Sometimes high-school cliques and supervamps both need a roundhouse kick

A boarding school full of vampires sounds like a bit silly, like Harry Potter meets Twilight. But Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy is actually something much cooler: Mean Girls with mysticism, plus complicated vampire politics. Spoilers ahead.

The Vampire Academy novels have already reached their fifth or sixth volume by now, and I've seen them for sale at Best Buy, next to the impulse-buy candy on the way to the cash registers. But somehow I hadn't managed to read one of these hit young-adult books until I was moderating a panel about paranormal young-adult literature at Book Expo America last week, with author Richelle Mead in attendance.

And I was blown away by Mead's strong but flawed protagonist, her rich world-building and her unpredictable plotting. If you need a quick, fun escapist read, or if you have a kid who's just starting to get into paranormal YA, this series is a great alternative to the Twilight books.

Here are some reasons why the Vampire Academy series is a cut above your average vamp-angst novels:

The main character isn't emo or obsessed with her love life. Mead's protagonist, Rose, is a Dhampir, a kind of half-vampire who serves as a sort of bodyguard for the full-fledged vampires, or Moroi. She's apt to break people's faces without considering the consequences - plus she has a kind of psychic link with her charge and best friend, Vasilisa. Rose does have a couple of love interests, including a nice-but-boring boy, Mason, and her mentor, Dimitri. And she's training to be a warrior and fight a type of super-vampire that preys on the other vampires, the nearly impossible-to-kill Strigoi.

The "Mean Girls" thing is kind of awesome. Most of the drama at the bloodsucking boarding school doesn't have to do with vampires vs. mundanes, or jocks vs. nerds. Instead, it's a reflection of a larger class system among the vampire community. There's a vampire aristocracy, not unlike in the Sookie Stackhouse books, and the kids with the highest standing in the artistocracy also rule the high school. If you're in with the cool kids, nobody can mess with you - but if you get on the wrong side of them, you get squished. (But Vasilisa secretly has a thing for the outcast, vaguely gothy boy who hides in the church attic and broods.)

These books have a clever, unique spin on the anxieties of adolescence. Rose goes on the run with Vasilisa at the start of the first book, for reasons too complicated to go into. And while they're on the run, Rose lets Vasilisa drink her blood because no human feeders are available. This is a huge taboo among the vampires, and Dhampirs who let Moroi drink their blood tend to become "blood whores," which is just what it sounds like. After they get back to school, Vasilissa and Rose keep their off-campus activities a secret, but lots of people suspect. And when a couple of the most popular boys spread a false rumor that Rose had sex with both of them, they also claim she let them drink her blood. The "blood whore" stigma becomes a whole new dimension to the "slut" stigma that Rose already carries around with her.

There's still plenty of beach-read intrigue. There are enough love triangles in this book to create a whole new branch of geometry, including the aforementioned Dhampire triangle. There are misunderstandings and lust hexes and a totally ridiculously awesome dress that Rose gets to wear to the big dance. It's totally your typical high-school coming-of-age romance - if the main character was a vampiric bodyguard who's spending every free moment doing combat practice.

I love the mythology of all the different types of vampires, and the different types of magic that different characters can specialize in, and the mythic vampire saint whose secret abilities may have a hidden significance in explaining why Vasilissa is so special - and why Vasilissa may be doomed. Mead's reinvention of the vampire mythos is multi-layered and rich, and the result is one of the most memorable vampire stories I've read in ages.

Mostly, I'm dying to read the rest of the Vampire Academy series, to see Rose become a better head-kicker and see her take down the Strigoi, while showing up the popular girls at her school. Because dealing with annoying phoney cliques is just as challenging as stopping the super-vamp apocalypse, sometimes.