Monday, January 14, 2013

Review: The Awakening by L.J. Smith. Book 1 of the Vampire Diaries

 I normally summarise books before reviewing them, a brief synopsis. I can’t do it with this one, it just devolves into sarcasm every time I try.

Anyone who has read Fangs for the Fantasy for any length of time will know we have something of a love/hate relationship with The Vampire Diaries TV show and are frequent critics. Well, let me take this opportunity to say something good about the TV show and its writers – I am impressed, no, amazed – that you managed to extract anything even semi-redeemable from this book. I thought pulling the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series from that awful film was impressive, but this is downright miraculous. With book reviewing there’s always a strong element of the subjective, though I have to say, in the past I have been bemused that some people can be such fans of things I’ve hated. This book doesn’t leave me bemused, it leaves me wanting to hold its fans, comfort them and assure them that they’re good people and don’t need to punish themselves like this.

So why do I hate this book? Let me count the ways!

First and foremost is Elena herself, one of the most unpleasant protagonists you’ll ever have the displeasure to meet. And this is from someone who has read Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse and even The Aurora Teagarden Series (previous candidate for “protagonist we’d most like to chop up and bury under the rockery” prize). You know those YA novels with the ridiculously over-the-top popular mean girls, the Satan Cheerleaders? That’s Elena! I can’t imagine how anyone is supposed to sympathise with this girl. She’s unbelievably selfish and self-absorbed – everything is about her. People who aren’t her friends fawn after her (especially if they’re “plain”) and are treated like servants, she just dishes out orders and expects to be obeyed. Her 2 friends Bonnie (who is characterised by having woo-woo) and Meredith (who isn’t characterised at all) and her ex Matt (the one person who accuses Elena of being a self-centred manipulator, then apologises when her lip starts wobbling and the waterworks begin) exist to serve. Matt goes to the prom with her knowing she’s stalking Stefan, Bonnie and Meredith abandon their dates to go find Elena, everything they do is about Elena. They have no independent purpose in life – they serve Elena and she expects them to.

The way Elena treats her friends is appalling. Not just the servants she deems unworthy of friendship (though those are servants – and flirting with a boy even while his girlfriend watches in tears? Totally ok), but Bonnie and Meredith as well. After the second or possibly third attempt to stalk an unwilling Stefan, they both suggest that maybe, just maybe she might want to let it go – to which she loses her ever loving shit and storms off telling them both she’ll find new best friends (and they still follow her! Aaargh!) The way she speaks to them is appalling, it really sounds more like a boss to employees they don’t like very much. And Matt? When she breaks up with him she tells him what he feels (because it’s easier for her to pretend he doesn’t care) and then uses her ex as a servant to help her snare her new man. And then is actually jealous of him because of his friendship with Stefan. She had a friend, Caroline, who has turned into someone I’m supposed to hate, I guess, and stopped fawning after Elena but I want to cheer her on. Go Caroline, escape the terrible Elena servitude. Of course, Elena doesn’t care WHY her friend is angry and forgets about her for weeks on end, focusing on Her Man She Will Claim. And it’s not just friends – with someone in town attacking young people, Aunt Judith is often worried about Elena. Does Elena care? Not a jot! Judith’s worries are brushed aside with contempt – she stays out until 2:00am without calling and when Judith is upset it’s a side reference at best.

And her approach to the romance? Now, I’m the first to say I find the whole “eyes crossed across a crowded room we now love each other forever let’s find a chapel” story annoying. But Elena? Elena fixates on Stefan because he doesn’t fall in love and worship her. He walks past her without falling for her supreme beauty. Oh how dare he, how very dare he!  She goes into SHOCK because he didn’t fall down before her. She tears up when he isn’t instantly hers. She then decides that this man MUST be hers no matter what. She invents a fictional boyfriend she met on holiday (leaving her ex to believe she cheated on him – but that’s a lesser being’s feelings, irrelevant!). When visiting Stefan’s home he asks he to stop going through his things, including a box, because they’re private. The very second she’s left alone? She goes through his private things. Of course she does. She comments frequently how lonely and isolated Stefan is – oh how sad – and then spreads fake rumours about him around school to drive other people away! She notices his loneliness and tries to make it worse so he will turn to her! Ye gods girl, what is wrong with you?! What does she do on her weekends, find sad puppies to kick? At this point, the fact she collects boyfriends as status symbols and thinks boys are all important as they show how popular and pretty you are (sentiments which would be interesting starting point for growth and challenge - if they were challenged, but they’re not. And it is interesting that she has a view of dating that we often see in misogynistic straight men – but we don’t really see why making the protagonist have similar dehumanising opinions to be somehow empowering) just adds more crap to this enormous heap.

And we can fill up this great mass self-centred spite and sense of entitlement with a big dash of clueless rich kid (she has a renaissance gown sewn for her Hallowe’en costume to attract Stefan) and top it up with a whole load of spunky. Elena completely dismisses any kind of threat that vampire Stefan may represent – even when he tells her, she doesn’t have even the slightest moment of fear or apprehension. Elena has also set a new record for the ultimate Clary Award - there’s a big bad vampire that kills people, she knows this and has been told repeatedly about his death count. She’s angry at him – so runs off into the woods, alone, without telling anyone where she’s going, to scream his name. The book doesn’t tell us whether she seasoned herself and applied a proper marinade first.

Elena could grow into a character, if she had several redemption moments, and possibly with Meredith repeatedly smacking her a good one, she could grow up, grow some sense, grow some empathy and grow into someone I don’t want the vampires to eat. But there’s no indication in Awakening that that is going to happen and, consequently, not a lot of motivation to pick up book 2 with this horrible protagonist.

Then there’s the love interest, Stefan. A vampire so angsty that even Ann Rice’s Louie would tell him to get over it. Every time we join his point of view he is engaged in some level of mourning his past, mourning his present, mourning what a horrible monstrous creature he is, mourning what he could do, mourning what he may have done – it never stops. He’s a one trick pony

And he makes no sense. He wants to assimilate with humanity, have something resembling a normal life (in between angsting about how unworthy he is of such) and decides to do that in Fells Church. He’s a 15th century Renaissance Italian and decided the best place for his new life is in rural Virginia. Why? Even he doesn’t know, the author doesn’t even try to give us a plausible reason. And to start a normal life he goes to high school as a senior – why? He’s diving in the deep end of human interaction here, and the new life he’s building will only last a year at most. I hate this “normal life” as an excuse for why centuries old vampires go to school. It’s not like you can’t find a more plausible excuse – like them trying to update their skills, maybe? Checking to see if their 15th century education needs some 21st century polish? That would be a reasonable motive to go back to school. Not because they want to build a new life.

And when at school he makes no effort to build this life he’s angsting about. He arrives in a Porsche and designer clothes, argues with a teacher because he knows the Renaissance better than him and then make no effort to make any friends. Where is this new life he hopes to build?

I have to give the book credit for warning us in the opening chapters. We start with Elena clumsily mentioning her dead parents before having an obligatory self-description. The whole setting is OMINOUS because Elena says so – this is how tension is created throughout the book, Elena gets sudden bad feelings. She’s not the psychic one, there’s no reason why she would  - but why waste time setting the scene when you can have Elena’s feelings define the theme? And then she sees a crow that she feels is undressing her with its eyes. A crow. That’s not a euphemism, an actual bird. A bird with facial expressions that leers at her, I assume. I think she may have tagged this crow because she sees it several times in the book and declares it to be the same crow – though gods alone know how she knows. Then we switch to Stefan who is angsting (of course) over having killed a rabbit. I kid you not, the vampire is sad because he’s killed a bunny. We’ve had vampires that fed on animals before – but never one that actually felt sad and tortured about it. Oh, and he also freaks out over the ominous crow.

Because this is the next problem – the writing. The book is not a long one, but it could have been far shorter if everyone wasn’t prone to ridiculously dramatic monologues, over-description, desperate attempts to insert tension (through feelings or wandering corvids) and so much melodrama it made the most tense scenes comic. When Stefan is describing his desperate and tragic past I had to fight not to laugh out loud due to the utterly ridiculous melodrama shovelled on. It clogs what should be turning points in the book into parody – none more so than when Stefan tries to warn Elena off him. Not only are we so focused on Stefan’s angst that Elena shows not the slightest hint of fear or even incredulity at his revelation, but we have grand dramatic gestures like Stefan breaking firewood and ripping sheets to show his terrible, dangerous power! Fear the damage he can do to bed linens, people, fear it!

In terms of inclusion of minorities, there are none. And for this I think all minorities should be very very grateful.  But we do have a Robert E Lee highschool – yes antebellum reverence is floating around.

Needless to say, we didn’t enjoy this book and we cannot recommend it. The only way I would is as some kind of benchmark of worst things you’ll read. I actually think this book, published in 1991, may be the Hive Queen for all terrible Vampire YA that followed – the angst, the melodrama, the fast-forward, totally-unquestioned “relationship”, then disregard of other people, the protagonist beloved by all: this may have been the source from which they all spawned. An exorcism may be in order.