045. Review of Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Beautiful Creatures follows a typical YA trajectory: teen from a small, dull town encounters a brand new teen who’s not entirely human. But the cliché — for it is one — is twisted slightly: the narrator is a boy. This change might not seem like a big one, but for a YA book like this, it made all the difference.

Ethan Wate is a mostly believable sixteen year old from a small southern town, and he’s been dreaming about this mysterious, beautiful girl for quite some time before she shows up in school as the town recluse’s niece. I was afraid Ethan and the girl, Lena, would have that insta-connection you so fear to read in books of this sort, but thankfully that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, Ethan was instantly drawn to her; yes, they began liking one another a tad quicker than perhaps was necessary — but Lena resisted his interest for long enough that I was okay with it.

Lena, it turns out, is a Caster — basically a hybrid of a “gifted” teen, a witch, and an X-man. Casters have all sorts of powers, and Lena is more powerful than most. I thought she was perhaps a little too powerful at times. After all, most of the other casters have specific “gifts”: Ridley can persuade people to do anything, Ryan can heal, and Lena’s aunt can see multiple timelines at once. They all have the ability to do little things, like telekinesis, but sometimes I felt that Lena (who is called a Natural) had powers that weren’t so strictly defined as some of the others. She can control weather, which is her main power, but  additionally, she can make people forget things, make her instruments play themselves, manipulate fire, write on her walls as she thinks the words without lifting a finger — and for me, I didn’t quite understand how her limits worked, and why she could do certain things that perhaps others like her could not.

The plot is, more or less, about a curse that has plagued Lena’s family for centuries: most casters can choose their own destinies. On their sixteenth birthdays, they choose to become Light or Dark, and can never switch once they’ve decided. But Lena’s family members have their fates randomly chosen for them by a magical and ancient book instead, which means that on their sixteenth birthdays, they become one or the other at random — whether they want to or not. Lena’s sixteenth birthday is approaching, and she fears she’ll go Dark.  She and Ethan spend much of the book trying to figure out how to break the curse so she doesn’t end up on the Dark side.

Sometimes Lena gets repetitively emo about this, as is bound to happen whenever YA books feature some sort of unavoidable and unwanted destiny. She often pulls away and says “you could never understand!” in that horribly melodramatic way that makes you want to smack her. It’s irritating at times, yes, but it’s not quite as intolerable  as if she’d been the narrator. Both characters were likeable, though I preferred Ethan immensely: Lena is a bit of a one note at times. I understand that people fear and dislike her at school because she’s so different, but she is victimized constantly throughout the book, and consequently becomes mopey and does the classic pseudo-noble shut-out too often for my tastes (“you should go be normal so you shouldn’t be with me, Ethan!” or “I don’t want to hurt you so I’ll stay far away from you for a while, Ethan.” For a full repertoire of this annoyance, please see the Twilight series).

Ethan, as I said, is mostly believable. He’s got strong convictions, he’s sensitive, he’s loyal, he’s compassionate, he’s even-tempered, and although he’s had great loss in his life (his mother died before the novel’s beginning) he deals with it in a believable manner. Sometimes, though, Ethan’s too “big” of a man. I understand he’s a good guy, but for someone who consistently comments on how beautiful Lena is, he never thinks of anything but kissing her or being in love with her — there are no other sexual thoughts or desires. I’m not of the mindset that teenaged boys  always think about sex, but in approximately 500 pages of mostly dating a beautiful girl he is obsessed with and trades his popularity to be with, he never has any of those desires or impulses at all. He’s also too good in other ways. While I completely understand that he is loyal, compassionate, and he sticks up for his beliefs, he is also a high school student. When everyone in his school turns against Lena (which is for the duration of the whole book), Ethan chooses to let himself be ostracized with her — even though these people are the people he grew up with, and even though it’s a lonely situation. I don’t believe that he’d just be completely and utterly okay with this. He never regrets it, never wishes he could hang out with his old friends, never feels torn between Lena and the people he’s spent his whole life with. I find that Ethan is completely and utterly above reproach, that he’s too good and too faultless, and that he never makes a single mistake when it comes to a question of character.

There are, of course, some clichés in the book: among others, the premise is typical of YA fiction, the book’s peopled with southern townsfolk who are completely and utterly prejudiced against anything new, and there’s a stereotypical black “mammy” character — Ethan’s wise, caring, and loving housekeeper, Amma. But as stated before, the authors made little changes that really made all the difference. Swapping the protagonists’ genders worked well for me. And although Ethan’s housekeeper, Amma, still held on to some clichés of the black “mammy” character, she had some really interesting character quirks, which made her all the more real. I love that Amma is obsessed with crossword puzzles, and that every time she reprimands Ethan, she uses a “crossword” word, spelling it out and giving him the definition. This is original, smart, and gives her the extra pizzazz she needed, the twist to make her character original.

The writing had a great tone, a voice that was all Ethan’s (although at times it was clear that the authors were women writing a boy — not too often, but it emerged every now and then), and the prose was smooth, fast-pasted, and well-done, minus one or two sections when it got clunky due to the amount of information the authors loaded into one scene.

I was intrigued by the end — so sad to see Macon die, but pleased to know that the book had real, honest-to-goodness stakes — but am still somewhat suspicious of Lena going neither Light nor Dark, as well as suspicious of what the next books in the series will entail. Ethan’s obviously still going to be around (and I do hope he continues to narrate and it doesn’t switch to Lena’s perspective), and I’m crossing my fingers that the relationship between them will evolve in a natural and believable way, and that it doesn’t dissolve into Twilight or The Mortal Instruments-esque forced relationship drama. But I’ll certainly be reading the next installment regardless!

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