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Confessions of a Bibliophile

An aspiring writer and bookstore employee with an incredibly bad book-buying habit... I'll read just about anything (so long as it will appeal to my interests in some way), but my main loves are YA and sci-fi/fantasy. I also like quirky history and science books and will book nerd. A lot. Currently in the process of weeding out my personal library. Find me on Twitter @princess_starr or check out my YA book, Snowfall, on Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/240027

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown - Holly Black Every now and then at the bookstore I work at, I get into a heated discussion with a customer over what constitutes as horror. Most of the time, the customer pins the blame on ‘that vampire book’ for ruining horror forever and no one but Stephen King can even write horror anymore. Which is an incredibly narrow and stupid argument, if you ask me. (And yes, I have had this argument. A lot.) Vampires and other various children of the night are a major part of horror, but as the last few decades have proved, you can have a book about vampires or ghosts or werewolves and not have it be necessarily a horror book.Unfortunately, it feels like YA has been splattered with the paranormal paint brush more often than horror. This is not to say that there’s no horror in YA whatsoever—Robin Wasserman’s The Walking Dark is being promoted as both a horror and a paranormal thriller novel, which is the case that I find most of the time. Barry Lyga’s I Hunt Killers is another case where the book is touted as a thriller rather than a horror book. And there’s some very creepy and disturbing murder sequences that I’ve seen in recent YA books (Maureen Johnson’s Name of the Star and Libba Bray’s The Diviners, to name two), but again, those fall more towards paranormal rather than outright horror on the spectrum.I am nostalgic for the days of Christopher Pike and RL Stine (like them or not, bear with me) where you could get with a straight YA horror novel. Unfortunately, in the post-Columbine world where mass teenage violence and death is really not a good thing, a writer cannot get away with a good horror book aimed at young adults. You can, however, have all of the paranormal creatures go after impressionable young teenagers, but I’m not adding anything new by bringing up certain vampires that have completely neutered that idea. But my point being, we’ve gotten to the romanticizing the paranormals to the point we’ve lost the horror aspect.With that, I turn to the latest offering by Holly Black, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. This was a book that I’ve been waiting for all year, probably since Black initially announced it. I have read and really love the short story of the same name (published in Black’s collection The Poison Eaters & Other Stories), but the events of the short story don’t influence the events in the novel, just sharing the same world. (The short story is not only referenced in the book itself, but also the Coldtown novel was released on the same day the short story says. By coincidence, or so says Black. /fun fact!) That said, as I was reading the book, I felt less…enthusiastic about the plot.After the haunting, grotesque opening as Tana’s exploring the farmhouse and discovering the bodies of her friends, the pace crawls along until Tana and the other survivors—her ex, Aidan; a vampire named Gavriel; as well as two siblings that they pick up along the way, Midnight and Winter--make it to one of the eponymous Coldtowns. And although the plot does pick up more once they finally enter Coldtown and Tana begins to make her way out, a lot of the book falters and is really weak.It’s not to say that this is a terrible book. It’s not badly written—I love Holly Black’s writing style, and she has some fantastic descriptions throughout the novel. When Tana and her friends enter Coldtown for the first time is a really tense and fantastic description of the characters swinging above the slums of Coldtown in cages, and it’s such a shock from what you’ve been expecting the entrance of Coldtown. I really liked the scenes of Tana exploring Coldtown and befriending Jameson and Valentina—I loved Jameson, I really wanted to see more of his character throughout the book. The descriptions of the various clubs and the inhabitants of Coldtown are really well done and vivid, done in Black’s typical gritty urban fantasy style. I even don’t mind Black’s tendency to fall into fan fic-esque eye descriptors. (I actually really love the “eyes as red as poppies;” I found it to be a really cool nod to vampire lore.) The opening chapter sets such a fantastic mood to the book, where Tana is exploring this desolated farmhouse with the eerie background noise of the television—the first chapter of Coldtown is so evocative that it is a disappointment for me with the rest of this.The problem that I have with the book centers around Gavriel, and how much his story overshadows Tana’s. If this story was about Tana getting Aidan to Coldtown, dealing with Midnight and Winter, and realizing that she can’t leave, that would have been a better story. It’s similar to the short story, but you can retread similar ground and make it feel different with different characters and their reactions. Tana has a strong story already—she’s afraid of vampires because of her mother’s going Cold (the slang for turning) when she was young; but she’s attracted to the idea of being one herself. Not as strongly as Midnight or Winter do, but it’s a feeling that scares Tana and she tries not to give into that desire. Having Gavriel and having his story takes away from Tana’s story, especially since how largely Gavriel figures into the world-building of the whole book. This is what really disappointed me about Coldtown. Holly Black’s best stories are the personal ones—I loved the Modern Tales of Faerie because even though there were a lot of important changes to overall world, the hearts of the story are Kaye’s and Val’s. And that’s what I would have loved to seen here. Gavriel could have been the same character, have had the same backstory…but giving so much explanation and so much weight on Gavriel makes me lose my focus on the story. And by the time we get to the reveal of Gavriel's true identity, not only did I already call it within five lines of introducing that plot point, I really didn't care about Gavriel’s story.Gavriel is the vampire romance boy, and I think the book suffers from that. For all that he tells Tana about how “dangerous” she is, Tana’s role ends up being reduced as the trophy who can fight back, and her story doesn’t matter as much in the long run. Which is a shame, because I do like her whenever she’s not around Gavriel. I wanted to more of Tana’s desperation to save Aidan from turning and confronting Midnight with the reality of Coldtown and being a vampire, and getting out of Coldtown and back to her family. But her obsession with Gavriel makes the plot screech to a halt and I lose my enthusiasm for Tana’s character. (Plus, I think Tana had far more chemistry with Jameson than she did with Gavriel.) It takes away from the tension of Tana getting out of Coldtown when she stops every five feet and thinks “Oh, but what if I don’t see Gavriel again!”My other issue with the book is the aesthetic. Black says in the acknowledgements that this is a throwback/homage to the vampire novels of Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. And that’s fine, I’m not saying that she’s not allowed to write those novels. I would like a reason for that aesthetic, especially since in our world, the deadly decadent vampire in the Victorian clothing has become the cliché. Even if it’s a throwaway line of “Oh, this is what humans expect of us.” I actually don’t mind that the vampires traipse around in period clothing and present the image of being fabulous and beautiful, but I need a reason for it. (Especially with Lucien Moreau, because he makes a big deal about being modern and a celebrity and gathering more vampires, and yet the glimpses of his feed embraces the Victorian vampire image.) When Black includes a store called the Dead Last Rest Stop that sounds like a Hot Topic on steroids, I find it really hard to take seriously. I commented to a friend that the style of that sequence wanted to be Rasputina, but I found myself thinking about a latter-era Backstreet Boys video. (Yes, that’s exactly where my brain went when I read it. I’m not exaggerating.) It even extends to the dialogue—Gavriel, again, has some really cheesy lines, like “The gates of Coldtown are as close as my own shadow” and how he describes Tana. It jolts me out of the book because that dialogue calls attention to itself. It even extends to Midnight and Winter-the goth wannabe vampire ideal is played so straight-forward with them. And yet, they barely appear once Tana escapes from their house in Coldtown, and we never fully get a grasp on how wrong they've turned out to be.And therein lies my conundrum. Is it my issue as a reader, having the cultural knowledge that I do, that I can’t get into to the aesthetic or is it Black’s job to acknowledge that her aesthetic is a cliché? This is my issue with a lot of YA horror/paranormal books is that I’ve seen so much of the parodies and the winking and nudging that I’m looking for it even when it's played straight. In regards to something like vampires, it feels like we may have to go all the way back to the Nosferatu-style vampire to make them terrifying again. (And of course, that resets the cycle and back the romanticism and so on and so on.) I wanted a throwback vampire novel where we had the charming vampires who are going to eat you at the first chance they can, but having Gavriel around takes away from that because he is the one noble vampire to show that not all vampires are evil. (Really, Black could have gotten rid of Gavriel or used him in a better way.) Again, this is not a terrible book, but I expected better from Black and her characterization and plotting, and this was kind of a disappointment for me.(This review was also posted at the Book Lantern.)