Educating Vitae

by Shim

In which choices are explored, people do things they know to be bad, blood is unhelpfully like sex, and there are altogether too many types of vampire.
I must apologise firstly for the title, and secondly for not incorporating any song titles from Meat Loaf into this article. I already spent too long writing it.

So, only six years late, I finally finished reading Vampire Academy.

It’s quite fun. I originally wrote "really fun", but reflection on the social plot has made me a bit less enthusiastic.

The following will contain enormous amounts of spoilers, including big plot-type revelations. I should also point out that the book includes self-harm, and I will briefly mention it but not go into detail.

On Protagonists and Viewpoints

So the book is a little ambiguous about its nature. Let me cite some of the back blurb here.
Lissa Dragomir is a mortal vampire. She must be protected at all times from the fiercest and most dangerous vampires of all - the ones who will never die. Rose Hathaway is Lissa's best friend - and her bodyguard. Now, after two years of illicit freedom, they've been dragged back inside the iron gates of St. Vladimir's Academy. The girls must survive a world of forbidden romances, a ruthless social scene and terrifying night-time rituals. But above all, they must never let their guard down, lest the immortal vampires take Lissa - forever...
Huh. I don’t think I’ve seen a single night-time ritual. How misleading.

But never mind that! The point is, in this blurb and the early stages of the book, it’s not entirely clear who’s the protagonist (as discussed originally in The Text Factor: Halloween Special: Girl Books for Girls). The description kicks off with Lissa, and she’s the vampire, and the one affected by most of the weird events of the book. However, our viewpoint character is always Rose.

I wondered for a while whether this was going to be a dual-protagonist book with a single viewpoint character; due to blood bond shenanigans, Rose sporadically ends up in Lissa’s mind, which is a handy way to convey key information. That would have been interesting.

As the story progressed, though, I increasingly got the feeling that Lissa is more of a plot point (albeit a nicely characterised one) than a protagonist in her own right. Her early interactions with Christian, and her special status, suggest that her experiences might be the main focus of the book, with Rose there for support, observation and a bit of romance on the side. However, it soon becomes clear that Rose’s experiences are going to be much more narratively important than Lissa’s.

Introduction to the Vampire

There’s quite a lot of vampire stuff to introduce, especially for those of us not familiar with it. I’ve not idea how closely it fits folklorific ideas of vampires. However, the broad-strokes picture we get of how vampire society works seems to fit together in its own rather bizarre way. The relationship between moroi[1], dhampir[2] and humans is clearly unhealthy, particularly their utterly hypocritical view of the people they depend on for blood.

However, Mead is careful to weave in some explanations for this. Not only are the ‘feeders’ providing food, which tends to dehumanise them; they do so willingly and eagerly, because of the intoxicating nature of vampiric saliva, making them into addicts. Society doesn’t respect addicts, so it’s easier to accept this situation. Moreover, Rose calls out the hypocrisy in the situation explicitly, while still allowing shades of it to slip into her own attitudes and words. Knowing something’s morally dubious isn’t an easy route to resolving it, after all.
They were well cared for and given all the comforts they could need. But at the heart of it, they were drug users, addicts to Moroi saliva and the rush it offered with each bite. The Moroi - and guardians - looked down on this dependency, even though the Moroi couldn't have survived otherwise unless they took blood by force. Hypocrisy at its finest.
This trait of allowing grey complexities into Rose’s voice is one of the things that pleased me about the book. Rose is quite perceptive about wrongs, injustices and ambiguities, but Mead hasn’t written her as some righteous, crusading heroine. In fact, the book is riddled with her weaknesses. You might even argue that one of the themes of the book (and, I suspect, the series) is morality, boundaries of acceptability, and the strength and opportunity to make moral choices. Let’s see if I can make a case for that.

Choices and Morality

One of the first things that happens in the book is a feeding; Rose’s vampire, Lissa, needs blood from her. This introduces the intoxication aspect, but it’s only later that we learn how unacceptable – dirty, perverted, unthinkable – this is in vampire society. However, it’s a decision they made to keep Lissa alive, and one that’s left Rose with a mild addiction.

Soon after they return to school, Rose walks into a classroom to find two high-status kids tormenting a poor kid, magically blowing his papers around the room. In many books this would be a teaching point, where Rose or Lissa stepped in to deliver justice and demonstrate their righteousness. Here, nobody does a thing.
My instincts urged me to do something, maybe go smack one of the air users. But I couldn’t pick a fight with everyone who annoyed me, and certainly not a group of royals – especially when Lissa needed to stay off their radar. So I could only give them a look of disgust as I walked to my desk.
And then the narrative moves on to another part of the plot. Although Lissa is technically high-status, and both were once socially powerful, the school has moved on in their absence. Now, the rumours about their escape – and soon about a series of associated events – greatly complicate their attempts to blend back in.

Similarly, Rose frequently does things that aren’t particularly nice, or good, or sensible. As the story is told from her viewpoint, we even hear her acknowledging these issues. She still does them, though. It’s very human.
Some tiny, tiny part of me was starting to feel sorry for Christian. It was only a tiny part, though, and very easy to ignore...
And later on:
"...between stealing [her boyfriend] and spreading those stories about her parents, you guys really picked the best ways to make her suffer. Nice work."

The smallest pang of guilt lurched inside of her. "I still think you're lying."

"I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a lair. That's your department. And Rose's."

"We don't-"

"Exaggerate stories about people's families? Say that you hate me? Pretend to be friends with people you think are stupid? Date a guy you don't like?"
All of the above accusations are, of course, entirely accurate.

A feud erupts between Rose, Lissa and another girl called Mia, apparently at Mia’s instigation. Still, both sides are determined to utterly crush their rival and exact painful revenge, which means immense suffering for both parties as their most private secrets are turned into playground gossip by the other side. It’s mutually-assured destruction, basically.

Another important decision involves Lissa’s vampiric powers. We learn early on that Lissa has some compulsion abilities, and gradually discover that she can influence both humans and vampires, which is highly unusual. When their social standing is destroyed by revelations of blood sharing, a furious Lissa resolves to use those abilities to forcibly change people’s opinions of them, catching them one by one and altering their feelings by magic. This does indeed allow them to gradually regain acceptability in the school, but Rose is deeply uncomfortable about it, with good reason.

Finally, there’s Natalie. Poor Natalie.

Natalie is the daughter of a powerful vampire, Dashikov, and she just wants to be loved. Throughout the book, she seeks social validation, but it’s made clear that above all, she wants her father’s affection, and doesn’t quite get enough. This poisonous little worm is enough to turn her into a pawn for him, and his total carelessness about her really reinforced how unpleasant he is. From spying on her friends for his sake, she’s eventually pushed into leaving mutilated animals around in an attempt to make Lissa reveal her healing powers.

Finally, when her father is captured, she takes the ultimate step of becoming a Strigoi, murdering one of the teachers to gain the power to break him out. It fails, and her death is another trivial loss in his quest for power. Once again, out come those Themes I mentioned.

Natalie breaks the bounds of friendship in the hopes of winning validation from her father, and what she’s prepared to do for his sake pushes her into the final betrayal of her friends and her entire species. Although apparently happy, she doesn’t have the willpower to withstand his influence and refrain from doing wrong on his behalf. Dashikov betrayed his duties as a father by turning Natalie into a pawn for his own sake, and manipulating her love to force her into immoral acts. This contrasts with Dimitri, who as a child defeated his vampiric father to defend his mother, and now bursts in to help Rose defeat her one-time friend.

Although Natalie was only ever a minor character, looking back, you can see hints of what’s going on in the way she casually teases out information and hangs around Lissa. I did feel genuinely sorry for her, and I was sorry to see she just got killed off at the climax. On the other hand, stories where the bad guys just hang around indefinitely can drag.

Knowing what’s best for you

It strikes me that throughout the book, I don’t think Lissa ever actually asks Rose for anything. Partly this is perhaps just habitual expectation that Rose will be there, but I feel that part of it is that Rose projects her own ideas about what Lissa needs onto her charge. The mental bond that lets her literally see through Lissa’s eyes and experience her thoughts surely doesn’t help. We never see Lissa’s side at first hand.

This is shown up most flagrantly when she intervenes to block what she sees as an unhealthy friendship blooming between high-status Lissa and the local brooding loner, Christian, whose parents were killed after going rogue and hunting other vampires. Lissa finds his company soothing and there’s a sympathetic spark between them.

Rose, who is unusually bound up in social games for a contemporary heroine, is horrified at the thought of Lissa associating with this outcast, and repeatedly takes her to task. Between her prejudice and his rather erratic behaviour, things spiral until Rose intervenes, actively lying to Christian to separate them. Naturally, both Lissa and Christian think the other party has wronged them, and things become progressively worse. She does become guilty, though, and eventually she’s forced to admit that she was in the wrong.

Nonetheless, Lissa’s story throughout the book is one of having her best interests decided and controlled by other people. Her escape from the school turns out to have been at Rose’s instigation and with no warning; they’re forcibly returned to the school; Rose patrols her friendships and tries to dictate her social interactions; and eventually, Dashikov steps in to capture her in the hopes of curing his terminal illness. Even this he tries to frame as being good for her, providing an escape from the problems caused by her unique magical abilities.

The problems are, essentially, mental illness. For some reason not yet explained, Lissa's abilities not only lead to her mental bond with Rose, but also to extremely distressing mental episodes. Her coping mechanism for this is the self-harm I mentioned above, and there are a couple of explicit scenes, including first-person perspective courtesy of Rose's bond. Her eventual hospitalisation after a particularly bad episode causes yet more social waves, but also kicks us over from the social plot to the Dashikov plot that seems likely to be the overarching arc of the series.

Interestingly, I don’t think Christian ever does this. One of the things that seems to make him a suitable friend is that he’s fully prepared to leave Lissa alone. In their first encounter he simply extends a tenuous offer of conversation, making no attempt to force it, and he gives her plenty of space. When Rose tells him that Lissa doesn’t actually want him around, he immediately pulls back (causing both plenty of grief).

He does approximately set someone on fire to end a spiteful conversation about Lissa and Rose, but in fairness it’s purely a distraction and he doesn’t really get a chance to ask whether they’d like any help. Although he also clearly thinks it’s really funny. It's sort of reminiscent of the earlier scene with the boy being bullied, only this time the observer does decide to step in and face the consequences.
Since neither Jacob nor Ralf would have set Ralf on fire, it sort of made the culprit obvious. The fact that Christian was laughing hysterically sort of gave it away too.
Coming back to my point, though, I do think his willingness to just let her be herself – tied in to his own solitude and need to just be himself – is a strong point in his favour. When he realises she’s been self-harming, he twigs immediately, says nothing, and just exudes a kind of supportiveness that Lissa finds very comforting. He’s also smart enough to realise she’s been mesmerising everyone to restore their social standing, which is another point in his favour. Admittedly, he thinks it’s hot, rather than an alarming abuse of a power she shouldn’t even have, but then he is a teenager, and she is canonically doing nothing harmful with it, so the narrative’s always going to be on her side.

What I’m saying is, basically, I liked Christian as a character. I thought he was a well-constructed love interest, even though we mostly only see him in brief glimpses through Lissa’s eyes, as he doesn’t let his guard down as much around Rose. To some extent he comes across as the conscience of the story, reminding Rose and Lissa of their moral failings.

In fact (if I can be astonishingly pseud for a moment) you could almost posit him as a jester; his outsider status, total lack of social power and uncaring badass lonerism means he can speak truth to power (and set people on fire) with impunity, having very little to lose. He's also positioned to observe the other students without much personal involvement, and thus to comment on them.

I found Dimitri appealing as well. Mead did a good job of building the connections between him and Rose – they have similar mindsets, a strong sense of dedication, they feel somewhat isolated, and they’re very physical people. In both cases, they bring an outsider perspective that gives rise to mild contempt for some aspects of vampiric society; a sort of flipside to Christian's status as scion of a family fallen to the strigoi.

Yet they’re not entirely the same. There are clear differences in upbringing: she was raised by the school and indoctrinated from birth to become a model guardian like her mother; he was raised in a tight-knit community of blood-donors. Age also creates a distinction: I can see Rose eventually maturing into a more measured person, though probably still less reserved than Dimitri.

The older lover thing is a trope, and being a trope it isn’t quite as problematic as a 17-24 relationship would seem to me in real life. Rose has also been surviving in the real world for two years, so she’s a bit more savvy than her years. I was pleased that Dimitri, and to some extent Rose, recognised and tried to deal with these issues. As well as the simple age barrier, school rules, and his pastoral responsibility towards her, there are some professional complications.

One odd observation: given how Dimitri is presented as a consummate professional, he completely misses a massive and glaring clue that something suspicious is going on, and the narrative skips right over it.
"Well, it was a hell of a lot better than the last one they tried"

"Last one?"

"Yeah. In Chicago. With the pack of psi-hounds."

"This was the first time we found you. In Portland."

"Um. I don't think I imagined psi-hounds. Who else could have sent them? They only answer to moroi. Maybe no-one told you about it."

"Maybe," he said dismissively. I could tell by his face he didn't believe that.
It's not very clear to me whether this is supposed to mean "he decided Rose was making it up" or "he was deeply suspicious and pretending not to be". Either way, nothing seems to suggest that anyone actually follows up on this obviously suspicious point, even though it ties strongly into the conclusion of the story.

Changing Minds

It’s maybe worth noting that this offers one of the more accurate portrayals of manipulation and social dynamics I remember seeing. Everyone involved is aware that what they’re dealing with is say-so, rumour and gossip, and quite harmful gossip at that, but they nevertheless either spread it or at least allow it to influence their behaviour. First Lissa, and then Rose, know the other’s desire for revenge is excessive, but they don’t seriously intervene and eventually both are committed to destroying Mia (we never get to see Mia’s side, sadly).

This isn’t just about bitchy girls, either. The boys in the story don’t come out too well. Several are happy to spread damaging lies about girls to get some attention, or even to be bribed with sex. There’s petty bullying, and Lissa and Rose are regularly targets of leering remarks and speculation on their relationship. Even the nicer named boys, Mason and Christian, are hot-tempered and use violence to defend Rose and Lissa from bullying. Only Dimitri, Rose’s smoking-hot combat instructor, escapes most of this – and as a 24-year old, he’s presumably matured more than the others, though he does have one aggressive confrontation with a student.

The school principal is interesting in the little we see of her. Rose views her quite clearly as despotic and arbitrary, but I don’t think the text quite supports that. She is quite harsh with Rose and Lissa, but then she has very good reason: they have committed a serious breach of rules by running away for two full years, causing enormous trouble and worry for a lot of other people. They also appear to be habitual troublemakers (lots of illegal parties and midnight escapades) and smashed up another student’s bedroom before leaving. Of course she’s going to be strict.

Moreover, this isn’t just normal school strictness; the vampires face the very real threat of strigoi hunting them down. In the absence of a very good explanation, which the girls don’t dare to give, severe punishment is inevitable and appropriate. She does intend to expel Rose before Dimitri intervenes, but then again, she’s prepared to change her mind when he agrees to take her in hand. I thought she was pretty well-done as a character.

Social Protagonists

On that social games point – my observation (from an admittedly limited subset of reading) is that the majority of protagonists in contemporary literature, particularly literature aimed at younger people, don’t really dabble in social politics. Many are bookish nerds, particularly on the more fantastical end of the literary spectrum. Many others are simply everyteenagers; they’re averagely attractive (at least in theory), averagely clever, have an average number of friends, and so on. I can only remember seeing high-status people in more literary books, or that high-society flavour of romance a la Jilly Cooper. Historical novels seem much readier to star nobles and the socially-influential, possibly because those are the bits of history that sound most fun.

As such, it was interesting to see a story whose protagonists were enthusiastic participants in the social scene. I was a little disappointed to realise that that was going to be strictly past tense; I suppose it does make sense for things to have changed in their absence, including their own feelings. Mostly, though, I imagine the narrative called for them to have to make new friends and not have very much support, because most of this volume is about that social uncertainty, and how it leaves them vulnerable.

Oh Sole Mia

Mia was actually the aspect of the book that I thought was weakest. I liked the fact that there was an apparently-arbitrary rivalry between these girls, and was quite sympathetic to Mia. Truth be told, I still am. We learn that her family are very low-status and she’s managed to work her way into more influential circles – another example of boundary-crossing, as this seems to be viewed in much the same way as social climbing in 1950s Britain, but seems quite reasonable to me.

Later it’s revealed that the reason for the feud is her appalling treatment by Lissa’s deceased brother, which Lissa is naturally reluctant to believe (as quoted above). Again, the brother made bad choices and harmed Mia both personally and socially in the process. However, Lissa loved and had faith in her brother, and it's difficult for her to accept that he was not only in the wrong, but actively wronged someone else. The fact that she's currently in a serious feud with Mia naturally makes that even harder.

I felt like both sides were being realistically angry and vindictive, but both were also understandable and sympathetic in their motivations. Although Mia technically starts the feud, she's clearly on the defensive from the start, responding to what seems an invasion of her social territory from someone she hates both as a royal and as the sister of her horrible ex.

Later on, though, the authorial voice turns violently against Mia. She becomes increasingly desperate in the face of the nobility closing ranks against her (which is quite understandable), and resorts to trying to get Rose’s help after a fall-out between her and Lissa. This is a sort of unpardonable sin in narrative terms, trying to create a betrayal between friends, and she’s quite explicitly painted as dangerous and ruthless. Of course, this is all in Rose’s voice, but it also felt fairly clear that this was the reality.

Worse is to come, though; it turns out that Mia spread rumours by offering sexual favours to a couple of bragging lads, while in a steady relationship with someone she’s apparently devoted to. This is the point where the narrative switches from nasty-but-somewhat-understandable to, it seemed to me, depicting her as genuinely obsessive and (in Rose’s words) “well into sociopath territory”. It’s not the actions specifically, so much as how far she’s willing to push boundaries in pursuit of revenge. Rose, on the other hand, is the Sexy Spice half of the Rose-Lissa pair, but the text is careful to emphasise early on that she hasn’t had sex, despite all the kissing and “semi-nakedness” that’s brought up regularly.

The problem is, though, that this leaves us with an antagonist who is flat-chested (highlighted very early on), short, relatively unpopular (until she started dating Lissa’s royal ex, apparently), working-class, and promiscuous, who is also portrayed as nasty and sociopathic. I feel like the conflation of those things is a bit unnecessary – I’d rather hoped to see the end of Bad Common Girl when I stopped reading Enid Blyton. She’s left to contrast with a conventionally-attractive, athletic, popular, high-status party-girl heroine who’s conveniently balanced between “sexy” and “virgin”.

This increasing vilification of Mia helpfully means that Rose and Lissa never have to really reconsider their own actions or question their consciences. In fact, the final flare of this plot in the book involves Mia making yet more bitchy remarks while Lissa is in hospital, and Rose punching her in the face. The uberplot kicks off while she's under lock and key, awaiting punishment. Narratively, Mia is placed firmly in the wrong, and I think that's a shame.

Weirdly, in some ways I actually felt more sympathetic to Mia than to Rose. She’s got plenty of issues, but she had been very badly treated by Lissa’s brother, and had fought had to overcome the major social disadvantages of her background in a prejudiced society, only to have that stripped away by the sudden return of Lissa and Rose.

To a large extent I also felt she was treated badly by the narrative, with Mead making an apparently conscious decision to make her a nasty piece of work and piling sexual condemnation on top of that. I’d have liked to see an antagonist who was just someone whose interests constantly clash with the protagonist, and I feel that would have worked well, given how Rose is constantly presented as flawed.

The Sex Talk

Awkwardly, I think the book is framing a lot of the social stuff around sex. I don’t know much about the sociology or literary issues here, so apologies for the aspects I will undoubtedly miss. Essentially, there’s a slightly weird thing where blood is sometimes a sort of metaphor for sex, except there’s also sex. You know?

People who provide blood to vampires are popularly called “blood whores”, which seems to be completely acceptable terminology – the only alternative, “feeders”, isn’t much better. I’m a bit surprised there doesn’t seem to be a single official or neutral term in use, even if teenagers don’t use it. The characters conflate these with the dhampir communities who raise children, creating an impression that non-guardian dhampirs (mostly women) are basically just sources of blood or sex or both for moroi. It’s not entirely clear how accurate this is in the setting.

The entire blood-sharing issue, which is the cause of Lissa and Rose’s fall from grace, is explicitly depicted as both “dirty” and strongly associated with kinky sex. The rumours spread about them claim that Rose has been sleeping around while allowing vampire boys to drink her blood - which is, predictably, treated as only being icky on her side, because sexism.

I mean, it makes some sense. I can see that in a world where “people you feed on” is an actual thing, then taboos would quite likely arise on also having sex with those people, and that all sorts of baggage would build around this.

The awkwardness here is that half their social redemption comes from proving (well, getting those same accusers to declare) that it’s all lies and Rose never actually had sex with anybody, let alone allowed them to drink her blood (the issue of Lissa is allowed to drop). The second half comes from revealing that, while Rose hasn’t been having sex, Mia has, which makes her the slutty one, so ner ner na ner ner. More or less.

It’s all fairly believable behaviour-wise... no, wait. The responses of the teenagers to these various bits of gossip and scandal are sadly believable, though Mia’s behaviour specifically was pretty hard to credit as plausible. At the same time I found it uncomfortable, because these attitudes were also bundled with Mia being quite clearly the spiteful antagonist and also presented as somewhat unstable, and the fact that she specifically uses sex as a lever to get boys to lie on her behalf.

Broadly speaking, you end up with a situation where Our Heroine is vindicated and approved because she wasn’t having sex, whereas Our Antagonist is condemned because she was having sex. This is, bizarrely, true even though Rose and Lissa actually were doing the blood-sharing that’s the biggest part of the taboo, whereas Mia just had sex.

It’s also a bit strange that as far as I can tell, the two boys who spread vicious lies about Rose in exchange for sex are perfectly happy to admit it and don’t seem to expect any consequences. Sexual mores are messed up, but in my experience flagrant lying tends to cause social backlash – and more so considering that the targets of the lies, Lissa and Rose, were social bigshots whose popularity is now restored. As far as I can tell, they agree to come clean under threats from one of Rose’s friends, but I didn’t find it entirely convincing. It felt a bit like the writer just needed to wrap this arc up now to start introducing the series plot.

It wasn’t a huge problem for me or anything, but this Rose-vs-Mia arc is the biggest arc of the book (it’s a series, so the main plot only just gets a look in), so it seemed a shame it had this awkward aspect to it. I feel like just dropping the sex aspect and having the scandal built purely around blood-sharing would have been both neater and stronger, as well as less problematic. As it was I didn’t feel like this arc was very well written.

The end bit

I feel like I should have some kind of conclusion here, but I don't really. I'm not sure whether I'll read any more of the series; I thought some of what it was doing was quite interesting, but I've noticed how much hmming and hawing I'm doing here, especially over poor Mia. The fact that I'm even thinking "poor Mia" is perhaps an indication that this series isn't for me.

I must also confess that I've got limited tolerance for plots along the lines of "you alone have the one special magic long thought lost or legendary, which will be the key to saving the universe".

On the other hand, I liked the bits of it that weren't about Mia, and maybe with the uberplot kicking off, that won't be much of an issue? I dunno. I've got plenty more to read right now. But perhaps, as with Fallen, now that I've worked out what the series is doing I've got what I need.

[1] “Vampires” who are, as far as I can tell, essentially human wizards who drink blood but not in a bad way you guys, and also don’t like sunlight. They don’t seem to be superhuman other than some elemental magic.

[2] Half-vampires who are basically Buffy as far as I can tell, but get brought up to be fanatically loyal to their vampiric masters and dedicate themselves to either protecting moroi from attack by the strigoi[3], or being “blood whores” because… why not, as far as I can tell. Maybe it’s hard to get social security numbers when your parent was a vampire? Your dad, I mean. Dhampirs are basically all the bastard offspring of horny male moroi who wanted to get some curvy human female action, because moroi are always pale, thin and flat-chested.

Canonically, the dhampirs do all this to ensure the survival of their species, which is to say, their hybrid. Given the reality of dhampir life, I’m not sure why. Basically this seems to boil down to accepting a brutal life of either dedicating yourself to being elite bodyguards for feeble moroi and under constant risk of death, or being junkie blood sources for moroi and at constant risk of abuse, or breeding the next generation of dhampirs – in order to ensure that you can have descendants who have the same kind of lives.)

[3] Vampires who are canonically evil because they kill their victims, although I get the feeling they’re mostly bad because they feed on moroi specifically to be honest. Also their bite turns people into more strigoi. They’re presented as being incarnations of predatory evil, but from the one strigoi we meet in the book, they come across as a mixture of Character In Goth Makeup and Character In Evil Voice. Basically these seem to be the Buffy Vampires of the setting – basically just like they always were, except faster, stronger, more metal, cooler and probably sexier.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 17:25 on 2016-01-18
The girls must survive a world of forbidden romances, a ruthless social scene and terrifying night-time rituals. But above all, they must never let their guard down, lest the immortal vampires take Lissa - forever...
Huh. I don’t think I’ve seen a single night-time ritual. How misleading.

Two out of three ain't bad
Shim at 18:31 on 2016-01-18

Two out of three ain't bad

I... how did I miss that? *facepalm*

Also I just realised this cover is different to mine (probably the US edition?) and although it's the exact same photo, mine is very pale with black hair and red lips (classically vampiric), whereas the above is pinkish with... brown hair, I think?
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2016-05-24
I checked this one and its sequels out, along with Fallen and The Morganville Vampires after the TeXt Factor Halloween special. I read the final book, book 6, a year or two ago, and I recently started listening to the spin-off Bloodlines series on audiobook. So, I obviously liked it—quite fun on the whole, with occasional forays into really fun. I'd put the series somewhere above Fallen, but below The Morganville Vampires in terms of my enjoyment/appreciation.

(I also encouraged one of my sisters to read the first book, and while she enjoyed it, she loathed Lissa and all the Moroi, because she considered them useless in their dependence upon the dhampir guardians.)

I broadly agree with your case for the themes the book explores, and I'd definitely say it carries over to the rest of the series—and the first two spin-off books, at least. Interestingly enough, despite dealing with these fairly weighty issues in a moderately intelligent manner, the books still come across to me as light beach reading; I still haven't worked out whether I think that works towards their favor or against it.

Book 2—where my sister bailed on the series—is a downgrade in quality from the first, as there's less stuff going on through most of it. However, it rallies at the end with an exciting climax, and one which redress one of my major disappointments with the climax to the first.

Book 3 is a return to form, and a solid addition to the series.

Book 4 is, in my opinion, the best of the lot: here we see Rose's internal struggle at its most intense, and Rose herself at her very lowest point in the series. I said the books feel like beach reading, but there was a point about two thirds of the way through the fourth book which got me right in the heart, and I was impressed with the depth of emotional reaction Mead managed to evoke. Plus, the Lissa subplot was pretty cool, and the resolution was both awesome and unexpected.

Book 5 like Book 3, is a really solid addition to the series, though it feels like a bit of a downgrade coming off the high of Book 4. Still, it's got a lot going for it, and while the big plot points themselves aren't to surprising, I wasn't expecting when or how they would play out.

Book 6 was a little disappointing, not because it did anything really bad, just that it wasn't quite as exciting as I would have liked from the final installment. While I like that the climax doesn't revolve around a big fight with an Arc Villain for the series, I could have done with something a little more epic. Plus, the villain turned out to be a very likable character I'd pegged early on as being either a villain or a victim, because they didn't fit into any other story slot. Just when I was beginning to think this was just a cool supporting character, it's revealed that person was a villain after all. Sigh.

I agree with you about Natalie, poor thing.

As I recall, the school principal is, indeed, a strict but ultimately reasonable authority figure throughout the series, whom Rose misreads because Rose's and Lissa's behavior often brings out the “strict” part of her character. Actually, that's a bit of a running theme in the series.

From what I remember of the first book, Mia does degenerate from understandable antagonist to Designated Villain, part of which involves her engaging in sex to influence someone else's behavior—rather than for love, in contrast to both Rose and Lissa* over the course of the books—and that's not good. It's probably no big spoiler to reveal that Mia is rehabilitated later in the series, but as I recall, it's a case of a reformed villain rather than both sides admitting they shared the blame equally.

*I think Lissa slept with her then-boyfriend—Mia's current boyfriend—before the events of the book because she was young and horny, which is still more “legitimate” than sleeping with someone because so they'll help you out in your evil scheme.

I also felt like the series as a whole has a disappointing lack of follow-through regarding some of the more unpleasant aspects of Moroi society. The hypocrisy over feeders (I think that is the common parlance “neutral” term) is brought up at times, but nobody ever really tries to do anything to resolve it, so the overall message comes across as a helpless shrug, “too bad, what'cha gonna do?”

Furthermore, the books never really acknowledge how immensely f*cking scary the Moroi's compulsion magic is, and how, in a more realistic universe, even well meaning people like Lissa would probably wind up using it for much more destructive purposes than undermining their rivals' popularity; kind of like a miniature version of the One Ring. (One character in the Bloodlines novels is suitably freaked by it, but this is explicitly depicted as part of their irrational distrust of Moroi and magic in general. Not once so far have we seen how easily compulsion could be abused to disastrous effect. I know Robert Jordan had a lot of flaws as a writer, but his characters knew to treat that kind of power with the respect and suspicion it deserves.)

The Moroi's institutional aristocracy and monarchy (even if it's a constitutional monarchy) also strikes me as pretty disturbing, but no one even suggests there might be something wrong with that one.

I think Mead does a better job of keeping Rose's faults and flaws as a character foregrounded, even with Rose providing first person narration the whole time, while still keeping her a likable character. One of the fascinating things in the later books is the way Rose gets into relationships which we know because of narrative convention are never going to work out, and which she has some misgivings over, but which she talks herself into anyway, sometimes multiple times, and the boy in question is so enamored of her that he keeps holding out the hope she'll commit to him for real. It's very unfair of Rose, and depicted as such, but also as completely understandable given what she's going though. It's like a total deconstruction of the Evil Girlfriend Who Toys With Innocent Boys' Emotions archetype, without ever hitting you over the head with what it's doing. (Indeed, I could be prepared to believe Richelle Mead didn't set out to explode this stereotype at all, and just happened to do so in the course of writing about a young woman caught up in an Epic Tragic Romance trying as best she can to navigate a swathe of feelings and emotions which she doesn't fully understand.)

The older lover thing is a trope, and being a trope it isn’t quite as problematic as a 17-24 relationship would seem to me in real life.

Me too—although on the other hand, one of the best matched couples I know got together at ages 17 and 30, and they're still going strong 8 years later. Funny old world.

On a tangential note, it's really weird to consider that I'm now several years older than Dimitri in the books. The way he acts, I guess I always tend to think of him as being in his early 30s, rather than early 20s.

I must also confess that I've got limited tolerance for plots along the lines of "you alone have the one special magic long thought lost or legendary, which will be the key to saving the universe".

For what it's worth, we meet a couple of other spirit users over the course of the series. Also, while Lissa's magic is, indeed, critical to the plot, it is not the key to saving the universe, as that's not really what the books are about.

We learn a lot more about Strigoi in later books, too, and they do indeed come across a lot like Buffy-esque Vampires: pretty much the same personalities, and they seem to have some sort of feelings for other people, and yet still somehow evil and uncaring, and the juxtaposition of the two is about as awkward as you would expect. (I fantasized while reading those sections that the Moroi and the Guardians might just be mistaken, and Strigoi, while alien and with very different priorities, might not be actually evil and uncaring. No such luck, sadly.)

If you do decide you want to continue reading the series, don't get attached to the psi-hounds. They get dropped so completely in later books that I was shocked to see them when the film version of the first book came out, as I'd literally forgotten they existed.
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