Book Review: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

Title: Shadow Kiss
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

VA #3 - Shadowkiss

SPOILER WARNING

For Books 1, 2 and 3

Shadow Kiss is in a lot of senses, the coming of age novel of the VA series. Yes, Rose turns 18 in this book. She also gets her first glimpse of life as an adult (on her visit to the Moroi court), gets an idea of how things work in real life, where you’re expected to bend your life around other peoples’ priorities, and experiences death and loss on a vast scale. It’s almost as though, after watching a close friend die in Frostbite, life is now telling her, “You think you’re strong? You don’t know what real pain is yet.” 

At the end of the book, when she takes advantage of her birthday and her newly adult status by leaving the Academy on a suicidal personal quest, she’s wilfully walking into a real world that is far more dangerous than any of us may ever experience in our lives. She hasn’t fully comprehended the real consequences of that decision (like most of us at our college graduations) but proves extremely flexible, taking on the roles and challenges thrown at her without any hesitation (very unlike a lot of us after our college graduations).

Shadow Kiss therefore represents the calm before the storm – that last blow off semester before the end of college, or the gap year you decide you want to take before you settle down to a life of tiny cubicles and all nighters without over time pay. The field experience that the novice dhampirs are required to take – six weeks of guarding a pre-assigned moroi student against simulated attacks conducted by their instructors is one way this is symbolized. This is nothing, it all seems to say. Real life, for these students, will not be their teachers dressed in black and play acting – it will be ruthless undead vampires who are twice as faster and stronger than they. Failure will not mean a low grade, but death.

The fact that Rose keeps seeing the ghost of her recently deceased friend Mason Ashford is another grim foreshadowing of the tragic battle that takes place at the end of the book. It also opens the door for a new discovery – in the accident that killed the rest of Lissa’s family and injured her and Rose, Rose hadn’t just been injured. She’d died for a few moments, and then been brought back, which was the result for the spirit bond the two of them share. It also made Rose “shadow kissed”, meaning that she was closer to the world of death, and thus had the ability to see ghosts and sense Strigoi when they’re near.

Rose’s relationship with Dimitri also exemplifies the calm before the storm. In the previous book, she had spent a lot of time being jealous of Christian’s aunt – Natasha Ozera – who was apparently an old friend of Dimitri’s, and who had asked for him to be her ‘guardian-with-benefits’. And he had almost taken her up on her offer, seeing the perfect solution to his falling-in-love-with-my-student woes (as well as the opportunity to have a child, something male dhampirs in particular didn’t usually have).

In Shadow Kiss, Dimitri acknowledges the fact that Rose is often far more mature than her years, and Rose comes to the realization that for someone who kept to himself as much as Dimitri did, she wasn’t just a student, but also a constant human interaction in his life. In the reader’s eye, this realization represents a new evolutionary stage on the road to moving their relationship from that of teacher and student to one between equals.

They move slowly from fighting their attraction to eventually having sex with each other, in what is a beautifully written scene that captures the comforting, yet simultaneously red hot nature of passionate sex with someone you’re deeply in love with. Afterward, they agree not to put aside their respective wishes entirely, and discuss ways in which they can be together while fulfilling their guardian duties as well. In what is a well worn theme for this book, it should then come as no surprise to anyone that this beautiful and well matched couple is “torn asunder” (to use some Shakespearean language) by the end of the story.

Another relationship following a positive evolutionary curve is the one between Rose and Christian. Despite their constant bickering and professed dislike of each other (Rose went as far as to try and wreck his fledgling relationship with Lissa in the first book because she didn’t feel he was a trustworthy character), it has been seen in the past that their mutual love for Lissa (and the fact that they’re practically the same person) makes them an excellent team. In fighting Dashkov’s psy-hounds in Vampire Academy, and in taking on their Strigoi kidnappers in Frostbite, Rose and Christian have unconsciously worked in tandem with fantastic, beat-the-odds kinds of results. This is taken a step further in Shadow Kiss when Rose is assigned to guard Christian for her field experience project. Having fully expected to get Lissa, Rose throws a hissy fit when she realizes she’d been assigned to Christian. And yet, as she remarks later, “For the next six weeks, he’s my pain in the ass.” And true to her word, she defends him – not just from fake vampire attacks, but also from rumours and mud slinging. For his part, Christian exhibits an enormous amount of faith in her when it looks as though she refused to protect him from a simulated attack on purpose, and is literally the only person to believe (without her having to defend herself first) that she didn’t leave him unguarded out of spite.

In the battle at the end of the book, Rose and Christian pull off something practically unprecedented when they work together to fight strigoi – he, with his power over fire, and she through her guardian training. They end up killing almost half the attacking force single-handedly, thereby making the strongest case heretofore in allowing moroi offensive magic against strigoi.

History is made in more senses than one in this book, as Dimitri himself says at one point in the story. In addition to the magic use, the guardians also stage a rescue attempt for the moroi and dhampirs who had been abducted by the fleeing strigoi (unheard of, considering usually that their first and only priority is to protect their assignments and do no more). The changing political scene of the book provides an effective and realistic backdrop to the personal drama that takes its centre-stage.

Rose’s friendship with Lissa reaches an all time low point at the end of Shadow Kiss, as Rose pushes the mantra of the guardians – “They (the moroi) come first”  – aside for the first time in her life and does something purely for her own sake. The self sacrificing nature of her friendship with Lissa has been emphasized before, but Shadow Kiss begins seeding doubts in her quite early on . This is firstly accomplished through Rose’s realization that she and Dimitri cannot have a relationship – age issues aside – because they are both to be assigned to Lissa, and they cannot prioritize each other above their assignment. And it’s brought up again when the therapist assigned to Rose asks her whether she doesn’t subconsciously resent having to put aside her own life in order to protect Lissa.

Even though Rose stoutly defends the guardian mantra in her counselling sessions and accepts Dimitri’s reasoning about the future of their relationship (or lack thereof), when she’s actually forced to choose between Dimitri and Lissa, she chooses the former and leaves her best friend behind.

It is a further sign of how much the moroi take the dhampirs for granted that it took a whole year and seeing Rose’s anguish at losing Dimitri for Lissa to realize that her best friend was in love with her teacher. And even then, Lissa pleads with Rose, and even tries to guilt her into staying.

In fact, this quote from the book perfectly encapsulates their relationship:

“She’d changed for dinner. Her hair was still pulled up, and she now wore a formfitting (sic) dress made out of silver raw silk. She looked beautiful. She looked royal. I thought about Victor’s words and wondered if she really could be the power for change he swore she was. Looking like she did now, so glamorous and self-composed, I could imagine people following her anywhere. I certainly would, but then, I was biased.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked with a small smile.
I couldn’t tell her that I’d just seen the man who frightened her the most. I couldn’t tell her that while she’d been out living it up, I’d been off watching her back in the shadows, like I would always do. Instead, I returned her smile. “I like the dress.”

I might be biased too, because this was the first book I’d read that’s set in this world, but I consider Shadow Kiss Mead’s best work till date. It’s powerful and passionate, filled with grey foreshadowing and highlighted by moments of intense emotion. The momentum built up by the previous books does not falter, nor does Mead hold herself back from consistently raising the stakes at all levels of storytelling. If you still need to be convinced that you need to read this series, I suggest starting with Shadow Kiss. 

Up Next – A break from the world of vampires and academies:

Penryn and the End of Days #1 – Angelfall
Next in this series: Vampire Academy #4 – Blood Promise

Book Review: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

Book Title: Frostbite
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2008
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.31
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

frostbite
Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite

Plot Description: The sequel to Vampire Academy picks up a few months after the first, showing a new stage in Rose’s guardian training. Running away from the school for two years had meant that she spent the first book trying to catch up with her classmates, and Frostbite opens with her Qualifier exam – one which requires an external guardian to evaluate her progress. As her mentor, it seems Dimitri was able to get her an interview with one of the most legendary guardians around, and as a bonus, this means Rose gets to roadtrip alone with her crush.

Her cute triumph at having scored ten hours of being alone with him soon dovetails neatly with tragedy – a Strigoi attack at their destination. And with that, Mead begins to unravel the clean cut rules she had previously set down for her universe.

One of the things the moroi and the dhampirs take for granted is safety in daylight, as the strigoi cannot be out in the sun without turning into humanoid torches. Another is the presence of wards – created using the same charmed silver stakes that are the ultimate weapons against the strigoi. The strigoi cannot touch the wards, but as they realize in this book, they could very well work with humans who can, and would do so in exchange for the promise of immortality.

Of course, such promises are rarely kept, which makes the humans’ who ally with the undead vampires incredibly stupid. And indeed, there’s always a thin strain of disdain for humans that remind us of the reasons for not interacting with humans.

Another development is the fact that the anti depressants Lissa’s taking are no longer working perfectly – and this makes important sense because our bodies always develop resilience to any kind of medicine, and this is something people who are on such medication actually face. Once again, the realistic and consistent portrayal of mental health issues blows me away.

What’s more, Lissa is now no longer the only person facing this problem. As the medicine grows less effectual, Rose gets into the habit of unconsciously reaching through their spirit bond and drawing the darkness away from her friend. This leads to her having uncharacteristic bursts of anger and violence all over the place, and it’s only in Shadow Kiss that they figure out what the hell is going on. Rose’s desperate need to ensure her friend’s safety is remarkable – and honestly, not something I’d be okay with doing. I mean, maybe I’d take a bullet for you, but there’s no way I’m taking your insanity.

Probably.

A result of the strigoi attack – the aftermath of which Rose witnesses while on her Qualifier exam – and a second one that takes place later on in the book, is that it sends their little world into a spiral of panic and fury. Moroi begin to urge for more protection – a difficult prospect considering the dwindling dhampir numbers. For one thing, dhampir women no longer come forward to be guardians. The reason for this is understandably straightforward – a guardian has no place in her life for family or friends. The moroi they guard is the be all and the end all of their universe (unless they get paid vacation leave, which isn’t all that frequent). As a result, a lot of dhampir women leave moroi society and go live in communities of their own, their biggest motivation for this being that they get to keep and raise their children. Dhampirs getting married are rare (understandably, since they cannot have children with their own, and since moroi marrying dhampirs is looked down upon) and as a result, a lot of moroi men come to these communities full of single dhampir women, looking for easy sex. Sometimes the women allow them to drink their blood during sex – a pornographic taboo – thus earning these communities the nickname of “blood – whore camps”.

A female dhampir guardian who chooses to have a child gives their children over to boarding schools like St. Vladimir’s to raise and train, and Frostbite introduces one such guardian – one whose formidable reputation precedes her everywhere she goes: Janine Hathaway.

Rose exhibits classic resentment born out of abandonment issues towards her mother, and yet she unquestioningly espouses the same principles her mother holds dear. Her challenging of her mother’s decisions therefore end up being typically teenage – short sighted, and not entirely thought through. Perhaps things might have been different if Janine was appreciative of her daughter’s achievements, and indeed, Janine does seem to make a few overtures – most of which Rose fails to notice because she’s wrapped up in her Dimitri drama. Rose’s relationship with her mother is written exquisitely, and is all the more painful because of how similar the two of them are. The potential for a far deeper relationship is right there, but neither of them really know how to even begin to achieve that.

The painfully selfish nature of the moroi is thrown into sharp relief against the silent self sacrifice of the guardians. The moroi reason that they’re doing their part in the battle against the undead – by reproducing with dhampirs to create more guardian material. Following the attacks, the more pampered sections of moroi royalty begin to demand that all dhampirs everywhere be forced into service… and that the dhampirs be made to graduate in their sophomore or junior years and thus swell out the ranks. A more reasonable section begin to point out that they can use their elemental magic to learn how to fight strigoi, rather than sit back and wait to be picked off one by one.

The debates kicked off in this book gradually develop through the rest of the series, and books seem to bear witness to history being made.

Frostbite introduces Adrian Ivashkov, a spoilt yet charming Moroi royal given to partying and hitting on Rose. Having learned of Lissa’s abilities, he wants to get together with her and learn new things about Spirit, which is what he has also specialized in. While Lissa is more than happy about this new development, her boyfriend, Christian Ozera, couldn’t be less displeased.

Christian is an example of how deep the stigmas and biases are rooted in Moroi society. Having had the misfortune to be born to parents who decided to willingly turn strigoi, he is ignored at best, and actively shunned at worst. While there can be no doubt of his love for Lissa, and hers for him, Christian is acutely aware that the Dragomir princess – last of her line – needs to be with someone with more influence and social capital than he does. His insecurities about pulling her down with him surface with the appearance of Adrian, who is everything he’s not – rich, and the height of royalty and popularity (Adrian is directly related to the current Moroi queen, Tatiana Ivashkov, and is a great favourite of hers).

The queen takes a special interest in Lissa, which sadly tends towards criticism more often than not. It is eventually revealed that the queen was hoping to set Adrian and Lissa up together, so Christian’s fears weren’t entirely unfounded. Watching him mature into a more secure and fun loving person, and his gradual acceptance into Moroi high society is frankly a treat, because despite his thorny exterior, Christian is snarky and hilarious, has some of the best one liners, is unquestionably brave and intelligent and incredibly loyal to Lissa. In fact, he’s a male, Moroi version of Rose. Just slightly less insane.

Frostbite picks up where VA left off as far as Rose and Lissa’s Mean Girls style relationship with non royal Moroi classmate Mia Rinaldi is concerned. Let me stop a moment here and point out that Mead is probably a Princess Diaries fan, because there’s no way Mia wasn’t named after Meg Cabot’s Princess Mia Thermopolis Renaldo of Genovia. Props for the shoutout. I think it’s awesome.

In the previous book, when our heroines return to the school after a two year ‘vacation’, they find that Mia, previously a nobody who they don’t recall, has worked her way up the social ladder at St. Vlad’s. She doesn’t take too well to their return, something Rose initially attributes to a classic Mean Girls-esque fear of being supplanted. It is later revealed that Mia harbours a particular dislike for Lissa due to a fling-gone-wrong that she’d had with Lissa’s now deceased older brother, Andre. Like all typical royals, Andre wasn’t too keen on letting anyone know he’d hooked up with a non royal freshman, and didn’t even bother to let her down easy. It’s interesting to see Rose and Lissa grapple with this information and the sympathy it evoked in them, and then eventually decide that they can’t be nice to Mia as long as she’s on the offensive anyway.

When Mia suffers a loss in this book, it opens up the door to forming a friendship which, for them, is likely to be more valuable than all the royal social networking they could do. Mia, it turns out, is fiercely determined, independent (when she’s not feeding her own insecurities about royalty) and a scrappy fighter. Along with Christian, she becomes one of the leaders of the faction calling for Moroi defending themselves with magic.

Every book in this series features a heavy action sequence at the very end, often with complimentary casualties galore. The final act in Frostbite sees Rose, Mia, Christian, and Eddie Castile and Mason Ashford fight themselves out of an impossible situation. “This changes everything” is an oft repeated phrase in the book, but it’s clear that even as the Strigoi change their ways to become more deadly, Rose and her friends adapt almost as easily to those changed circumstances. The final act is decisive in that it shapes Rose and Eddie’s futures, becoming that very real point in their lives which spurred them on in their determination to become the best, and most deadly guardians around. Likewise, it was pivotal in shaping Mia and Christian to be future leaders of the Moroi community. Most importantly, it brings Rose face to face with death for the first time – both in the sense of experiencing it in her own life, and in that this book marks her first kills. This, more than anything else, proves to be the first step towards fixing her relationship with her mom.

A seamless sequel that provides consistent writing and story telling, Frostbite helps bring out the previously unseen flaws in the universe painstakingly built up by the first book and convinces the reader that these may be the exceptions that prove the rules. The fact that this series is filled with hilarious quips and naturally snarky characters only makes the book that much better a read.

Next: Vampire Academy #3 – Shadow Kiss

Book Review: Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Book Title: Vampire Academy
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2007
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.15
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Vampire Academy #1 - Vampire Academy
Vampire Academy #1 – Vampire Academy

Vampires are all the rage. Wait, that’s still true, right? I mean, I know the Twilight frenzy has pretty much died down (I’d say thank goodness, but it’s been supplanted by Fifty Shades, which makes me want to go crawling back and beg Bella Swan’s forgiveness). But the loyal fanbase that vampires acquired almost a decade ago is still going strong. The Vampire Diaries is one of the most watched shows on CW, after all.

Okay, I might be a little biased about TVD, seeing as it’s one of my all time favourite shows. And really, my obsession with vampires far pre dates the Twilight phase. I mean, I was captivated by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It made me think all sorts of dirty thoughts. (And yeah, I read it when I was like, ten or something.)

On the rare occasions that I dare to mention VA to anyone, I get the inevitable smirk of condescension that has been Twilight’s legacy to the literate world. But VA, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of YA fiction one could offer to the young, developing minds of those who are still battling high school, blissfully unaware that college is going to be ten times as awful.

The book centres around protagonists and best friends Rose and Lissa, who have run away from their school and are attempting to blend in as regular humans. The somewhat mysterious reasons for this are gradually revealed in the course of the story – Rose believed her best friend was in danger, and her fears were eventually proved not unfounded.

The story depicts them as somewhat-out-there-yet-typical high school teenagers, but their friendship is something you don’t usually find in high school. Maybe not even in college. They’re devoted to each other, and Rose’s devotion is especially endearing considering that even at seventeen, she knows with absolute certainty that she’ll take a bullet for her best friend. As a dhampir, Rose is training to be a guardian for Moroi, and she literally cannot conceive of a universe in which she isn’t assigned to guard Lissa when they both graduate. Returning to St. Vlad’s tests their friendship somewhat, what with the rumours about Lissa feeding on Rose while they were away (true), the rumours about Rose sleeping with random guys and letting them drink her blood (false on all counts), the bullying they face from some of their classmates, hints of a more sinister threat lurking in the shadows, and Lissa’s deepening depression, which Rose eventually figures is a side effect of her wielding Spirit. As a result, the girls are seen frequently bickering with each other, but through it all, Rose’s belief in their friendship never wavers. Nor does it ever occur to her to care about Lissa less, even when the latter is subtly ostracising her from their social circles.

Unlike in Twilight, where the closest Bella has to best friends is Jacob (jealous suitor), and Jessica (bitchy and jealous for no apparent reason), Rose and Lissa don’t fight over the same guy, don’t hate each other for their respective physical features, and prove that girls often have extremely healthy friendships built on strong foundations of trust.

The second central plot driving force in the story is Rose’s relationship with her mentor, the dhampir guardian Dimitri. He’s older than her and is her teacher, both of which ought to have made her off limits as far as he’s concerned. I’m not entirely on board with this relationship, but unlike, say, Ezra Fitz in Pretty Little Liars, Dimitri views his increasing fondness for her very seriously, and – at least in the first and second books – tries to ensure that they never cross any limits. This is not to say that limits do not get crossed. They do, and they do so in a steamy manner that is at the same time logical and never oblivious to the complications that lie there in.

A major theme of this series is teenage and young female sexuality. Rose isn’t someone who holds herself back from random make outs. Cute guys are a major weakness for her, and yet she never truly lets her guard down at any time – as befits a good guardian. It is worth noting that for all of her love of partying, Rose never goes as far as sex, and I don’t even think that’s a conscious choice for her. It’s fully within the rights of a girl her age to go ahead and do it if she wants to, but I get the feeling that Rose is sub consciously waiting for a more meaningful relationship to come along before she lets herself hit that particular milestone.

Which is partly why, despite her extreme hotheadedness and almost insane willingness to get into random fights, she often comes across as far wiser and mature than a great many of her peers, including the calm, sweet, pacifist Lissa. It is also, I suspect, one of the reasons why Dimitri fell for her in the first place.

Mental health is another very important theme that Mead takes up in her series, primarily through Spirit users like Lissa or her former teacher, Sonya Karp – and Adrian Ivashkov later on in the series. In the course of this series and its sequel, Spirit’s backlash takes the form of depression (Lissa), bipolar disorder (Adrian), and anxiety and paranoia (Sonya), and this seems to depend on the spirit users themselves. After Lissa ends up cutting herself really badly, she is put on anti depressants which cut off her access to Spirit and thus the depression.

Mental health isn’t an issue usually tackled by YA, and especially not the YA Fantasy genre. It takes a great deal of research to get the details right (or personal experience, which I hope is not the case, because I wouldn’t wish that on anyone). I strongly believe that one of the reasons why I love this series so much is its unflinching engagement with this subject, and the tactful, sensitive, yet realistic portrayal that has been achieved.

Literary Analysis

Mead’s world building is excellent. Instead of going for either the cape flapping, maiden abducting, sleeping in coffins monster, or the sparkly, sexy, best boyfriend version (not that Cullen or most of his ilk can be considered good boyfriends from any angle), she created a world where versions of both co-exist. In addition, the notion of dhampirs – hybrids born of interbreeding between the vampire and human races is one that I haven’t come across anywhere else. I don’t particularly recall vampires being presented as a natural race either – they’re always humans who were turned by another vampire, who in turn was turned by another… well, you get the picture.

In fact, in mixing the supernatural with more realistic aspects of biology, or combining the ideas of royalty – and supernatural royalty at that – with that of elected governance, or even the juxtaposition of a standard high school experience against a darker backdrop of threats – both from Moroi as well as Strigoi, Mead has managed to find a middle ground between the reading tastes of the undiscerning fantasy aficionado and people who prefer realistic fiction. It’s brilliant.

The narrative style is from the first person perspective – that of Rose Hathaway – but the spirit bond she shares with Lissa allows for the unusual experience of witnessing some of the scenes from Lissa’s POV without taking away from the fact that the entire story is narrated by Rose, and Rose alone.

Something that does bug me, however, is the imperfect writing style. Grammatical and syntatical mistakes are, while extremely rare and hard to spot in this case, like nails on chalkboard to a grammar nazi like me. I find it interesting, however, that I never noticed this while I was reading VA – it was only in the course of the Bloodlines series that this began to bug me. Once I knew what to look for, I began to spot a few in VA as well, but I’m not really going to complain, because in comparison to Twilight or Fifty Shades, this stuff is Pulitzer worthy.

All things considered, Vampire Academy delivers an interesting plotline, deals with black and white and the shades of grey that growing up introduces into your life, with an undercurrent of feminist principles that run through it all, without once shoving said ideology in your face. The writing scripts its moral messages so subtly that the reader comes away having subconsciously condemned certain behaviours, perhaps even without realizing that they might have reacted differently, had the message been delivered another way.

It’s a definite must read, in my opinion, and TBH, it’s hard to keep yourself from picking up the sequel once you’re done.

And on that note, don’t miss the next post:

Upcoming: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite