Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries is a YA trilogy released many years ago, when I was twelve (yes, I was twelve once… a terrible year, fyi). My mom got the first book for me because she knows I love the tales of blood-sucking creatures of darkness.

I looooved
The Vampire Diaries! I seriously thought I was going to die when the bookstore didn't get the second volume in on the day they said they would. After the last book was released, I re-read the whole series five times just in that year. I still re-read it sometimes, and while my reactions to the characters varies depending on what mood I'm in, and I occasionally even notice new things, I always fall completely into the world of the books and can't put them down. To me they have definitely withstood the test of time. I know the big "teen vampire romance" these days is Twilight, and I really like Twilight, too—but to me The Vampire Diaries is grounded in more solid mythology, has a much richer plot, and the love triangle is intense.

The Vampire Diaries is about a high school senior named Elena, who is the prettiest and most popular girl at her school in Fell's Church, Virginia. Every guy wants to date her (as she knows from experience), and every girl wants to be her. Elena is pretty sure she can get anything she wants, and on the first day of her senior year, she sees something she definitely wants: Stefan Salvatore, the sexy new foreign exchange student from Italy, pulling up in his sah-weet Lamborghini. Tall, dark, handsome, and rich: ka-ching. To Elena's utter shock, however, he doesn't instantly become her panting, drooling sex slave as soon as she bats her heavily-lashed eyes at him. Hrm, what to do? First, she breaks up with her current bf, Matt, the captain of the football team. Then she hatches several schemes to make Stefan realize he's madly in love with her, all of which fail epically. What is up with that guy… and why doesn't he lunch? The questions mount.

Meanwhile, Elena and her friends, Bonnie and Meredith (and Caroline, who's more of a frenemy, and also trying to go out with Stefan on the DL), need to keep doing things like cheering and heading up the Homecoming committee, and all that other stuff that popular girls do in movies. While they're doing all this, Elena starts to notice there's something weird going on in Fell's Church—and that there's a mysterious stranger who keeps hanging around and staring hungrily at her neck (haha, he doesn't really do that… well, maybe). This mysterious stranger's visits are usually followed by the discovery of bodies in the Old Wood on the edge of town, mauled by some unknown animal.

Well, I don't want to give too much of the series away, but in the first book, Elena eventually convinces Stefan to go out with her. Then she discovers he's a 500-year-old vampire, and they have metaphorical sex. (Kids, I just want you to know—it's okay to have metaphorical sex.) But things become complicated for our noble hero and feisty heroine: it turns out that the mysterious stranger is Stefan's brother, Damon, who's been out to get Stefan ever since they killed each other in Renaissance Italy. Unlike Stefan, who's noble and self-sacrificing and never, ever drinks blood from humans (except, of course, in cases of metaphorical sex), Damon loves being a vampire, having Power, and drinking human blood. He's a bad boy, in other words.

In the second book, Elena and Stefan spend a lot of time trying to stop Damon from doing the evil deeds he does and causing trouble. However, the more time Elena spends with Damon, the more she thinks he's not so bad after all. Does this have anything to do with the fact that he's handsome and sucking the blood from her? Hmmmmm….

Then Elena drives too fast over a bridge, crashes into the river, and drowns. Fortunately, she's been drinking the blood of two vampires; so instead of dying, she rises again as one of the undead.

The third book is mainly about Elena realizing she has a second chance at life (so to speak), and that she should use it to make peace with her friends and family, and herself. While she's in soul search mode, the baddies are still running around Fell's Church. Elena and her friends finally realize that Damon isn't responsible for some—well, most—of the weird things that have been happening. Bonnie (who decided she was a witch in book two) goes into a trance state where Elena and Meredith can communicated with Honoria Bell, one of the founders of Fell's Church. It turns out the town has a looooong history of strange things going on in it; Honoria herself was a witch, and a few of the other founders were also pretty sketchy. With her help, Elena, Stefan, and Damon are able to find the source of the malignant power that killed Elena. In the final battle, Elena sacrifices herself to save Damon and Stefan. The brothers, uneasily reconciled, leave Fell's Church.

Then there's the fourth book. Fourth book, you say? I know, I said it was a trilogy; but the fourth book is so bad, I try to pretend it doesn't exist. In it, Stefan and Damon are called back to Fell's Church because there is yet another baddie on the premises that demands to be vanquished. Elena communicates sporadically from beyond the grave, and then at the very end is returned to her human form for no logical or narrative reason, thus recounting (in my mind, anyway) all the good she did dying in the first place. Stay dead, damn you!

About four weeks ago, the fifth book in the series was released, The Return: Nightfall. It's been 17-ish years since The Vampire Diaries were first published, and nearly ten years since L. J. Smith has published anything. In all honesty, especially after book four and reading one of her new short stories, my expectations were kind of low. The new book wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be, but it did have significant problems.

In one of her sporadic letters to rabid fans over the last ten years (and she does have a lot of them, trust me—or just check out the reviews for some of her older books on Amazon), L. J. Smith stated that she wanted to rewrite The Vampire Diaries, but in the way she originally envisioned the series and not the way she was pressured to write it by the publishing company. I think this explains a lot about The Return: Nightfall. Although the story takes off where book four ended, it feels as if Smith has hit the reset button on the development of all the characters. The brothers are back to hating on one another, Elena's friends are back to hating Damon (poor Damon), and Matt is back to crushing on Elena. It really is as if Smith has started the series over again, only she didn't have the guts to completely rewrite it, so she kept the narrative elements continuous.

There are other strange inconsistencies in the book—technology, for one. Even though the narrative takes off from book four (c. 1992), the kids have laptops and cell phones. But they don't use the technology in a logical way. For example, when Matt, Meredith, and Bonnie are trapped in a car and being attacked by a tree (killer trees! noooooo!), Bonnie tries to communicate telepathically with Damon and Stefan to save them. Um, why didn't she just text them for help? "Attakd by treez pls help! bonnie." Much simpler. Also, there are Japanese spirits (I'm thinking oni) running around Fell's Church now. How did Japanese demons get to Virginia, one wonders? If I know anything about Shintoism, they should really be sticking to the Japanese islands.

Anyway, these things don't really bother me. The main thing is that the plot is way too meandery. The pacing is jarring and the events that befall the characters don't seem to have a point within the context of a larger storyline. I just don't have the patience to deal with that. But in all honesty, I think this book is much more successful at reviving the series than The Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters, which came out a few months ago and was also meant to be the next installment in a long-standing series, the last volume of which came out in 1993. That book felt anachronistic in the extreme, and the characters were just flat. Even though the characters of The Vampire Diaries had regressed in The Return: Nightfall, I still recognized them as the characters; and the book didn't feel out of place and time, just in need of more consistent editing. So even though this book was a dud, I haven't given up on Smith yet.


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