Vampire Academy

So... I just surfaced from three days of binge-reading the five published Vampire Academy novels, the best-selling YA series by Richelle Mead featuring yet another paranormal reality that attempts to redefine classical vampire mythology and add a new twist. As a result of reading the books in rapid succession, I can't really separate them well enough in my mind to write a clear review for each one, so here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give a quick pitch as to why you should bother reading them when you already feel like you've overdosed on the whole vamp scene and a summary of the world and basic plot; then I'm going to break out with a short glance at each. If you're reading this review on my blog, you'll see everything here, but if you're reading this on Goodreads or LibraryThing, when it comes to each individual book, you'll only see the snippet for that book -- but be warned that each successive snippet might give away something from the previous book. I'll try not to give away major plot points in my general pitch, but once I'm reviewing the whole series to date... well, I'm reviewing the whole series to date, so you'll understand if I might need to move beyond the first book's purview.

The reason you should read this series can be summarized quite neatly: the narrator, Rose Hathaway. (Well, there's that and the fact that if you're trying to figure out *why* you should read this series, then it's likely that you already want to, so just do it.) Rose Hathaway is the badass heroine you've always wanted for a YA book -- the bridge between YA and regular fiction that creates an honest and funny narrator who still gets tripped up a bit with the fact that she's only a teenager. What makes it YA is the world around her and the fact that, like young adult readers, she's still trying to come up with some answers in her life, too. Rose is not the standard YA heroine who gets blamed for things she didn't do or dithers about solving a problem -- she barrels headfirst into every situation and if she is blamed for something, she almost always did it and then some. (At one point in the series, when accused of killing someone, the best defense for her not having done it is that she insists she never would have killed the person in so obvious and stupid a fashion.) She's street-smart and rough, and her wise-ass comments and hold-nothing-back attitude will have you smirking every chapter. She is far from perfect and still a teenager with a lot to learn, but at least she's saying out loud all the things you'd normally think the heroine should be saying when she encounters obstacles, tricky situations, or hot guys... which often involves swearing. If you need another reason to read these books, then you've got to look within -- if you read YA and fantasy, then chances are the whole setting appeals to you. Paranormal activities, teenage characters taking on responsibilities, the whole boarding school dynamic, and (as always) complicated romantic relationships. The "good" vampires aren't all that sexy and dangerous (in fact, if "sexy" comes into anything, it's just the general teenage hormones talking) and the bad vampires are mostly just dangerous, so the take on vampires is a bit different... but at least they're not sparkly and they don't just hunt animals.

Here's a bit of a summary of Mead's world so you get a feel for the setting. There are two separate races of vampires, along with a race of half-vampire people, that opt to fly under the radar and live a secret existence separate from humans. The Moroi are living members of a vampire race who need both real food and blood to survive, but rely on volunteers for that blood and never kill. (Picture leggy models with impossibly thin bodies and gorgeous features.) They can endure limited exposure to the sun, grow old, and can work certain elemental magic. They have a worldwide system of government, a moderated monarchy that focuses on twelve royal families and an appointed monarch (each monarch appoints his or her successor from a family not their own). There is great wealth and power within these families (my image of the royal Moroi is rather based on Russia and the Romanovs before the revolution), though there are many other Moroi who are not royal or wealthy. Alternately, there's a darker strain of evil immortal vampires called the Strigoi, which are not born but are made out of violence -- by purposely killing someone, a Moroi can turn him/herself into a Strigoi or a Strigoi must drain an individual and then that individual must drink Strigoi blood to be forcibly turned. The Strigoi are extremely strong and fast and never sleep, but they give up any magic or sun tolerance in their transition for such traits. They also forfeit their souls and any true compassion or capability for love. The Strigoi hunt down Moroi and drain them of blood, which is particularly appetizing for them (and even more so should their victim come from one of the twelve royal Moroi families) and the Moroi are not even close to being as strong as the Strigoi when it comes to defending themselves. That's where the half-breeds come in. The Moroi rely on a race of people called dhampirs, which are half-vampire half-human hybrids, historically serving the Moroi as "guardians" to protect them. Dhampirs retain certain benefits from both sides of their genetic pool, allowing them to be excellent warriors, though they cannot perform magic. In addition, they are incapable of producing children within their population alone, requiring their reliance on the Moroi, as only a Moroi/dhampir union will result in a dhampir child (don't try to go with the 3/4 vampire argument, it evidently doesn't work that way). Even though the Moroi need the dhampirs for protection, dhampirs are unofficially treated like second class citizens. Since dhampirs require the Moroi to produce children, there tend to be a lot of Moroi men sleeping with dhampir women, but ultimately marrying to have a "real" family with Moroi women. This leads to lots of single dhampir moms and dhampir men (as Moroi women are less likely to shack up with a dhampir guy) get the short end of the stick. Guardians are overwhelmingly male, though not much biased at all when it comes to dhampir women choosing a career as a guardian. Dhampirs and Moroi are educated side-by-side in schools, though dhampirs specialize in combat training, hand-to-hand fighting and so on. When dhampirs graduate and pass the tests to become a guardian, there are assigned to a Moroi to guard, and given the depleting guardian numbers (the battle against the Strigoi is a hard one), it usually means that mostly royal Moroi get guardians and regular Moroi go without -- unless they're wealthy enough to hire vigilante guardians who don't work within the system.

Did you get all that? Good, because I haven't even really touched on the main characters. Rosemarie Hathaway is a teenage dhampir girl and Vasilisa (Lissa) Dragomir is a Moroi princess; they've been best friends since kindergarten and their relationship became even stronger two years prior to the opening of the first novel when a car crash claimed the lives of Lissa's family, but Rose and Lissa walked away unharmed... well... sort of. The thing is, the car crash resulted in the girls forming a bond which allows Rose to read Lissa's mind (aka slip into Lissa's mind and watch things unfold from Lissa's perspective) and enables her to always know where her friend is. If Rose didn't feel responsible for Lissa to begin with, this sealed the deal and means Rose already views herself as Lissa's guardian and the bond gives her an edge. Lissa needs particular protection as she is the last of her bloodline, the only living member of the royal Dragomir line. Rose believes that it is her duty to protect Lissa at all costs -- which somehow meant that she felt it necessary to break Lissa out of their high-security school and keep them on the run for two years before the first book opens with their recapture and return to St. Vladimir's, the titular "vampire academy" located in middle-of-nowhere Montana. The series follows these two girls (particularly Rose, the narrator) as they spend their last year at school and move into the "real world." The plotlines revolve around larger problems unique to their situation (struggling to understand their bond and magic, determining who can be trusted to know their secrets, navigating complicated Moroi politics, and battling Strigoi for survival) as well as all the usual high school stuff (bitchy social-climbing competitors, vicious gossip, difficult classes, and love lives that are complicated in ways that only high school love lives can be). Within the series, the girls mature quickly as their problems escalate... or maybe they simply figure out just how big their problems are as they learn more and more.

In the first novel, Vampire Academy, we get the groundwork for the world and an introduction to our two heroines, but we also have to deal with the fact that even Rose, our narrator, isn't being totally honest with us. She reveals information about themselves a little at a time as a means of prolonging suspense. Rose and Lissa are captured by school officials at the beginning of the book after having spent two years on the run. Rose broke Lissa out of school and insists she had a good reason, but we slowly have to piece together that information. To be fair, even Rose isn't entirely sure why she did it, only that Lissa felt she was being followed and was in danger, but as they learn more about themselves and their unique bond, Rose gets a better idea of the problems they're up against. The girls might be settling back into life at their school, but by no means does that mean they're safe. In this book, we meet several important secondary characters that play a role throughout the books, including a new dhampir mentor for Rose named Dimitri (towards whom she feels significantly more than what is proper between teacher and student), a young Moroi named Christian (who lives on the fringes of school society because of his parents who chose to turn Strigoi), a Moroi girl named Mia who's currently dating Lissa's ex who would like nothing better than to see both Lissa and Rose ruined in the eyes of the school, and a family friend of Lissa's named Victor Dashkov who seems a little too keen on helping the girls re-acclimate. Even if Rose can keep them safe from threats both inside and outside of school, Rose doesn't know what to do when it comes to keeping Lissa sane and secrets from their shared history might be their undoing. On the whole, Vampire Academy is a strong start to the series, though it does take advantage of its first novel status by withholding information about the characters so it's not simply a case of "what's going to happen?" but "what *already* happened?" Rose, however, immediately shines as a reckless yet well-intentioned character ready to dive into the fray and accept any future consequences when she knows she's doing the right thing. Her loyalty to Lissa is impressive and since it's their relationship is the crux of the series, it's important that Rose's character compensates for Lissa, who can be a bit too wishy-washy.

In the second novel, Frostbite, a large Strigoi attack on a Moroi family just before Christmas has the Moroi terrified. As a result of this threat, most of the students would otherwise be kept on campus, but a wealthy Moroi family donates the use of its ski resort to the school so students and their families can stay safe over the holidays. This might provide a distraction, but not enough for the young dhampir students who are eager to get out into the world and start killing Strigoi. Rose finds herself in the rare position of trying to be the voice of reason, but that doesn't stop her from sharing some classified information and when some of her friends rush off to take advantage of this to be heroic, Rose goes after them. Of course, not everyone would look at Rose and think "responsible," including Rose's mother, a renowned dhampir guardian who Rose hasn't seen in years and isn't keen on getting to know now after feeling abandoned. Meanwhile, Lissa is starting to understand what it really means to be the last Dragomir as she moves towards a life where she'll inevitably play a role in Moroi politics. She's also learning more about what it is to be in a real relationship (one that isn't entirely approved of by all around her) and what her magic powers mean for herself, Rose, and the larger fate of the Moroi. Frostbite culminates in a very intense situation that makes the reader and Rose realize just how serious the dangers are from Strigoi... and just how useless the current Moroi response to them is if they rely entirely on defensive guardians. Between Lissa's position and Rose's firsthand knowledge, one can see that together, they could be a powerful instrument for future change... if they can manage to survive to bring it about.

In the third novel, Shadow Kiss, Rose is still dealing with grief after losing a friend and surviving a harrowing encounter with Strigoi. Yes, she triumphed but at what cost? At school, she's facing one of the toughest trials of her education -- a six-week "practical" exam where she has to protect a Moroi from "attacks" made by school officials to test her reactions. Normally, she wouldn't be concerned about this (as she's managed to do just this in the real world) but Rose has started to see the ghost of her dead friend appear and she's worrying that she's losing her mind. And that's not the only thing keeping her on edge. Rose was not paired with Lissa as expected for her trial, which she sees as a useless experiment, for their bond makes Rose an ideal guardian for Lissa, but the school won't budge on its decision and Rose has no choice if she wants to pass the test... though her ghost sightings might make even that a bit tricky. Filled with concerns about her abilities as a guardian and the fact that she might be going crazy, Rose also has to deal with her mounting feelings for Dimitri (her mentor) and realize that she might just have to choose between love and doing she job she knows she was destined to do. Rose learns a great deal about herself in this book and in Shadow Kiss, we see the most dramatic battle to date as the threat of Strigoi is brought home to the St. Vladimir's campus.

In the fourth novel, Blood Promise, Rose leaves St. Vladimir's again (though this time she can legally withdraw as opposed to running away) with a mission -- to kill the man she loves. After the battle at St. Vladimir's, a rare rescue mission was formed to bring back those captured by the Strigoi. Dimitri fought valiantly, but at the last moment was captured and subjected to everyone's worst nightmare -- he was forcibly turned Strigoi. Knowing that the Dimitri she loved would want someone to kill him in his turned state rather than leave him to exist as an evil being, Rose sets off for his former homeland of Siberia to hunt him down and do just that. In leaving St. Vladimir's, she also has to leave Lissa behind and Rose fears their friendship has been permanently shattered. Once in Russia, Rose learns more about the world outside St. Vladimir's than she ever knew before, including information about Alchemists (mortals chosen to assist the Moroi in keeping the existence of vampires a secret from the rest of the human race) and about renegade dhampir guardians who can either be for hire or take justice into their own hands against the Strigoi. In Siberia, Rose is taken in by Dimitri's family and wonders if she could have another life than what she had always assumed, but ultimately knows she must complete her quest and find Dimitri... though whether she can follow through on her resolution when she comes face to face with the altered man she loves is another thing entirely. Rose checks in on Lissa every now and then through their bond, but Lissa is proving to be a rather vulnerable character without Rose around. A new friend, Avery, seems to be a bad influence and even Lissa's relationship with Christian is suffering for it. If we thought Lissa had gotten a bit stronger before, we see her suffer a slide back to being weaker and without Rose, she might not be able to recover before it's too late. Because of Rose's intense feelings of grief and being adrift in the world, she, too, is a bit weaker in this book than in any other. She might be strong enough to defeat Strigoi, but she's not strong enough to not have an emotional tirade every few pages. It's her weakest moment, and even if one is inclined to cut the character a bit of slack, that only goes so far. Towards the end, Mead does some interesting things with the Rose/Dimitri dynamic that proves she's not interested in any ending where things are simple. That in itself is appreciated, but the book relies a touch too much on new scenery and characters to carry it through before the final confrontations.

In the fifth book, Spirit Bound, Rose is dealing with the fact that she cannot simply move on with her life and accept things as they are if there might be the small chance to change them. This dissatisfaction and yearning for change is a broad theme that carries over into their entire government and society's structure, too. Rose managed to bring herself to stake Dimitri at the end of book four... but it turns out she didn't do a good enough job and he's still alive as a Strigoi. (Way to go, Rose.) And now Strigoi Dimitri is no longer interested in "awakening" Rose so she can join him and they can be together for eternity... now, he's simply intent on killing her. This would be one thing if she simply had to still deal with Dimitri being Strigoi, but it turns out that there might be a way to turn a Strigoi *back* and even if that means she needs to break her enemy from book one out of prision... well, we know Rose well enough by now to know that Rose usually accomplishes even her craziest plans. This whole situation is further complicated by the fact that Rose has begun a relationship with Adrian, a Moroi royal who has been flirting with her for a while now and who has the same kind of rare magical gifts that Lissa does. Rose cares for Adrian, but just she cannot let Dimitri go without a fight... and this time, Lissa has insisted that she be part of the plan. Lissa is preparing for a life at Court after her graduation, having struck a deal with the Queen in exchange for admittance to an excellent college nearby, but neither Rose nor Lissa knows if they're going to be paired together once Rose passes her final guardian trials. Those trials turn out to be a cakewalk... breaking Victor Dashkov out of prison and avoiding suspicion, however, is a bit trickier. And that's just the first step in their complicated plan to save Dimitri. On top of all this, both girls are being drawn into dangerous court politics and neither will escape the limelight before the book is through.
So much happens in Spirit Bound that it makes waiting for the sixth book (which will be named Last Sacrifice) an absolute agony. Why oh why do I bother starting a series when I know that it hasn't wrapped up yet? I'm not a patient person. I'll have to content myself with predicting the ending of the sixth book until it's published in November (which isn't that far away, I suppose.) As for the book itself, I feel that Mead packed a lot into this, which suggests there is a great deal more to come. Finding out a way to bring Dimitri back seems hard... but it might actually be the easy part in the grand scheme of happily ever after for Rose. Of course, Rose has set herself on a hard path and so happily ever after is a very slim possibility... and rather unlikely in my eyes, no matter how things turn out. As the books get more complicated, Rose's strong and badass presence has suffered a bit (except when it comes to her fighting abilities), but she's back full force in this one when she speaks against a government ruling and you realize that she's going to be just as much of a leader as Lissa has the potential to be, making them a dangerous combination.

In all, I think it's obvious that I enjoyed the books given my rate of consumption, though this doesn't necessarily mean they're brilliant, only that I have an addictive personality and enjoyed the characters. The books have the benefit of feeling both familiar and yet original. They follow certain obvious paths, and yet Mead still makes the paths are fun and exciting. One cares about the characters and, thankfully, few of them are complete idiots, which can easily kill one's interest in a series. I would say that Mead's talent lies in the creation of the world and plotlines as opposed to her writing, though it's sufficient for the task at hand and most everything out of Rose's mouth when she's being a smart-ass is amusing. One takes particular pleasure in seeing the characters mature and come into their own within their respective spheres of society. This is particularly true for Rose, as hers feels more earned than Lissa's. The secondary characters meant to support our heroines such as Christian and Adrian are amusing for their faults and dry wit. The villains tend to be a bit transparent, so it's rare to be really surprised by anything. The most interesting villain is Dimitri as a Strigoi, who the reader is inclined to like for what he was, yet must accept his altered state as a bad thing (one cannot help but think that Mead was a fan of Buffy).

I know the books are about vampires, but perhaps it's to their credit that I don't think of this as the first thing to discuss when I describe them. But of course, this means that I think of them more as YA, as they put more emphasis on the relationships and the drama as opposed to the fangs and blood. What I also appreciate is the fact that these books are pretty honest when it comes to sex and alcohol and the age of the kids involved. It's boarding school life and there isn't harsh judgment except when it comes to overindulgence. Same goes for the sex -- Rose deals with the implications in the first book of earning a reputation of being easy, but we also touch on taboos of culture, like Rose's allowing Lissa to drink her blood when they were on the run. In sexual scenarios between dhampir and Moroi, this has a tinge of the scandalous (touched upon in book five) which would give young adult readers a thrill while they still consider consequences of their actions. There's discussion of underage sex, safe sex, and what kinky things can be done without having actual sex. There's the frank admission that even a teenage girl can have a healthy sex drive, but clearly shouldn't let it make decisions for her. And there's knowledge that relationships are complicated and not just about wanting to be with a person, but working out the trust, the obligation, and all the many emotions that come into play.

So yes, here we have another vampire series to fit onto the YA shelves, but honestly? If all the vampire books were of this caliber, I'd be totally fine with the ever-expanding lists. I might prefer the main heroine to be a bit brainier, but Rose does at least promote values like loyalty, putting faith in oneself, and working hard to achieve one's goals. Her disregard for working within the system can be both refreshing and a bit frustrating... but at least she's always trying to be honest with herself so she can do the right thing. When it comes to the vampires, at least these vampires can be sexy and dangerous, but it's a shame that the "good" vampires aren't all that sexy and dangerous. Quite honestly, I sometimes wonder if there's a reason they have to be vampires at all. With their magic, they could simply be wizards, and yet the vampire aspect can sometimes yield interesting details. I hope Mead continues to explore the complicated paths without taking any easy ways out, but I have this sneaking suspicion that I might end up dissatisfied with the ultimate result. Not everyone can survive book six and choices will have to be made. Since we already know she's agreed to do another six-book series as a spin-off (and she's said that Rose will make occasional appearances), it'll be interesting to see how it all pans out in the end. Clearly Mead has me hooked and I hope she doesn't take that for granted with the last one.

Oh and PS... what's with the covers? I read these on my nook, so I didn't fully take in how ridiculous the covers to these books are until I hunted images up for my blog post. They're really quite absurd, but hey, whatever sells 'em, I suppose.

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