Back when Dante was imagining the circles of hell, they hadn’t invented high school. Otherwise, there would have been a special place devoted to cliques and pimples and headgear. They say that college is where you learn independence; high school is where you learn to survive.
Not that the heroine of Serena Robar’s young adult novel, Braced2Bite, has any problems with the high school scene. She’s the top of the cheerleader pyramid, an honors student, and gunning for the man of her dreams. Okay, so she’s also a vampire, no, half-vampire. Genealogy is a tricky thing.
After being turned by a vampire, Colby Blanchard discovers some strange things about her new life. One is that she’s able to walk in the sunshine (albeit with a very, very high SPF). Second, due to an overly helpful orthodontist father, she has a perfect smile but no fangs (luckily, he’s both dentist and inventor). Third, half-vampires are not accepted in vamp society, and she’s got to prove her right to exist or die.
At the hands of a really cute vampire exterminator.
So while facing a potential death sentence despite being dead, Colby is also dealing with an off-balance Creator trying to bring her into his “family”. After being dumb enough to walk down a dark path alone at night, she’s smart enough to resist his overtures. There’s a nice push-me, pull-you feeling to the scenes between Colby and “Chuck”. Okay, enough with the air quotes already.
Colby Blanchard is the type of girl you love to hate. Life comes a little too easy for her – and that might be the greatest flaw of this novel. While Robar has dark elements in the story, Colby’s successes are easily achieved. Sure, you can argue that it’s a young adult novel, but when you’re turned into a vampire, issues arise. Colby is one of those resilient characters that you want to see hit the ground a bit harder. She can take it and the reader needs it.
After a little misdirected conflict with her father, Colby’s family is remarkably comfortable with her undead state. I don’t mind this shoulder shrugging approach when the world-building includes vampire-cogniscent neighborhoods. Let’s just say that despite the presence of conveniently informed great aunt – wherein the author all but puts flares around a connection between Blanchard generations and the vampires, but our character miss – the Blanchard world is far removed from vampire-aware.
Colby takes her undead state in stride, more like yellow eyes and a thirst for blood are hurdles to overcome than a major life change. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been dead, but I’d expect a lot more worrying and freaking out. Her transition is a little too smooth – the combined effects of a short novel and author style. Given the presence of dark forces in Seattle (of all places), I wanted a lot more grounding in this world. Even a self-assured, college-bound, knows-she’s-too-cute-for-school girl needs to falter.
Especially when her (undead) life is on the line. This is a book that would have benefited from increased word count. So much is happening. Robar shoves a romance into the mix, a sweet, tension-filled scenario that requires far more time and development than it gets. Then there’s Colby’s rivalry with a Goth-chick who calls her “Cheese”. And Colby’s lust-object football player crush being implicated in her attack because she’d told everyone he was driving her home the night she met up with the vamp. Even the relationship between Colby and her next-door neighbor (former best friend, now grown apart) Piper needed more development.
I wanted to savor these elements, and I believe really good young adult fiction succeeds when characters and stories feel real and universal. Let’s face it: being a vampire isn’t really the worst thing that could happen to a teenager, not when you still have to deal with competitive cheerleaders and college interviews. The easy resolution of the conflict in this story makes it feel fleeting. This is a book you read for a few hours’ diversion, not something you pick up time and again. Scaling the story back or adding pages would have been my choices. What? I can’t offer helpful advice?
Robar’s writing style is light and accessible (I’m giving her extra credit for her spot-on acknowledgments page) but not necessarily deep. She skims along the surface emotions, choosing humor over complexity. There are moments, such as when Colby and her friend Piper investigate the apparent murder of another victim of Colby’s Creator, that rise above the fast-paced banter and show unexpected depth. Colby’s sharp-edged humor shines when she’s pushed to the edge when Thomas, love interest and Vampire Investigator, demands that she show her non-existent fangs. There was a special edge there that made me sit up and take notice.
Somehow, I caught a series on the first book – it looks like the next story moves Colby to college and sorority life. Serena Robar shows flashes of insight and quirky humor throughout this book, enough that I can see her potential to find a real groove in this genre. I know debut novels don’t necessarily define a career, and I think this is an author I’ll keep on my radar. I have contacts in her target audience who read voraciously, and, yes, I’m vain enough to feel pride when they think I’m cool because I can recommend fun new books.