Why Isn't There More Southern Gothic Romance Out There?: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

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I'm going to admit it.  I have a thing for men named Ethan.  It's SUCH a great name with a lot of power in it (John Wayne realized this when he named his son, Ethan). And I married someone with that name and he's pretty spectacular, so clearly my instincts are good.  Ethan Wate, our narrator and protagonist, is the kind of boy any girl could fall in love with.  He's like so many boys we know - a good, popular kid, great basketball player, and the kind of person who knows he's stuck in a rut.  Ethan lives in Gatlin, a small, Southern town that generations of his family (and everyone else's) has called home.  Gatlin is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else's business and the skeletons in people's closets have a name.  The town even has a creepy hermit, old man Ravenwood, who never comes out of his old plantation home and keeps a mysterious black dog.  No surprises seem to exist in Gatlin and Ethan feels almost crushed with the unceasing monotony of his life there.  Add to that the grief over his mother's unexpected death last year, his father's intense depression and emotional absence, and he is just counting the days until he can go away to college and forge a new life away from the home he has known all his life.

But then there are the dreams.  Ethan has been having dreams, vivid ones, in which he knows there is a girl who means so much to him that he would do anything to save her,  a girl who is being pulled away from him as she calls for help, sinking in the murky water as he claws in the mud to find her.  Just a nightmare?  Maybe, but then again he wakes up reeking of river water, his fingernails rimmed with dirt and sheets besmirched with silt.  When Lena Duchannes arrives at school the first week of the year, she is nothing like the bleached blonde, fake tanned cheerleaders he's supposed to date.  Her black glossy hair and green eyes match his dreams, but her quirky style of dress and the fact that her Uncle is that same local Boo Radley character, Mr. Ravenwood, insures her status as a social pariah.  Ethan has to make a choice and, when he sacrifices his social status, the repercussions are greater than either of them can imagine.

This is undoubtedly a supernatural romance.  Ethan and Lena are drawn to one another, yet Lena soon makes it clear that incredible complications exist.  She is a caster, someone who has the ability to cast spells, as is her entire family and her 16th birthday looms on the horizon with the imminent danger that she will be "claimed".  The forces of good or evil take hold of a Ravenwood/Duchannes caster on their birthday and each family member sadly has no choice as to their fate.  Ethan fights the idea that he cannot be part of Lena's life, due to his mortal status, and intriguing subplots are deftly introduced.  Both Ethan and Lena's family have roots in the old South, and a locket that induces visions offers several clues to their intertwined family history.  Family friends hold other pieces of the puzzle, and the fact that Ethan can hear Lena's thoughts when she wants him to, as well as the fact that he can withstand magic circles and help keep Lena safe in a way her closest family members cannot, leads to speculation that he might have powers as yet untapped.  Be warned that with a sequel in the works (the authors sketched out six possible books for the series), many of these tantalizing elements aren't fully explained, yet the book feels complete.  While you'll wait eagerly for the next installment, there is still a feeling of closure, a "that's it for now" sense that ends the book and let's you ponder what is to come.

It astonishes me when a team writes a book yet the material feels so seamless that I would be hard pressed to find the joins of the collaboration (yet they have sketched out in interviews how their collaboration works).  Garcia and Stohl's ability to invoke the South with all its history and speech is wonderful.  Better yet are the full-featured characterizations to be found in even the most minor characters.  Naturally, my favorite character was Marian, Ethan's honorary Aunt and his mother's former best friend and collaborator, who happens to be the librarian (I know, "Marian the Librarian"!) of the local town library and as well as taking on the role of the official Caster Librarian in the catacombs under the DAR Hall on bank holidays.  I heart her.

This book has been getting a LOT of buzz.  There's a killer trailer and official website, and fan sites have been popping up all over.  There's even a Beautiful Creatures ning you can join! I've been reading about it for a couple of months on several book blogs and in the professional magazines and more than one individual has called it "the next Twilight".  That could be a lot to live up to (to say nothing of the fact that I don't think I'd like the comparison if I were these two authors attempting to forge a unique perspective of my own), but this is a terrific book very deserving of an enthusiastic YA audience.  I cannot remember the last time I read a book with such a uniquely Southern perspective and it got me thinking that some of the best YA books are the ones that tie strongly into a given region (Dairy Queen for that Midwest outlook or the Twilight series for the strong ties to the Northwest).  Yet even with Garcia and Stohl drawing this rich picture that is Gatlin, South Carolina, many readers will see their own small community, with its lack of privacy and inherent sense of judgment, clearly defined.

Kami Garcia has a wonderful blog that's worth reading on a regular basis (I've put her in my Google Reader) as does co-writer Margaret Stohl, although she seems to post a little less frequently. Warner Bros. has already acquired the rights to the movie version of the book, but (like Twilight) I'm sure they'll ruin it.  When will the film industry realize that books written from an internal monologue perspective are VERY difficult to translate to film?  I loved being inside Ethan's head and there isn't any way they can transmit that without cheesy voiceover.  There are days I believe the motion picture industry exists to ruin good books for the masses, but then I content myself with how many people buy the book and read it because they've seen the movie.  I'm sure they're happier then.   Anyway, I don't know which editor at Little, Brown & Co. (the publisher) is finding all these great YA authors, but I seriously hope they keep up the good work!


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July 29, 2011 7:20 PM delete

Check out Susan Meissner's upcoming conemporary / historical fiction with a touch of Southern Gothic romance!