Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia and Margeret Stohl (Little Brown Books, 2009) {Hachette Audio, 2009; Narrated by Kevin T. Collins, featuring Eve Bianco}

Cover of "Beautiful Creatures"

Cover of Beautiful Creatures

Grade: Ε  — Readable in genre, but you could probably do better.  

In brief: Beautiful Creatures is a YA Paranormal Romance which received sixth place in the 2010 Teens Top Ten Award.  The writing flows and is easy to follow, but the story failed on a number of levels, including the lack of authenticity of the narrator and the derivative nature of the tale itself.  While it would have made a brilliant short story or novelette, or even a really good novella, coming in at around 600 pages, it drags and wallows in self indulgence like the cliché image of a teenage girl.  

 Setting: Gatlin South Carolina, Modern Day.

In Depth:

I was initially drawn to this book by its core literary premise: a YA paranormal romance told from the first person point of view (POV) of a teenage boy. In order for that to work, it needed for Ethan, the narrator of this tale, to have true authenticity.  Sadly, he didn’t.  Even more sadly, that was not the only problem with this story; but we’ll get on to that later.

The story follows a Twilight-esque plot line, with two key changes: It’s about “Casters” (spell casters) not vampires and it reverses the gender roles of the magical creature, with magical girl and a “mortal” boy.  Other than that, it is effectively the same tale as Twilight.  A new girl comes to town who gorgeous but unusual and a local boy helps her come to grips to her supernatural powers and destiny. 

Most of the actual word-smithing of this tale worked well, though at the end there is a sudden change in point-of-view in narration that totally jarred me from the narrative.  There were absolutely no precedents for it through the previous 500-sum-odd pages, so to suddenly be hurled from one POV to another was a disappointing, particularly since there were other ways the same plot problem could have been solved.  Regardless, this somewhat hackneyed mechanism was not the biggest problem with the text.

What really failed for me was the central narration of Ethan: it did not sound like a teenaged boy. Instead, Ethan’s voice sounded like a woman’s view of what the ideal boyfriend would have been like when she was in high school. Ethan is a rising star of the basketball team, sensitive and understanding, a secret lover of reading (but he hides this from the others since it would ostracize him from the cool clique he hangs with), and an outsider who is still part of the in crowd (though he secretly dislikes them).  As such, he is a Polyanna of a character — just too good to be true with no real faults to make him interesting. Neither does he in anyway serve as a protagonist (that would be Lena, the Caster Girl who is really the subject of this story), and in that end I feel he would fail to interest any teen boy reader.[1]

Furthermore, the social environment in which Ethan lived didn’t seem to reflect any aspect of the social world I remember as a teenaged boy. Ethan is popular, not the most popular kid in school, but good looking, good at Basketball, and hangs with the in-crowd (even though he doesn’t like them much). Then the beautiful and mysterious Lena arrives on the scene: the new girl in an unchanging town.  She’s different, she’s intelligent, and she’s hot.  That’s the term used by the authors, not me.  Hot. All his friends agree she is hot. Most beautiful girl Ethan has ever seen.  Hot. 

Now, Lena’s a bit weird: a kind of goth style of cloths, weird necklace, combat boots, and worst of all: the niece of the town’s never-seen presumed-psycho shut-in. But, you see, she’s hot, and that’s a key problem with one central element of the story.  Ethan faces ostracization because he’s strangely drawn to this clearly magical girl.  The popular girls in town don’t like her, because she’s weird and the niece of the local version of Boo Radley, and so the popular guy’s cut her out as well….  Only you see there’s this one problem: she’s hot.

Maybe things are different in North Carolina in the early 21st century, but where I grew up (admittedly in the fourth century BC), if a girl was as physically attractive as Lena is supposed to have been, a star basketball player could have gotten away with dating her because… well she’s hot.  The other guys on the team may have said, “You’ve got a wack-job as a girlfriend,” but they wouldn’t have cut him out because she was cute, and no matter how weird she was, they could have overlooked it. Oh, maybe someone close to the social edges couldn’t have gotten away with it, but a guy who was part of the central clique could have.

Had Lena not been categorized as “Hot” upon first arrival, she could have beautiful as beautiful-can-be and not recognized as such because of the social bias defining her as NOT HOT would have trumped the reality of hot. The Authors could have gotten away with this, since Lena did dress a bit funny, but that was not the way it played out in the book. Lena was defined as Hot by the boys before they knew who she was, and that, as they say, would have been that. A hot psycho is still desirable to a teen boy (and some adult men too, but that’s another story).

Indeed, this raises another point: for a fifteen to sixteen year old boy, Ethan is remarkably clear of sexual thoughts about this girl. I know that he knows that she can read his mind, but when I was that age? I would have had thoughts about her body no matter what I did.  Maybe not as graphic or obsessive as teen boys are stereotyped as always having, but at least a few passages about the glimpse of knee, the shape of a breast, her pert bottom, the way she fills out her jeans… something!  It need not have been crass, but the text really needed to be there to make it authentic.  It wasn’t.

Beyond Ethan’s lack of authenticity, one must also wonder a bit about Lena.  She is a Caster, a girl with magical powers (this is both blatantly obvious from before the start and defined early on in the book: so no spoiler there), but she wants to live the life of a normal teen girl, at least for a little while.  Fine.  Makes sense in its own way, but if that’s the case, why does Lena go out of her way to dress unlike any other girl in school?  I mean, if a girl really wants to have a normal teen life, why go Goth in a town with no Goths?  If she was as obsessed with being a normal girl as she says she is, why don’t we see her trying to fit in? Maybe even wear cloths that she thought would fit in but don’t? 

Instead, what we see is a girl who is an outsider right from the get-go and dresses that way.  That would have been fine, and indeed fairly appealing to me as a reader or a teen, but instead we are then hit over the head time and again with how out of place she feels for the next four hundred pages.  “I want to know what it’s like to be a normal girl,” is her whining mantra throughout the book.  And yes, she does whine. 

She whines all the way through the book, wallowing in self-pity time and time again.  She whines about being an outsider, she whines about having no roots, and she whines about the central plot of the book, her cursed predestination.  That is all fine and good for a bit, but even after she overcomes certain obstacles in her path, she keeps going back to the whining. No resolution to any of this wallowing, no moving forward or coming to grips; just whinging and cringing self-pity that doesn’t even really get resolved at the end of the book.

Indeed, her whining happens so frequently that one really can’t help but think that dream-date Ethan is actually shallow after all.  It’s not like we see an awful lot about her character other than her good looks, her magical power, and her constant whining. Oh, she’s well read and tells a couple of jokes, sure, but mostly she whines.  Still, Ethan loves her throughout, and other than because she is magically powerful and “hot,” I can’t figure out why. 

Oh god, I’m just warming up… but I guess you get the point. I could go on about a plot line that is derivative of Twilight, and a general lack of cohesive world building, but since in my book failed characterization is fatal, what’s the point?

Sadly, a great premise and solid prose did not save this story for me.  I just couldn’t overcome the character and plot holes, and that’s with me only scratching the surface.  Having said that, if you love teenaged paranormal romance, you could do worse than this book, but you could do a lot better as well.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Kevin T. Collins, did a fine job of narrating, though at time I found his slipping between a Southern and “Standard” American accent a bit distracting. Still, he did a good job of bringing the text to life.  Eve Bianco, who narrated the sudden POV change portion of the book, was also a good talent who was easy to understand.  Sadly, however, I feel she was miscast becuase she just did not sound like a teen girl. 

Unfortunately, the solid talent of the narrators was crippled by irritating production elements.  I have said this before and will say it again: sound effects really don’t belong in a narrated audiobook.  Oh, they work great in a dramatization, but not in a reading of the text.  They are distracting and not helpful in the least. 

This is even more the case when the text is written as first person past tense.  After all, if the voice of the text is telling me something happened to them in the past (e.g. “The wind blew by my face,”) why am I hearing the wind in the background?  I am not THERE, I am HERE listening to SOMEONE ELSE tell me about events that happened to them in the PAST.

Most irritating of these special effects were the strange dream sequences where the director felt the need to add weird half-heard garbled sounds like someone changing the stations on a analogue radio over static filled background noises.  The first few times this resulted in my hitting the replay option in an attempt to understand what was being said.  It wasn’t anything.  Just noise.  How irritating.

Added to this was the second rate computer created music that was used for the parts of the text where music appeared in the novel.  It used a different voice, not the narrator’s, so changed POV, and to be honest, didn’t sound very creepy or cool or whatever element each attempt was trying to make.  Instead, it sounded like some amateur creating a midi sound file as they tried to make music  something that sounded appropriate to the text.  It really just would have been better to have the narrator read the words to the music or maybe even sing… though…. No, just read it.

So, result? Good narration and bad production of a mediocre text. 

[1] Indeed, when I look back at the stories I enjoyed as a teen (admittedly in a pre-literate society where the use of stone in Henge monuments where still considered to be a fad likely to pass in a couple of years), they were tales that empowered me, not someone else.  While they could, and frequently did, have strong female characters, the story was usually about some character (usually a boy) escaping the total lack of self-determination that one’s teen life appears to be.  To that end, I can’t help but note that I suspect this book would completely fail to draw in a teenaged male audience.  The narrator is nothing more than a shoulder to cry on and someone to push her to find a solution to her problems.  Personally, I felt this created a somewhat unappealing helper of a character and served to weaken her as a protagonist, as that she needed constant prompting and hand-holding. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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6 Responses to Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia and Margeret Stohl (Little Brown Books, 2009) {Hachette Audio, 2009; Narrated by Kevin T. Collins, featuring Eve Bianco}

  1. Victoria says:

    Thanks for the “Related Articles” mention

  2. Joachim Boaz says:

    I’m surprised you managed to read all 600 pages — one of the reasons I like older science fiction is that the bad works rarely have more than 180-200 pages and I can quickly plow through and move on to something else 😉

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Ah, its no big thing to go through bad text. First of all, because I’ve read SOOO MANY site reports (boring) and graded who knows how many University students. What is more, I feel I owe it to the author in case there is a last minute reprieve. Classic example, the movie A Boy and His Dog was an OK film, made memorable by the last two to three minutes.

      Of course, it is made easier by the fact that I tend to listen to about 2/3rd of the books I review on Audio. It’s easier to bare when you are listening to it and doing something else. Mind you, that didn’t help the aweful version of Oppel’s AirBorn. Text good, reading bad. Besides, the writing wasn’t bad, just the story, characters, etc. Ha ha!

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Hahaha — I agree that a bad text is kind of a relief regardless of how bad it is from the daily required readings (i.e. grading way too many university blueblook exams/essays/reading quizzes and reading too many scholarly medieval history works)… Well, I’ve never gotten used to audio books…

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Try one next time you’re really really sick, too sick to watch TV, just want to lie there, but need some distraction, try a really good audiobook. After that, you’ll get addicted and want them all the time.

      Mind you, I still generally prefer words on a page, but a good audiobook is the next best thing.

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