Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Title: The Indigo Spell
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.43
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Warning

the indigospell.jpg

Plot Description: Having kissed Adrian once, Sydney is now struggling with the realization that she might perhaps return his feelings, even as she continues to follow up on leads that hint towards corruption within her organization, the Alchemists. She also finds herself in danger thanks to a mysterious serial killer witch who is tracking down young magic users and draining them of life and power.

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.

“Are you a virgin?”

“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.

My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”

“Um, yes. . .”

I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange.

Sydney’s proficiency in spellwork is improving, as is her willingness to engage with her potential for magic. These are two reasons why Jaclyn Terwilliger pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night to help her with a spell. The third reason is her virginity.

This is possibly due to my own personal hang ups, but I hate the idea of virginity holding any special kind of power. It’s a theme that’s inescapable however, turning up in a wide range of subjects from historical virgin sacrifices to modern society’s obsession with virginity.

For one thing, the concept of virginity is highly subjective. We’re given to understand that the historical definition of virginity centres around the heteronormativity of sex – (i.e. where a man, a woman and their respective private parts are involved). This sucks for a lot of reasons – anything that’s not heterosexual is not included, for starters. Even within this narrow definition of sex, one still runs into problems, because people have been using the hymen as the designated virginity marker. And the hymen often… doesn’t exist. Or is lost in ways other than through sex. Or can remain unbroken despite intercourse due to incredible elasticity. In young women, it even shows remarkable healing qualities.

A theory I like more these days is that virginity is more psychological than physiological. If you feel like you’re a virgin, then you’re a virgin.

Whoa, I’ve gotten slightly off track. Bloodlines is not the first universe to attribute magical qualities to virginity, and I don’t doubt that it won’t be the last. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes allusions to this trope by contrasting the unmarried and virginal Granny Weatherwax against the thrice married and happily promiscuous Nanny Ogg. But yes, the idea still makes me uncomfortable – partly because of the horrendous mess ‘virginity culture’ has become, and partly because I’m afraid it might be true.

Ms. Terwilliger’s spell reveals the location of a powerful witch – one who she worries is going after young witches for their youth and power. Once again, she’s pushing for Sydney to actively learn more magic – for her own protection if nothing else.

On a much lighter note, Bloodlines provides us with happy Vampire Academy cameos in the form of a Royal Wedding (Sheesh. Does there have to be so many of those?) Queen Vasilisa Dragomir is getting married to longtime boyfriend Christian Ozera, and it’s all very cute. Of course, the Queen is still in college, but when you’re a monarch, I’m guessing such mortal concerns go out the window. Sydney is attending the wedding as part of an Alchemist contingent who are there to ensure that they don’t accidentally insult the Moroi by not turning up. Adrian manages to create quite a lot of controversy by asking her to dance – a proposition that horrifies the Alchemists, and shocks many of the Moroi (including – get this – Abe Mazur).

Ha! Got you, old man.

Sydney’s boss implies that she’s got to take one for the team because they don’t want to look ungracious (or repulsed) by declining. And so we get our first Sydrian dance.

Told you it was cute.

He was unconcerned. “You’ll make it work. You’ll change clothes or something. But I’m telling you, if you want to get a guy to do something that might be difficult, then the best way is to distract him so that he can’t devote his full brainpower to the consequences.”

“You don’t have a lot of faith in your own gender.”

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been distracted by sexy dresses a lot.”

I didn’t really know if that was a valid argument, seeing as Adrian was distracted by a lot of things. Fondue. T-shirts. Kittens. “And so, what then? I show some skin, and the world is mine?”

The Sydrian plotline converges neatly with the rogue witch plotline as Sydney and Adrian go roadtripping. Their objective? Track down young women in the neighbourhood who might be in danger and ask them to be on their guard.

Sydney finally manages to track down Marcus Finch, an ex-Alchemist who rebelled and has been in hiding from his former employees ever since. Marcus is the one that finally reveals the secret behind the golden lily tattoos worn by all the Alchemists. The tattoos are made with Moroi blood and have bits of compulsion infused into them, making it impossible for the Alchemists to reveal the secret of their occupation to anyone not already in the know. It also makes them compliant and unquestioning, and might even promote the revulsion for vampires that they all seem to share. The good news is, Marcus has found a way to break the compulsion in his tattoo by means of an indigo coloured ink.

The teenager subplot drags alongside the main plot, being neither so interesting as to catch my attention, nor so boring that I’d completely skip over those parts (which is what happens to me every time something romantic turns up in a James Patterson novel). A love triangle turns into a love quadrangle and eventually resolves itself to mutual satisfaction. Sort of like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with gender roles reversed.

Mead’s humour and comic timing is as ever on point, which makes the occasional hiccup in her writing style so much more bearable.

It was hard for me to talk. “It’s instinct. Or something. You’re a Moroi. I’m an Alchemist. Of course I’d have a response. You think I’d be indifferent?”

“Most Alchemist responses would involve disgust, revulsion, and holy water.”

The overarching story line continues to be paced off well, with Sydney and Adrian finally taking their friendship to the level of a tentative relationship, and with the appearance of a new antagonist more powerful than any Sydney has faced up until now.

“Are we going to run off to the Keepers?” he suggested.

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “That’d be cowardly and immature. And you’d never survive without hair gel – though you might like their moonshine.”

The Indigo Spell is a comfortable middle ground for a series – ferocious action combined with cheesy and heart warming romance and serious character development. And my favourite parts about the Bloodlines series are yet to come.

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review in this Series: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Book Review: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily

Title: The Golden Lily
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2012
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3.5

Spoilers… and all that.

The golden lily

Plot Description: In the course of her new assignment protecting Jill Mastrano at Palm Springs, Sydney Sage gains new insight into the working of her organization – the Alchemists, about rogue vampire hunters who call themselves grandiose and cultish names, and even goes on a couple dates. Oh, and there’s like, fighting and stuff at the end.

Anyway, the progress of Sydney and Adrian’s relationship in Golden Lily is wonderful to watch. They start looking out for each other, thinking about each other’s mood, doing little things to cheer the other person up. They went from strangers to friends in Bloodlines, and Golden Lily upgraded the S.S. Sydrian to best friendShip.

One of the biggest themes of the Bloodlines series is Sydney’s journey from being a brainwashed bigot to someone more sensible – someone capable of thinking rationally. In Golden Lily, she’s already seeing the Moroi and dhampirs around her as people, caring about their problems in the human sense rather than as logistical issues standing in the way of the mission. But she’s still not completely free of bias – and in this she can’t exactly be blamed because it’s a bias shared by the rest of the supernatural world (with perhaps the exception of the Keepers). Humans and vampires don’t mix, don’t date, don’t marry, don’t interbreed.

      He reached out and pulled me to him, one hand on my waist and the other behind my neck. He tipped my head up and lowered his lips to mine. I closed my eyes and melted as my whole body was consumed in that kiss. I was nothing. I was everything. Chills ran over my skin, and fire burned inside me. His body pressed closer to mine, and I wrapped my arms around his neck. His lips were warmer and softer than anything I could have ever imagined, yet fierce and powerful at the same time. Mine responded hungrily, and I tightened my hold on him. His fingers slid down the back of my neck, tracing its shape, and every place they touched was electric.
      But perhaps the best part of all was that I, Sydney Katherine Sage, guilty of constantly analyzing the world around me, well, I stopped thinking.
      And it was glorious.
      At least, it was until I started thinking again.

The pacing is just right, bearing in mind the fact that this series is six books long, and we’re still only on the second. Sydney’s progress is phenomenal, but not enough. The notion of humans and vampires dating is also explored outside of the Sydrian dynamic – notably with regard to Jill’s relationship with the human boy Micah, or Angeline’s background as coming from a family of Keepers.

A major factor which has no doubt helped along the process of removing Sydney’s bias is her tutelage in the use of human magic under Jaclyn Terwilliger. In the final, climactic scenes of Golden Lily, Sydney uses a number of magical items and spells in the course of a battle, to their ultimate advantage. Once again, the pacing is perfect.

Golden Lily (and by extension the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series) are a wonderful exercise in perceptions, and how drastically changing perceptions can alter the narrative as we see it. Vampire Academy saw the Moroi world through the eyes of a perceptive dhampir who wasn’t afraid to question norms – and on occasion, through the eyes of a privileged Moroi. Bloodlines sees the Moroi world through the eyes of a human who was brought up to fear and hate the supernatural, and that of a Moroi guy battling Spirit induced mental illness. When one adds in the storylines of Mia Rinaldi, or Dimitri’s family in Baia, or Angeline of the Keepers, the Vampire Academy universe takes on further depth and meaning, becoming a layered entity.

Without a doubt, Golden Lily is still very much Sydney’s story – her quest to discover the truths that her Alchemist bosses are hiding from her, the truths behind the cult of vampire hunters, her continued efforts to protect her little pack of Moroi and dhampir, her study of magic, and yes, her struggle with body image and eating disorders. Adrian’s final chapter intervention might have seemed ham handed if it weren’t for the fact that his lecture came – at least in my opinion – several books late.

    I handed the gelato back. “I can’t. Not with you watching. It’s too weird. Can I eat it later?”
    “Sure,” he said, returning it to the freezer. “If you’ll really eat it. I know how you are.”
    I crossed my arms as he stood opposite me. “Oh?”
    He fixed me with a disconcertingly hard look. “Maybe everyone else thinks your aversion to food is cute—but not me. I’ve watched you watch Jill. Here’s some tough love: you will never, ever have her body. Ever. It’s impossible. She’s Moroi. You’re human. That’s biology. You have a great one, one that most humans would kill for—and you’d look even better if you put on a little weight. Five pounds would be a good start. Hide the ribs. Get a bigger bra size.”
    “Adrian!” I was aghast. “You… are you out of your mind? You have no right to tell me that! None at all.”
    He scoffed. “I have every right, Sage. I’m your friend, and no one else is going to do it. Besides, I’m the king of unhealthy habits. Do you think I don’t know one when I see it? I don’t know where this came from—your family, too many Moroi, or just your own OCD nature—but I’m telling you, you don’t have to do it.”

And yet, it’s also beginning to show us how Bloodlines is as much about Adrian as it is about Sydney. The Vampire Academy series was forever Rose Hathaway’s story – there’s no doubt about that. Everyone else, Dimitri and Lissa included, were supporting characters. But Golden Lily begins to dip into Adrian’s family, his background, his psyche, building the set up for what I would call one of the finest depictions of battling mental illness I’ve ever read.

Next in this series: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card

 

Book Review: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice

Title: Last Sacrifice
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.46
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Last Sacrifice

Beware: The Inevitable… SPOILERS!

Last Sacrifice is the Fast and the Furious and Die Hard 2: Die Harder all rolled into one of the VA series. And I’m not just saying that because of the inordinate amounts of C4 explosive in this book.

In Last Sacrifice, the gang goes from under-the-radar hijinks to an IN-YOUR-FACE, GOVERNMENT level of hijinks. The Moroi government should really have known better than to put Abe Mazur’s daughter in jail and try her for a capital crime. Just saying.

Just as in Blood Promise, the books splits itself to follow two storylines, once again through that unique narrative device of having Rose see through Lissa’s eyes. It begins where Spirit Bound left off – with Rose in jail. Thankfully she has all the likely allies, as well as a few unlikely ones now. The least likely of these allies is the ghost of the very person she’s been accused of murdering – Queen Tatiana Ivashkov.

The first order of business is – what else? – a prison break. Again. Then again, if these guys could break into Tarasov (aka Most High Security Vampire Prison Ever) and get Victor Dashkov (aka Former Villain of Book No. 1) out, then breaking into the local jail and breaking Rose out should be no problem. And it isn’t.

The jail break and subsequent escape puts Rose back in Dimitri’s company, thus allowing for a slow healing of their relationship. They meet up with Sydney Sage again – she’s been popping in and out of the storyline ever since Blood Promise – and Abe intends for them to lie low while he, Lissa and the rest of the gang work their way through the whodunit back at court.

Rose, on the other hand, takes this time to work on Ghost Tatiana’s clue, which relates to Moroi politics and their rather dumbass laws. According to Moroi law, the Council votes on everything, and the Council is made up of the representatives of each Royal House along with the Queen or King. And currently, only 12 out of 13 seats on the Council are being filled, because the Dragomirs have all but died out. Lissa’s friends and supporters (read: Christian’s aunt, Tasha Ozera) had already pointed out that Lissa deserves her seat on the Council now that she’s 18 (Side Note: How did Lissa herself not think of this?). But Moroi politics, it turns out, isn’t as simple as all that. There needs to be a quorum – that is to say, a council member has to have at least one other family member in order to be able to stand. Like I said, dumbass law.

And now, Tatiana, of all people, tells Rose that Lissa does indeed have another family member out there. She’s not the last Dragomir – that honour falls to her illegitimate half sibling. The identity of this sibling, when it is revealed, is one that we realize has been well seeded. VA is no amateur series of novels written blindly and without forethought. The reader had already met the last Dragomir – way back in Shadowkiss, and said sibling has been popping up consistently throughout the storyline since. Just like Sydney Sage, or Mia Rinaldi, or Tasha Ozera. Even when they’re not essential to the plot, Mead does right by her characters. They’re all well fleshed out and multi dimensional, and they’re never allowed to be forgotten.

To gain themselves time to solve the murder mystery, Rose comes up with a master plan: Nominate Lissa in the election for the new King or Queen. Because while she would need a quorum to be actually elected, she doesn’t need one to just run. And so while Lissa is running for queen and trying to exonerate Rose back at Court, Rose is running from the authorities and trying to find Lissa’s sibling and thereby legitimize her position with the Council. These girls, always looking out for each other.

One run in with the mysterious (and fairly uncivilized) Keepers, one Strigoi healing, one reconciliation with Dimitri, and a lot of following the paper trail later, Rose is headed right back to Court with all the answers and a very confused Jill Mastrano. Since Lissa outperformed most of the other Royal candidates on the trials, she’s just in time to back Lissa’s right to be elected.

And also just in time to save Lissa’s life, one last time.

Last Sacrifice takes its haunting title very seriously. The last act of the book echoes every part of Rose’s life, and how it always comes right back down to Lissa. She started out with a singleminded determination to save Lissa no matter what, and then she learned to question that determination. She learned to set a few, necessary boundaries, but the bottom line remained unchanged. Just as she put Lissa’s life over Dimitri’s in  Spirit Bound, so too did she put Lissa’s life over her own in Last Sacrifice. 

In fact, her life isn’t the only thing Rose sacrifices at the Lissa altar. Present all through the series is the link between Lissa’s spirit use and her depression. In fact, on numerous occasions after Lissa weans herself off the anti depressants, both girls have expressed relief that Spirit isn’t affecting her as much as it used to. That this is a patent lie is something neither of them seems to want to acknowledge, considering Rose has made sucking that darkness out of Lissa and into herself through the spirit bond something of a hobby.

Throughout Lissa’s royalty trials, Rose does this as she watches her friend through the bond. She pulls away the darkness over and over again, putting it away in a quiet corner of her mind. Repression is never the answer – everyone knows that, including these girls, but they don’t have the time for anything else at the moment. And so it goes, until Rose snaps and all that darkness comes tumbling out of her.

It’s an intensely written moment – chaotic and full of irrational fury. The engaged reader is carried along on the strength of sheer emotion, and despite the words we’re reading, we’re not actually clear on what’s going on until the deed is done and a man is dead.

Having sacrificed the last of her innocence halfway through the book, Rose now, at the end of the final act, gives Lissa the only thing she has left – her life.

The book ends on as neat a note as could be managed under the circumstances. There were, of course, loose ends that infuriated me until I realized a new followup series was in the works. But, contrary to what my sad ending review may lead you to believe, there are no great tragedies in Last Sacrifice. It’s the quintessential triumph-over-evil-in-the-end kind of book. The final chapter puts a cute little bow on almost everything, and for what’s left over, [*cough* Adrian *cough*] you get to read the Bloodlines series.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead
Next Review: #scandal 
by Sarah Ockler

Book Review: Vampire Academy #5 – Spirit Bound

Title: Spirit Bound
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.38
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spirit Bound

Considering how long the previous post ended up being, I should make this one short and sweet: Hijinks! (And some regrettable death).

Spoilers!

After the darkness that was Blood PromiseSpirit Bound is back to the basics. And if there’s some residual darkness tingeing the book, I’m sure we can forgive and forget, all things considered. And by ‘all things’ I mean there’s a raging strigoi on the loose.

Despite having graduated near the top of her class, Rose’s future is lacking in real job prospects due to her reputation as an unreliable vigilante with little respect for the rules. So she’s largely left to her own devices, and shenanigans are on her mind.

First stop, Vegas! (Well, no. First stop was storming an unbeatable high security prison and breaking out a high security prisoner.) They’re on a mission to learn all they can about the possibility of healing and curing Strigoi, and this time Lissa gets to be in on the difficult adventures. When our troublesome little Scooby gang comes back, they’re in deep trouble. And Rose gets blamed for everything, as usual.

For once, Rose couldn’t care less. Yes, she’s worried about being handcuffed to a desk job for the rest of her life, but she’s numb. Very, very numbed by the realization that curing a Strigoi isn’t going to happen – not because it’s impossible, but because a Spirit user is supposed to do the job. There’s no way she’s going to let Lissa or Adrian – the only two known Spirit users – get anywhere close to Strigoi to even try.

Lissa on the other hand is still feeling very guilty over having been a poor friend to Rose in the past, and is determined to do this one thing for her. And here’s the thing about Lissa. A pampered, bleeding-heart princess she maybe, but when she needs to do something, nothing in the world will stop her. Clearly, there’s a reason she’s best friends.

Alongside all of the shenanigans go the political machinations. The panic and paranoia spreading amongst the Moroi elite cause them to pass a controversial law stating that dhampirs can now be sent out as guardians at the age of sixteen. They use Rose’s testimony to support this move, which, as anyone knows, is a terrible way to implement legislation. You can’t pick the exception from the lot and use it to propagate a fake generalization. It’s a terrible thing to do, causes uproar, and results in Rose calling Queen Tatiana a sanctimonious bitch in open court.

In the meanwhile, Crazy Dimitri is still on the loose. Following an incident in Vegas that involved a daylight attack and a literal mountain of dead security guards, he launches a savage attack on Lissa’s group while she’s touring her prospective college, kidnapping her and Christian as bait to lure Rose in. He’s now given up on the whole ‘turn you and we be together for all of eternity’ plan – now he’s just trying to kill her. Rose sees the whole thing through Lissa’s eyes, as he’d known she would, and plans and spearheads an attack force against Dimitri’s strigoi nest.

The first time she faced an undead Dimitri, Rose choked, leading to her capture. The second time she tried to kill him, there was no hesitation, but he kinda fell over a bridge before she could ensure the kill. The third time, in Vegas, she impulsively ensured that Eddie would fail to kill him. This time, the fourth and last time, it’s different. In her mind, it doesn’t matter anymore that he could be saved at some point in the future.

“You can’t, Rose. Haven’t you figured that out by now? Haven’t you seen it? You can’t defeat me. You can’t kill me. Even if you could, you can’t bring yourself to do it. You’ll hesitate. Again.”
No, I wouldn’t. That’s what he didn’t realize. He’d made a mistake bringing Lissa here. She increased the stakes–no pun intended–on everything. She was here. She was real. Her life was on the line, and for that . . . for that, I wouldn’t hesitate.

Dimitri must have a zillion lives, I’ll say that for the guy. Only this time, it’s Lissa standing in the way of Rose and Dimitri’s death. And like that, the story moves seamlessly into a narrative of redemption.

A Dhampir Reborn and the Death of a Queen

If Rose thought, even for a moment, that her heartache would be over the minute Dimitri was cured, she was mistaken. Mead makes both Rose and the reader work for that reconciliation, possibly because she knows very well that both Rose and the reader are, at this point, more than happy to give Dimitri every ounce of forgiveness they possess. For free. And the manner of this comes from Dimitri himself – a soul so tortured and lost that he bans Rose from his presence.

I’ll be honest. This portion of the book was difficult for me to read, mostly because I was bursting with righteous indignation. How dare he? How DARE he? Dimitri looks at Lissa almost reverentially, because she’s his saviour. Never mind that all she did was thrust that final stake. Never mind that Rose just broke ALL THE LAWS in a mere matter of weeks just to get to him and save him. He doesn’t even look at her. He can’t even bear to look at her.

Because Dimitri’s not being an asshole. Rose and the reader maybe willing to forget the events of Blood Promise – the kidnapping and the sexual assault via vitiated consent; the brainwashing of someone using potent drugs; the sheer lack of respect for life and liberty. But Dimitri isn’t. He remembers everything he did when he wasn’t himself, and he knows he’s not worthy of Rose, not after what he did – especially to her.

To add to their problems, the Moroi-Dhampir community is infinitely distrustful of this apparent healing of a Strigoi, and it becomes important to prove to everyone that he is no longer Strigoi. And one mustn’t forget the royal assassination that soon followed, and the fact that Rose was almost immediately implicated in it.

One of the best scenes in the book is getting to watch Abe Mazur ‘defend’ Rose in a court of law.

“What have you gotten me into?” I hissed to him.
“Me? What have you gotten yourself into? Couldn’t I have just picked you up at the police station for underage drinking, like most fathers?”
I was beginning to understand why people got irritated when I made jokes in dangerous situations.

Spirit Bound talks about the journey one embarks on when one’s trying to save something or someone, and questions you about the lengths you’re willing to go to achieve your goal. It asks you how you will prioritize your life. When you’re dedicating all your life and everything in it to your mission, is there anything left over? Anything that is more important than your mission and your life and everything in between?

It also talks about how, even after someone has been saved – even though they’ve been rescued – they still have a ways to go. Saving someone isn’t the same as redeeming them. And there is no forgiveness – there can be no forgiveness – without redemption. All too often in our lives, we forget this fact in our hurry to have our loved ones back in our lives. It pertains particularly to people who’ve been in Rose’s position – i.e. people who’ve been in abusive relationships. Humans do have the capability to love those close them even when their loved ones are being abusive. But they shouldn’t – they musn’t – get close to you again until they’ve redeemed themselves, and until you’re sure – dead sure – that there’s no trace of Strigoi left in them.

Next: Vampire Academy #6 – Last Sacrifice

Book Review: Vampire Academy #4 – Blood Promise

Title: Blood Promise
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: Vampire Academy
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.37
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

blood promise

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 3 AND 4

VA deals with the issue of faith through the perspective of several characters. Moroi society, having as it does its roots in Eastern Europe, is largely Orthodox Christian in their beliefs, and take their religious ceremonies very seriously. And they have good reason for doing so, seeing as they have proof of holiness and lack thereof in the Strigoi, who cannot enter holy ground.

Personal faith, however, varies from individual to individual as it is wont to do in any society. There are the religiously devout, like Lissa (don’t you just know she’s going to be religiously devout, goody two-shoes that she is?). There are the agnostic, like Rose, who has an agreement with God – she’ll believe in Him, barely, so long as He allows her to sleep in on Sundays. There’s Dimitri, whose faith is expressed more along the lines of a place to find peace in, and maybe hope for forgiveness for all of the killing he’s done. I mean, sure, he’s been killing Strigoi, but it’s killing nonetheless. I love Mead for making this distinction – for pointing out that it’s not home-free just because you’re killing monsters – because the moral consequences of your actions always affect you, the actor, and no one else. Snuffing out a life, regardless of the kind of life it is, will always have its effect on the snuffer (and not the snuffee).

And then there are the like’s of Christian ‘Tragic Backstory’ Ozera. Not only does Christian regularly go to church, but he also spends most of his lonely  life hanging around the church in a half sarcastic, half sincere effort to show people he hasn’t voluntarily gone Strigoi yet, like his parents did.

If Shadow Kiss was the coming of age novel in the VA series, Blood Promise is your first job – nerve wracking, too much responsibility, and it suddenly feels like you’re making too many mistakes. Life after eighteen is overwhelming – and so is Blood Promise.

This book also deals seriously with the concept of forgiveness, and tests the line between the lengths to which one can go and still be forgiven, and the point of no return.

After learning that Dimitri was forcibly turned into Strigoi, Rose drops out of school and leaves on a personal mission. She thinks constantly about a conversation they’d had way back in Vampire Academy, where both she and Dimitri had come to the conclusion that should they ever be turned Strigoi, they’d want to be killed rather than live as a merciless killing machine. And she’s on her way to fulfilling Dimitri’s wish.

Blood Promise demonstrates how unprepared Rose is for the real world. This is despite having numerous Strigoi kills to her name, and already being one of the best guardians in the Moroi world.

She has no idea where she might find Strigoi, or where Strigoi Dimitri may have gone. She has a notion that he might have returned to his native Russia, but he only mentioned the name of his hometown once, and she doesn’t remember it. In Russia, she sets about the most blunt and messy manner of finding information – hoping for blind luck. And her first break is Sydney Sage.

Rose’s ignorance about her world extends to ignorance about the Alchemists, an organization of humans whose aim is to ensure that the human world stays oblivious to all the vampires running around. If Sydney is anything to go by, the Alchemists are extremely religious and disgusted by vampires, are extremely intelligent, and have access to chemicals that allow them to instantly destroy dead bodies. With Sydney’s help, Rose reaches Dimitri’s hometown and meets his family.

I was struck by the callousness and self absorption of Moroi society, as it becomes clear that no one has bothered to let Dimitri’s family know of his fate. In the absence of a better explanation for why’s there, Rose allows them to assume that she came exclusively for the purpose for breaking the news to them. She blends into their family, treated as one of their own, a sister to Dimitri’s sisters, – especially to Viktoria, the youngest – an aunt to his nephew, and a daughter to his mom. Her relationship with Olena Belikova reflects on her relationship with Janine Hathaway. Olena is the mother Rose has always wished she had – the mother who raised her children herself, and who was there for them all their lives.

It’s a pleasant fantasy, but it doesn’t last very long for the obvious reason – Rose is Janine Hathaway’s daughter through and through. It does, however, take an intervention of sorts from Yeva Belikova – Dimitri’s ancient and crochety grandmother and an alleged witch – for Rose to finally shake herself out of her complacency and return to her quest.

On the other side of the world, the rest of the Scooby gang is steadily running itself into the ground. Without Rose around to take care of Lissa, she basically sets herself on a steady downward spiral (something we eventually learn isn’t completely her fault). Insane levels of partying, alcoholism, vandalism and cheating-on-Christian ensue under the influence of newcomer royal Avery Lazar. Christian reacts in typical fashion – he dumps her because he’s hurt and insecure and goes off to brood. Adrian is Adrian – drunk or hungover except for when he’s checking in on Rose’s dreams.

I’ve talked about Rose being able to see into Lissa’s mind working as a beautiful narrative device before, but nowhere in the series is it as wonderful as it is in Blood Promise. This is because Blood Promise is the only book in the series where Rose and Lissa are leading completely unconnected lives, and we get to keep simultaneous tabs on both their stories without needing a POV switch.

Alright, so I’ve stalled enough. It’s time to face up to the dark, dark stuff. So yes, Rose finally meets Dimitri. Dimitri the Strigoi. He’s powerful and terrible, and the encounter is a total sucker punch for her. Despite all of her preparation, she’s not ready. She’s just not ready.

To her credit, she tries to kill him. But the perfect moment is already past, and she’s knocked unconscious and captured. And the next portion of the book is a feminist critic’s personal hell.

The books so far have repeatedly emphasized the fact that strigoi are unnatural, undead and soulless, but Blood Promise drives that fact home like nobody’s business. The Dimitri Rose now confronts has no emotion, no feelings. His only motivation is power (funny how that works out isn’t it? If the desire for power doesn’t come from our souls, where does it come from?) and the only thing he recognizes is strength.

It is this respect for strength that prompts him to spare Rose’s life. Instead, he wants to awaken her – turn her into strigoi – so she can help him take over the strigoi crime underworld. Predictably, Roserefuses, and so he sets out to persuade her through a combination of drugging and brainwashing her, along with emotional and sexual manipulation. He dresses her up like a doll, buys her expensive trinkets, and drinks her blood over and over again.

Eventually however, she manages to retain her sanity for one precious moment – and that’s all it takes for her to manipulate him into not biting her for a change, to fight the severe withdrawal symptoms, plan and execute an escape in her weakened state, and kill all the strigoi in the house on her way out.

Well, all of them but Dimitri.

Since the book has been following not one, but two storylines, there’s one more action filled climactic sequence to be resolved before it can end, and I’m going to be a little presumptuous here and call it unique. A beautiful, wonderful and completely unique mess of a scene involving no less than four Spirit users, three shadowkissed and bonded individuals and incredible amounts of Spirit compulsion being wielded. Needless to say, it ended in the permanent institutionalization of three participants as they were now completely and criminally insane. (And indeed, how else could that scenario have played out, eh?)

Blood Promise ends with a shell shocked and traumatized Rose returning to St. Vlad’s and re-enrolling in her classes, and with a very shaken but recovering Lissa making her promise that the next time she goes off on an insane adventure, she’ll take Lissa with her. It marks a heart warming end note to a very violent book by returning to the classic foundation of this story: the strong and unbreakable friendship of two girls – each incredibly strong in her own way – who’d die for each other.

Up Next: Vampire Academy #5 – Spirit Bound

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