In the wake of the Twilight phenomenon, the world of Young Adult publishing continues to search for the next big thing in teen paranormal romance. One of the latest examples of that effort is the Caster Chronicles series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. The first book in the bestselling series, “Beautiful Creatures,” has inspired a new movie, opening this Valentine’s Day.
Ethan Wate has lived his whole life in Gatlin, South Carolina, and he’s not happy about it. Between his boredom and disgust with the small-minded townspeople, and his grief over his mother’s recent death, Ethan is counting the days until he can leave.
Until a new girl, Lena Duchannes, shows up in school—a girl who can break a window without touching it, and start a thunderstorm without even trying.
Lena, it turns out, is a Caster, one of a race of magical and incredibly powerful beings. (Ethan’s first guess was “witches,” but Lena dislikes the word, calling it “a stupid word” and “a dumb stereotype.”) Even as the rest of the school and the town turn against the “freak,” Ethan finds himself falling hard for her.
But the women in Lena’s family are under a curse: Each one, on her 16th birthday, is “Claimed” as either Light or Dark by some nameless force. Lena, and now Ethan, are facing the terrifying possibility that she will soon turn into a different person—a heartless, destructive, evil person.
The four novels (plus one e-novella) in the series deal with themes of free will, authority, and good and evil, with only limited success. The writing is considerably better than in the Twilight series, and most of the characters far more appealing. Ethan and Lena, for instance, tend to be much more considerate of others than “Twilight’s” Edward and Bella, and less inclined to think that their romance is the only thing in the world that matters. They’re also better at admitting when they’ve done something stupid. But ultimately, the books’ worldview is nearly as muddled as that of the Twilight books.
Garcia and Stohl tick most of the boxes that have become standard in this subgenre, though to their credit, they mostly manage to do it in a fresh and interesting way. There’s the human protagonist with the paranormal love interest; the supernatural obstacles that prevent them from doing more than kissing; the loyal best friend who winds up with a supernatural secret identity of his own; the mysterious and corrupt figures who rule the magical world; and so on. But the Caster Chronicles adds a strong Southern Gothic atmosphere and its own take on religion—“religion and superstition all mixed up, like it can only be in the South,” as Ethan puts it.
Amma, the housekeeper who helped raise Ethan, is the prime example; she practices both Christianity and voodoo with equal fervor, and communes regularly with the spirits of her dead ancestors. At any given moment, Amma is as likely to be making charms and spreading salt to keep spirits out of the house as she is to be praying or quoting Scripture.
Ethan explains to his best friend, Link, in the third book, “Beautiful Chaos,” “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Voodoo is just another religion.” As it happens, Ethan says this just as Amma, desperate to protect him, is about to make a bargain with a very dark voodoo practitioner indeed. But in this account, most religions simply have various shades of light and dark.
For the most part, the only good Christians in the books are those who practice their faith with this little something extra thrown in. Those characters who are simply Christian generally fit the stereotype of judgmental, book-banning Bible-thumpers. As in many paranormal romances, in fact, most people without a connection to the magical realm come across as inferior. Even though Ethan gradually comes to have a little more respect for his fellow human beings, once he finally gets over his perpetual pity party and realizes that Gatlin is a more exciting place than he thought, this is a significant weakness in the story.
Another difficult aspect of the books is understanding what it truly means to turn “Dark.” It happened to Lena’s mother, Sarafine, who is now a merciless killer. But it also happened to Lena’s cousin Ridley, a much more ambiguous figure. Ridley starts out working for the forces of darkness, but Lena and her friends eventually persuade her to help them instead. And though Ridley claims to be unable to love, she develops a strong attachment to Link. Though she occasionally comes close to doing some real damage, when you get right down to it, almost the worst thing Ridley ever actually accomplishes is dressing provocatively.
So it’s hard to grasp just how much say these women have in their own fate, and how much control their Dark side really has over them. The same is true of Lena’s uncle Macon, an Incubus who restrains his bloodthirsty nature and refuses to prey on humans. And when Lena finally figures out a way to “claim herself” as both Light and Dark (represented by her eyes turning two different colors), it makes the whole subject even murkier.
Lena’s fate could be seen to symbolize the lot of everyone in the world, as we all have, so to speak, both a light and a dark side. But it also seems to signal that the ideal state of things is, as one character puts it, “a balance . . . between Light and Dark.” The overarching philosophy of the series, in other words, seems to be little more than a “Star Wars” rehash.
It’s undeniable that Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl are very talented storytellers. But I find myself wishing that they had told a better story.
Image copyright Little, Brown and Company. Review copies obtained from Amazon and the reviewer's local library.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.