Posted 29 August 2009 in Books by Catriona
So (through which I “obliterate all previous discourse and narrative” and simultaneously call for immediate attention—thank you, Seamus Heaney) . . .
What I haven’t talked about in any detail, though, is P. C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, only five books of which have so far been published.
Now, I’ll be honest: I didn’t take to these from the start.
Partly, it was that I was uncertain about a joint-written work, and suspected that the daughter part of the mother-and-daughter team had been largely brought in to make sure the language was idiomatically and authentically teenage.
Partly, it was that the authentically teenage language made me feel, in the early chapters, as though I were too old to be reading these books, which is (firstly) probably true, (secondly) an uncomfortable reading position, and (thirdly) irrelevant.
And partly it had nothing to do with the books at all, and everything to with circumstances. I’d taken the first volume down to Sydney with me along with the first volume of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Intruments trilogy, not being certain whether I’d like either. Then I thoroughly enjoyed the Clare, and when it ended on a cliffhanger, I become so annoyed that I hadn’t thought to bring the second volume that I rather resented the book I did have.
When I gave the series another chance a month or so later, I was surprised by how much I did enjoy it.
You know, it’s almost impossible to write about vampire fiction, without talking about the modifications that authors make to the archetype. That, it seems, is the nature of vampire fiction: one selects a vampire protagonist, and then one tweaks the archetype a little (so that, to pull an example off the top of my head, your vampires sparkle in direct sunlight), and that’s all anyone talks about.
But it’s particularly impossible not to talk about that with this case, and I’ll explain why.
All vampire boarding-school stories that I have read have some justification for why there’s an all-vamp school. (This is one disadvantage that they have over the traditional boarding-school stories, since it seems that secret vampire societies don’t have any policies in place about universal education.)
So in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series (and none of what is a spoiler: it’s all on the back of the first volume), there are two distinct forms of vampires, the “mortal” Moroi and the “immortal” Strigoi [yes, I have ret-conned this bit of the post: see Tim’s comments below], as well as the half-vampire, half-human dhampirs who act as guardians for the Moroi. Since the Moroi are in constant danger from the stronger, immoral, and immortal Strigoi, Moroi society is basically a succession of gated communities, of which the school is only one.
In Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, the school exists so that those vampires who were turned young and have lived long lives can find a safe place to learn about changes in modern society—so a vampire turned in the Middle Ages and living in isolation for most of the years since might find themselves programming an iPod as their end-of-year assessment task.
In the House of Night series, it all comes down to the changes to the archetype of the vampire.
In this world, vampyrism is a biological change that takes place in some people during adolescence. The new fledgling is “marked”: the tattooed outline of a crescent moon appears on their foreheads. At that point, they have two choices: they can die, or they can go to one of the world’s many Houses of Nights, where the adult vampyres secrete an airborne pheromone that helps keep the fledglings’ bodies stable.
Over the next four years, roughly ten percent of the fledglings die anyway, as their body rejects the Change. If they Change successfully, the crescent moon tattoo is filled in and another tattoo—unique to each vampyre, circling the eyes and covering the cheekbones—appears on their face at the moment of the Change.
So vampyres in this world aren’t secret: they can’t be, with sapphire-blue tattoos covering their faces. And, as an adolescent is marked, they become an emancipated minor under the law, free to choose their own names and subject only to the High Priestess of the House of Night and to their professors.
And note that term “High Priestess.” These vampyres are both spiritual and matriarchal. They worship the goddess Nyx, the personification of the night, and, while the worship does involve blood, it also involves candles, herbs, circles of power, and such like.
And this is where my interest is really piqued. Because the heroine of these books is Cherokee, through her mother. And the vampyre rituals (and the threats to vampyre society that emerge across the books) become tied up with Cherokee legend and ritual.
(I’m far from informed on Native American legends, but it seems to me that these books modify aspects of Cherokee mythology to further their own plotlines—not that, as the cliche goes, there’s anything wrong with that. I can’t be certain, but it looks as though this Wikipedia page on the central villain of later books is drawn exclusively from the fiction, though presenting itself as an actual Cherokee legend: I’m assuming that, if that’s the case, it’s poor writing or confusion, and not deliberate obfuscation. On the other hand, authoritative sources show that this fictional threat is rooted in actual Cherokee legend.)
But, for me, it’s the mere focus on the Cherokee heroine that fascinates me, the fact that the heroine strengthens her rituals for Nyx by blending them with Cherokee purification rituals, that her knowledge of herbs (from her Cherokee grandmother) blends into this new religion that she never knew she needed.
When, later in the series, she is thrown into an accidental alliance with a Benedictine nun, and we see, running alongside the spiritual vampyres and the Cherokee wise woman, the matriarchal branch of the Catholic Church (and its elevation of the Virgin Mary to a position of importance with which other branches of Christianity are often uncomfortable), then they fascinate me further.
Does the teen-centric prose still frustrate me at times? Oh, yes.
But I’ve not read teen fiction quite like this before, and never a vampire boarding-school story like this. If only I didn’t have to wait until October for the next installment, alas!