The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Reviewed by Foz Meadows
18 November 2013
Ten years ago, the existence of vampires was horrifically verified when, after centuries of secrecy, Caspar Morales made the decision to spread his condition without let or hindrance, until the whole world was irrevocably altered. Anyone bitten and infected turns Cold, possessed of a powerful bloodlust. If they can wait out the eighty-eight agonizing days it takes to shake the infection without drinking human blood, they'll remain mortal; but if they give in, as most do, they become a vampire forever. Tana knows this all too well: when she was ten, her mother turned Cold, and years later, the consequences of her transformation continue to haunt her family. So when Tana wakes up the morning after a party to a house full of corpses and finds her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, bitten and chained beside Gavriel, a vampire at the mercy of the pack that infected Aidan, she knows there's only one place the three of them can go: Coldtown, a walled city of vampires and their willing, would-be acolytes made famous by reality TV. In the company of Goth runaways Winter and Midnight—teenage twins determined to become vampires together and share the experience on their blog—getting into Coldtown is easy. But with Tana possibly infected too and Gavriel caught up in vampire politics, will they ever get out again?
My first experience of Holly Black's work was White Cat (2010), the incredible first volume to her deeply original, cleverly constructed, and all-round excellent Curse Workers trilogy, which manages to combine con games, mobsters, and high school in an all too plausible version of the modern world where magic both exists and is illegal. It's the sort of series that breeds a lot of faith in the creator; enough so that, when I heard she was writing a vampire novel at a time when more or less everyone, including those of us already published in the genre, is feeling burnt out on the genre, I felt genuinely excited. Black has a knack for intelligent, elegant worldbuilding—something which all too often feels lacking in a sea of YA novels which, despite their many other fine qualities, can be prone to giving the underlying logic of their settings a low priority.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is told in a sort of back and forth structure: though focusing mainly on Tana's present, every alternate chapter details either her past, the present actions of her little sister, Pearl, Midnight's blog posts, or Gavriel's sordid history. It's a smart decision, satisfying our curiosity about the Cold world and fleshing out the secondary characters sans infodumping while simultaneously whetting our appetite for Tana's ongoing story. It's also noteworthy that, despite a burgeoning romance between Tana and Gavriel, Black's Cold world is a dangerous one, her vampires just as morally ambiguous, violent, and bloodthirsty as they are seductive and beautiful.
In this respect, the impact of the many shows that broadcast out of Coldtowns across America, following the glamorous public lives of famous vampires or otherwise documenting the efforts of celebrity vampire hunters, stands as an incisive commentary on the distorting effect of reality TV, the difference between truth and propaganda, and the lies we tell ourselves. Midnight and Winter are eerie, excellent characters with which to explore these points. Having run away from home to turn vampire in Coldtown, they are forced to confront the difference between their expectations and reality by a brutal culture shock. In fact, everything about them—their beauty, their deliberate aesthetic, their blue hair, the names they've chosen for themselves, even the fact that they're twins—would ordinarily mark them out as special in a YA novel: they would be the identification characters for any alienated, gothic-romantic readers, and their arc would be a positive one. But Black is writing a YA vampire novel with the safeties off, and instead, Midnight and Winter become cautionary tales, a haunting development which is neatly foreshadowed when Tana watches Midnight upload a video blog about the day's violent events:
Listening to her, Tana had to admire the way Midnight was able to turn what happened into a madcap story, into part of the Legend of Midnight. Even the not-so-good stuff was spun on its head to be enviable. Tana could imagine herself watching the video and wishing she was as brave and lucky as the girl in it. But standing in front of Midnight, knowing what actually happened, Tana could see that Midnight wasn't just telling a story to other people, she was telling a story to herself. She was smoothing over all the frightening parts until she wasn't scared. But she should be, Tana thought. She should be scared. (p. 98)
Throughout the novel, Black pulls many similar tricks, presenting us with the popular aesthetic of vampirism—lace, black velvet, wild parties, freedom, beautiful people living forever—and contrasts it, often gruesomely, with the accompanying darker elements of bloodshed, torture, murder, suicide, betrayal, and manipulation. As such, the narrative walks a tightrope between these two extremes, reveling in the moments when it slips to one side or the other, glorying in the indulgence of gothic excess even while decrying the abuse of power that underpins it. For all that vampire novels have been lately popular, this level of moral ambiguity isn't something they've often featured, let alone so starkly. Where detractors of Twilight and its ilk have long been calling for a return to the simple, aggressive vampire-as-monster, Black instead has taken us back to the territory of Christopher Pike and Anne Rice: the seductive, dangerous vampire-as-downfall, and has done so with skill and panache.
Overwhelmingly, then, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a strong, engaging novel that both entertains and poses serious questions, throwing its young protagonists into genuine danger without stopping to shield them behind the usual layers of plot armor. That being said, there was one aspect of the worldbuilding which left me feeling, not skeptical, but very aware of Black's status as an American. As small as the detail in question is and as briefly as it's mentioned, it nonetheless underpins the entire logic of both Coldtowns and Black's post-Cold world. That being so, it struck me as demonstrative of the idea—rather presciently, given the recent US government shutdown over healthcare—that perhaps this isn't a story a non-American could, or would, have written.
In an early flashback chapter, we see Tana, her sister Pearl, and her friend Pauline being lectured at school on the history of Coldtowns and the spread of vampirism by someone who experienced the initial outbreak firsthand. Coldtowns, we are told, were formed when walls were built around existing cities that were considered lost to the infection, but which still contained regular human beings. These civilians were trapped, effectively abandoned. Nowadays, it's easy to get in—you just need to claim to be infected—but the only way out is for someone on the outside to capture a vampire and exchange it for you (if you're still human, that is). The reason for this rather odd system is given on pp. 90-91:
"Why don't they just let people out of Coldtown if they want to go?" a girl asked. "If they're not infected, what's the difference?"
"Money," Ms Baez said. "It costs the government a lot of money to run Coldtowns and a lot of money to test people for release. That money has to come from somewhere, so it comes from the budget for bounty hunters. Plus, the government doesn't want all the people to get out. If they did, what would the vampires eat? Each other? The quarantine would break down."
On its own, this might not seem so odd, but we're also told elsewhere that America's Coldtown system is one of the best in the world; or at least, that's the implication, given the references to skyrocketing rates of infection in Europe and other parts of the world. Yet we're never told why the tests that determine infection are so expensive, what specific equipment or component is required that pushes the price up: only that this is indeed the case. As such, it's a statement that we, the audience, are meant to find plausible, presumably on the basis that we're used to important medicine and medical procedures being prohibitively expensive without any obvious reason as to why. But here's the thing: if you live in a country with any form of socialized medicine—which is to say, pretty much any industrialized nation that isn't America—this simply isn't the case. As much as I appreciated Black's decision to describe the outbreak in terms of its effect on the whole world, as opposed to just the US, thanks to this passage, the practicalities of that question began to niggle at me.
I found myself wondering why, given the pre-existing network of medicare and medicare-like programs in the rest of the world, testing wouldn't simply be free or heavily subsidized without any fuss in those countries, the same way things like chemotherapy and HIV medication are, while other social safety nets would step in to create safe, affordable places for those infected to ride out their eighty-eight days, rather than—as happens in Tana's America—either reporting to the nearest Coldtown, as the law requires, bribing a hospital to take care of you (if you're rich) or locking yourself up in a basement (if you're poor). I didn't believe for a second that the American system was either the best possible option or anything near the most logical or humane one, especially on a global scale; but I did believe—very readily, given the longstanding USian fear of socialized anything—that Americans, both as readers and as characters within a story whose present is derived from the political realities of our own, might.
All of which is a way of saying that, whether by design or accident, the most dystopian elements in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown feel realistic, not because of their dissimilarity from the priorities and outcomes of modern American politics, but precisely because of their mimicry of it. Tana and her friends think—or at very least, have been brought up to think—that the Coldtown system is the lesser of many evils, and therefore the best possible option, but even though we're never told otherwise, all the way through, I maintained a private suspicion that their knowledge was based on political propaganda. It might not be what Black intended her readers to think, but given the basis of the shutdown, I couldn't help but wonder.
Otherwise, my only real complaint about the novel—if you can call it that—was a slight protestation at the ease with which Gavriel and Tana confess their affection for one another. Though both characters, their personalities, and their respective tragic backstories are compellingly and plausibly rendered, and while the attraction itself feels genuine as a result of that, the events of the novel take place over such a short span of time that, ultimately, I felt the depth of their connection came a bit too easily. But, as with all things romantic, your mileage may vary, and I still very much enjoyed their banter and relationship. On a similarly positive note, and while the primary characters tended to be white, the novel overall is not only racially diverse, but features prominent queer characters—Aidan is stated to be bisexual, while Gavriel is implied to be—and a positive, complex portrayal of a young transwoman, Valentina. (And in another interesting aside with relevance to the current state of healthcare in America, Valentina's desire to turn vampire while young stems from her inability to afford sex affirmation surgery. "If I was turned," she tells Tana, "I figured at least I could keep looking like I do now. At least my face wouldn't change" [p. 228], suggesting that perhaps the medical-political aspects of the book are more intentional than not. If nothing else, it's certainly a worthwhile lens through which to view the story.)
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a sharp, lavish, engaging book that not only manages to revitalize vampires, but lends itself easily to salient discussions of modern Western culture and American politics. A timely novel in every sense of the word, and one I'd very much recommend, both to existing fans of Holly Black and to anyone thinking of giving her a try.