Staff Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

9780316213103

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Holly Black

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

$19.00

Available now

I’ve had an advance copy of Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown sitting on my desk since June. I’m not a fan of the Vampire genre. I never read Anne Rice, or watched Buffy. I didn’t jump on the Twilight bandwagon (books or movies). I did read Dracula in grad school, but only because it was selected by my reading group. I don’t actively dislike vampires, I just prefer other supernatural creatures. But that’s not why I didn’t read The Coldest Girl in Coldtown earlier. I had heard it was great and having read other books by Black, I was sure that was true. It was mostly time. And obligations. But then the book was released in September and the reviews started coming out. First there was this review over at io9.com. The reviewer starts the same way I do here: ‘I’m not a vampire person, but . . ..’ The io9 review is smart and enticing. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown moved closer to the top of the must-read pile. More reviews came out and the book started showing up on “Best of the Year” lists. Arg. I started to accept that I was missing something really good. Then I read this review at PW, which included this question and Black’s answer:

This isn’t meant to sound hostile, but: after Twilight and a thousand imitators, why a vampire novel?

I think that’s a great question. I’ve loved vampires for a very long time. In eighth grade, I guess, my research paper was on vampires. I’ve read countless vampire books and in all the time that I have loved vampires they’ve either been so over that you’d be crazy to write a vampire book, or so popular that writing one would be a waste of time because there were too many of them. Eventually I said to myself, there’s never going to be a time when it makes sense to write a vampire book, so just write one.

In the moment I read Black’s response, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown moved directly to the ‘next book’ spot. I love the idea that if you have a story you need to write, then who cares about trends. I knew, from her response, that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was a book with something to say. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading it back in June.

You can read about plot descriptions, expositions on why this isn’t “just a vampire book”, and persuasive essays on the book’s commentary about social media and celebrity culture elsewhere. Instead, I want to mention two parts that catapulted this book into “one of the best books I’ve read this year” category: the chapter headings and the allusions to carnival.

Each chapter includes a quotation about death from writers and poets such as Woody Allen, George Eliot and George Bernard Shaw along with ballads and folk proverbs. The quotations often connect either directly or tangentially to the action within that chapter, but each quotation is a reminder of humanity’s obsession — and infatuation — with death. It is interesting that most of these quotations are about death and beauty. Death and love. The first chapter heading is a quotation from Whitman, “Nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” The quotations set the tone for the book because they aren’t afraid. They are celebratory. In them, death is an adventure and respite, a lover and a seducer. Place and person. Death is home. Avoiding it. Striving for immortality. Those are the real tragedies.

Chapter 33 contains a quotation from Adrienne Rich: “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters”, which is somewhat of an anomaly in that the quotation does not directly reference death. The quotation is from Rich’s book Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963). The inclusion of Rich’s overtly feminist poetry in a story about vampires might seem obvious — yes, yes violent men prey on innocent women — but Black explodes all of those gendered cliches within the narrative itself. Tana isn’t passive. She’s definitely not a victim of male aggression, and , as noted by other reviewers, gender fluidity is a significant factor in this story. So how do we understand the Rich quotation, especially as it comes rather late in the book? If Tana is our guide for intelligent women, then we must acknowledge choice. Tana, as we have come to learn, thinks before she acts and she makes contentious decisions. She can’t control everything that happens to her — and certainly not the actions of others, but she carefully determines her response. If she’s sleeping with monsters, it’s by choice.

At this point in the story, though, the distinction between human and monster has become increasingly blurred. Scientists, according to the narrative, insist that not all vampires are monsters. Humans voluntarily become vampires, indicating that there is something appealing to humans and they aren’t strictly victims. Vampires in coldtowns maintain a degree of social ethics, feeding from tubes and shunts to avoid infecting humans and creating an overpopulation of vampires. Tana continually wonders about the dynamics between vampires and humans, exposing the reader to her unanswerable questions. By the end of the novel, Tana has challenged and dismantled the entire definition of monster, leaving it up to the reader to re-assemble it. In Black’s story, we aren’t dealing with humans and the ‘other’. We are slowly forced to face the horrifying truth that humans are capable of monstrosity. And goodness. We aren’t one or the other, we move between the two. We desire the chance to become the monster, even if for only a short time, we want to escape our own own humanity and that is more terrifying than any monster.

In one of the final chapters — and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, because it’s not plot related — Tana “finally understood how the wildness of the Eternal ball was the wildness of grief, the intoxicating dance of carnival, where one leaves oneself at home and becomes something else for a night, hoping that the old skin will still fit when one comes back to it in the morning.” Carnival is time out. Time outside of yourself. Time when people dress-up, wear masks, become someone else. Escape. The paradox of carnival, however, is that during that time, you aren’t someone else. You are still yourself, which begs the question, who is the real you? During carnival, do we put on masks or take them off? Black’s “intoxicating dance of carnival” reminds us that carnival, like death, is seductive.

Death, however, doesn’t let us leave; “To die is landing on some distant shore” (John Dryden, Chapter 15).

Death is our final home; “Call no man happy till he is dead” (Aescylus, Chapter 12).

“Nothing can happen more beautiful than death” (Walt Whitman, Chapter 1).

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