#63 My Love Lies Bleeding, Alyxandra Harvey
#64 Vampire Academy, Richelle Mead
It is one of my life's ambitions to write a romance novel, because I can never find one that I like. Perhaps one of the reasons is that romance is so inexorably bound up in the origins of the novel itself, that modern genre conventions interact far more fluidly with romance than they do, for example, with a murder mystery. Margaret Atwood writes science fiction but disavows the genre; mayhem occurs. But Jeanette Winterson or Kiran Nagarkar can write great love stories without the question of genre ever really coming up. 'Mr Ondaatje, do you acknowledge the influence of Nora Roberts on the story you chose to tell in The English Patient?'
Personally, there are many things I do not want about the genre romances I read off and on. Most of all, it's the heroes and their attendant frou frou. This vitiates the 'paranormal' romance for me almost instantly. Vampires? I am bored to tears. Dracula languishes yet in the dry part of my shoe closet. Aristocrat vampires? Instant conflict with bourgeois attachment to social democracy. Immortal, ever-youthful vampires? I can't be tolerant of every kink in the world. Unusually and artistically pale vampires? I hope I am never swayed in personal judgment by the colour of someone's skin, but hey guy, take a Fefol now and then. Vampires with - and this is a particular feature of the modern paranormal romance - extremely large families full of interesting siblings, parent figures and faithful retainers? What are they, the Jolie-Pitts? Get this hyperfertility out of my face!
Anyway. As a great avoider of the disagreeable, the reason I know even so much about the modern vampire romance novel is not that I gobbled Twilight down when it came out (I read half of the first book; then I went out to gather me rosebuds while I may, grateful that the prospect of certain immortality was never to face me). It is that I read not one but TWO modern vampire romance novels yesterday! And, um, the day before. I was bored; they were around. Imperialism has been committed for less compelling reasons.
So now I will tell you about them in brief.
In My Love Lies Bleeding by Alyxandra Harvey, 16-year-old Lucy, the product of a goofy hippie home where her parents are always going to peacenik demonstrations and meditation camps at ashrams, is best friends with Solange, the youngest and only female product of the Drake clan of vampires. Solange has seven extremely hot older brothers, the youngest of whom, Nicholas, is Lucy's quippiest, most bothersome, most evocative of confusing sexual attraction frenemy ever. Solange is under attack from the royal court of vampire queen Lady Natasha; the Drakes have come under fire from anti-vamp vigilante assassins for no fault of their own. Somebody's gonna get hurt real bad, right? RIGHT. People fight; people make out; the bad guys are eventually vanquished. Solange finds a cute boyfriend. I am done telling you this story, because details are for nerds, but I actually enjoyed it! Surprise! Harvey has a knack for writing overblown angst and ridiculous made-up details about royal courts and vampire genealogy while giving it all an amicable sidelong look; she writes without sardonism but with a goofy, hi-octane style that clearly indicates OMG SHENANIGANS! Which, if you are a doubter in adolescent teenmance and vampires, is a state of mind you can go along with. It's not a cliche-free, klutz-neutral style, but as I was prepared to coast along on the froth, it was enjoyable. It was even oddly -- adorable. Sometimes.
In Vampire Academy, the author Richelle Mead also tells a story about two girls, one vampire (royal) and one half-vampire, her best friend (preponderance of best friendship MAJOR feature in vampire romance novels), and the social lives of vampire teenagers in the cloistered, festering atmosphere of -- VAMPIRE ACADEMY. (It has a name, it's just nicer to call it that). This is a srsbzness teen drama, where vampire history and customs are taken as seriously as what to wear to high school dances. I admit it: I yawned. I admit it even more: now that I'm done with the first book, I want to read the others. This is like all the times my roommates made me watch Grey's Anatomy marathons. You could clearly understand all the disagreeable discourse going on within and around and during it, but the addiction of narrative - however clumsy, however strained, however predictable - propelled you through it nonetheless. Mead goes for efficiency in style and a breakneck speed of plot that fills you in on relevant histories as you go along in medium-sized infodumps. Her dialogue, aiming for wit, always at least makes it to snark. The worldbuilding ... is not more or less committed to logic than Harry Potter.
Both novels make earnest attempts at creating Strong Female Characters. The intention appears largely blameless. Unlike Twilight, the female protagonists of both books strive at all times to kick ass, take names, and be excellent to each other, without nasty boy stuff overwhelming the importance of their own bonds. Vampire Academy works in a particularly strong sex-positive message (although it is too inconsistent to be fully successful). Having said that, this overarching commitment to the Strong Female Character is not convincingly benign. In the struggle to be Strong and I suspect some manner of textual role models, it feels too much like watching a literary version of fancy dress. This, of course, is exactly the problem your average bad genre romance has with the male characters. This is not to say that the heroines of those novels are well-written because they are supposed to be Girls Next Door (they're not), but it's a cruel indicator of how literary stereotypes can just as easily trap a female character to the straitjacket of gender expectations - be desirable, be socially aggressive, be fertile, be able to kick your attackers in the nuts ten times out of ten - when the magic wand of wish-fulfillment is trained back on ourselves. That's the damned-if-you-do/don't condition of sexism. The answer is not to prescribe against writing or reading a certain type of character: perhaps it's just to recognise the extraordinary agility one needs to write fiction in which people - male or female - can be something more than participants in a narrative masquerade.