Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Beautiful Darkness, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Published: October 2010

Finally got around to it: November 2010

Harry Potter was the start of something new—a renaissance for the young adult market. The last few years have seen an absolute flood of mature, sci-fi, magic- and/or supernatural-oriented YA lit. Some of it stronger than others (The Hunger Games series), some of it more unfortunately prevalent (Twilight… and everything to do with Twilight), but for the most part we’re seeing quality writing that’s of the standard of most adult lit, with deeply engaging characters and plots that simply trim away the overt sexuality, cursing or extremely gory violence that might distinguish a title as being “too mature” for a YA audience.

I’m just going to step right out on this limb here: over the last two years I’ve read more than 200 books, and out of the top ten or so that have really burrowed into my memory, six or seven of them are aimed at the YA audience. I don’t think my tastes have changed, nor my attention span or interests. More than anything, the characters and worlds in some of these tales just feel… more authentic to me, as of late.

I remember reading an article last year about the changing face of Canadian lit—the writer in question, possibly mistakenly, called what was happening “the feminization of Canadian lit.” Without lingering on the potential sexist overtones of that statement, what was meant, when you parsed through the article, was that, by and large, more men tended to write with plot at the forefront, and more women focussed on character and the inherent emotional weight of a story, often to the expense of plot. I’m not going to say whether or not there’s any merit to this assumption, but I have noticed a change in a lot of adult-aimed books I’ve read in the past few years—stories that have been mostly middles, with little distance travelled from beginning to end. I recall really feeling this with last year’s Canada Reads victor, Nikolski, a book which I felt nothing but frustration over, following the writer on a slow bus to nowhere. By the end of the book, I felt like I’d spent an afternoon contemplating my navel and not much else.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. I don’t mean to generalize Can lit in this manner—this trait is endemic in a lot of adult-oriented literature coming from the US and around the world. It all has its place and its purpose, but I find more and more I’m being drawn to the worlds of well-written YA novels because what they’re offering feels more relatable—the characters feel more a part of a tangible world, even if it so happens to be a completely supernatural one. This was my reaction upon finishing Garcia and Stohl’s Beautiful Darkness, the follow up to last year’s debut from the two authors, Beautiful Creatures.

The story takes place in a southern American town called Gatlin, following the love affair between a Caster girl, Lena Duchannes, and her mere mortal of a boyfriend, Ethan Wate. Though it was established in the prequel that these two share a bond more super than it is natural, they are still the Romeo and Juliet of the magic-laced YA world; Lena is unable to accept that her powers will likely one day be the death of Ethan, because mortals and Casters are simply never meant to be together—co-existence is thought to be the best they could ever hope for. Without giving anything away, that idea doesn’t sit well with Ethan, from whose perspective the series takes place.

There’s a harshness and severity to the story and the world of Gatlin that really propels these characters. No one is a bystander, no one is an innocent, no one is beyond screwing up royally, but none of those things ever spell the end of the world for any of them. They adjust, they rebuild, and they move on. But something in the level of writing on display pushes them further than most similar characters in other YA titles: believability of action, reaction and motivation. Nothing ever feels out of place, either with respect to the fiction revolving around Blood Incubi, Sirens, Casters, Waywards and Keepers and the centuries-old conflict that has shaped their lineage and the history of the town itself, or with the rationale behind why each character acts in a particular way. It all fits. This strong, believable structure is even more impressive when you remember that there are two writers constructing this series, yet at no point do you feel the juxtaposition of two voices trying to tell one tale. They’re unified, indistinguishable from one another in tone.

Most critically to a narrative-obsessed individual such as myself, the ending is entirely satisfying, well paced, and leaves me aching for part three. Again, to call up two previous YA examples: Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Both were tremendous successes, and rightfully so, but both shared a common flaw: giving their endings enough space to breathe. With Harry Potter, I felt the individual titles ended well enough, but the final chapter of the seventh book left a painful amount to be desired. It was like breaking through the ocean and catching only a half breath—truncated and awkwardly paced as it was. With The Hunger Games, it was a sore spot with each title—ending abruptly with no room to really acclimate to the drastic changes the characters had undergone. The worst offender in that series was the second book, Catching Fire, which, while being my favourite in the series, took a knife to the space that the ending should have had and instead forced an info-dump down our throats in the final chapter. It felt as if the author had been told to stick within a certain page limit and that was the work-around. With Beautiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness, I feel as if I’ve been served a complete meal, but maybe—just maybe—I’ve got a bit of room left for dessert. There’s resolution, enough to feel complete if the story were to end here, but with more than enough hooks to pull us along the way for the next step in their journey.

Supposedly there are two more titles planned in the series. If that’s true, and this is only the halfway point, then I hope they’ve got something special up their sleeves, because I’ve enjoyed both titles in this series with a level of satisfaction I feel I rarely experience these days—from narrative to characters and emotional subtext. It hits all the right notes.


  1. Oh, really? It's a quartet and not a trilogy? That's interesting!

  2. So I've read, but I am not aware if anything definitive has been said yet. That said, trilogy, quartet, or more, I'm totally along for the ride - I felt this one was even stronger than the first (though I did miss the asshole townies and their Lena-focussed lynch mob mentality), and that's a very rare thing for an author to pull off. Even harder, making sure the final part is the greatest of all. I thought Rowling managed that with the 7th HP (my favourite), but did not feel even close to the same about The Hunger Games, where I thought the finale was the weakest of the three, by far. Still enjoyable, but not nearly as much as it had been.