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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown - Holly Black
***Note: This review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a strong if somewhat reckless heroine stars in what would otherwise have been labeled a pulpy YA paranormal romance...if it weren't for the profligate use of gore and an excellent gender-neutral cover image. 
I think I know how Holly Black works. This is my first Holly Black. I'm not sure what her other books are like, but this one seems like the product of a prolific, reasonably competent, pulp writer. I couldn't shake the feeling while I was reading that she sets a high word count for herself every day, cranks the pages out, and rarely looks back. I'm guessing she writes seat-of-the-pants, without an outline. She seemed to let the characters take her on a road trip without re-sculpting the plot afterward. This happens, and then that happens, and in the end there just isn't enough shape to the novel. Most of good writing is revision, but it seems like Black's version of that was to go back and insert infodumps about how vampirism works in this world, and the history of coldtowns, and flashback chapters to the main character's (or the love interest's) earlier life. It's told in 3rd-person, and there are some chapters from other characters' points of view, which I think now were just a way of trying to get us closer to those otherwise not-well-fleshed-out supporting actors. Contributing to that feeling of "pulp" and dutiful daily word count was the fact that most of the side characters were either one-dimensional or sketched too quickly for us to feel they were real or important. I'm thinking especially of Jameson, Valentina, Winter, Midnight, Pearl, and Pauline (who seems to exist purely as a plot device: a faceless best-friend operative on the outside of Coldtown).
Death Quotes. The beginning of every chapter has some sort of quotation by a famous author about death, and it feels like high-school writing--like she googled "death quotes" and thought it would sound literary to head up each chapter with them. They don't enhance or inform or resonate with what happens in the chapters at all.
Blood. There's a fair amount of gore and violence, and it seems like it's there to prove "this is a horror novel" (when in fact it's kind of solidly YA paranormal romance, but with a main character who's not as passive as Bella). I'm not squeamish about violence, but to be effective I think it's important to care about the people (or vampires) being killed, or to care about someone in the book who cares about them.  
World-building or infodump? A lot of the buzz surrounding this book mentions that it has interesting new world-building, but I'm not sure that's true (more on that below), and if it is, the world-building is harmed by the writing, which is prone to the infodumping I mentioned (sometimes sounding like a newspaper journalese, while we're in a chapter otherwise written from the main character's point of view, for instance).
And speaking of writing... The prose is sometimes clunky, or has cliches, or nonsensical metaphors:
In Coldtown, a person is "cooking something on long shaved sticks that looked a lot like bugs." (Where is the copyeditor? It sounds like the sticks looked like bugs.)
"The girl reached into a bag and came out with a knife in the other hand--the kind that chopped vegetables, that was normally in a kitchen." (It's writing like this that smacks of a daily word count.)
"She wanted a shower so hot that it gave her a sunburn."
And general continuity sloppiness: in one chapter she wants to go home and sleep for three days. In the next chapter, she doesn't want to go home, she wants to go on a road trip with her friend Pauline until their money runs out, to "forget the carnage."
The rules of the game. So is this a new take on vampirism? I haven't read Ann Rice or any of the other modern vampire novels (other than TWILIGHT), but the Bela Lugosi rules hold true here. The only deviation is that if a vampire bites a human (and doesn't drain him dry, which would kill him), the human is infected ("cold") for a period of eighty-eight days. If he can resist drinking any human blood during that period (vampire blood is okay), the infection will have worked its way out of his system. But no one has ever really succeeded at that because the thirst is akin to the worst drug addiction in the world, and even licking a dried bloodstain seems to count. And then there are the coldtowns themselves: quarantined cities where vampires are locked in and cold people are interned. Maybe those would be cool, except there were some jarring inconsistencies, like they had poor city services, no food, and perfect Internet. 
Commentary on contemporary society. There is some not-so-subtle commentary on youth culture glamorizing unhealthy lifestyles (many teens try to get into coldtowns to become vampires, and feed their blood to the vampires to try to ingratiate themselves), and on the digital explosion in modern kids' lives (everyone is vlogging everything, even the death of a brother). There's also a lot of describing people's clothing, which I found distracting. I don't know whether it was meant to be a commentary on consumerism and fashion, or Black thought she was being cinematic by telling us what people are wearing. She certainly wanted us to know that Tana, the main character, looked good in her skin-tight red leather dress. 
In sum. This is not a bad book, and probably entertaining for kids who like to consume novels without thinking about them, but it's also not special. I'm thinking that this is a case of a book really benefiting from a great dust jacket. The cover actually elevates it. With it's hot-male-vampire-love-interest, it could easily have earned (from a knuckleheaded designer) one of those images with a girl in a filmy dress, or a couple almost kissing, with a drop of blood somewhere. By making the cover actually cool, the reader is persuaded that it must be cool. And I'm sure a lot of boys are picking it up. Massive props to the art department at Little, Brown. Also, bless you for using an illustration rather than a photoshopped stock image.