Book Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Title: The Fiery Heart
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

thefieryheart

Plot Description: As Sydney’s sister Zoe is assigned as her partner on the Palm Springs assignment, Sydney finds her instinct to bond with her sister warring with her need to keep her new relationship with Adrian a secret. She continues to work towards finding a magical means of breaking the bond of compulsion used by the Alchemists on all their agents, and must keep from making any mistakes that might end with her sent back to Alchemist ‘re-education’.

Although Mead meant for this series to have two narrators from the start, The Fiery Heart is the first book to actually implement that plan. The first chapter takes place from Adrian’s POV, and the POVs alternate between the two protagonists after that.

For someone who’s already read the entire book (twice), the first chapter starts throwing off warning signs almost right away. Adrian’s made a huge impulse purchase on vinyl records, something he thinks is amazing. From here on out, the books take a very serious look at Adrian’s continuing struggle with spirit induced mental illness, which had until now manifested only in the form of occasional fits of poetry.

“Back at my apartment, I indulged in my one daily drink, hoping it would send me to a quick slumber. No such luck. In the old days, it usually took at least three before I’d pass out in drunken oblivion. Now, my fingers lingered on the vodka bottle as I teetered on the edge of getting a refill. I missed it. Badly. Aside from the bliss of the buzz, alcohol could numb out spirit for a little while, and although the magic was a pleasant addiction, a reprieve from it was nice. Self-medicating had fended off a lot of spirit’s negative effects for years, but this new deal was letting it start to gain ground.”

Sydney and Adrian have promised each other that they will both cut down on one unhealthy habit – Adrian’s stopped smoking, and isn’t drinking as much, while Sydney’s given up coffee and tries to eat better. Personally, I would have thought twice before proposing or agreeing to such an arrangement, because Sydney attempting to kick her caffeine addiction is nothing like Adrian going off both cigarettes as well as alcohol. As was first noted in the Vampire Academy series, Adrian deals with the depressive side effects of wielding Spirit by constantly self medicating. As a result, Fiery Heart gives us a picture of someone struggling with mental illness and addiction simultaneously. The more restraint Adrian exercises with regard to his vices, the deeper he descends into his depressive bout.

“My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure.”

“I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake.”- Adrian Ivashkov

Adrian’s story quickly gathers pace as he deals with a number of problems – the future of his relationship with Sydney, the fact that he had little to no money, his need to get her gifts, his inability to paint a self portrait for his assignment in college. It’s exacerbated by the spirit he uses – something he usually tries to avoid doing – and manifests as extreme highs followed by severe crashes.

No. No dinner, nothing in public. The thought descended heavily on me as I contemplated our future together. Could we have one? What kind of relationship was this, grasping at these stolen moments? She was too reasonable to do this forever. Eventually she’d realize it was time to let it go. Let me go. I put the cuff links back in their box, knowing I could never sell them and that I was in the full throes of a spirit crash.
It happened with these bouts of magic. I’d barely been able to drag myself out of bed when I’d brought Jill back. The toll of wielding so much life was just too great, and the mind crashed from the high. Well, mine did. Lissa didn’t have these dramatic ups and downs. Hers was more of a steady darkness that lingered with her for a few days, keeping her moody and melancholy until it lifted. Sonya had a mix of both effects.

I never thought I’d end up cherishing Bloodlines more than I do the Vampire Academy series – after all, sequels rarely live up to the expectations we form of the original. But Mead’s sensitive, no-nonsense portrayal of mental illness has made this series far more important to me than the first. Is it exhilarating to watch Rose Hathaway kick ass? Yes. But it is more heart-warming and affirming to find a character you can relate to. Most importantly, a beautiful balance is struck in the process of portraying Adrian’s struggles. His demons are depicted in all of their harsh reality, but through his perspective, the reader is taken smoothly along his highs and lows. What is happening to him seems normal, even when we know that it’s not. Mead’s writing allows the reader to perfectly experience what it’s like, and not once does that experience seem jarring or out of the ordinary. There is never any stigma, and no scene has the effect of ‘othering’ Adrian in the eyes of the reader.

He shook his head. “I tried. I tried to hold out. But when I swing up like that . . . well, eventually the pendulum swings back. It’s hard to explain.”

“I’ve been down before.”

“Not like this,” he said. “And I’m not saying that to be a smart-ass. The way I feel . . . it’s like the world starts crumbling around me. Every doubt, every fear . . . it eats me. It weighs me down until I’m swallowed in darkness and can’t tell what’s real or not. And even when I know something’s not real . . . like Aunt Tatiana . . . well, it’s still hard . . .”

In addition to showing us what it feels like to live with a mental illness like bipolar disorder (which is what Adrian is eventually diagnosed with), Mead also presents to us the experience of visiting a psychiatrist, of receiving the diagnosis, of struggling with the decision to take medication.

I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes. “‘Crazy’ is a term that’s used incorrectly and far too often. It’s also used with stigma and finality.” He tapped his head. “We’re all chemicals, Adrian. Our bodies, our brains. It’s a simple yet vastly sophisticated system, and every so often, something goes awry. A cell mutation. A neuron misfiring. A lack of a neurotransmitter.”

She addresses some of the nitty-gritty details, like the importance of speaking against the stigma, and the fact that dosages often require adjustment before they can properly take effect.

Some of the most heartwarming passages involved Adrian agonizing over the decision to take the medication, and whether it was the right thing to do. He carries internalized stigma, an aversion towards prescribed medication. He also worries that he will no longer be himself, no longer be able to do brilliant things in art, in philosophy, or with Spirit.

“Is it going to ‘stabilize’ me so that I don’t feel happy or sad? So that I don’t feel anything? No! I don’t care if they’re dangerous. I’m not giving up my emotions.”

“No one’s taking away your emotions. It’s what I said before: We’re all chemicals. You’ve got a couple that aren’t at the right levels. This will adjust them, just as a diabetic would correct their insulin. You’ll still feel things. You’ll be happy. You’ll be sad. You’ll be angry. You just won’t swing unpredictably into such wild directions. There’s nothing wrong with this—and it’s a hell of a lot safer than self-medicating with alcohol.”

“This is going to kill my creativity, won’t it? Without all my feelings, I won’t be able to paint like I used to.”

“That’s the cry of artists everywhere,” said Einstein, his expression hardening. “Will it affect certain things? Maybe, but you know what’ll really interfere with your ability to paint? Being too depressed to get out of bed. Waking up in jail after a night of drunken debauchery. Killing yourself. Those things will hurt your creativity.”

“I’ll be ordinary,” I protested.

“You’ll be healthy,” he corrected. “And from there, you can become extraordinary.”

With so many dysfunctional and downright abusive relationships being romanticized in contemporary YA fiction, it’s refreshing to see how healthy Sydney and Adrian are in dealing with all of their problems. A large portion of that credit goes to Sydney, whose foremost qualities continue to be her pragmatism and sensible nature. But Adrian’s kindness and compassion are on display in Bloodlines, in a way they never were in VA. His love for her, his willingness to try, to fight anything, even himself.

Two new characters are introduced in The Fiery Heart – Zoe Sage, Sydney’s younger sister, and Neil Raymond, a handsome English dhampir who attracts the attention of the younger girls of their group. Zoe Sage is stiff and cold towards the gang, and disapproves of the extent to which Sydney immerses herself in group dynamics.

“Speaking of priorities . . . have you ever thought that maybe what you’re doing with Ms. Terwilliger isn’t appropriate?”

I flinched, even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about magic. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly. It’s just, you’ve already finished high school. You’re here to do Alchemist business, but you seem really into your classes—especially that thing with her. It seems personal too, like you’re just hanging out as friends. I mean, talking about her vacation? It wouldn’t be a big deal if it was just inside class hours, but you’re always doing work for her that doesn’t seem like work. Nothing wrong with wanting friends or social time . . . but you can’t do it at the cost of the assignment. What would Dad say?”

She is in fact a little like the Sydney we met in Blood Promise, and much as I’d like to judge Zoe and call her more uptight and evil than her sister had ever been, I don’t think that’s true. Zoe is young, and has been given more responsibility than she was ready for – partly because her dad wanted her on his side when she testified during the custody hearings. The divorce of Sydney and Zoe’s parents is an important subplot in this book, and clarifies the abusive nature of their father’s relationship with both of them. When Sydney finds out that her father would be coming to see him, she feels exposed and uncomfortable, as though a safe space was about to be violated.

Palm Springs had become a sanctuary for me, in which I tucked away all my secrets—not just my romance with Adrian, but also my true friendship with the others. And, of course, my illicit magic use. I kept all those things well guarded, but just knowing he would be here, in my territory, made me feel as though my entire life had just been exposed.

Both sisters fear him, and the he encourages competition and divisiveness between them, making them easier to manipulate. This book also hints that Sydney’s body image issues don’t stem entirely from her insecurity with respect to the Moroi. During the dinner, her father polices not only his daughters’ meals, but also remarks on the fact that Sydney has gained weight.

“You look like you’ve gained some weight too, so it’s smart to back off.”

I gave him a stiff smile, swallowing the urge to tell him I still fit firmly in a size four. I was just a much healthier-looking four, rather than a slightly malnourished one. Meanwhile, Zoe—who’d been about to set the menu down—quickly opened it again when she heard him rebuke me. She’d probably planned on ordering tempura, one of her favorite dishes, and now feared my dad’s ire over fried food.

Another heavy subject this book tackles is date rape – transposed in context as the drugging of human women by Moroi men so as to drink their blood without their knowledge and consent. More specifically, the fact that Adrian once drank from a human girl who was too drunk to understand what was happening. He confesses to Sydney when confronted, makes feeble excuses before quickly acknowledging that he should never have done such a thing. He apologizes, but doesn’t act entitled to forgiveness. In the end, it is Sydney who excuses his conduct as they reconcile, pointing out that he has changed, that he understands. Considering the gravity of the act, I’m not sure that such easy forgiveness is warranted. Unlike with Dimitri’s abusive actions towards Rose as a Strigoi, there is no defence here that Adrian can legitimately make use of. Dimitri was soulless, monstrous, a different species. The guilt he felt upon being restored was crushing. Adrian has always been the same person, and his act was criminal in every context.

But such is rape culture. We all grow up internalizing misogyny and other forms of bigotry. The more unfortunate of us actually end up acting on that bigotry because society implicitly condones and even lauds such behaviour, even as it explicitly criminalizes it. Ultimately, the best we can do is understand, change, make amends and move on. I think Mead could have handled this problem a little better, but ultimately, my conclusions seem to coincide with hers.

As far as the development of the plot in concerned, this book finally grasps the central conflict of this series by the stem, thorns and all. It also cements the status of the Alchemists as the primary villains, and the fear of “re-education” which has been hanging over Sydney’s head since the beginning of the series finally materialises. It also features scientific advancements in the Moroi world, such as the development of a “Strigoi vaccine”. The darker elements and atmosphere of danger is constantly offset by the light humour that pervades almost every line – Adrian’s habit of quipping seems to be contagious. My favourite line in this entire series has got to be when Adrian deflects an offer of alcohol by picking on Dimitri.

“I can send for some,” said Lissa. She started to turn toward one of the guards at the door, but Adrian waved her off.

“Nah, we’ve got to be all responsible and stuff to deal with the spirit problem, right? We can celebrate later. Besides, Belikov can’t hold his liquor.”

Dimitri looked startled at that, and I had to repress a laugh at Adrian’s deflection.

The romantic entanglements of the younger members of the group are entertaining, and I found myself being more irritated at Zoe when she was being a wet blanket about them, than for her conservative attitude or ultimate betrayal of Sydney.

To say my friends were living a soap opera was an understatement. They almost made my dangerous relationship with Adrian look boring.

The only bright side was that everyone seemed to be in a holding pattern. Trey’s conflicted principles kept him away from Angeline. Eddie’s resolve kept him away from everyone, as did Neil’s. And so long as Neil held true to that stance, Jill and Angeline would have nothing to act on. Maybe it would have been nice for everyone to have some sort of happy ending, but I selfishly had to admit that my life was a lot easier when the drama dial was kept on low.  – Sydney’s POV.

Trey and Angeline, Jill and Eddie, Malachi Wolfe and Jaclyn Terwilliger, Rose and Dimitri, Neil and Olive, Lissa and Christian, and of course, Sydney and Adrian. The book is filled with couples (sadly, 100% heterosexual pairings) and it’s helps maintain those standards that all YA novels everywhere aspire to.

Next: Bloodlines #5 – Silver Shadows

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase

Title: A Wild Sheep Chase
Author: Haruki Murakami
Year of Publication: 1982
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.94
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2 3.5

MOST SPOILERS EVER. SERIOUSLY, I’VE WRITTEN ALL THE ENDINGS; DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNLESS YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT SPOILERS.
AT ALL.

Nooo don’t make me review Murakami, please! I don’t want to. *sob*

wildsheep

Plot Description: So there’s this guy – he’s the narrator. And he’s on what he feels is a wild goose chase, except he’s chasing a sheep. A magical sheep, which may or may not be real… but whose goal is WORLD DOMINATION. No less.
And the narrator guy is on this sort of treasure hunt, picking up a trail of clues left behind for him by a friend called The Rat, after whom Murakami’s Rat Trilogy is named.

Quick! Save yourselves. Run while there’s still time!

So there are some truly inventive reviews of this book on Goodreads. Please be sure to check out the one by this person called ‘j’ (trust me, you’ll know the review i’m talking about when you see it, but just in case, it’s the first review you’ll see and it’s filled with trippy pictures.

Incidentally, that’s also how I could describe A Wild Sheep Chase. A collection of trippy scenes, transcribed by a guy who’s high and dreaming all at the same time. I mean, this is original dream literature; which is to say it makes NO sense.

Murakami’s protagonist – and, by extension, Murakami himself, fixates on the weirdest things, like his girlfriend’s ear. (Or that damn sheep). There’s a government conspiracy – other people are looking for the sheep too.

It’s a race against time. The protagonist MUST find his friend, The Rat, before it’s too late.

Mmm, yeah. The Rat’s already dead by the time the protagonist catches up with him. But the protagonist very smartly figures out that The Rat’s still with him because his spirit is possessing a local hobo.

The Rat tells him (through the hobo) that the Sheep is a power hungry creature that can possess the minds of certain humans it considers worthy of its attentions. The Sheep creates a tumour in their brain and uses it to blackmail them into doing its bidding – if they refuse, the Sheep lets the tumour loose and they die.

Innovative. Ten points to the Sheep.

Aaanyway, the Sheep then uses the hapless human to climb the ranks of government or society or whatever it is that matters around there, and so to further its agenda of WORLD DOMINATION. Once the human is of no use to the Sheep, it leaves his (or her, I suppose, but there’s no mention of the Sheep ever having possessed a woman. Go figure. Even the insane, megalomaniac, magical Sheep is kind of sexist) body and mind.

The minute the Sheep leaves the person, the tumour is let loose and they die, while the Sheep moves on to the next worthy candidate.

The protagonist’s friend The Rat went looking for the Sheep, and it found him instead. Rather than allow it to blackmail him and stuff, he waited until the Sheep went to sleep – in his mind – and then killed himself.

Which explains the necessity for hobo possession, but it doesn’t explain much else about this book.

OH, and at the end of the book there’s an explosion in which some of the bad guys are killed. For no apparent reason, since the Sheep’s already dead and everybody’s missions have kind of become irrelevant.

Wut.

I’m not even going to pretend to be intelligent about this book. It is either SO highbrow that it requires like, fifty readings and interpretations before you can get to the bottom of it, or it’s just an excellent example of what happens when writers go crazy, and their editors do nothing about it.

[Historical examples of the same happening before do exist. See J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy (2012)].

If you’re in the right mood for it, A Wild Sheep Chase is a marvellous read. You need to be prepared to be random and all over the place, and you’ll enjoy the book just fine.

I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I can give this book a higher rating after only one reading. This is because my first, most superficial interpretation of the book translates to an evaluation of 2.

I honestly do think this is a great book, but don’t attempt it unless you’re in the right mood, or you could be put off Murakami for good.

You know, on second thought… what’s cooler than a crazed, blackmailing, magically possessive Sheep – sheep!!!! – on a power trip and bent on world domination? Give this guy all the awards just for thinking that shit up.

Next Up: The Sisters Grimm # 7 – 9 by Michael Buckley

Book Review: Shifters #5 – Shift

Title: Shift
Author: Rachel Vincent
Year of Publication: 2010
Series: 5
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.23
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

shift

Plot Description: Whilst dealing with the aftermath of an attack by rival Alpha (and current head of the Council) Calvin Malone, the Sanders Pride finds itself attacked by a flock of Thunderbirds – supernatural creatures who are half human, half bird. Faythe finds herself taking a road trip with Kaci, Marc and Jace on a diplomatic mission to see if they can get the thunderbirds to stop trying to massacre their Pride.

In fact, the Thunderbirds are the only things Shift has going in its favour. It’s not, of course, the first time a new species has been introduced into the Shifters universe. Once the we, the readers, got over the shock of reading about werecats, the werewolves were mentioned. Briefly. Apparently they’re all extinct, but even a blessed mention is more than sufficient for the exhausted fantasy reader’s mind, which keeps trying to insist that we’re actually supposed to be reading about werewolves out of sheer habit.

The bruins – or rather, one Bruin (singular) – made their first appearance in Pride. Half bear, half human, solitary and rather given to hibernation, and yet the bruins are portrayed as far more human than the werecats who greatly outnumber them and are far more sociable to boot (in as far as ‘sociable’ refers to not attempting to kill everything that moves on impulse).

The Thunderbirds fall on the end of the spectrum directly opposite to that which is occupied by the bruins. They’re more fluid in their morphing abilities, not requiring time to shift from one form to another, and fully capable of going from human to bird (or vice versa) at an altitude of approximately Top-of-a-huge-freakin-mountain meters.

This means they’re far more removed from human civilization than are the other shifter species, possibly because there’s no way you can integrate when your young spend most of their time navigating that peculiar niche of life reserved for those sporting a wing and an arm each at any given point of time. That is to say, young thunderbirds spend all their time in a constant state of flux which they haven’t learned to control yet. Bit of a dead giveaway, that.

I found the careful construction of Thunderbirds as a species and a society far more interesting and far less annoying than I did the werecats. It’s not every day that you encounter a group that retains its status as The Other so perfectly, even after all the shades of grey have been pencilled in.

Faythe demonstrates some qualities in Shift that are supposed to be diplomatic in nature, and she doesn’t do too badly. This step forward in the character development department is, however, largely obscured by the dynamics of her botched relationships with both Marc and Jace and by the ugly rearing head of patriarchal oppression that isn’t bothering to conceal its views behind an insincere smile anymore.

The ugliness of the truths upon which werecat Prides have been built are hammered into the mind of the reader in Shift with about as much subtlety as is demonstrated by a blunt axe. This trend carries forward into Alpha and makes you want to keep quoting Faythe all the time:

“Don’t you bad guys ever get tired of the same old routine? You threaten rape, I kick your ass, and evil is defeated again. Couldn’t we shake things up? How ’bout you try to smother me with my fluffy pink pillow instead?”
– 
Faythe Sanders, Alpha, Shifters #6

As this self aware quote illustrates, the heavy handed, black and white misogyny – a total contrast from the benevolent misogyny depicted in Books 1 and 2, and to a certain extent Book 3 as well – turns the Sanders Pride’s enemies into cartoonish rapist villains. This has the simultaneous effect of also white washing Faythe’s Pride. The Pride under Greg Sanders’ leadership, it is suggested, has always been a place where women are respected and revered. Examples put forward in favour of this argument include Greg grooming his daughter for the post of Alpha and the fact that Faythe’s mother used to sit on the council next to her husband.

Good points, both. Except it’s hard to see how exactly Greg groomed his daughter for command, apart from giving her a job as an enforcer (a job she landed after much negotiation and by threatening to run away from home multiple times) and allowing her to take over the planning of a couple of attacks in the previous books. Nowhere does Greg consider it important that he teach his daughter how to be a female Alpha. Unlike, say, Marc Ramos, who is his second choice for Alpha, Faythe cannot beat every challenger by dint of sheer physical strength. It was important for Greg to show her that being Alpha isn’t – contrary to popular belief – about your abilities to pound everyone else into the ground, but to be the master of every situation.

As for her mother’s seat on the council, Karen Sanders did take a seat at the head of the Council – by her husband’s side. That is to say, after her marriage and motherhood had deemed her respectable enough to be tolerated on the council. And then she stopped doing that once she had Faythe, who was a handful and needed all her time and attention.

On the other hand, a notable example against this argument is the fact that Greg and Karen tried everything in their power to get their daughter married by the time she’d barely hit eighteen, including locking her up in a cage. Another notable example is the rampant slut shaming that goes on amongst Sanders’ enforcers (such as Faythe’s brothers) and the fact that Marc’s abusive behaviour is accepted by everybody (including Faythe) as fairly normal.

Speaking of Marc and abusive behaviour brings me to what I was talking about in my review of Prey – namely Jace Hammond and his approach to relationships and prospective Alpha material. Unlike Marc, Jace doesn’t go around trying to mark his territory. When he wants to make out with Faythe, it’s not to prove a point, but because he genuinely wants to be with her. And when he’s aggressive towards Marc, it’s not because he thinks Marc needs to get off his porch, so to speak, but because he’s concerned that Marc’s short temper might result in him hurting Faythe.

In short, Jace is the only one who seems to even register the fact that Marc is an abusive piece of s**t. Sadly enough, he only realized this after he got together with Faythe.

“This isn’t about you….” “Well, it should be!” he shouted, and I flinched. “Everything I do is about you, and I want the reverse to be true, too.”
I wiped more tears, my throat aching with words that would only make this worse. “What, you need a reminder? That’s what he was doing, right? And now you smell like him. You probably taste like him. You should taste like me.…”
He was on me before I could even catch my breath, his mouth bruising mine, and after that, breathing didn’t seem so important. 

This quote (and the ensuing sex scene) [from Alpha, Book #6] was put up as the sexiest scene in literary history by someone. Personally, I don’t know how the words ‘flinched’ and ‘sexiest’ can even exist in the same plane.

Shift could have represented a great leap in character development for the young female protagonist of this series, but unfortunately, all one ends up seeing is a heroine who is severely disadvantaged both by patriarchal forces and notions, as well as by her own bad taste in men. The weak facade of an Alpha growing in strength and wisdom falls away almost as soon as a discerning eye is turned on it.

Next: Shifters #6 – Alpha

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