Friday, June 28, 2013

Review: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

What ever happened to the Great American epic teen fantasy? No seriously, this is me being serious, not snarky. I remember when I was a pre-teen, (back before it was called tween *gag*,) and into my teenage years, reading epic fantasy books written for teens. Mostly, they were by K.A. Applegate and her contemporaries who are my heroes even to this day. I never even got to finish the Animorph or Everworld series because I was tragically broke before they finished and too old for them afterwards. But, I know that writers must have written a few more books of that genre since then, I just don't see them now. Writers like Christopher Paolini and Rick Riordan have done an...okay job of picking up on it, but for the most part, YA writers seem to have missed out on the fantasy part of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre. What I'm seeing in exchange, is a lot of romance and not enough carnage.

Don't get me wrong, romance has it's place. It has it's own section in the bookstore, even inching into a new one titled: Paranormal Romance. It's even inching into Science Fiction; the new Enders Game movie trailer has been showing some girl smiling at Ender in it. Since it's not exactly my genre, I can't say for certain, but you know what I remember about Enders Game? Boys kicking each other's butts. That's not to say that there weren't women in there, but I'm fairly certain they weren't there to play slap and tickle.

The reason I wanted to say this, is of course because I'm reviewing Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Why did I decide to review this book? Because this is still YA month for me, and I didn't want to review Twilight...I didn't want to suffer a brain hemorrhage that series induces in the unwary. That being said, Twilight and Beautiful Creatures, five years away from each others publication date, at the least, are very similar in genre, style and plot. I've heard a lot of people complain about the similarities between the two, and to be honest, I don't get it. It's kind of like comparing a rock and another equally unimpressive rock and trying to say which would win if you pit them against each other.

And yes, I do know what I'm talking about. Being of literary mind, I did read Twilight about a year before the movie came out. Heck, I even read New Moon, to my infinite displeasure. That was about as far as I got before started to actually consider a Bonfire of the Vanities movement. I digress though, this isn't a Twilight review...I don't hate myself nearly enough right now to attempt that. Though, I will say this: writing a bad book, in every meaning of the word, no matter how popular, is tragic. Writing a boring book like Beautiful Creatures, now that is just plain criminal.

Beautiful Creatures is a lazy book, written back in 2009, but just waiting for that Twilight novelty to get out of the way to become more popular this year. To be honest, I'd never even heard of it before this year, and that was mostly because of the movie adaptation to come out. To be honest, the movie might get a little more popular if they hadn't cast Jeremy Irons in it, because the man is just too dated for a work like this. Just to get it out of the way, the overall plot of the book does owe a lot to twilight fame, only in reverse. Ethan Wate is a boringly dull teenager living in the South when a new girl comes to his town, Lena Duchannes, who is a caster girl, (a breed of human who can cast magic [oh, so imaginative]) and turns his world upside down. It's basically what would have happened if Edward Cullen hadn't been a shiny disco ball and Bella Swan had had more depth than a puddle of spit.

At first glance, it seems that the authors of Beautiful Creatures decided to try and make their characters as different from Twilight as possible, and in doing so, drained their characters of any truly interesting character traits. Instead, the book focuses on this things that keeps popping up in YA fiction and television shows, and that is: being different is bad and should be punished and anyone who accepts said different person is automatically some kind of saint. Lena isn't a fashion model or a beauty pageant queen, and is instead more of an average beauty, and because of this, (and her relation to her uncle, the town hermit,) she is immediately ostracized. And for what?

I know it's been a little over ten years since I was in high school, but I don't remember things being like that. Yes being weird meant that you didn't hang out with the jocks or cheerleaders, but it didn't mean the entire school hated you. There is always a niche out there that will accept you for who you are. And if not? Who cares? It's high school You will know these people for a few years and then likely never see them again. Even Ethan, who is completely blameless in tormenting Lena, like the others in his class do, makes a point of feeling bad because he feels he has done some amorphous wrong in the past like the others of his peers and this apparently makes him a bad person. This was a deal breaker for me, because at no point in the story does Ethan have an example of how he follows the crowd and makes people feel bad. In fact, early on it's made clear that Ethan just goes along and does his own thing most of the time.

But Beautiful Creatures can't seem to get enough of this, and indeed focuses on it for the rest of the book and almost nothing else. Even the main plot of whether Lena will become a Dark Caster or a Light Caster is shunted to the side for most of the book, instead focusing on how She and Ethan are going on their first date, or going to a dance, or just hanging out. I know all of these things are relationship necessities, but in a genre of fantasy fiction, it is just so, so, SO boring. This is something that YA books have in common, too. They are so focused on drawing young adults in with things that they might do in their own lives, or might have had to deal with at some point, that they lose the actual fantasy aspect of the book in the process.

I would have to say that the main problem with Beautiful Creatures is Ethan. As the main character, the story is told from his perspective with the exception of one pacing-ruining moment towards the end. The problem with him is that he is boring - not in the soul-sucking, brain-hemorrhaging way that Bella is, but almost just as bad. He is a man who sees four weird things right before his eyes and only asks questions about one of them for the better part of the book. What? Is he stockpiling them? Ethan has no qualities about him that make him important other than that he is in love with Lena. And their chemistry is so awful. I get it that they love each other, and that this is a very star-crossed lovers ordeal, but they have no real drive to be together. Lena, for the most part, spends almost every waking moment trying to get rid of him, calling him stupid, running away from him, not calling him. And yet he just keeps going.

Similarly to Twilight, I get an overwhelming feeling that the authors are drawing conclusions that a man or woman only have worth because of each other, and I have to say that that is bunk and leave it at that. Ethan goes about his life in a kind of bored fashion before Lena shows up. He plays basketball but doesn't really enjoy it. He has ex-girlfriends who hate him, but it's never really explained why or how they broke up, she's only there to be a foil to Lena and even that is pretty half-assed. The only thing he really is interested in is Lena, and that just shows a kind of codependency that isn't exactly a role model for young adults. It actually kind of reminds me of two things, one that someone mistakenly told me, and one that I brought up in a piece on writing. The first is that someone once told me that because I was a man, I wasn't fit to talk about anything female as far as writing, perspectives, etc.. Normally I would say this is bunk, but it goes back to the old adage of "write what you know", and obviously neither of the authors really know men if they think this is a positive reflection of the gender. The other is that there is a fine line between believe-ability and realism. It's believable that Ethan was a loner before Lena came along, (it happens,) but it is unrealistic that they should have to the kind of bond that they authors create because there is nothing to build off of.

Lena on the other hand is only interesting because she is quirky, and that's it. As a Caster, she has until her next birthday before she becomes light or dark, and has no choice in the matter. Because of this, she draws less attention to the caster part of her life and tries to live a normal life. What parts of her life that aren't Caster related are all about her being quirky and edgy. She has a necklace full of knick-knacks she has to remind her about her life. She dresses in uncool clothes. She plays violin. And she is constantly defined by other people as living with her uncle Macon. Even her powers are quirky and ill-defined. She's shown to have some power over the weather that is effected by her mood, cracks glass and even controls fire later on. But for being touted as one of the more powerful types of casters, she doesn't quite come up to par.

If I had a rating system I might consent to give Beautiful creatures 2 out of 5, possibly a 3 out of 5 after reading City of Bones. But I don't. I don't suggest reading this book to anyone who values good literature, but if you liked Twilight and wish it had gone on longer, then this is probably the book for you.

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