Yes, that's the main reason the series was never really on my radar before now, despite its popularity. Let's face it, we were veritably drowning in vampire books there for a while, and I've done my fair share of superior eyeroll disdain on the matter. Truth be told, I'm still neither here nor there on vampires in general. I don't really get the widespread fascination, but if you give me a really great story I won't really care.
And this was a really, really great story.
How did I get sucked in, you may ask?
(...Oh, lord, there I go again with the unintentional puns. I didn't mean it, I swear!!).
Well, to be quite honest... because of the movie. I first watched the trailer several months ago, because, saturation of vampires notwithstanding, I'm usually game to watch at least the trailer for any genre or YA-based book adaptation. And I was intrigued-- partly by the levity of the sales pitch and partly by the premise of Princess + Bodyguard that was the central relationship in the story. I love the trope of loyal knight/bodyguards in fantasy. As many of you know, one of my favorite niche fandoms is the Naboo Handmaidens from Star Wars. So skimming the information about the book series, my interest was piqued. But it was still a vampire book, and I had a disinterested, superior image to maintain. So I tucked away my interest and went about my business.
When the movie came out last February I pulled the interest out again, dusted it off, looked furtively around, and found a friend to go with me to see it. And I loved it. I still didn't read the book, though. Although this time it was more because I was just getting hardcore into my overhaul of The Superhero Thing, and I don't read well when I'm writing.
Flash forward to fourteen days ago. Superhero Thing is between drafts. I'm on a well-deserved break and I'm craving something satisfying to read. Something new. I've just rewatched the Vampire Academy movie. My interest is still tweaked. I open my laptop, click "buy" on the ebook, and off I go.
This story, you guys. This story. How do I enumerate my love for it?
Why, with bullet points of course!
Richelle Mead has concocted the perfect blend of fantasy storytelling, balancing the three great legs of the triangle: Characters, Plot, Worldbuilding
- The characters - At the end of the day, I think the secret ingredient to whether or not a reader loves or just likes a particular story all boils down to the characters and whether or not you, the individual reader, are interested in them. Vampire Academy is the story of two girls and their friendship and I love both of them so much.
Rose, our snarky protagonist, is so different from me-- bold, aggressive, reckless, but fiercely, fiercely loyal.
And Lissa. Oh, Lissa.
The dialogue about what constitutes "strong female characters" continues to circulate throughout fandom, and I have a particular interest in the focus on "strong" not being automatically synonymous with "kick-ass"--(i.e., said heroine needs to literally be capable of kicking someone's ass in order to be deemed worthy of our approval). We all love the snarky, irreverent Roses of fiction. They're funny. They tell it like it is and don't take crap. But as someone who isn't overtly aggressive, who isn't very bold, who loves "girly" things, I was always on the lookout for the heroine who didn't grumble over her needlework and pine for her brother's sword lessons. Me? I personally love needlework in almost every form. This is why Tamora Pierce's Sandrilene fa Toren, in particular, is one of my all-time favorite fantasy characters (and why I named my sewing machine after her!) Or Princess Cimorene, who does love fighting with a sword, but also loves cataloging treasure, conjugating Latin verbs, and cooking chocolate mousse and cherries jubilee (for dragons).
Add to the ranks of these (my favorites): Princess Vasilisa Dragomir. Gentle, kind, timid, empathetic, insecure, vulnerable... and so, so strong. While Rose fights the physical demons, Lissa wages a constant battle with her own, unseen demons-- how not to abuse her unique and considerable magical talents, how not to succumb to the spiraling depression that comes as result of using them.
She makes a lot of mistakes. They both do. In fact, quite often they're both very, very weak. Which brings us back around to this idea of "strong" characters (male or female). I think we all know, at the end of the day, that what we really mean is just... well-written. And varied. And Rose and Lissa's sisterly love story is one that I cherish even more than the romantic 'ships (and I love the romantic ships).
Then there are all the secondary and tertiary characters. I can always tell when a fandom is a particular favorite by how itchy I get to write or read fanfic about All the Supporting Characters!! In this case the list is pretty long, though there's no need to quench a thirst for more Sydney Sage the alchemist, because, lo and behold-- spinoff series to read when you're finished with the first one!! Yay!!
There are the respective romantic interests of our two ladies, of course-- Dmitri and Christian. These two gents are each as unique, intriguing, and distinct as the two leading characters are from each other.
Then there's Mia. And Mason. And Adrian. And Eddie. And Jill. And Sonya. And Abe Mazur. (who, if they continue making movies, desperately needs to be played by Alexander Siddig-- how can we make that happen?) And pretty much, just... all of them.
- Plot: I won't go into a lot of detail here because I don't want to give too much away, but I have a healthy respect for the fast-paced but organic twists and turns of the stories in these books, sometimes fueled by external events, sometimes fueled by the characters' choices, and most often a realistic combination of the two. It's just the sort of thing I'd like to achieve in my own stories. I think I have a ways to go until I can achieve such a tidy weave, but reading this series a couple of times more can teach me plenty.
- Worldbuilding: Here I have a lot more to say. I feel like Vampire Academy is a fantastic example of elegant simplicity in worldbuilding. Which is not to say that a world should be thin or flimsy, but that a sturdy foundation made of a few basic guiding principles can lead you to troves of amazing, organic nuance.
In this case the basics are this:
Moroi = Good guy vampires, mortal. Magic users. Their existence is secret from the human world, and their species is under slow threat of extintion.
Dhampir = Half Moroi, half human. Because of interspecies genetics, they depend on the Moroi to survive. If the Moroi disappear, so do the dhampir. Because of this, the central cultural ideal of the dhamphir is to safeguard the existence of the Moroi. "They come first"
Strogoi = Evil, soulless, immortal vampires. They're not born, they're made, either willingly or by force. Any species (Moroi, Dhamphir, Strigoi) can become Strigoi. These are the baddies that unite the rest of us in the common good.
I think it's the species survival aspect of the Moroi and Dhampir cultures that gives this series some real kick for me. The Dhampir exist in a form of perpetual servitude to the Moroi which causes class and racial tension that is difficult to circumvent because the system, as it is, is in many ways very necessary. Even Rose, who is the first in line to buck authority when she deems it appropriate, doesn't really question this establishment until over halfway through the series, and even then only a little bit, to just honestly acknowledge that yes, there is a teensy tiny seed of resentment in the knowledge that her existence is primarily defined by Lissa's. In the end, this isn't too much of a life obstacle for Rose because she loves Lissa and would protect her no matter what race she was, but overall it's still an existential question that I've always found fascinating. How do our priorities change when survival is on the line? It's definitely what sucked me into Battlestar Galactica (and kept me going throughout that show's various ups and downs). It's good to have the big bad soulless Strigoi to fight against, but capturing the struggles of right and wrong within the good guys are what separates the good from the great, and we definitely have it here.
(Oddly enough, the same rules should probably attract me to The Walking Dead, but where I'm willing to tolerate vampires, I really don't care for zombies. Except for Warm Bodies, which is sort of an anti-Zombie story, anyway).
And, like any great story, once we set up the rules of our world, we get to watch our heroes and heroines test, challenge, and change them. And so Rose and Lissa do. In beautiful, thrilling ways.
By way of content advisory, there is teenage sex, language, and, well, vampires doing their thing.
So yeah, I loved this series, and will undoubtedly be re-reading at some point, as well as eagerly anticipating anything else Ms. Mead decides to write for this world. I'm currently on Book 4 of the sequel series and, in a beautiful case of timing, Book 5 comes out tomorrow!