Friday 13 September 2013

#CBR5 Book 116. "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" by Holly Black

Page count: 440 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Tana wakes up after a high school party to find that while she was passed out in the bathtub, the other party-goers in the house were brutally slaughtered by vampires. As she's dealing with the shock and trying to find her things (you don't want to escape a house of carnage in your bare feet if you don't have to), she discovers that there are survivors - her douchy ex-boyfriend Aidan, and a dark haired boy she's never seen before. Both are tied up in a back bedroom where the windows have been covered, most likely left as a snack for later. When trying to untie Aidan, he lunges for her, and Tana has to face the fact that Aidan is turning Cold.

In this world, there were always vampires, but they were few and kept themselves hidden. Until one day, a single individual decided to just feed a little off his victims instead of killing them, starting an epidemic that soon spread world wide. When bitten, but not killed, by a vampire, the victim turns Cold. They start to hunger for human blood, and once they drink it, they transform fully into vampires. If they manage to lock themselves away and avoid the temptation to drink the blood for 88 days, they're cured of the infection, but barely anyone ever has the strength to manage it. As a result, to stop the spread of vampirism, there are walled off cities around America, where vampires and the ones who are turning Cold are confined. In the Coldtowns there are celebrity vampires, and live streams of their glamorous parties and all over America there are people who worship and dream of becoming just like them.

Tana knows that vampires may be beautiful, but also that they are deadly and that those infected by them are overcome by an obsession for blood, to the point where they don't care who they have to hurt to get it. When she was ten, her mother was infected. Tana's father locked her in the basement, determined to keep her isolated until she was cured, but little Tana was unable to resist her mother's desperate pleas and reassurances that she wouldn't hurt anyone. She was tricked into opening the door, and as a result, has physical and deep emotional scars to show for it. She doesn't want to abandon Aidan or the mysterious other boy, and risks her own life to get them both to the nearest Coldtown. There is also the possibility that Tana herself is infected, and to keep her best friend, her sister and her father safe, she needs to leave them behind to an uncertain fate.

I love Holly Black's books about faeries. Now she's written an amazing book about vampires. It's the closest thing to an anti-Twilight I've read since Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Not that sparkly vampires, or the spoofing thereof is in any way done in this book. This book made me think of Robin McKinley's Sunshine (one of my favourite vampire books of all time), Anne Rice's early Vampire Chronicles and Lie to Me, that absolutely awesome episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 where a bunch of vampire groupies dress up in velvet and capes and want to join the "children of the night". Yet it also does its own thing completely.

The story of Tana, Aidan and Gavriel (the mysterious third survivor) is told in short, action-packed chapters that often end on a cliffhanger. Every other chapter fills in the back story, about Tana's past, before and after her mother was turned, about Pearl - her little sister, Pauline - her best friend (they have such a great friendship), her messed up relationship with Aidan, and how she came to be the person we meet in the first chapter. There are also the occasional chapter where the POV changes to Pearl, who has to deal with Tana disappearing, and some that give the back story on Gavriel. These chapters are the reason I'm deducting half a star, as Tana is such a great character that I didn't want any other focus to the book but her, and everything that took away from my time with her, be it in the very tense, dangerous and scary present, or her mostly grim and character building past, made me annoyed.

There is no love triangle in this book, although as is almost always the case in a good vampire story, there is a minor romantic subplot. Vampires have always been sexy and erotic, and while the vampires in this story are all decidedly scary and blood sucking monsters, it's not surprising that Tana, with her dark past and complex survivors' guilt would be attracted to someone openly monstrous. She clearly has a history of bad boys, Aidan really has very few redeeming features, and the fact that Tana risks her own life more than once to get him to a Coldtown is one of the reasons why she's such a great heroine.

I always find it so much harder to write about books I love than ones I feel perfectly indifferent about. The world building in the story, with the Coldtowns, and the vampire reality shows, and the groupie cultures that have sprung forth due to social media are all fascinating, as is the idea that by great strength of will, and basically going "cold turkey", you can cure yourself of the infection. While I adored Tana and want to be her best friend (even though she already has one), the other characters in the story are also great, and multi-faceted, and even though some of them are clearly TSTL when it comes to their romanticised delusions about vampires, you still feel bad for them when they have their eyes opened brutally.

There is a creeping tension throughout the book, from the first chapter and all the way through the story. This is a proper horror story, with a lot of grisly details, and quite a lot of death along the way. At least one of the characters is a merciless and quite mad vampire, but you can't help but like him anyway, and I was completely swept up in the romance between him and Tana. I've read a lot of vampire books before now, and it was great to catch the subtle references that Black has clearly put in. While this is a YA book about a teenage girl and some vampires, don't let the publishing trends of the last few years put you off. This has a very capable, smart, brave and resourceful heroine, who doesn't wait around for anyone to save her. Tana rescues others, as well as herself. For anyone who enjoyed McKinley's Sunshine, this should be a MUST READ book. I think I might even like this better, as Sunshine has always cried out for a sequel, whilst this works beautifully as a stand alone novel with a very promising end. If you ever enjoyed a vampire story, give this book a chance.


  1. I really loved this novel as well, for the same reasons you listed. I also loved Sunshine and went through an Anne Rice phase. I wonder if readers whose primary reference to vampires is Twilight will enjoy the book as much?

    1. I think a lot of teenagers (I don't just want to say girls, but it's more girls than boys in my experience) of a certain persuasion go through a phase where they are fascinated by vampires. This current generation of teenagers have just had Twilight so prominently thrust at them that that will most likely be what they read first. I know for a fact that a lot of the teenage girls I've taught over the last few years started with Meyer and moved onto Anne Rice and Bram Stoker afterwards.

      Most of all, most teenagers love to be thrilled and scared. What they want to avoid most of all are slow books where nothing happens - that's certainly not the case here. This has great characters, a very compelling story and proceeds pretty much at a neck break all the way through. Unless the girls only read Twilight for the insipid romance, I suspect they'd like this just fine. I certainly hope so.

  2. Sounds like a perfect read for this time of year! I have never read a vampire book. Although Barnabas Collins was my favorite character on TV as a young girl growing up! My that ages me doesn't it?

    1. Barnabas Collins was very dashing, so I totally understand that he would be your favourite. If you've never read a vampire book, this is a wonderful one to start with.

  3. I read Interview with a Vampire for last year's RIP and really enjoyed it, plus Sunshine a couple of years before that. Also, I do enjoy Holly Black's style so perhaps I should pick this up.
    Lynn :D

  4. Comparisons with Sunshine would be enough to get my attention even if I'd never heard of Holly Black before. She's one author I always try to buy in the library where I work but have read very little of for some unknown reason :)