horrific circumstances surrounding it. By the end of the novel we see a Tana who, far from a helpless victim of circumstance, steps up to bat with every horrible circumstance that is thrown her way. She turns situations in which she has no control into decisions she can make in which she is in control. She is a resourceful, brave, and likable heroine, and you can’t help but root for her with each fanged curveball thrown her way.
Sorry for the horrible baseball metaphors, but they’re staying.
The romance between Tana and Gavriel, while obvious, is earned. Gavriel has an irresistible appeal as a broken and beautiful monster, capable of doing horrific things in the name of heroism, and Tana is, well, Tana. The attraction of the one to the other makes sense, and the inevitable make outs are steamy. And, not to give TOO much away, but their resolution is immensely satisfying in that it tells our young readers that you can give in to love without giving up your self. Take that, Meyer.
Honestly, I can’t think of much of anything negative to say about this book. It moves at a furious clip, has great characters, plenty of blood and horror, and even a bit of commentary on this world we live in. The added complication of kid sister Pearl seemed like a somewhat superfluous add-on and sometimes detracted from the furious forward momentum of the narrative, but it did end up tying in somewhat nicely in the end, so I could deal, even though I will admit I groaned a bit every time the perspective switched to Pearl. All in all, this is Holly Black at her best, and a decadent addition to the genre that says something new while acknowledging its roots. I will say that if you don’t like blood, this may not be for you – unlike many of its paranormal romance counterparts, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown doesn’t shy away from the gross-out nature of the vampiric feed, and while I found it delicious in in its gruesomeness it may not be for everyone.
For musical accompaniment I chose Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” to go with the currents of regret and shame for an irreversible descent into darkness that pop up throughout the narrative.
Where I got it: The library
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (Free shipping world-wide)