Friday, January 15, 2010

Morris Shortlist: Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
2009; Little, Brown; ISBN 978-0-316-04267-3

Summary: For weeks, Ethan Wate has dreamed about a girl, falling from his grip. It's somethin else to think about, something to distract him from grieiving his mother, worrying about his father, and wishing he could leave Gatlin, South Carolina. And then Lena Duchannes comes to town, to live with her uncle Macon Ravenwood, the town's Boo Radley. Ethan realizes that Lena is the girl in his dreams. Even more, Lena is part of a prophecy, part of a battle between Dark and Light. On her sixteenth birthday, five months in the future, she will be Claimed for one side, and her life as she knows it will be over. But Ethan will not let her face this alone. Because together, the two of them are strong enough to face anything.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book was Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: The best of two worlds can create a new one.

Beautiful Creatures is both a paranormal romance and a Southern Gothic novel. Lena and Ethan's developing relationship is affected not just by her growing supernatural powers, but also by a small-minded Southern town that has the DAR and voodoo as its influences. There are the features of paranormal romance, like strange powers, a whole other world concealed from non-magical people, and a love that cuts across the lines between these two worlds. On the Southern Gothic side, there are standards of behavior, a certain mindset, and an understanding that the past still has power in the present. Ethan and Lena are drawn together thanks in part to a curse that affected their ancestors. And the climactic battle between Dark and Light will happen the night that the Civil War-era Battle of Honey Hill is recreated. The combination of these two styles works because both are focused on pacing and tone. The plot slowly unfolds, the love story contrasted with life in a small South Carolina town. The Southern details--dialect, manners, and attitudes--are interwoven, creating a sense of place as well as heightening the romantic aspects. The love between Ethan and Lena is intense yet pure. Ethan feels sparks when he touches Lena--and not just because he's attracted to her. Working in tandem, the romantic and Southern elements combine into a compelling look at a darkly mysterious world.

#2: Small town life is more challenging in the South.

Ethan is not really a typical Southerner. His parents forced him to speak without a Southern accent, and they were all viewed as being perhaps too liberal, especially Ethan's mother. But Ethan's father and his family had lived in Gatlin for over a century, and so they were one of "us". In a small Southern town, it's about when your family arrived, not what you've done since then. There's plenty of gossip, of course, but when everyone knows every family's secrets, it can feel like you know everything. Ethan is accepted, even when he starts dating Lena, because he's part of Gatlin. This attitude is one that Ethan wants to get away from, but it also gives him a place even when he turns his back on the DAR ladies during their crusade against Lena. For the Ravenwood family, always suspect and fodder for gossip, becomes a true threat in the town's eyes with Lena's arrival. Moving to a small town is bound to be an adjustment for anyone; moving to Gatlin, though, is a trial by fire. Mean girls, sweetly insulting women, and weak-willed men turn Gatlin into a crucible for Lena. And Ethan, who has grown up there and never cared for such tatics, fully sees his hometown as the hypocritical, narrow-minded place that it unfortunately is.

#3: Love is what binds people together.

Falling in love with each other creates a connection between Ethan and Lena. From the moment they met, they were drawn to each other in ways that hadn't been anticipated by Lena's family. What's more, their love gives them unexpected powers, like telepathy. And it's thanks to Ethan's love that Lena is able to stand strong during the greatest struggle of her life. It's not just Ethan who protects Lena, though: there's her family, in particular her uncle Macon. A creature of darkness, Macon has chosen to work on the side of Light, vowing to protect Lena with all his powers and even his life. Ethan is not without help, either. He has Amma, a grandmother figure who is famed for her gifts as a reader and a seer. She creates charms that guard Ethan from harm, and dispatches wisdom and love amidst her crossword-puzzle complaints about Ethan's behavior. Macon and Amma could not be more different, but they are both motivated by the same thing: love. They show that when you care about someone, you will take great risks and go beyond misgivings to follow their loved ones down their path.
Sixteen moons, sixteen years
Sixteen of your deepest fears
Sixteen times you dreamed my tears
Falling, falling through the years . . .
(page 4)

Sixteenth Moon, Sixteenth Year,
Now has come the day you fear,
Claim or be Claimed,
Shed blood, shed tear,
Moon or Sun--destroy, revere.
(page 473)
Like a slow, mournful ballad, Beautiful Creatures has a story to tell. The debut work of two novelists, this novel creates a unique take on paranormal romance by marrying it to Southern Gothic, not unlike the Southern vampire stories of Charlaine Harris. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl reinterprets these influences, shaping a story that could be cliched into something new. For some, the pacing is too slow, and some of the characters are somewhat two-dimensional. Yet thanks to Garcia and Stohl, these characters are still fun to read about, as they tell their story at their own speed. A welcome addition to the YA paranormal romance field, Beautiful Creatures is bound to cast a spell over many readers.

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