Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
I remember hearing about Team Human when it came out last year on Tor.com and on io9, but it wasn’t until I saw it reviewed by Becky over at Active Voice. At first blush, it had seemed a little too on-the-nose parody of Twilight, and the cover… well, the cover sort of screams every cover design trope for young adult fiction, so it sort of hit a weird uncanny valley for me. But Becky said that it “managed to poke fun at the vampire craze (particularly Twilight) without being nasty or dismissive of the young women who love it.” That’s something that’s pretty important to me—as we’ve discussed in the past—so it finally made the leap to the reading list.
Team Human finds protagonist Mel on her first day of her senior year, excited for things to return to normal after a tough summer—her friend Anna’s dad, a vampire psychologist, ran off with a patient. Instead, she discovers that a vampire named Francis has enrolled. While Mel thinks the idea of an immortal being wanting to finish high school after a century is too dumb for words, her best friend Cathy, an old soul, is utterly charmed by him. When their relationship gets serious and it looks like Cathy might want to be a vampire herself, Mel takes it upon herself to rescue Cathy—as well as investigate the disappearance of Anna’s dad and dealing with her thing for Kit, Francis’ human “ward” who desperately wants to be a vampire. New Whitby, Maine, may never be the same.
I have to differ from Becky right off the bat—I don’t think Team Human is a parody. The style of Twilight—or any other number of young adult vampire franchises—isn’t “closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule”. It has its moments, such as Mel rolling her eyes at Francis returning to high school, but it’s much more of a deconstruction, particularly the kind as defined by Brandon Sanderson in his essay, “Postmodernism in Fantasy”: it does rely on the reader to understand the tropes of the young adult vampire franchises so it can subvert them. And, like the best deconstructions, it puts an incredible amount of thought into the proceedings. But I think Team Human stands on its own beyond parodying or deconstructing Twilight because it doesn’t deconstruct its specific trappings—rather, it deconstructs the lack of agency that’s the true horror of those books and makes agency the universal issue the center of the novel.
Mel is the kind of person who wants to help; she feels bad that, over the summer preceding the novel, she didn’t spend as much time with Anna as she could have. She just wants to be useful to the people she loves, and this is the first time she’s encountered a situation where someone doesn’t want her help. Late in the novel, Mel visits Cathy to talk about the mystery subplot, and they end up having a fight where Mel accuses her of wanting to become a vampire just because Francis told her to. Cathy responds spectacularly, telling Mel off for ignoring every time in their lifelong friendship when Cathy has made her own decisions and stood up for herself in favor of seeing Cathy as a victim. (A very welcome running plot thread is Mel dealing with her prejudice against vampires.) Cathy might be young and (in Mel’s eyes) in a particularly gag-worthy kind of love, but her choices remain firmly her own and should be respected. Without being repetitive or didactic, this point is made over and over again in the novel, A plot and B plot, to the point that I want to hand this out to teenage girls. It’s okay to be a Mel or a Cathy, a human or a vampire, as long as you know what you want and respect the choices of others. Dreamy.
Of course, it’s not just the personal politics I like. Sarcastic teenagers are very hit and miss for me, but Mel’s sarcasm is both a function of her sense of humor—she briefly has a fantasy of people stopping and gazing on her lack of tact in awe—and when she feels awkward. Plus, it isn’t constant in emotional situations, such as the fight I mentioned above. At the end of the novel, Mel and Cathy have an utterly beautiful moment of friendship that made me start tearing up and murmuring, “oh, girls!”. Mel’s voice is strong, relatable, and, given the subject material, incredibly human. Plus, Mel is a heroine of color whose heritage is bought up in ways that make sense, like her father’s occasional fear that his kids aren’t learning enough about their Chinese heritage (never mind the fact that it’s generations way in the past…). Heck, we even get a queer character of color in Mel’s older sister. Making a cast of kids in super-white Maine diverse without feeling rigged is a challenge, but a challenge that Larbalestier and Brennan succeed at. If only all young adult fiction could be like this…
Bottom line: Team Human succeeds as more than just a parody or deconstruction of Twilight because it focuses on agency as the central issue in a way that emphasizes it without knocking you over the head with it. Not to mention that the protagonist, Mel, is vivid, funny, and human, and Larbalestier and Brennan manage to make a cast of kids in Maine diverse without it being an issue at all. Fantastic stuff.
I rented this book from the public library.