Released in theaters on Valentine’s Day (because the kids need date movies, too) was Beautiful Creatures, the latest—though assuredly not the last—paranormal YA adaptation to hit our screens this year. Based up the book of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, it is the first installment in their Caster Chronicles series, the filmic version of which stars a host of pseudo-high-schooler hotness, plus the likes of Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons. Should you go and see this movie? That, I cannot yet say, since it hasn’t yet made its way to my Australian shores. But should you read these books? Yes, yes, and yes again. At least, assuming you have any interest in this particular subgenre.
For a start, there is much that is unique about the Caster Chronicles—and when was the last time one could genuinely say that about a paranormal YA release? Oh, sure, the tropes are all present and accounted for, but let’s face it, we’d be disappointed if they weren’t: our heroine is a woman of great specialness; she and our hero have an instant, unexplained connection; there are eccentric families to contend with; there are dark secrets to be revealed; and there is an approaching Major Crisis, which only love can conquer. But where Beautiful Creatures and its three sequels (and one novella) differ from most everything else of its like on the shelves today is that our first-person voice is male.
Not that YA isn’t replete with male central characters, of course—from Catcher in the Rye to Ender’s Game to Harry Potter, Alex Rider and Percy Jackson—but the Paranormal Romance and/or Urban Fantasy side of the equation rarely, if ever, gives us more male perspective than female. Sure, there are the Jacob bits in Breaking Dawn, but he’s not even our main lead. (Though the partially-completed, sadly-abandoned Twilight companion novel, Midnight Sun, was going to give us events from Edward’s perspective. Spoiler Alert: he really digs that Bella). And books like Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver, and its sequels, head-jump between girl and boy, giving them alternating chapters with which to share their tale of Werewolf Love. But by and large, it is the Bellas, the Clarys, the Luces and the Elenas with whom we spend much of our time in these novels, first person or no.
The typical formula will give us a Normal but Secretly Special young woman who enters a hidden world of magic and wonder via her Creature Crush on some form of supernatural being, and said supernatural being’s often inexplicable abject fascination with her (one he usually shares with every other eligible youngster within range). Or perhaps the young woman is Abnormal and Very Special Indeed—a Dhampir in The Vampire Academy books; a faery in The Iron Fae series; an angel in Unearthly—and often she hooks up with a boy equally as remarkable and otherworldly as she. Nevertheless, it is through her eyes that we see events unfold, and only very rarely his.
How refreshing, then, to enter the world of Beautiful Creatures firmly entrenched in the deep-thinking, deeply troubled head of sixteen-year old Ethan Wate, who recently lost his mother and who can’t wait to get out of his podunk South Carolina town. From the outset, Ethan has just the right amount of Secret Special to make him a viable PNR protagonist—he has prophetic dreams that leave him with physical evidence of their reality, and he has a strange way of just knowing how things will turn out—and he’s also a handsome and popular basketball star, as a result of which we know he is infinitely worthy of whatever interesting and exceptional New Girl arrives to shake up his sad, being-wished-away life.
Enter Lena Duchanne, a scion of their reactionary community’s oldest, and oddest, family, the Ravenwoods. There’s just something a little bit off about Lena. Oh, she’s hot, all the boys agree on that. But with her black hair, her haphazard dress sense, her devil-may-care attitude and her willingness to actually—gasp!—answer questions in class, she’s certainly not the type of would-be Southern belle with which Gatlin High abounds.
Of course, it soon transpires that Lena is the girl about whom Ethan has been dreaming for months, and it later transpires that they can communicate telepathically, a fact that Ethan is perhaps a shade too automatically cool with. At least he takes the realities about Lena and her family somewhat less entirely in his stride: they are practitioners of magic, you see. Obviously! Not witches or wizards, though; the preferred term is “Casters,” and each of them has a gift that makes itself fully manifest on their sixteenth birthday, a day upon which they are committed to either Light or Dark Magic, for the rest of their lives. (Don’t worry, this book first appeared a year before Lost Girl. Just sayin’.)
The big conflict in this first book of the series is Lena’s imminent Sweet 16, and whether or not she will be forced to go Dark, as did her cousin Ridley (very oddly cast with the 28-year old Emmy Rossum in the movie) the year before. Lena is a Caster of prodigious, little-seen power (of course), and so her family will go to any lengths to protect her—except that it is Ethan, more than any of them, who is apparently her strongest defense against whatever is to come. Meanwhile, there are sociopathic Casters out there with evil intent; both her family and Ethan’s enigmatic guardian are against their cross-species hook up; the Mean Girls in school make Lena’s life a misery for no apparent reason; and there are secrets in the town, and secrets in Ethan’s own family, that continue to puzzle us even after the last page is turned. For example: was his mother’s death truly an accident? What is the extent of his voodoo housekeeper Amma’s awareness of, and involvement in, events as they unfold? And what of Ethan’s own unique abilities, abilities most Mortals cannot usually claim? What’s all that about?
Also, what is Lena’s real name?
Perhaps the biggest point of interest for me in this book, though, was not the mystery stuff, nor the magic stuff, nor even the Young Love stuff (though that is particularly well wrought, and in a pretty convincing boy-way, too), but the book’s setting. The small town of Gatlin, SC, is kind of a cross between Footloose’s No Dancing Allowed Bomont and the small-minded backwater out of A Walk to Remember, just with more Confederate flags. The height of Gatlin’s social calendar is the annual Reenactment of the Battle of Honey Hill, a minor Confederate victory, and most of the town’s residents still refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression (or at least of Southern Independence). Which tells you a lot about what kind of place this is. Outsiders are Not Welcome, especially when they are Weird and live in a Haunted Mansion and may or may not be able to break windows with their minds. The Daughters of the American Revolution are an active, much-respected organization in these parts, and they lead by a kind of assumed moral authority that can only be wondered at by anyone raised in an anonymous city where barely even your neighbors knew your name, let alone everyone in the county knowing your antecedents and very often middle name. We also get much history of the Civil War in here through the potent use of flashback, and some of the realities of the South’s defeat, of the North’s sometimes vicious victory, are rendered truly upsetting, in a way even Gone With the Wind and its ilk couldn’t—at least, for me—manage. Other things Southern are also given generous mention: To Kill a Mockingbird references, for example, abound. (Indeed, another trope of the genre we see in full effect here is that our destined teen couple are both big readers.)
Oh, there is much in Beautiful Creatures that may give the reader an occasional case of the eye-rolls: needless teenage girl histrionics, inscrutable, lying-for-your-own-protection adults and truly stupid oversights on the part of otherwise smart people can be hard to deal with in any form of fiction. On the other hand, they are every bit as essential to Paranormal YA as are Secret Specialness and Predestined Teenage Life Mates, so those aspects can be easily forgiven, especially since so much else about this book, and the Caster Chronicles as a whole, is so very appealing.
I suppose the highest praise I can give this series is that I am at least as excited and simultaneously nervous about the movie adaptation as I was about Twilight, and The Hunger Games. I care enough that I’ll be there on opening day, but will also be terribly disappointed if it is not done justice, which is not a state of affairs I would have claimed for something like, say, I Am Number Four. I liked the book, sure, but the relative suckiness of the adaptation troubled me not, whereas if Beautiful Creatures goes wrong, I will be saddened, and unaccountably (one might even say embarrassingly, considering the relative importance of the topic) angry. Oh, I probably won’t be able to make rain fall or objects fly, like Lena would if she were the one so beset, but I will feel her pain and wish I could have prevented it, which will make me a lot like Ethan.
Which seems only fitting, as this is, for the most part, Ethan’s story (minus one section of Book 4, Beautiful Redemption, when we hear—less successfully, I feel—from Lena), and that is what endeared it to me in the first place.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.