Monday, 28 October 2013

Holly Black: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Cold Town was dangerous, Tana knew. A glamorous cage. A prison for the damned and anyone who wanted to party with them. 

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. It's an eternal party, shown on TV twenty-four hours a day - gorgeous, glamorous, deadly. 

The problem is, once you pass through Coldtown's gates, you can never leave. . . 

Holly Black is back and this time its with a sensational new novel about a world infected by vampirism. Now, before I go any further with the review, I would like to stress that this is NOT your typical modern vampire YA book; there are no good vampires hanging out in high schools, no sparkles, no daylight rings, no animal blood, no mainstream vampire clich├ęs we've come to expect since Twilight struck lucky. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a mixture of the paranormal and the post-apocalyptic - think The Hunger Games only with vampires in the arena with the human tributes.  

The novel starts in medias res; the main character Tana wakes up in a bath tub after a boozy 'sundown party' and discovers that all of the other party-goers have been slaughtered - by vampires. Vampires aren't a secret in the world Black creates; after one vampire gets too carried away the world becomes 'infected' - one bite from a vampire turns a human 'cold'. A cold human starts to have an uncontrollable craving for human blood and, once they taste human blood, their transformation to vampire is irreversible. Black reverts to the most traditional vampire, reminiscent of the ones created by Bram Stoker or Anne Rice, and that is what I love about the novel; they can't walk in the sun or they'll burn to death; they'll only be sated by human/vampire blood; they have a strong dislike of holy water; a good old fashioned stake in the heart will kill them and, of course, they're dangerous killers themselves. However, she is very unconventional in her treatment of them too and uses the vampire to create a world more typical of a zombie novel. Instead of a zombie apocalypse, Black creates a vampire apocalypse - the world has been plunged into chaos and in an attempt to reorganise it, 'coldtowns' are created. Coldtowns are quarantined, filled with vampires, the infected and humans stupid enough to idolise and romanticise the whole thing. Once you enter a coldtown, there's no leaving. Good job that's where Tana ends up then. 

The novel is structured roughly into two parts: in the first part Tana, her infected ex-boyfriend, Aiden, and a crazy vampire called Gavriel travel to a coldtown. Aiden can't go home because he's infected, while Tana might be infected too. Although a coldtown is the last place they want to go to, it's the only place that will take them. Gavriel has his own reasons for travelling to the coldtown, out of which the novel's main plot evolves. The second part is set inside the coldtown where Tana constantly battles for her survival, hence the comparison to The Hunger Games. The coldtown has cameras inside and the live feed is streamed to the outside world, making it appear sexy, glamorous and alluring, but as Tana discovers, it is anything but. The similarities between this novel and The Hunger Games end there though, because no matter how hard Tana fights to live, she isn't getting out of this arena.  

Tana is a fantastic leading character and there wasn't anything about her that annoyed me. She wasn't perfect, she didn't always know who to trust, but she was tough and persevered, and she was smart too. If you're looking for a novel where the heroine is strong, but not strong enough that an attractive, broody hero has to swoop in and save her at the end, then you'll be disappointed. While Tana and Gavriel have a romantic relationship, he certainly isn't a hero and Tana fights her battles alone. Gavriel is unconventional, manic, romantic, blood-thirsty and at times hilarious, but he isn't a hero. He's a deranged killer and there's no forgetting it. The main and peripheral characters are quirky and likeable too, typical of the author's usual style - though perhaps Aiden did get a little annoying after a while. The main vampire antagonist, Lucien, wasn't as strong as I'd have liked him to be, but if this book is perhaps only part one of a larger series than I expect a better big, bad villain will appear somewhere down the pipeline. 

The only other slight weakness of the novel for me was the occasional break-up of the main third-person narrative that followed Tana. In a few other reviews I've noticed that some people felt that the book had no plot and was just full of explanation. I would have to disagree completely - the plot is Tana surviving in Coldtown in the same way that The Hunger Games is Katniss surviving in the arena. There is also an interesting plot that involves Gavriel and Lucien, so to claim that the novel has no plot is simply ridiculous. Occasionally, chapters would revert to something in Gavriel's past or Lucien's past and they did explain certain things, but they were also necessary to understand the character's motives. Yes, they did sometimes break up the main narrative flow, but they were still interesting and still aided in moving the plot forward. And besides, they weren't exactly long break-up chapters, only a few pages - perhaps the moaners are just lazy readers (maybe that's harsh but I liked this book and I'll defend it Tana-style!). The only break-up chapters I thought were unnecessary were the blogging ones from the perspective of the character, Midnight. They weren't long either nor were they frequent, but they basically repeated/summarised what we already knew, so I felt that perhaps they could have been cut. That was my only real qualm with the novel. 

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown takes familiar YA motifs and transforms them into something unconventional and fresh. Holly Black has descriptive charm by the bucket-load, a wildly, beautiful imagination when it comes to world-building and I think that her writing is much stronger now than her early fairy novels, as is to be expected with her growing experience. Certainly, she has revamped the vampire and I hope she'll give us more - I'm definitely cold for more Coldtown.

Rating: ****