The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
Before picking up The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, I only had two impressions of Holly Black. The first was that “When You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way,” the short story she collaborated on in Geektastic, was a weak execution of a good premise. The second is that she’s friends with Cassandra Clare. (According to disgruntled whispers in the fan community, Black introduced Clare to her literary agent. Remember, dear readers, networking is important! And it doesn’t have to be all cold and impersonal, either!) Sure, her Tithe is on my reading list, but it was added so long ago that I don’t remember how. (I keep much better notes now.) Neither impression scared me away from her, but neither did I go out of my way to pick up Tithe.
So I was surprised when I found myself drawn to The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I am a known sucker for cover art, and young adult fiction features some of the best. But it was really the title. It just scans so beautifully, and I love intimidating titles given to teenage girls—The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (although Lisbeth isn’t a teenager), The Girl Who Was On Fire, and the entire girls fighting evil tumblr phenomenon. I’ve often thought about trying to cut back on my magpie nature when it comes to picking up book titles, but it allows me to read books without being remotely spoiled for them. It’s a rare thing in this day and age; I’ve come to cherish it. And it particularly heightened my experience with The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which takes organic but unexpected turns from the moment Tana wakes up after a party in an abandoned farm house to find all of her friends killed by vampires to the moment it ends.
This is Black’s first standalone novel, although she’s written plenty of short fiction and plenty of series. A major cornerstone of a good series is good character writing. At best, it’s great characters that motivate a series’ epic story; at worst, it’s characters you care about that get you through increasingly convoluted circumstances. Having read nothing else that Black has written, I can only assume writing series has served her powers of characterization well. Tana is so well-developed from the moment she discovers that her friends are dead that I rooted for her the entire way. She’s determined, destructive, and capable. While sweeping vampire politics are touched on (there’s a handful of chapters written from the perspective of vampires, as well as others), we follow Tana as she attempts to survive a possible vampiric infection, survive the vampire ghetto known as Coldtown (one of several), and try to get back home. Motivated by her tortured family life (which is a relevation worth staying fresh for) and her adoration of her best friend, the fearless Pauline, Tana remains wary of the vampires that have either entranced or disgusted the rest of the world. Except for one.
And these are old-school, Anne Rice vampires, all seduction, violence, and carelessness. There’s a divide between the old vampires and the new vampires, the ones created by a rogue vampire that ended up revealing their existence to the humans. Black’s worldbuilding, with its apocalyptic, viral overtones, feels very fresh. I find Cassandra Clare’s work a little dated, since I grew up in the years that define her taste. Black is the same age and has been active around the same time, but her take on supernatural fiction feels much more current. The solid worldbuilding is well deployed in emotional flashbacks, characters, and conversations. The twisted, complex relationship between vampires and the humans who want to be vampires is of particular fascination and horror. It’s helped by Black’s visceral descriptions. Of a woman feeding on blood, she writes, “She felt like Persephone in Hades, pomegranate seeds bursting against her teeth, juice rolling on her tongue, and the more she had, the more she hungered” (353). All of this—the character work, the worldbuilding, and the descriptions—makes for wildly engaging reading. I couldn’t put this thing down.
Which is why I find it so disappointing that the ending goes flat. As I said, Tana must contend with vampire politics, which consume the last third of the novel. There’s an argument to be made that Tana is striking back against a social institution that controls her life by destroying it, which appeals to my philosophy of “if you want it done, do it yourself.” But it comes off as her taking on someone else’s burden. And this is a character I wanted to win for herself, for totally selfish reasons because the world she lives in asks so much, too much, of her. She’s so three dimensional and determined that to see her at all swayed from her goal—surviving so she can get back to Pauline—feels weird to me. And that’s a mixed compliment, indeed, that I loved a character so much that I wanted something else for her.
(Plus, we never see Tana and Pauline reunite. I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, but I love friendship so very, very much.)
Bottom line: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a cold slice of supernatural horror, giving vampires back their fangs and giving us a determined, destructive, and capable heroine doing her damndest to survive. Too bad it goes flat towards the end. Still, well worth a read.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown comes out tomorrow.