One Holly Black novel in a year is reason for her many fans to be happy, but this year readers get the treat of two. Her flawless middle-grade standalone Doll Bones, which explored growing up and play, is now followed by a darkly riveting standalone YA novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.
Some readers may recognize the title from the earlier short story, which first appeared in The Eternal Kiss edited by Tricia Telep (and later in Black’s collection The Poison Eaters), and which served as the novel’s genesis. That story built a compelling world overrun by the scourge of vampirism, where Coldtowns housed vampires – and humans foolish enough to visit them – and to be infected meant the intermediate step that only ended in death or undeath. It was a world that deserved more exploration, and, happily (as well as tragically), we get a much fuller view of it here.
Protagonist Tana awakens in a bathtub, where she fell asleep hiding from her ex-boyfriend Aiden and his new girlfriend during a packed and raucous sundown party at a friend’s house. Not sure why it’s so quiet, she ventures forth to discover a massacre, the likes of which are fairly rare these days, with most vampires quarantined in Coldtowns. Terrified, but bright and competent, Tana knows she needs to get out of the house before any vampire left within it discovers her. But when she goes to get her coat, she discovers Aiden tied to the bed, still alive but infected, and another boy named Gavriel who turns out to be a vampire chained in the room with him. Tana manages to make a heart-pounding escape with both Aiden and Gavriel, and thus begins their odyssey to Coldtown. She gets scratched in the process, meaning she might turn out to be infected or might not. Turning in a vampire at Coldtown will get her a marker, though, a way to get out if she is healthy.
And Tana has much to live for, namely her little sister Pearl, and a father who has already lost his wife to vampirism. She’s a fighter, and as her story twines into the one of the larger world, and with Gavriel’s – a vampire other vampires would chain up – it also becomes inextricably bound with history – from the distant past of vampires, to the spreading scourge she has lived through, to the current everyday of sundown parties and celebrity vampire feeds, Coldtowns and famous bounty hunters and teenagers who long to embrace death and liveblog it. Tana likes to live on the edge and can be dangerously impulsive, but Black draws her as infinitely more complex than the average thrill-seeker. She does think, and she does act, and both are thoroughly compelling to witness.
The appeal of the vampire is as eternal – perhaps even more so – than mythology says the creature itself is. Black does a wonderful job here of blending the best of the classic vampire with the gritty yet glamorous idea of vampirism that has enchanted Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite fans and teenagers for decades (as a teenager I had an entire shelf filled with vampire anthologies, ‘‘non-fiction’’ books, and novels), and infusing the whole with her own vibrant additions to vampire lore. Her ecology of infection and strength, of the vampire plague as the result of a super-spreader run free named Caspar Morales, of the hierarchy of vampires, and her allowances for infinite cruelty to be countered by the kind of surprise that can only be experienced by someone who hasn’t in decades, centuries, millennia. There is the ever-present question of whether a vampire is the same person they were before or not, with the flip side of that being how much darkness a person has within them, and how much they could have, under the right (or rather wrong) conditions. All of this is exceedingly, meticulously threaded into Tana’s story as it builds to a possible redemption for her, and maybe for Gavriel as well.
In a world filled with more fantasy series than anyone could follow, a satisfying standalone is always an excellent thing to find. Yet here’s hoping The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is embraced by so many lovers of dark fantasy and horror, by readers ready for vampires to be truly scary again, that Black is tempted to visit this world again. Every Coldtown, after all, might be filled with stories as inventive and gripping as this one.