If only every fantasy novel was as smart as Coldest Girl in Coldtown

I am not a vampire person. It’s not that I don’t get the allure of the vampire story — I’ve just always found the metaphors for sexuality, power and old money's exploitation of youth too obvious and overblown. So I was pleasantly shocked that I pretty much loved Holly Black’s newest YA novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, in all its gory vampiric glory.

In Coldtown, Tana’s world was as blissfully vampire-free as ours until about a decade ago when newly turned vampire went rogue and spread the infection exponentially, faster than the older vampires, who had carefully kept their numbers low for centuries, could cover it up. In Europe this turned into an all-out war to eradicate vampires, but in the U.S. vampires and the government have reached a detent centering on Coldtowns. Inside the walled Coldtowns, vampires, the infected and humans can all live in relative peace. Outside the Coldtowns, vampires are fair game. But once inside, it’s nearly impossible to get out: not only must people not be infected, they’ll have to pay handsomely for the privilege. And of course, this being the U.S., it’s not just the government making money off the vampires. There are vampire reality shows, t-shirts, blogs and all manner of knickknacks. The vampires themselves run pay-per-view websites with live feeds of balls, parties and general debauchery.

This is the world Tana wakes up in after a “sundown” party that has gone horribly awry. While she was passed out in a bathtub, vampires have massacred her classmates. Black makes the scene where Tana walks among her friends’ corpses not only horrific, but sparsely poetic as well. This is book that isn’t going to shy away from death and tragedy, but it’s not going to wallow either. What comes through even more clearly is Tana’s iron will: she may not be the most strategic thinker in every situation, but she has complete follow-through.

And in this case she follows through on rescuing a chained up vampire boy and her newly infected ex-boyfriend from the vampires who ate her friends. But not before she possibly becomes infected herself. Realizing the only place the three of them will be safe from bounty hunters, the police or military is in a Coldtown, Tana takes them to the nearest one. That is where things go really wrong for Tana, as she stumbles into several powerful vampires’ ancient grudges. Her attempts to survive in Coldtown are complicated by her loyalties, and her desperate need to stay human.

Black, who's better known for her YA fairy novels and is the author of the middle grade Spiderwick Chronicles, has really thought about vampires – how they could have hidden in the past, their own horrors and desires, their motivations beyond the simple hunger for blood. She’s got dozens of ways for them to drink blood without biting anyone. Her vision of vampires in the modern world is another excellent twist. Like The Hunger Games, the addition of modern technology helps transform a genre, but rather than focus on reality television, Black gives us a mini surveillance state coupled with instantaneous communication. Both are ripe for creating everything from money to panic to plot complications.

But Black's best innovation is the multi-stage infection process that occurs before becoming a vampire. Not all bites become infected and once a person is infected, or “cold,” they still have a chance of recovering. Few do, because as soon as a cold person drinks human blood they die and come back as a vampire. And their craving for blood is all consuming. This drawn out process helps explain how vampires historically kept their numbers low and offers a slim and sickening hope to the whole proceeding.

Most characters Tana encounters aren’t hoping to get better — instead they gravitate to Coldtowns, hoping to be turned into glamorous and immortal vampires. Some are misguided, and some seem mentally unwell. Some regret it, and plenty die before their dreams are realized. The abject poverty, squalor and serious danger that Coldtown’s human residents live in is in direct contrast to the opulence and allure that the vampires try to project. Black never lets the reader forget that the vampires are monsters and the whole thing is a charnel house gilded over.

Which makes Tana’s romance with Gavriel, the vampire she rescued, very intriguing. He’s a monster and she knows it. But he’s also a poetic soul and gorgeous to boot. Their interactions are, more than anything else, about the balance between monster and human, with each taking both roles in turn. There are no pledges of eternal devotion or promises of a magical future. Rather there is blood and death, and the hope that they won’t succumb to either.

If only every fantasy novel was as smart as Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Even though the book doesn’t shy away from the romance and sex aspects of vampires, it’s surprisingly positive about non-heteronormative sex and gender. Tana’s ex-boyfriend is bisexual, which is presented as part of his impish personality, rather than the reason they broke up. A transgender girl Tana meets in Coldtown hoped to change into a vampire before she grows older, and thus more masculine looking. Which is probably the most reasonable motive for becoming a vampire the book offers. Vampire stories tend to be anti-sex at their core, suggesting that following your libidinous urges leads to ruin and death. It’s nice to come across a story that correctly identifies disregard for human life as the thing that makes vampires monsters.

But it’s not just some didactic consideration of monstrosity. Half the fun is the aesthetic: the Hot Topic-y, semi-punk, semi-goth, semi-Romantic mishmash that decorates the world. There are probably more characters with unnatural hair colors than not. Black occasionally plays this for laughs, as when the characters stop at a mall filled with vampire kitsch outside of Coldtown. But the book also revels in the aesthetic, offering poetic epigraphs at the start of each chapter. These quotes draw fully from the Romantic tradition, reminding us that our obsession with vampires and death predates Twilight.

The book is — be still my beating heart — a stand alone novel. Though Black has said she might return to the world someday, she has no plans to do so at the moment. It’s hard to see how the wonderfully ambiguous ending could be improved on with sequels. That alone might make it a novelty worth recommending, but the fast paced story, carefully constructed world, and philosophical considerations definitely do. The Coldest Girl in Cold Town is the perfect accompaniment to the encroaching cold season.