Halfway through Beautiful Creatures, I remember thinking, “Hey, this is like The Witching Hour, but for teenagers!” The Witching Hour is probably my favorite Anne Rice book of all time, so this is high praise coming from me. It’s different, of course — Beautiful Creatures is much more PG-rated and unfolds at a faster pace — but both are big, meaty books featuring antebellum mansions, hidden witch families, curses generations in the making, and one pure love to stand against evil.
Ethan Wate seems like an ordinary teenage boy. Beneath the surface, though, he’s itching to escape his tiny hometown of Gatlin, with its closed minds and stagnation. (I loved the little detail about how Ethan was preordained a “smart kid” because of his parents being professors, and because of this, nobody really even bothers to read his papers before slapping a good grade on them. Ethan writes random things in his papers to see if the teachers will catch it, and they never do. I had a friend in high school who really did this!) In Gatlin, nothing ever happens, nothing ever changes. Until Lena Duchannes comes to town.
Lena is the first new girl Gatlin has seen in years, and her eccentric uncle and offbeat clothes make her an instant pariah. Yet, though his friends give him grief for it, Ethan is drawn to her. He’s sure she’s the girl who has been haunting him in the strange dreams he’s been having. Ethan and Lena strike up an unlikely friendship that leads to a lovely, gentle romance… and that’s when things really get ugly. Ethan and Lena don’t just face social ostracism. Their very lives could be in danger, as Lena is under a curse that will come to fruition on her sixteenth birthday.
There’s so much here that I want to praise. Beautiful Creatures is one of those books that feels rich, dense, satisfying. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl spin a complex plot filled with secrets and twists, and in which almost nothing is ever extraneous. The pace is just right, not so fast that it feels rushed, yet fast enough that Beautiful Creatures never feels bloated despite its length. The high school cattiness and drama, which are overdone in some YA novels, are handled perfectly here. The drama never just pads out the story. It always serves to advance the plot or develop a character, or both.
And speaking of characters, Garcia and Stohl have populated Gatlin with a host of unforgettable folks. There are so many I loved, I can’t list them all. Amma, the voodoo-wielding housekeeper. Macon Ravenwood, the town recluse and Lena’s uncle. Ethan’s widowed father, falling apart after his wife’s death. Ethan’s three crazy aunts. Lena’s cousin Ridley. The librarian (cutely named Marian), who is Ethan’s last link with his late mother. I could go on. Even the snooty high school kids feel fully drawn, and they’re interesting even when I don’t like them much.
The plot unravels a bit at the climax, spiraling into a complex series of twists and loopholes, sometimes leaving me wondering, “OK, what just happened here?” The story doesn’t end with Beautiful Creatures, and at novel’s end, I was left with more questions than answers. Thankfully, though, it’s not a cliffhanger per se. Several mysteries are left for later books, but I feel that Beautiful Creatures can stand alone if a reader doesn’t mind ambiguities and loose ends.
I recommend Beautiful Creatures to any teen or adult reader who enjoys a haunting, layered story of love, family, secrets, and magic both light and dark.