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Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Little, Brown & Company 2009
563 pages
YA Horror; Paranormal Romance

This is another book I bought for the pretty cover, and was ultimately disappointed by. I try not to think of star ratings while I’m reading a book, but with this one I would oscillate between being 2-stars-annoyed and 4-stars-entertained, all within the space of a couple of pages. It took me a long time to read – there was a gap in the middle where I put it down for a week or so and then struggled to pick it back up again (and not just because it’s heavy!). If we have to compare, though, this is a better written book than the other recently released paranormal YA with a gorgeous cover and a similar setting, Fallen.

Ethan Wate lives in a small town in Gatlin county, in South Carolina. It’s one of those small American-south towns where everyone knows everything about everyone, no one ever leaves, and they religiously reenact battles from the Civil War. Ethan’s mother, an historian, died in a car accident and his father lives in his study, writing gothic horror novels. Cared for by Amma, who practices voodoo, Ethan has never felt like he really belongs here and yearns for the day when he can leave for university.

Over the summer before he starts grade eleven (or it could be grade ten, I’m not sure), he dreams every night about a girl he can’t see, about holding on to her hand while something tries to tear them apart. Even though he never saw what she looked like, when he first sees Lana Duchannes, the new girl, on the first day of school, he knows it’s her. She’s the niece of Old Man Ravenwood, a recluse who lives in Ravenwood, the oldest house in Gatlin – because of this, she’s immediately ostracised by the other kids. But Ethan is drawn to her, and pursues a friendship despite her initial animosity.

That they share a connection is undeniable. Ethan can hear Lana in his head, and it’s not long before they are communicating telepathically. After that, it’s not such a big step to take in her true nature: she’s a Caster, and on her sixteenth birthday she’ll be Claimed – she’ll either become a Dark Caster or a Light one, and because of a family curse, she has no choice in the matter.

As the days count down, Ethan only becomes more determined to help Lana and unlock the secrets of her family.

I have, not issues, just problems, with this book. Let me first mention the things that worked, for me. I loved that it was told by a male character. These stories are usually about a mysterious, attractive boy and the female narrator’s experience falling in love with said problematic boy. Here it’s flipped over: Lana is the withdrawn, beautiful, ultimately dangerous love interest that honest Ethan falls for. He’s a smart boy, better educated than his peers and doesn’t share their “southern” mentality. To be honest, the people of Gatlin County do not come off well. All the stereotyped small-minded ignorance, religious superstition and conservative views of the American south are portrayed in all their cringe-inducing glory. It did actually make it harder to read, because such blatant small-minded ignorance is painful (no matter where it occurs).

There’s great atmosphere in the book – set in a similar location to Fallen, it had much greater success at building a visual representation but still struggled to capture the other senses – smell, especially. Hot and humid and stormy places tend to have remarkable smells. There are some nice gothic touches but nothing terribly original. I liked the changing nature of Ravenwood.

The prose is solid but there’s something unsatisfying about it. It lacks something that I can’t quite put my finger on. At times the story is engrossing, but at others it’s slow and dull – through it all, the prose holds steady, but ultimately has nowhere to go. One of the problems with it is that it couldn’t capture the chemistry between Ethan and Lana. Their feelings for each other were lacklustre. Ethan tried, but Lana was so obsessed with her impending doom – or possibility of – that she often came off cold, aloof and uncaring. The authors included some nice quiet moments meant to solidify their relationship, but such scenes – scenes that I would normally love and that tend to be make-or-break for me – failed to hold my interest.

It took me a while to figure out what the numbers heading each chapter meant – they’re dates, but because Americans write them backwards it wasn’t immediately apparent. The dates do add some structure but it’s not really necessary – Ethan, who narrates in first-person, keeps track of time well enough on his own, and since I stopped noticing the numbers it didn’t do anything for building tension.

Part of the problem, plot and pacing-wise at least, is that there was no mystery as to when the Claiming would happen – Lana’s sixteenth birthday – or what. Ethan’s comment in the prologue about the story ending with a grave lends some uncertainty and tension, but the book is so long that the authors failed to keep that anticipation going. The beginning was strong, but once Ethan and Lana got together and her secret was out in the open, it floundered, struggling to be interesting in the build-up to the Grand Finale. It was too easy for me to stop reading, and too hard for me to finish. Too much dead wood, perhaps; too many stock characters; too forced, in the end. Including the parallels, which the authors highlighted, to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – it would have been fun, if Stephenie Meyer hadn’t already done it with “Romeo and Juliet” and Wuthering Heights. (And speaking of the ending, it was confusing. It seemed to have two different endings that didn’t gel, that contradicted each other, but by then I simply didn’t care if it was meant to be a clever narrative device or not. I just wanted to understand.)

Here’s where my jaded, seen-it-too-many-times cynical side comes out. Maybe I just read it too soon after Fallen. Maybe I’ve read too many of these YA paranormal romances and I need a break. Maybe I’m just tired of reading about American high school kids, whose experiences are all so similar and the school system portrayed so clichéd and awful, that you can’t help but start to wonder if that really is what it’s like there. Maybe I’m just annoyed that I can’t get hold of many books, YA or otherwise, set in my own country. And maybe it’s just the end-of-the-year grumps, the winter blues, which I do tend to get, that’s making it hard for a book to really grab me – after all, I normally prefer the long novels compared to the short. In which case, it almost seems unfair to read anything. Almost. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as removing yourself and all your baggage from the reading experience, so I really shouldn’t apologise for it.

This is a fine debut achievement for the authors, and it has been picked up by Warner Bros for a movie. I don’t know if it’s the first book in a series, but the ending does allow for a second novel.

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