The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
I should confess that I am not a great aficionado of contemporary vampire stories. I’ve watched a few fragmentary episodes of Buffy, but I’ve have never read Twilight, nor watched any of the movies. However, I am aware of a sub-genre that Stephanie Meyer seems to have almost single-handedly spawned of young adult vampire romance. I say spawned – I could have said inspired – but in the context I think “spawned” sums it up pretty well. Like the great monsters of myth that they describe, each book by a process of infection and/or emulation seems to spawn fresh (but weaker?) examples of their kind.
Having said that, I didn’t find the Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black in the young adult section at Waterstones. It was firmly placed within the sci-fi and fantasy shelves half a shop and a flight of stairs away from the sparkliness that is Edward and Bella. It is not too much of a giveaway to mention that Black’s story involves vampires, what with garlands of garlic being mentioned in the second paragraph.
The opening page and the blurb persuaded me to buy it. A feisty leading female, some nice touches in the writing, “Bright, buttery, late summer sunlight…” and a setting of Coldtown “A glamorous cage. A prison for the damned.”
The worldbuilding is brisk and business-like – much of it delivered through the characters’ recollections either of high school lectures on vampire related health and safety or their own painful pasts. Black conjures up a contemporary United States blighted by a recent sudden upsurge in vampirism. The vampires can be killed in all the traditional ways and can drain people to death. However, humans bitten but not killed by vampires merely become infected.
The infection does not directly turn them into vampires, but drives them into an ever strengthening craving for human blood. If they should succumb and taste another human’s blood, then the infection becomes fatal and after death they rise again as vampires. On the other hand, if they can survive the craving without succumbing for 88 days then the infection is driven from their bodies and they can be fully safely human again. (If that feels a little contrived, be reassured that even with those complexities, the fictional propagation of Black’s species of vampires still falls far short of the elaborate reproductive cycle of the malaria parasite as it is juggled back and forth between human and mosquito.)
This staged path to full blown vampirism is one I had not seen before in my admittedly limited experience of vampire stories. However, the hiatus this provokes for the infected – perched on the lip of eternity – is a key engine driving much of the plot. The motif of an irresistible hunger for blood or flesh or brains – like an addict going cold turkey – has been a feature of plenty of horror/fantasy stories. For example: Jacob Marlowe the eponymous hero of The Last Werewolf; The “hungries” in the Girl with All the Gifts; the infected in David Atwell’s The Rotting Frontier. But Black delves perhaps more deeply than most into the physical sensations that her characters experience – the heightened awareness of their vermillion drug rushing in rhythmic beats through their quarry’s veins.
Despite the book’s low temperature title, it warmed up decidedly for me on a journey through four hundred pages in just three sittings and about 24 hours. With my tentative star ratings rising remorselessly (along with the level of peril for the protagonist and her friends).
Early on I wasn’t sure. I thought The Sun review cover quote of ‘A mind-blowing story…’ felt somewhat overblown. A few of the heroine’s initial choices irritated me, in places the writing felt a bit clunky, and there were moments when I thought I could see through the fabric of the book to the mind of the author beneath in an unsuspension of disbelief. Was it that Tana didn’t know what to do or say, or was it Black who was momentarily lost for words or ideas as heroine and author occasionally stumbled through the opening narrative hook of a party aftermath that nobody could clean up.
But (As Bill Clinton might have said if he’d been an author rather than a president) “It’s the story, stupid.” And the story rattled at increasing pace, drawing me in. At about a third of the way through I was hooked enough to think this is good addictive stuff. Easily devoured reading, though perhaps more fast food dining than haute cuisine, much as the vampires of the story must have viewed their human prey.
By the end I’d fallen deeply into the story of Tana Bach and the Springfield Coldtown. It passed the acid test of a book for me, it had me thinking about it even after I had finished – the themes and the story perhaps more so than the characters.
There are themes that will be as familiar to vampire-o-philes as elves are to Tolkienistas. Tana has got a lot of “issues” to work through. She lives in dangerous times and friends are few and far between (and getting fewer and farther). The global underworld of ancient vampires, a kind of blood sucking mafia, is almost as dangerous to other vampires as to their human prey. I saw some resonances between Black’s work and the films Interview with a Vampire and Blade. Also Coldtown, the walled lawless city under quarantine, is reminiscent of series and films like Contagion, Outbreak, Escape from New York, and for the suspension of the rules of civilisation as in Purge.
There was a point at the three-quarter mark where I thought, I can see where this is going and I had to take a break before continuing. As a ‘straightforward girl in peril and doing her best to get her out of it’ scenario, this story works and works well. There were some surprises I felt smug about because I had picked up the foreshadowing. But there were other twists which swung me through a right angle. The more I read, the more I saw layers beneath the surface of this story.
In Black’s re-imagined world the US has devised a system of quarantined coldtowns where vampires, the infected and their hangers on can all live a segregated lifestyle. The goings on in Coldtown are livestreamed to the internet in the ultimate cash-generating “Celebrity Big Brother Get me the feck out of here” show. Vampire inmates earn fortunes hosting debauched online parties and in so doing feast not merely on blood, but on youths’ addiction to romanticising vampires, death and immortality. One character we meet is particularly determined to achieve immortality as a perfect ageless vampire – she vows “no more birthdays.” Others are equally taken in by the lure of the charming bloodsuckers. But the reality inside Coldtown is far from the carefully edited video-fiction.
I wondered if Black was trying to strike off against the flow of conventional vampire-romance. In Northanger Abbey Jane Austen unpicked the popular gothic genre of the time. Her heroine discovered the dark dangers she perceived were all in her head and the truth was a more innocuous and conventional whirl of social mores. In a similar way, I might hypothesise that Tana and her friends went the other way and discovered a truth far darker than the sparkliness of their imaginations. Maybe the message of “be careful what you wish for” is as much for Black’s readers as her characters.
Besides the romanticism of vampires, there is also a degree of sensualisation of vampirism – of bloodsucking itself and there were times when the writing made me uncomfortable. Well written scenes counterpoised moments of intense intimacy – such as one particular blood filled kiss – with more traditional raw feeding frenzies. It did give me pause for thought at the things we find entertaining, the way we like to let our imaginations thrill at peeping over the precipice of horror. I guess in a book about vampires you have to be able to describe the addictive euphoria-inducing taste for blood convincingly. Black certainly does that.
There is one other way in which I wondered if Black was having a shy at the genre of which her book is just one of many progeny. There are many coldtowns but the one in this book is the first and the best, the town that was once Springfield. Now I don’t know the United States very well, maybe there were many towns built in fields near springs so Springfield is to towns what Jones is to surnames. But until now I only knew of one other Springfield and in a film version saw the whole town quarantined – not just behind a wall but beneath a great glass dome. I don’t suppose that Black was really making any reference to Homer Simpson’s home town, but the thought that she might have been, tickled me.
There were other moments that made me smile. When Tana is trying to explain away her ex-boyfriend’s over possessive behaviour. “He didn’t mean anything by it. I think he thinks about girlfriend like some kind of honorary title, like the way every president is still ‘President So and So,’ no matter who’s currently in office.”
And as for Death – that bony old romantic – Black starts each chapter with a quote about death from authors and poets and philosophers, reminding us that mankind’s obsession with death has been around as long as…well as long as taxes.
This review appeared on Fantasy-Faction on July 17, 2016.