Book Review: Bloodlines #6 – The Ruby Circle

Title: The Ruby Circle
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2015
Series: Bloodlines
#: 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Business As Usual for Spoilers

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I really dislike this cover art version of Sydney. Neither this Sydney, nor this Adrian match how I imagine they look.

Plot Description: A ten book saga winds to a close. Nearly all the pieces are in place, and this thing only needs a bit of basic ass-kicking to seal the deal. Simply put, Sydney, Ms. Terwilliger, Eddie Castile and Adrian go off on a magical scavenger hunt in an attempt to find Jill. And there’s a magical baby hogging plot space.

I began this blog with Mead’s VA universe. And now it’s finally coming to a conclusion. All of our favourite heroes have been in on the action for a while now, even though I haven’t been giving them any mention in the reviews. Now it’s time.

Lissa and Christian have appeared the least in Bloodlines, the latter even less than the former. And while they’ve given way to characters who are as engaging and amusing, it feels wrong to view Lissa through perspectives other than that of Rose’s. She behaves like one would expect a sweet monarch to – proud, regal, makes the right decisions, has to take tough calls… But there’s barely any sign of the Lissa we’ve come to know and love. Or perhaps Lissa was always this privileged (remember all those times Rose’s needs were ignored and Lissa barely noticed?) and we no longer have Rose’s POV to soften the blow.

Of the other old characters, Dimitri Belikov is perhaps the most hilarious, especially as seen from Adrian’s perspective. It is revealed in this book that Dimitri and Adrian are, in fact, cousins – their fathers are full brothers. I would honestly have loved to see this explored more, simply because of the enormity of this revelation, but it’s brushed aside in light of the more urgent plot developments.

The first bit of The Ruby Circle is basically a magical scavenger hunt. One that is almost laughable – it does nothing more than bring them full circle, back to Palm Springs. They do find out who’s responsible for Jill’s disappearance in the process, but Alicia’s re-emergence, her lame attacks, and Ms. Terwilliger’s explanation for the scavenger hunt (Alicia wanted Sydney to be suffering from magical fatigue before she fought her directly) are all pretty ham handed. Which is why it’s a good thing that the plot is still fast paced. Even the climactic showdown had involved battling Alicia, pretty much everyone would have fallen asleep reading.

Fortunately for us readers, we discover that Alicia doesn’t have Jill – she passed her over to another old enemy for imprisonment. Cue more infiltration of The Warriors of Light, who epitomize comically exaggerated villainy. Sydney pulls a gimmicky win during the trials of endurance set for new Warrior wannabes – one which, in my opinion, was wholly unnecessary. Rather than fight the other women in the field, Sydney attacks a male victor who was already done fighting, and therefore off his guard. It’s cheating, and that scene could have been written any number of ways to show that Sydney was strong and smart, and able to best any of them without resorting to roundabout ways.

Adrian’s use of spirit – and accompanying mental illness – continues unabated. As a result, the reader is treated to constant commentary from his pet hallucination, the deceased Queen Tatiana Ivashkov. The thing about writing mental illness is that such scenes are often a drag. But this is also because, newsflash, mental illness is a drag. It sucks to write about, but an honest and sincere portrayal cannot stay true to character if it chooses to skip such an aspect of a character just to make for easier reading.

Then there’s the magical baby. The discovery of the Strigoi vaccine two books ago also provided the foundation for a romance between the British dhampir, Neil, and Olive, the fifth known person to have been restored after having turned Strigoi. The presence of Spirit in Olive’s body appears to have somehow changed the fact that dhampirs cannot reproduce amongst themselves. The cynical part of me wonders whether this was a development engineered solely so the world could benefit from Romitri babies. It’s not such a stretch, but honestly, I would much prefer that child producing wasn’t made such a central part of every bloody relationship. The cis-het element is already so strong in the VA universe. It might have been better not to force us to swallow even more heteronormativity.

In the last chapter, Sydrian have adopted Neil and Olive’s baby, claiming he is biologically theirs. This is done to prevent baby Declan from having to live a life of scientific experimentation, as he was born with spirit infusing his blood – therefore granting him Strigoi immunity from birth. His mother, Olive, died to protect him from such a fate, and his father, Neil, decided to run away to prevent any connection being drawn between himself and the baby. “The risk is too great,” is a common refrain, but it honestly seems rather contrived to me. (Again.) The final chapter also reveals that Romitri are now engaged to be married, and that they have so far taken no decision on the whole having children question.

The Ruby Circle might not have stood the test of criticism on its own if it weren’t for the nostalgic value it carries as the final book set in this universe. In truth, I believe that Silver Shadows and The Ruby Circle could probably have been combined, with some of the more unnecessary plot elements cut out to make it less bloated.

Next Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Book Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines, Richelle Mead

Title: Bloodlines
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Insert the Usual and Mandatory Spoiler Warning Here

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Plot Description: In this series sequel to Mead’s Vampire Academy series, we revisit the world of dhampirs and Moroi – and the much overlooked human component of this world, the Alchemists. We’re following the continued story of Sydney Sage, a minor but favourite VA character who made her first appearance in Blood Promise, the fourth book of that series.
We’re also following complete fan favourite Adrian Ivashkov, who, broken hearted and looking for meaning in life, is drawn to Sydney as the two of them work on a new assignment together.

I have to admit, when I first heard of the idea of Adrian and Sydney getting together, I was skepticalYou cannot imagine two people MORE different than these twoBut I tried to be open minded, and by the time I got to Book 6, I was Team Sydrian all the way.

The main characters from VA – Rose, Lissa, Dimitri, Christian – barely make an appearance in Bloodlines, which is filled with supporting cast members coming forward to take center-stage. And they each bring their share of secrets and problems to the table, which, as everyone knows, is the recipe for a really good book.

Adrian’s broken-hearted following the end of his relationship with Guardian Rose Hathaway. Sydney, on the other hand, is in a LOT of trouble with the Alchemists – the organization she works for – for her involvement in Rose’s adventures from Last Sacrifice. She’s suspected of having colluded with vampires, and of having developed feelings other than disgust or contempt for them. (Yes, this is a really serious accusation that is levelled amongst Alchemists. They’re all insane.) Although there’s no formal inquiry, Sydney manages to dispel the cloud of suspicion in time to be assigned to the latest Alchemist case in Palm Springs. Her biggest reason for taking on the case was to ensure that her sister Zoe doesn’t get caught up in the Alchemist life, which she will if their domineering father has his way.

The rest of the characters in Palm Springs are Jill Mastrano,  along with her dhampir guardians Eddie Castile and Angeline Dawes. While Jill (Lissa’s half sister) and Eddie were very prominent in VA, Angeline barely got a mention for the first time in a subplot involving the reclusive  keepers in Last Sacrifice.

The important subplots are the ones involving possibly magical tattoos being given to humans, of Sydney’s teacher trying to get her to learn human magic (sort of like Wicca), teen drama among the younger set of dhampirs and Moroi, and Sydney’s relationship with Adrian.

My God, Sage. Your eyes. How have I never noticed them? The colour, when you stand in the light. They’re amazing . . . like molten gold. I could paint those . . . They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.

– Adrian Ivashkov, Bloodlines

Sydney’s character development kickstarted early on in this universe – right from the moment she was introduced, in fact, although there was no way I would have imagined that she’d come to lead her own series. As an alchemist, she’s been indoctrinated to hate, fear and hold in contempt these ‘unnatural’ and ‘unholy’ creatures – vampires, and dhampirs by association. But since there’s always the greater Strigoi threat to be dealt with, Alchemists have an uneasy alliance with the Moroi. Sydney’s bias and bigotry are evident in her behaviour towards Rose, but by the time we come to the end of the series, it’s evident that she’s beginning to think of them as just a different kind of people – not monsters of the night.

Adrian, on the other hand went from alcoholic party boy to good boyfriend who gave up his debauchery in order to impress his girlfriend. Even if personal change is precipitated in you by another person, it should never stay that way. If the only ever reason why you change is another person, that change is going to fall apart the minute that person leaves, or is taken from you. So it’s kind of a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation that Adrian is dealing with. And to cap it all off, he’s now spirit bonded with Jill.

Yes, the reason Jill is incognito in Palm Springs is because there was an attempt on her life, she died as a result, and Adrian brought her back. The concept of a spirit bond was a lot cooler back when it was two teenage girls who were sharing thoughts. Now it’s a high school freshman (or however old Jill is supposed to be) who has access to the thoughts of a highly unstable grown man. Eek. After Jill is punished for being drunk and then having a hangover the next day, Sydney figures out what’s going on and reams Adrian out.

Jill’s guardian is Eddie Castile, long time best friend and sidekick to Rose Hathaway. Eddie was the only guardian to attempt to protect Jill during the attempt on her life, since all the other guardians were busy protecting the Queen, Lissa. The reason for this is because he’s really in love with her, which is the cue to kick off all of the teen drama and love triangles quadrangles that take place in this book.

I would choose this space in order to rant about the impropriety in Eddie falling for a girl whose initial nickname was literally Jailbait (courtesy Adrian, who else), but hello. This is the series that brought us the great Rose-Dimitri love saga, where they could barely wait for her to hit eighteen before ripping each other’s clothes off. And the age gap in that case is a LOT greater than in the case of Eddie and Jill.

Any age-propriety rants in this universe are just going to fall on deaf ears. So it’s one of my blind spots in this fandoms – one of the things I have issue with but choose to ignore in order to continue enjoying the fandom itself. Other examples include all time fan favourite Damon Salvatore engaging in an abusive relationship with Caroline Forbes in early first season The Vampire Diaries and the subject never being brought up after that storyline wrapped up. Till date, the only sign that something like that ever happened is Caroline’s continued dislike of the guy – despite the fact that one of her best friends is soul mates with him, and her other best friend is his best friend too!

But, this is not a review of The Vampire Diaries. Nor is it a review of the Ezria relationship in Pretty Little Liars, which was pretty outrightly illegal at the start. So, coming back to the final main character of the Bloodlines series – Angeline – let me just say this:

Angeline is the most fun. Ever.

Angeline flushed. “It’s not my fault.”

“Even I know you can’t write an entry on Wikipedia and then use it as a source in your essay.” Sydney had been torn between horror and hysterics when she told me.
“I took ‘primary source’ to a whole new level!”
Honestly, it was a wonder we’d gotten by for so long without Angeline. Life must have been so boring before her.”

– Adrian Ivashkov, Fiery Heart

Angeline has trouble adjusting to civilization because she was raised in a moroi-human-dhampir communeity that felt they were keeping to the old ways by staying in contact with (and reproducing with) humans, unlike current Moroi society. The Keepers refuse to submit to the Moroi monarchy, and therefore must do without the little luxuries of life. I.e. Electricity.

Now, I’m pretty sure Mead drew on many, many stereotypes for her portrayal of the Keepers, but… it’s kind of hard to care about considering it’s not a main plot point. And it makes Angeline REALLY funny because of all things she doesn’t know is considered appropriate or inappropriate in society. (Like random violence and sexual harassment: inappropriate; cheating on class tests: inappropriate).

Angeline provides a fresh voiced perspective on society – all of society, not just the parts with vampires and stuff in it – through her constant questioning of everything. She poses a very important lesson for – (and I cannot stress this enough) – each and every one of us:

Question all the facts you’ve been handed since you were born. I mean, you can’t think out of the box without first seeing the box itself, which is a huge problem when it comes to challenging social norms (like their school’s dress codes) and why and how they came to exist in the first place.

In most cases, when asked to explain the rationale behind oppressive norms and customs, those defending them will have the option to either shut you down – which is what schools do when they hand out detentions; or hide behind stupidity and blind faith. [“Because I said so” type arguments brought out by religious leaders come to mind.]

Two more characters that need to be discussed are Keith Darnell and Jaclyn Terwilliger. The latter is a teacher at the school and the leader of a witch coven who’s trying to recruit Sydney. Imagine the kind of conflict an indoctrinated magic and vampire hater faces when they’re told they have the innate ability to do magic flowing through their veins.

Keith is the subject of a more serious topic – and also the reason why Sydney was so deeply obligated to Rose Hathaway’s gangster father Abe Mazur in VA. Sydney was the only person who knew about her father’s Golden Boy Darnell raping her older sister, and her sister made her promise not to tell anyone. So when Sydney grew up and joined the Alchemists, she did what any sane person would do – took a hit out on Darnell, and used Abe Mazur’s contacts to do it. Keith thinks a random Strigoi attack took out one of his eyes with an arrow. Keith can apparently be very gullible.

The first time I read Bloodlines, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the book. Something about it – the style of writing, the editing maybe? – rubbed me up the wrong way. But my second read this year didn’t pose too many problems in that direction, so perhaps it was the crappy pirated pdf version that was the problem.

It’s a great set up book, establishing Sydney as determined to do the right thing and imbued with a great sense for fairness. It also shows us a side to her that goes beyond indoctrination and machine like obedience, both in her affections for her vampire friends and in her dealings with Mrs. Terwilliger.

Containing much of Mead’s hallmark comedy and teen drama, Bloodlines is a light read that touches on bigger and darker issues to be explored as the series progresses. It’s a must read for Vampire Academy fans, but you don’t really need to know the history of the series in order to pick it up and start reading.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son 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 #1 – Vampire Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming: Vampire Academy #2 – Frostbite