Monday, May 26, 2014

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

Title: Vampire Academy
Author: Richelle Mead
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WORTHY!

Here's an interesting observation: Magic or Madness (reviewed here) was published in 2005 by Justine Larbalestier. Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead, was published two years later and both authors curiously publish with Razor Bill. It would seem that Mead ripped-off Larbalestier's idea that magic can cause madness, but fortunately, ideas cannot be copyrighted, only a specific written expression of an idea, so it would seem that Mead is safe!

I had no interest in this until I learned that some school (or schools) had taken the unprecedented and rather bizarre step of banning this entire series: not this novel per se, but the entire series, including unwritten future volumes! I thought this was so absurd as to be a joke, but then this is what organized religion does to people - it forces them to behave like morons. As for me, I was curious as to what it was that was in this series which had provoked such an extremist reaction - maybe I could get some tips from it?!

The fact is that there's nothing in it to provoke the fundamentalists. Clearly the ones who are decrying and banning this have never actually read it. Yes, it's definitely for the older half of the young-adult age range, but other than that, there is no reason it shouldn't be in a school library.

Once I decided that I would (short of a major disaster) be reviewing this novel favorably, I went out to read some negative reviews to see if I had missed anything, and I realized from reading them that I had not. I also realized that not only were some reviewers rather rabid about this novel in their negativism, some were outright lying about it. No, there is not an 'f' word in every other paragraph. In fact, there is only two instances of 'fuck' in the entire book (p31, p115), and the word 'hell' is used 21 times. Go to Google books, where you can search for yourself to find out what a liar that particular reviewer was. Organized religion actively forces people to lie; I've personally encountered that many times.

Other reviewers showed their Christian charity by slut-shaming one of the main characters, not only referring to her as a 'slut' but also as a "hoe" [sic]. Rest assured, Rose never once behaved like a gardening tool. I can guarantee you that if the main character had been portrayed in exactly the same way, but had been a guy, he would never have been referred to as a 'slut' - and this is women doing the insulting, not men. Of the two main characters, Rose is a virgin throughout this book and Lissa doesn't have sex until she meets a guy whom she loves. Not that there's anything wrong with responsible and mature teens having safe sex, but this is yet another outright lie in pursuit of a religious agenda. I guess they missed that bit in the Bible about bearing false witness, huh?!

Just in passing, I started listening to this on audio, but the reader, Stephanie Wolf (ha! A wolf reading a vampire story! Too much!) was so bad that I couldn't stand to listen any more; however, I did like the story, so I bought a paperback copy.

This novel reads like it's volume two (or later) of a series when it's actually volume one. By that I mean that it starts in the middle of the story and Mead explains next-to-nothing of what went before except in rather annoyingly sparse and brief references which really relate very little that's of utility. I freely admit that that aspect was annoying!

As I mentioned, the two main characters are Rose and Lissa, although it's Rose who tells the story and hogs the attention. Rose is a dhampir - the offspring of a vampire and a human, but there are two species of vampire - the moroi, who are vampires, but not undead, and who are the good guys (supposedly), and the strigoi, who are traditional "undead" vampires.

Mead doesn't do a very good job of explaining this - again handing-out belated and sparsely distributed information. The dhampirs guard the moroi from the strigoi, and as such, Rose is Lissa's guard - but she's still in training, so she's not official, and she's not as powerful as she might become. So here was a weakness, in that the presentation of this novel was that of an amateur without benefit of a good book editor. Once again this goes to show that Big Publishing™ does not deliver what it claims to promise.

Two years before this novel begins, Rose and Lissa went over the wall from their academy and lived on the run. How they managed this and financed it isn't detailed, nor is why they went on the lam in the first place. They're captured by other guardians, and returned to the academy almost immediately after the story begins. Rose is very nearly expelled, but in the end she gets 'house arrest'. That is, she gets to go to classes and to church, but must remain in her room the rest of the time.

Rose is an atheist, so she has no need to go to church, but she uses this time to hang out with Lissa, to whom she is unnaturally, if not supernaturally devoted. Some people who reviewed this badly also objected to the lack of respect for religion, but guess what: atheists are under no obligation to respect religious delusion!

Both of these girls quickly get back into academic life, with Rose spending extra time training physically to be a guardian. She kicks her dedication up to a higher level when Lissa finds a fox on her bed with its throat slit - something which was apparently done right before she got back to her room. Who did it is unknown at that time.

The psychic bond they share evidently works only one way. Rose can 'tap into' Lissa's emotions, but not the other way around, and Lissa does not transmit messages or speech, only emotion. This bond is not unheard of in vampire lore, but it's viewed pretty much as a legend. The way it works is that Rose picks up on Lissa's emotions, but it seems to be only when they're heightened because she's very upset or scared for example; however, this changes as time passes at the academy.

In time, Rose discovers that she can 'share' Lissa's consciousness: she feels like she's in Lissa's body, seeing and hearing what Lissa experiences as well as feeling what she feels. This power seems to increase when Lissa begins hanging with the campus bad boy, Christian, whose family is disgraced and who therefore is largely ignored, but who has the power to make someone think he (the person, not Christian) is on fire, as we see at one point. Rose eventually discovers that she can force these 'mind melds' to happen, and thereby spy on Lissa. Stalk much?!

Mead isn't exactly the best writer in the world. Most of what she writes is fine, but there were occasions when oddly composed text jumped out at me, such as on p83, where I read: "...I didn't want Lissa to have to deal with any more stress than she had to"?!!! She could have ditched the 'to have' after 'Lissa' and made it flow better. This was optional of course, but on p91 paragraph 2 (at the start of chapter 7) she refers to Lissa without referring to Lissa, using just 'her' out of the blue. That felt a bit amateur if not confusing.

Here are some other such problems:
"He burst in the door" p119 - not good English.
p142 'describrd'! Poor copy editing.
p208 "they cold do..."
p213 start of chapter 16, "The next day. It fully hit me" - what's with the period?!
There's also a problem in continuity between page 211 and 218. On 211, the narrator says it was only two days after the incident with Mrs Karp that she and Lissa fled the academy, but on 218, she says it was a month later.

Lissa's full title and name is Princess Vasilisa Dragomir, and she's the last survivor of the Dragomir clan, and one of the five ruling families. Rosemarie Hathaway is her guardian wannabe. Lissa is moroi and these vampires have magical power over one of the four tired trope elements: air, earth, fire, and water, but we learn that there's a fifth, and Lissa has it.

So the high school jinks continue, and the vampire stuff really takes a back seat, although since the two are tied together, it can't disappear entirely. Another dead animal is found - this time accompanied by a threatening note, yet no one seems smart enough to put a guard, or at least a watch, on Lissa's door. Actually I started suspecting Natalie - Lissa's cousin - or Mason, Rose's bestie! Both of them are simply too sweet to be as they appear.

The biggest problem with Rose is not that she's a slut or a bitch - she really isn't either (although Lissa does call her the latter), she's merely unafraid and assertive (the fact that she detests a classmate who is a bitch doesn't make her a bitch either) and flirtatious; no, her biggest problem is that she seems to have the mentality of a thirteen year old, and she's just as "mature" in her precipitousness - in acting without thinking through to the consequences. Fortunately, the much more mature Lissa steps up and tells Rose she's going to be proactive from now on instead of being so retiring, and she becomes as scary as Rose is reckless.

Rose really isn't a good friend to Lissa. She's loyal and very protective, but she's also weirdly jealous of Lissa's relationships with others - with those who feed her, and with Christian, the designated bad boy. Rose outright lies to him about Lissa, claiming that her friend really despises Christian, but that she's too good-natured to tell him. She effectively orders him to leave Lissa alone. Christian believes Rose rather than Lissa, which makes him stupid in my book. Rose does apologize to Christian later, for lying, but that's only because she needs for him to do her a favor

Because of Rose's personal in-fighting with Mia, the actual school bitch, stories start spreading about Rose's disgusting (in this vamp world) habit of letting Lissa feed from her. It's okay for them to feed from designated human food supply, but for a guardian to allow this is considered a perversion - dirty! Somehow Mia has coerced Jesse and Ralf to lie that Rose allowed them to feed from her during sex. As I mentioned, and contrary to the lies spread by some negative reviewers who evidently have no problem with the Christian injunction not to bear false witness, Rose is not a slut; she's a virgin.

Rose's relationship with her guardian tutor, Dmitri, oversteps a few bounds. It's obvious that they're both attracted to each other. He's 24, and she's seventeen, which some people have depicted as obscene, but this is not a normal high school, so we don't know what the rules are since Mead has never actually iterated them. Both ages are conveniently within the young adult age range (14 - 24), and in Montana, the age of consent is 16, so there's nothing wrong there from a legal PoV. What is wrong is the relationship they have: he's her teacher and therefore an authority figure in her life, so from that perspective alone, this relationship would be unethical were it to go anywhere romantically or lustfully.

Now it's time to address other negative review issues.
There isn't enough action.
I agree with this complaint - representing Rose as Lissa's bodyguard tended to offer us more than it delivered, but it was quickly explained that Rose was not actually her official bodyguard, merely a wannabe who is in training to become a bodyguard. Even so, there were several incidents where Rose's unique bond with Lissa came through and saved her from problems, and potential problems

One problem that was mentioned by more than one reviewer was to the effect that the novel is poorly written. I agree that bits of it are poorly written. A spell-checker would have helped, but in general this novel is as well-written (or as badly-written, dependent upon your perspective) as any other YA novel. YA novels in general tend to be badly written, especially the dystopian variety (not that this is in that category), and of those even more especially those written with a female main protagonist, and this is not improved upon if the author is also female. I expect better, but I rarely find it. It's sad that so many YA authors, especially female authors, have so little respect for their readers that they feel no need to work harder at their craft.

One reviewer complained that the 17 year old main character had her shirt off making out with a boy and her best friend had gone all the way. So?! The age of consent in Montana is 16. Get a life! Rose has been slut-shamed abominably by negative reviewers, but the fact is that she's a virgin at the start of the novel, and she remains so through to the end. Not that virginity is any kind of noble badge, or a particularly special quality or anything, but to outright lie about this is as pathetic as it is laughable.

Yes, Rose has flaws. No, she isn't the best character in fiction nor is she the best friend in the world, but all these traits do is make her more realistic. She's young, confused, stressed, and devoted to Lissa, her best friend since childhood. Oh, and by the way, this is fiction! Even so, there are people like this in real life. Reviewers who have problems reading about real life issues need to quit reading YA fiction, and revert to having their mommy and daddy read them the Disney princess picture books, period. Oh god, I said, "period", Now they'll be offended by that!

Some reviewers have tried to intimate that there's a lesbian relationship here, or that Rose is in the closet, but none of this is true. Whether one might develop in future volumes remains (for me, just starting this series) to be seen, but the explanation for the intensity of this relationship is made quite clear by Mead.

Some have said that Rose isn't only a slut, she's also a hypocrite by being self righteous about the sexual behavior of others. Indeed, I saw one review which shamed Rose for being a slut and then running away and crying when she was accused of the same thing, but this is dishonest. Rose did not get upset because people called her a slut. She didn't care about that. She did care that people were getting too close to the truth of what happened: that when she and Lissa were on the run, Rose, her best friend, was the one from whom Lissa fed. That was why she was so upset, because doing this was considered the lowest and dirtiest, and most shameful thing a dhampir could do amongst her community. It was not the sex, which no one cared about that much, but the feeding.

Clearly some readers were not paying anywhere near enough attention, but the real hypocrisy here is for a reviewer who claims to love 'bookie nookie' to turn around and portray Rose as a "hoe macking on every guy she crosses paths with" which is patently not true. Does this reviewer even know what 'nookie' really means?! And no, this novel isn't written for pre-teens, but aimed at older young-adult age range (16 - 24), so to blurt-out righteously that you wouldn't let a 12-year-old read it is a shameful red herring.

Here's another complaint: Rose makes out with every guy who shows her any attention? Outright lie! She makes out with one guy by choice and quickly realizes he's bad news, and she has nothing to do with him after that. As opposed to another character who sleeps with two guys purely to get them to spread lies about Rose - yet no one even mentions her behavior, not in any negative review that I read. And by making out, I mean that Rose gets her top off (not her bra) - and that's it. Nothing actually really happens beyond some kissing. The only other time she 'makes out' is when she's been deliberately put under a powerful spell for the express purpose of disabling her ability to help Lissa. She cannot control her behavior, but even so, she and her partner overcome the spell and quickly refocus on what they were supposed to be doing!

One complaint is that Lissa cuts herself when stressed! So? Mead isn't prescribing or advocating this as a viable or worthwhile activity. It's dealt with as a problem which needs attention, and it's Rose, through her bond with Lissa, who frequently detects Lissa's problems and sees threats to her, and who acts decisively to stop them. Why would it be a negative thing to depict a psychological problem in a character and depict that problem being appropriately resolved? Should YA writers not write about real world problems? LoL! Get a life, for goodness sakes!

Other complaints One was that the only character that's developed is the main one, but this is a common to nearly all YA novels. Maybe it's a problem, maybe it isn't, but it isn't unique to this novel. Some argued that Lissa had a darker side which is hinted at but never shown, but that's not true. It was shown: she was compelling all kinds of people to do her bidding. This was considered evil (if not downright impossible!) and it was frowned upon in her community.

Can you believe some people complained that the main character is defiant and troubled, and that she relates to no one but her friend? So? Even if this were true it's not a fault of the novel. There are many people like this - should YA writers not write about them? This is actually a common trait of YA novels for better or for worse: main characters in YA novels are often like this. It's not a fault of this novel per se, it's a YA trope, for better or for worse. Should women not be depicted as strong and reckless and forceful and confident and self-motivated? What an appalling thing to intimate!

One of my favorite complaints is that this is just a lame story about a really disturbed, sexually deviated young girl. Sexually deviated? Rose is a virgin. Lissa had sex with one person. Both are over the age of consent. What is sexually deviated about it? Nothing! The deviants are the ones who are slut-shaming (or more technically, non-slut-shaming since Rose isn't even a "slut") and trying to turn this into something that it isn't. In order to achieve their repressed religious agenda, they're forced bear false witness about the story, and this is truly sad.

I agree that the novel to-often goes off the rails and focuses too much on high-school drama instead of staying on the threat to Lissa. This seemed odd to me, but then a lot of the high-school drama was directly related to vampire politics, so it's not like it was so far off the rails that it was irrelevant.

The real issue in this department for me was: how there can be royal families and princesses and queens when none of these families seems ever to have been part of a monarchy! I don't get this with vampire stories (not just this one): this hierarchy of princes and queens and so on. It makes no sense at all to me. What would it even mean to say that a vampire is a princess? What gives them their rank and authority? Why would any other vampire respect it? This is such a strongly established trope, yet none of this is ever explored in these stories to my knowledge. That's the problem here.

Mead seems to be all over the place with her mythology, too. She does create a unique and interesting world, but while the overall setting has a strong Russian flavor, despite it being set in Montana, dhampir (what Rose is: a vampire-human hybrid) is a Balkan term according to wikipedia, not Russian per se. Both moroi and strigoi are Romanian terms. How Mead came to tie these up with Russia is a bit of a mystery.

Having said all of that, I still rate this novel as a worthy read, because it had an interesting story to tell and something new to offer. Whether the rest of the series is worthy remains (for me) to be seen, but I am definitely committed to reading the second volume in this series at least, and I'm not even a series kind of person!

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