(Note: The second half of this review contains spoilers for the plot of the previous book, Beautiful Creatures, so if you have not yet read this first book of the CASTER CHRONICLES, you may want to read it before reading further about Beautiful Darkness)
The latest adolescent fiction to become a popular film, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, bears some resemblance to the TWILIGHT SAGA, but in some essential ways, it is a story with more depth and complexity. Kelly has already reviewed Beautiful Creatures, the first novel in the CASTER CHRONICLES series, so I will focus my reviews on the latter three books, after some brief comments about what sets this series, in my opinion, above the TWILIGHT books and makes it worth reading for both adolescents and adults.
The similarities here are obvious: both series are in the adolescent fantasy/romance genre, both deal with a fantastical universe that is parallel to and concurrent with our reality, both have a love triangle of sorts, and both series make allusions to characters and storylines in classic literature. Both series are also set in small towns in distinct regions, TWILIGHT in the Northwest (Forks, Washington) and CASTER CHRONICLES in the Southeast (Gatlin, South Carolina); however, while the setting in TWILIGHT has some significance to the plots of those books (the vampires need the cloud cover and open spaces), the South Carolina setting of the CASTER CHRONICLES has some important connections to one of the major themes in those books. The narrator of the CASTER CHRONICLES series is a down-to-earth, likeable teenager, just like Bella in TWILIGHT, and like Bella, he is dealing with all the drama of a first true love while also realizing that there is a world coexisting with the one he knows that challenges what he has always known to be true. However, while the TWILIGHT series focuses heavily on the romance and even alludes to works like Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, the CASTER CHRONICLES is more of a coming-of-age story with serious social criticism, making obvious and interesting references to To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, Of Mice and Men, and Great Expectations. Ethan Wate, a Scout Finch-like character, while learning about love, magic, and tragedy, is also learning about the complex social relationships in a small southern town and all the contradictory truths about the people he once felt like he belonged to.
In this review, I’ll focus on the second book, the very aptly named Beautiful Darkness, and then I’ll cover the other two books in the series in later reviews. If you’ve read Beautiful Creatures, then there are some characteristics of this book that are consistent with the first: Ethan’s voice is reliably likeable, with a combination of innocence, humility, and insightfulness that makes readers both believe and sympathize with him. I have heard criticism that he does not accurately represent the thinking of a teenaged boy, and that is altogether possible; there are moments when he seems to think and say what teenaged girls wish that teenaged boys thought and said. But I think of him as very similar in his observations and vulnerability to some of the best narrators in literature: Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Huckleberry Finn, and Nick Carraway. There are also moments of levity in the midst of the heaviness of the plot that seem to poke fun at fiction that would take itself too seriously, such as Amma’s use of crossword puzzles to scold (“L.A.C.O.N.I.C. Seven across, which means I don’t have to say a thing, Ethan Wate”) and glimpses of stereotypical high school student mentality, such as how Ethan and his classmates decide where to sit in class based on Mrs. English’s “good-eye” and “bad-eye” and how that affects whether they’ll be asked to participate.
While Beautiful Creatures sets up the romance between Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes and the histories of the town of Gatlin, South Carolina, the Duchannes and Wates families, and the coexistence of the Caster and Mortal worlds, it also introduces some of the major motifs of the series: the relationship between good and evil (light and dark), the concept of belonging and the role of outcasts in a closed society, and the loss of naïveté during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Beautiful Darkness continues these themes and is, as its name implies, much darker than the first book, following Lena’s descent into darkness after Macon Ravenwood’s death. Since Lena fails to claim herself at her sixteenth moon, she is still unsure of her place in the Caster universe, and after hers and Amma’s decision to use the Book of Moons to bring Ethan back to life and the tragic loss of Macon that results, she both fears and indulges in her own dark side, leaving Ethan to suffer the typical pangs of a broken heart and jealousy, while at the same time learning more about the workings of the town and the very atypical secrets of his own family members.
There are two parts of this story that make it thematically strong and interesting, beyond the simple teenage love story or fantasy plot. First is the treatment of “true love” that goes against the over-romanticized Hollywood ideal. While Bella and Edward seem “fated” to be together, because he has found no one else to love in his 100 years of existence and she is willing to become a vampire to be with him, true love in Beautiful Darkness is depicted as a choice: when your “one true love” is unavailable, it is possible to choose to love someone else. When Ethan feels a connection with the new keeper-in-training, Olivia, he accepts it as evidence that it is possible to love and be happy after the loss of another all-encompassing love. What Ethan learns about his mother’s first love supports this idea of love as a choice: when he finds out that his father was not his mother’s first love, he assumes she didn’t love him at all. Marian explains to him, “She moved into a town where no one accepted her, because your father wouldn’t leave, and she loved him…. She just didn’t love him first.”
The other theme that makes this book complex and worth reading is the treatment of the relationship between good and evil. The curse of the Duchannes, that on the sixteenth moon Duchannes casters will be claimed for dark or for light for all time and that it is beyond their control, implies that dark and light, evil and good, are mutually exclusive concepts. Once one is dark, they cannot be light. But there are a number of characters who challenge this idea, even while they continue to believe in it: Macon Ravenwood, as an incubus, is supposedly dark, but he chooses to bind himself to light; Ridley Duchannes was claimed by the dark, but while she works with the very dark Sarafine Duchannes, she simultaneously loves Lena and the mortal Link, though she does not admit it; and Lena, in Beautiful Darkness, feels dark but wants desperately to be light. The question of what makes a Caster or mortal good or evil underlies the entire series, and though there are no clear conclusions, the complexity of the question mirrors the complexity of the moral universe we live in.
One of the other central themes in this series is the criticism of a society that is morally hypocritical and overly concerned with appearances. In Beautiful Creatures, the “trial” against Lena instigated by Mrs. Lincoln, Savannah Snow, and the cheer squad parallels the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird, with Macon Ravenwood acting as the Atticus Finch who attempts to shame the townspeople for their ignorant attack on those perceived as outsiders. Beautiful Darkness continues this criticism more subtly, showing these same cheerleaders with their false sympathy for the same girl they persecuted just months before and the DAR women who rejected Ethan’s mother before her death offering platitudes and pity now as if they too suffered her loss. The criticism becomes more obvious, though still subtle, as Liv and Ethan deliver books wrapped in brown paper, noticing that they “delivered It Takes a Bible and Divinely Delicious Delilah to the very same house.” This criticism goes beyond that of Gatlin, South Carolina, or even just of the South, as Liv argues that it is “romantic and righteous…. so… American.” What is beautiful about the social criticism offered in this book and in the series as a whole is that it isn’t a cynical indictment; Ethan loves his town while still wanting to get away from it, a feeling with which we can all identify.
If you liked the TWILIGHT SAGA, this is an even better read, one that engages on an entertainment level as well as an intellectual one.