TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Beautiful Creatures," released in 2009, is the first book in the "Caster Chronicles." So, yes, if you're thinking paranormal romance trilogy — just like every teen novel out there today! — you would, in a sense, be correct. But thankfully "Beautiful Creatures" isn't just like every other teen novel around; it has a male protagonist (woot!), a lushly detailed Southern setting, a pervading sense of family, a bevy of Civil War references, and an intriguing cast of secondary characters. To me, it reads more like a Southern gothic novel than generic teen paranormal fiction … and that's a very good thing.
We're in the tiny town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where 16 year old Ethan Wate lives with his grieving father (mom died last year in an accident) and nanny / housekeeper / cook / surrogate mother Amma. Dad spends most of his time locked in his study, so Ethan must deal with his pain on his own, with a stern yet loving hand from Amma. Ethan is a popular basketball star with a charmingly goofy wannabe rock star best friend, Link. Gatlin's restrictiveness — people's roots go back hundreds of years, causing some very fixed opinions and outlooks — frustrates Ethan, who longs to get away from a place where everyone knows (and judges) everyone else.
Enter Lena Duchannes, the niece of eccentric loner Macon Ravenwood, who moves into town. Macon owns the last surviving plantation house in Gatlin — also named Ravenwood — but is never seen around town. Macon is a ghost, a whisper, an eternal source of gossip, the kind of spooky outsider reviled in a small town. (Heh … clearly, Macon understands this; his dog is named Boo Radley!) Lena drives Macon's hearse, and with her curly black hair, Converse sneakers, and overloaded charm necklace, she's as different as possible from her prim Southern belle classmates.
Ethan is immediately drawn to Lena, because, among other things, he's been dreaming about her for months. Before he ever met her. When Ethan discovers that Lena has been dreaming about him, too, Ethan begins to learn just how different Lena and her family are. Turns out Lena is a Caster — in the simplest terms, a kind of witch — while Uncle Macon is an Incubus who feeds on hope and dreams. Members of Lena's family are claimed light or dark when they turn 16, which for Lena is mere months away. Lena's impending Claiming freaks her out — cousin Ridley went to the dark side and is an evil siren now — so as Ethan and Lena become closer, he spends a lot of time reassuring her that she will be claimed light. Admittedly, this becomes a wee bit tedious. But Ethan also helps Lena research other methods of avoiding her Claiming, including an old family locket that transports the two back to the Civil War, when neighboring plantation Greenbrier was burned by Union soldiers. Throw in a creepily foreboding song, the shadowy Book of Moons, Macon's erratic behavior, Amma's secret powers, Link falling under Ridley's spell, Mom's messages from beyond the grave, a shocking betrayal, and a hidden supernatural library, and you've got a textured, lively story that goes way beyond the "boy loves supernatural" trope.
Speaking of which, Ethan — the boy! — is our narrator here, which is so unbelievably rare in a teen novel, let alone a teen paranormal novel, that I'm still kind of shocked. In a good way! Co-authors Garcia and Stohl absolutely nail a teen guy's voice, and they perfectly portray the quiet rules of male friendship in developing Ethan and Link's relationship. They also make Ethan believably strong yet vulnerable in his burgeoning romance with Lena. I really dug how hard it was for Ethan to express his feelings for Lena, even when they were so ridiculously obvious. His hesitation and uncertainty rang true.
I loved the precise details of the Southern setting, including Amma's decadent food; the smells (rosemary and lemons figure prominently in the story); the local traditions, including a Civil War reenactment; the courtly manners; and the unique use of language. The setting grounded this magical story, adding layers to the plot and shading the characters — many of whom have their own Southern quirks — in believable ways. Indeed, the minor characters, including Ethan's batty great aunts and a whip smart, empathetic librarian, give the book a depth and vitality that often make the words leap off the page.
My only complaint is that I was a bit let down by the ending. After spending hundreds of pages creating three-dimensional characters, suddenly the authors have them acting like complete knuckleheads in service of the plot. (Fiercely protective Uncle Macon is easily duped, Ethan constantly does the wrong thing, powerful Lena suddenly becomes weak and cowering … huh?) The authors' use of a Claiming "loophole" also frustrated me, as it seemed like a contrivance to justify another book in the series. Since I've just started the sequel, "Beautiful Darkness," I guess I'll find out if I'm being too harsh on this point.
I absolutely recommend "Beautiful Creatures" to fans of paranormal romances, as well as those looking for an intriguing, rich story of Southern life, family, loss, and love. This book is remarkably clean, so unless you're put off by the magical elements, I'd say older middle schoolers should be fine. And please don't be turned off by the book's considerable length. Truly, the pages fly by. Enjoy!