I am a big fan of Holly Black’s work, especially her Curseworkers series. It took me a while to finally get around to reading The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, but I knew I’d enjoy it. It is typical Holly Black fare: gothic and creepy, centred on a reckless protagonist, and with the fantastic beautifully integrated into the gritty urban landscapes of modern america.
In Coldest Girl in Coldtown Black turns to vampire mythology. In her acknowledgements she describes the book as a love letter to vampire books she read growing up, and that love springs from the page. In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown universe, vampires have always existed, but in secret and in small numbers. Then, a decade or so before the book begins, the vampire Caspar Morales became enamoured of the pop culture image of vampires and started turning people indiscriminately. This leads to outbreaks of vampirism, which in the US are confined by quarantine zones around infected neighbourhoods and towns. The bite of a vampire transmits an infection, turning the victim ‘cold’. The victim suffers cold and extreme bloodlust, and if they drink human blood whilst infected they will die and rise again a vampire.
Tana, the protagonist of the novel, was wonderfully drawn. Like other Black protagonists, she is shaped by a sense of responsibility towards her family, guilt for her past actions, and a certain wild recklessness that always draws her towards trouble. Certainly she isn’t a great innovation in Black’s work, as her characterisation follows established themes. However, I always enjoy reading about Black’s reckless characters having adventures, as opposed to many characters in YA plots who proclaim their normalcy and are continually overtaken by external events. Holly Black’s character happen to the plot, whereas the more every-girl characters often have plot happen to them. I think every-girl characters are supposed to be more sympathetic and relatable, but it can’t be denied that reckless girls are more interesting.
In some ways the book reminded me of Rees Brennan and Larbeleister’s Team Human, as both deal with vampires in a nuanced way that examines the practical implications of adding vampires to the modern world. However, whilst Mel in Team Human hates vampires and over the course of the book grows to hold a more nuanced opinion of them, Tana’s evolution is more subtle. The book opens with Tana waking up at a party to discover she has slept through a vampire attack and all her friends are dead. These scenes are perfect at establishing a creepy suburban horror vibe. The narrative skips back and forth between the present day and Tana’s past to do crucial world building and character development. We learn that Tana’s mother was infected by a vampire, a trauma that Tana carries with her. Tana spends much of the book worried she is infected and therefore thinking about what it would mean to be a vampire – would she be a monster? Would she be herself? Would she be her darkest urges, crystalised? I personally am a huge fan of musing about what makes a monster (see also: my love of Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series) so I loved this.
The book is shaped not only by musings about vampirism, but by the power and influence of the internet. The Coldtowns have internet access, and there are humans and vampires inside who blog or vlog about their lives. Outside the Coldtowns, there are popular shows about vampire bounty hunters. The book seems to make a point about the irreality of reality tv and vlogging – the traditional myth of vampire glamour is transmitted via footage of vampire parties in Coldtown, and seen on the internet by impressionable tweens. It also makes a point about ‘the new normal,’ the ability of humans to ignore and adapt, to allow their thoughts to skate over the dark reality inherent in the existence of the vampires and the Coldtowns.
I found the plot engaging and unpredictable – I even wasn’t sure if Tana would end up a vampire, or escape Coldtown. I thought the supporting characters all added to the book by their presence, and I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Tana’s little sister and their relationship, although it doesn’t get much page time. Black manages to convey the sense that although we don’t get a deep exploration of most of the characters, the characters still have depth and fully fledged lives off-page.
If you like books by Holly Black, vampires, creepy settings, adventures, or heroines who are a little messed up, (or any combination of the above) this book is for you! 7/10