Isle of Night is the first in a new young adult paranormal series, The Watchers. Author Veronica Wolff attempts to combine several hot fiction trends into Isle of Night: vampires, boarding school, catty mean girls, and a scenario in which teens are forced to fight to the death.
Annelise Drew, who goes by her last name, is looking forward to escaping her abusive home life and going to college. When she gets to school, though, an issue has arisen with her high school credits and she’s unable to enroll. Drew is unsure what to do next. In swoops hunky Ronan, who convinces her to leave the country with him. He’s recruiting for a very different kind of school. Located on a remote island north of Scotland, it trains young women to become Watchers, which might be described as secretaries-slash-bodyguards for vampires.
The trouble begins with Drew herself. Her genius-level IQ is frequently mentioned, but her intelligence is rarely on display. One of the first things we see her do is get into a car, and later onto a plane, with a suspicious-acting man she has just met. We learn later that there’s some mind-mojo going on, so this isn’t as dumb as it looks, but it does form our first impression of Drew and the rest of the book does little to dispel it. Her typical reaction to a problem is to whine about it, and then usually someone else solves it for her or prods her into finally taking action. She also has a bad case of “when am I going to use this in real life?” regarding her classwork, even when the practical applications of it are obvious. She has a mean streak, too. Sometimes this can help a character by keeping him or her from becoming too Generically Nice, but in Drew’s case it’s irritating because she complains about the same behaviors in others.
The premise itself is another issue. It’s incredibly sexist. All vampires are men; all Watchers are women. So, men have power and women compete to the death for the chance to serve them. As for the details of the school — can I even say this in a YA review? — it feels like a set-up for dark erotica, for something like Story of O. We’ve got beautiful young girls taken to an isolated school, where they’re trained to serve men and bullied by catsuit-wearing, whip-wielding older girls. Except it is YA, and so there’s no erotic content; there’s violence instead. Of course, a sexist set-up does not necessarily a sexist novel make; many a great work of feminist literature depicts a misogynistic society and then critiques it. Isle of Night doesn’t examine its sexism very seriously, though. Drew grumbles about the scenario, but it comes across as annoyance rather than outrage. She continues to lust after several of the men responsible for her predicament, and thinks they’ve given her a chance to blossom as a woman, and it doesn’t read like it’s meant to be Stockholm syndrome.
Wolff’s structuring of the novel doesn’t help. She frequently skips over scenes that would be interesting and tells us about them after the fact, while lingering in scenes that are less important. For example, Drew has a phobia of swimming. She is made to take swimming lessons at Watcher school, and we see her panicking in anticipation of her first dip. Then we jump to several weeks later, when it’s already happened. I would have liked to see that first encounter with her fear. This sort of thing happens several other times, too. Wolff will build up tension for something and then tell us about it in retrospect.
The excitement does pick up toward the end of the book, when Drew and some of her classmates enter a deadly combat tournament. Again we see too much of it in retrospect, though, and there’s an aspect of the fighting venue that seemed improbable to me. The real problem with the tournament, though, is that it exposes just how batpoo crazy Drew’s greatest rival is. It makes it improbable that this person would not have killed her already. They’re in a setting where no one will blink an eye if Drew “accidentally” dies one night; everyone has access to deadly weapons; and this enemy has had literally hundreds of chances to do Drew in. If this character hates Drew that much and is that maniacal, why is Drew still alive? The only answer is that the enemy isn’t very bright either.
If you want to read about teenagers trying to kill each other, I recommend Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games instead. There are better vampire novels out there too, and better mean-girls-at-boarding-school novels. I do not recommend Isle of Night.