Vampire Academy
by Richelle Mead, fantasy (2007)
Razorbill Books, $8.99, ISBN 978-1-59514-174-3


Vampire Academy is the first book in Richelle Mead's young adult series for Razorbill. However, it is quite similar in terms of style to her fabulous debut Succubus Blues: strong female characters, strong canon building, and a story that sucks me in and won't let go. The only difference here is that the main characters are 17 and still in school, but don't let your twelve-year old daughter fool you into happily buying this book for her upcoming birthday surprise. This book does not shy away from sex even if there is a lack of explicit sex scenes here and the phrase "blood whore" is bandied around quite often.

In this Beverley Hills 90210-meets-Heavenly Creatures story, there are vampires around the place. Ah, but vampires here, called the Moroi, are mortals well-versed in elemental magic. Each Moroi specializes in magic from one of schools of air, fire, water, and earth. Dhampirs are half-human, half-vampire hybrids. However, some Moroi and even dhampirs can choose to pull a Darth Vader and turn to the dark side - they become the Strigoi, immortal villainous creatures who sacrifice their elemental magic and become the typical sunlight-allergic bad vampires we all know. A Strigoi may have lost his or her elemental powers but what a Strigoi gains in return is enough to make the Moroi lose spectacularly in the ongoing battle between the Moroi and the Strigoi.

To give themselves a fighting chance, the Moroi have dhampirs called most imaginatively guardians to watch their back. A Moroi is like an elf in generic fantasy canon - skinny, pale, weak, and most annoying. The dhampir is the human in the generic fantasy canon - the underdog who is physically tougher than the elf but we all know these humans all secretly yearn to be elves. Or in this case, the Moroi. And therefore, this makes the Strigoi the drows of generic fantasy canon. Every other reader eventually begins to root for the drows to kill all the annoying elves in the land and I suspect that I will be no different when it comes to the Strigoi and the Moroi.

Which brings us to our heroines. Princess Vasilisa Drogomir is the sole living child of one of the five ruling Moroi families and her best friend is our narrator, the dhampir guardian-in-training Rosemarie Hathaway. When our story opens, Lissa and Rose have been on the run for two years now, living in the human world as normal high school kids.

Why are they running away? I'll leave that to you to find out as revealing the reason will be spoiling the story. Let's just say that events in the St Vladimir's Academy (in Montana, of all places) had led Rose to believe that she and Lissa had to get away from the Academy. These events are all tied up to Lissa's strange and mysterious gifts that could be tied to the mysterious fifth school of magic that the Academy tutors try not to let their students be aware of.

Rose and Lissa however are finally captured by the guardians of the Academy in the first chapter and are dragged back to the Academy where they have to face the consequences of their MIA as well as deal with petty teen pack politics. However, whatever it was that drove Rose to take Lissa away from the Academy still persists in the Academy. In fact, Rose will have her hands full trying to protect Lissa even as Lissa begins to explore the full extent of her mysterious powers.

Vampire Academy isn't a particularly original or groundbreaking novel as many of the elements present in this story are familiar enough if you have read or watched enough fantasy books and movies. It is how Ms Mead puts them together that makes this book work so beautifully. This is a story that, even at its slowest pacing, won't quit on me and let me put the book down. It's one of those books that I have to keep reading even if I have an inkling of where Ms Mead is taking her story towards because of Ms Mead's engaging narration.

I suspect that girls in boarding schools will love this book since we have two lead characters who are both females and yet share a very close bond to the point that Rose is called "shadow-kissed". Rose can "live" in Lissa's mind, which allows her to experience what Lissa is seeing, feeling, or doing at that moment. This is a convenient plot device for Ms Mead to allow the reader to see what Lissa is up to when she's not with Rose, the first person narrator, but the bond also creates an intimacy between the two ladies that are already made obvious in the first chapter when Rose bares her neck to allow Lissa to feed on her her. Ms Mead is aware of this lesboerotic element in this relationship of her main characters and has Rose even saying at one point that people will suspect that she and Lissa are close like that if they know that she's been feeding Lissa. But I'm sure this won't stop any readers who want to imagine that ultimately Rose and Lissa are, like, 4EVA!!!!111, of course.

There are some meat market potential for our ladies though. Lissa has her eye on Christian Ozera. If you can't tell already from that name, Christian is the emo outcast who wears black and angsts over the fact that his parents turned Strigoi before the Moroi guardians showed up and killed them before his very eyes. Meanwhile, Rose finds that her male best friend Mason is into her but she has her eyes (and more) only for her 24-year old personal guardian mentor, Dmitri Belikov. There are also the usual teen pack politics, from jealous bitches to "OMG you're a slut!" rumors spread by jocks. Here, female dhampirs like Rose are in an unfortunate position: they associate with Moroi rather than humans but no Moroi males will marry them (pedigree and all that, you know). Therefore, most dhampir offsprings are illegitimate, products of flings between careless Moroi males and dhampir women who view such flings are necessary means to keep the next generation coming. It seems that these women have two options when it comes to the Moroi: guard them or be their whores. Women who let the Moroi bite them during sex are treated like food/sex objects. Rose is aware of this and therefore her social standing takes a terrible hit when people begin whispering that she's letting Lissa and some Moroi jocks feed on her.

Seriously, if you ask me, I don't see why the dhampirs are so eager to protect these obnoxious Moroi. Just let those pansies die already! This is what makes Vampire Academy such a good read, by the way: the villains in this story are not typical villains. They are very human in so many ways. For example, the villain in this story advocates radical changes to the current ways of the Moroi, wanting the Moroi to stop being lazy pansies taking everything for granted and fight alongside their guardians to make the world a better place for the Moroi. However, as it happens, he is at the opposite end of the playing field from Rose, Lissa, and the other "good guys" and has to be stopped as a result.

By the end of the story, there is also a very real threat of Lissa turning into a Strigoi should she ever succumb to the dementia that always comes with her rare gifts. I'd say that the only morally absolute character in this story is Dmitri, and even then, he's true only to his moral code. Everyone in this story, from Rose to Lissa, has done their share of Mean Girls actions in this story. There is a delicious ambiguity when it comes to morality in this story, one which I really enjoy.

Rose is a fine character. She's tough and she's willing to do anything to protect Lissa, but she's not just a jock, as in this story there are many moments when she displays a keen sensitivity and perception when it comes to the people around her. Lissa starts out an annoying weak and helpless damsel character but she soon comes into her own as her story progresses, with her often giving back to Rose as much as she gets so their relationship isn't merely a one-sided one with Rose doing all the protecting. Dmitri is boring, unfortunately - Ms Mead will really have to give this guy some depths, maybe an explanation as to why he clings so fiercely to his personal moral code. Just what it is about the generally useless and ineffectual Moroi that is worth saving their behinds? Christian is also a stereotype, but unlike Dmitri, he is the stereotype of the outcast who will move mountains for the One Special Gal so he's actually pretty adorable as a My First Boyfriend action figure kind of fellow.

This book is not for you if you are not fond of characters who could easily be the author's own version of Jesus Christ (watch out for St Vladimir and his shadow-kissed guardian Anna) but personally I find the whole canon Ms Mead is setting up here most intriguing. I really, really want to find out more about what will happen in the future to Lissa and Rose.

Vampire Academy is a self-contained story. It's part of a series, but this book can also stand alone in the sense that the main storyline is resolved fully even as several openings for future developments in the main story arc are present by the last page. I have a problem with the fact that the last quarter or so of the story feel rushed, as if the author is trying to quickly wrap things up and huge chunks must have been left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. I also feel that Ms Mead should lay out why dhampirs feel the need to protect the Moroi in a future book, because right now it seems as if the dhampirs are being unpaid and unappreciated slaves to the Moroi. Then again, perhaps a revolution is brewing and future books will address the current situation between the Moroi and the dhampirs. Who knows?

I'm still waiting for a cool Strigoi to show up and seduce me, but for now, I'm giving this one a most deserved rating of 90.


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