Title: Beautiful Creatures
Author: Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Genre: Fantasy, Gothic, Romance, Young Adult
Publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)
Publication Date: December 2009
Hardcover: 576 pages
Stand alone or series: Book 1, with a sequel underway
How did we get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did we read this book: Even though it was just released this month, Beautiful Creatures is making its way on numerous best-of 2009 lists – and everyone from authors and bloggers alike are singing its praises! And thus, we Book Smugglers had to check it out before the end of the year…
Summary: (from amazon.com)
There were no surprises in Gatlin County.
We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was a curse.
There was a girl.
And in the end, there was a grave.
Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.
In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.
Thea: I’m torn when it comes to Beautiful Creatures. I started the book with high hopes, ready to immerse myself in a southern gothic – and it was a kind of uneven experience. I found myself enthralled at parts of the story, but skeptical and disengaged for large chunks of the novel. I liked the idea of Beautiful Creatures, but the execution was somewhat lacking. Still, the atmospheric nature of the novel and intriguing premise made it a worthwhile – albeit slightly disappointing – read.
Ana: I experienced a wide range of emotions while reading Beautiful Creatures. I started out extremely excited, with high expectations given the amount of universal praise it received ( I even thought it could make my top 10 of 2009) but as soon as I started to read I felt an overwhelming feeling of annoyance which I believe, came from recognition – where did I read this plot before? It didn’t last long though, as the story proved to be quite original. I then proceeded to alternate between being mildly bored and extremely intrigued. I really liked the mystery and the setting but at the same time I did not connect with the characters. Such fluctuation in my reading experience, is I believe, a reflection of an uneven book with both good and …not so good points.
On the Plot:
Ethan Wate has lived in small town Gaitlin for his entire life – and though Gaitlin runs through his veins, he feels a dissatisfaction with his life as it is, and longs for escape. Then, when new girl Lena Deschannes moves to town, everything changes. Lena, a beautiful girl who refuses to try out for cheerleading and defies Gaitlin “cool” classification, is unlike anyone that Ethan’s met before. And it gets even stranger – she also happens to be the girl that has been haunting his dreams and nightmares for weeks. Lena and Ethan are inexplicably linked, and as they grow closer, they must work together to fight jealous classmates, suspicious guardians, and an age-old curse that threatens to destroy them.
Thea: In my opinion, the plotting is the strongest part of this novel. Though the pacing is uneven – far too little time spent on actual action versus far too much time spent on separation angst – the actual mystery surrounding Lena and Ethan is expertly conceived and tantalizingly executed. At face-value, Beautiful Creatures is a normal boy meets supernatural girl story, with a Romeo and Juliet sort of separation sensibility. But there’s also another layer to the story – the nature of the attraction between Ethan and Lena, and the curse that plagues them. I loved the rich history in the book, how the story would jump from present day to supernatural flashbacks, and the family saga of hurt and dark secrets for both the Wates and Duchannes’/Ravenwood families.
So far as worldbuilding is concerned, the novel also shines. Gaitlin is such a flawed yet completely believable small town, steeped in its own core values and quirks, filled to the brim with its own secrets. The Civil War reenactments, the Southern Pride, and the scenes in which the town stands solidly against anything and anyone who poses a threat as “different” are all resonating, powerful images.
Also I loved the idea of “casters” and mortals, and the spin that in this book the supernatural one is the girl, and the underpowered mortal narrator the boy. It may seem insignificant, but there are so many stories on the YA market told from the mortal girl (see Stephenie Myer’s Twilight) or superpowered girl (see Aprilynne Pike’s Wings) perspective – and this choice of narrator allows Beautiful Creatures to stand out in a sea of homogeneity.
But…there were significant problems, especially in terms of pacing and believability. The high points were enough to keep me reading, but the dragging fifty-plus page chunks on teen “does she like me too?” angst really threw a wrench into my reading experience. Then, there’s the problem of narrative voice and some questionable writing choices (in particular, Lena’s lyrics were pretty ham-handed/super-cheesy)…but more on that in the next section.
Ana: The plotting and the setting were definitely the highlights of the novel. The former was gripping and left me guessing and interested to the very end and the latter provided the excellent atmosphere, with a Southern feel that I could almost touch. The small town framing to the novel was very well done and I felt suffocating along with Ethan, a feeling that only grew in a crescendo as he got to know his neighbours better. There is the rich story connected with the Civil War, and which appeared in the book via current day town enactments and flashbacks to the past and I really enjoyed reading that. As for the plotting, it reads a lot like a Mystery novel with the suspense behind the curse that plagues Lena’s family and Lena herself. I liked how Ethan and Lena combined to investigate the reason behind the curse and to find a way out of it.
Another thing that I absolutely adored was the fact that there was not a vampire or fallen angel in sight ( I am honestly burnt out) and I loved the mythology surrounding the Casters and their powers which was definitely original.
My overall impression surrounding the plot and the execution of the story is a very positive one. I was very impressed with the final pages and the conclusion (for now) of the storyline – I particularly liked how things played out in the end with the idea of consequences to one’s actions and decisions being present and with the authors following through with the high stakes as expected. I felt there was no coup out here and for that I am grateful.
It is a shame that for all that there was good about the plot and the setting, I did not connect with any of the characters.
On the Characters:
Thea: This is where I struggled the most with Beautiful Creatures. The most glaring flaw in the novel is the inconsistent narrative voice – that is, Ethan’s voice. This is supposed to be a sixteen year old male, but there is NOTHING about this character that feels or reads like an adolescent boy. He’ll spend hours cuddling and chastely kissing Lena, admiring her ethereal beauty…but never once does pop a stiffy or even think about sex. Which, for anyone that has lived through adolescence, can probably deduce is a load of crap – especially from the male perspective. The level of chastity in the book is eye-roll inducing, and its attempts to completely circumnavigate any level of sexuality are painfully obvious, and even a little insulting to the target audience (read: teens aren’t sexless. They can handle it. Trust me).
Beyond the lack of sex, the other issue I had was how off-kilter all the character reactions seemed. WHY would these families keep such secrets from their children, when clearly keeping them in the dark isn’t helping anyone? Why would Ethan let his best friend date someone that is truly, heinously evil without warning him? Why, why, why!? I found myself increasingly frustrated with how dense and insulated these characters could be, none moreso than Ethan and Lena themselves.
Ana: This is where the novel did not work for me in the end and explains the way I felt reading it. Part of me was really interested in what was happening but at the same time I was feeling strangely unresponsive to Beautiful Creatures – for I did not really care for the characters and what would ultimately happen to them.
When I read a book I want to be able to at least understand the characters’ actions even if I might not agree with them. I want to be able to relate or to like or even dislike a character intensively. But I felt oddly detached and I think it comes from poor characterisation.
Take the narrator for example. The book has such rich descriptions of the town and life in small town however, I cannot tell you what Ethan looks like. I have no idea. I know he has emo hair and wears old t-shirts and is tallish but other than that – he is sort of non-descript.
Furthermore he is a 16 year old boy but I had a hard time believing he was a teenager OR a boy. Thea is spot on on her assessment of the weird chasteness of the book. We are talking about a BOY who is making out with a girl he thinks is the epitome of HOTNESS and there is one scene where they are under the covers kissing ONLY for what seems to be hours and yet there is not a mention of a hard-on or frustration. Am I to believe this? I can believe if he chooses not to act upon these feelings for any number of reasons but I can’t believe that the physical aspect, the physical, normal reaction was not even mentioned. Nada, niente. That just reads wrong to me and unbelievable.
I also had a hard time buying some of the character’s actions. I did several double takes, quite a few times whilst reading the book. I couldn’t believe how Ethan just didn’t do anything when his best friend went away with someone he KNEW was EVIL and possibly conspiring to kill his girlfriend. His reasoning was that Link wouldn’t believe him: yes, because that trumps his best friend possibly being in DANGER by going out with a lunatic! In the beginning, before Ethan knew anything, before he even knew Lena, he has these nightmares and he wakes up with mud in his hands and he doesn’t think much of it? doesn’t talk to anyone? Isn’t that weird? I would be SO FREAKED OUT if I woke up from nightmares with the mud that was in the dream now stuck in my hands.
I also didn’t understand how everybody in this town and in Ethan’s life were so meddlesome and yet, no one, no one was concerned about his father who spent his days in pyjamas, and closed in his study and nothing was done about it until it was too late.
Plus, some things were way too convenient. Like Marian, the librarian being Someone Important who OH NOES, could not really help them.
I don’t feel like I really know any of the characters including Lena and her uncle Macon who were the characters I felt had a lot potential and yet I thought were unfortunately underdeveloped.
And I am not going to mention the way the adults kept the kids in the dark in a LIFE AND DEATH situation because in that way lies madness.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Thea: Uneven, but not without its high points. Even though there was a problem of believability and off-kilter pacing, Beautiful Creatures still was a compelling read that’s memorable enough to recommend to fans of YA supernatural romance of the Twilight variety.
Ana: Despite my problems with the characters, I felt compelled to read on in order to know more about the history of the families and the overall mystery. I think there were quite a few good ideas in this book although the characterisation needs working. Perhaps in the sequel?
The Middle of Nowhere
There were only two kinds of people in out town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors. “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go. Everyone else find a way out.” There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why. My father was a writer, and we lived in Gatlin, South Carolina, because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-granddad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee Rover during the Civil War.
Only folks down here didn’t call it the Civil War. Everyone under the age of sixty called it the War Between the States, while everyone over sixty called it the War of Northern Aggression, as if somehow the North had baited the South into war over a bad bale of cotton. Everyone, that is, except my family. We called it the Civil War.
Just another reason I couldn’t wait to get out of here.
Gatlin wasn’t like the small towns you saw in the movies, unless it was movie from about fifty years ago. We were too far from Charleston to have a Starbucks or a McDonalds. All we had was a Dar-ee Keen, since the Gentrys were too cheap to buy all new letters when they bought the Dairy King. The library still had a card catalogue, the high school still had chalkboards, and our community pool was Lake Moultrie, warm brown water and all. You could see a movie at the Cineplex about the same time it came out on DVD, but you had to hitch a ride over to Summerville, by the community college. The shops were on Main, the good houses were on River, and everyone else lived south of Route 9, where the pavement disintegrated into chunky concrete stubble – terrible for walking, but perfect for throwing at angry possums, the meanest animals alive. You never saw that in the movies.
Gatlin wasn’t a complicated place; Gatlin was Gatlin.
The neighbors kept watch from their porches in the unbearable heat, sweltering in plain sight. But there was no point. Nothing ever changed. Tomorrow would be the first day of school, my sophomore year at Stonewall Jackson High, and I already knew everything that was going to happen – where I would sit, who would I talk to, the jokes, the girls, who would park where.
There were no surprises in Gatlin County. We were pretty much the epicentre of the middle of nowhere.
At least, that’s what I thought, when I closed my battered copy of Slaughterhouse-five, clicked off my iPod, and turned on the light on the last night of summer.
Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was a curse.
There was girl.
And in the end, there was a grave.
I never even saw it coming.
Additional Thoughts: For another, completely different opinion check out Kate Garrabrant’s review.
Thea: 6 – Good
Ana: 6 – Good
Reading Next: It’s our Feats of Strength! Ana reads Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey, and Thea takes on Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James