Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.I don’t know what it is about Holly Black. I’m fairly confident that in literally any other author’s hands, a great deal of this book would have had me rolling my eyes right out of my head, but something about this book just…worked for me. I warped back to a time many a year ago when this genre and its tropes were all fresh and new and exciting to me, when I was an easily-pleased twelve-year-old girl sitting on her bed reading LJ Smith for the first time, with warm fuzzies and bated breath.
One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.
So, while I’m aware that there are issues, and while I can’t quite ID why some of these tropes and characters work for me here when I’ve scathingly dismissed similar premises elsewhere, I just can’t bring myself to hate on this book. I really enjoyed my time with it, and that like literally almost never happens.
I NEED THIS OK?
One of the biggest things that Coldtown had in its favor, for me, was that I rarely had any idea where it was going. There’s not any immediately distinguishable plotline – no Meeting the Supernatural True Love in School, no Secret Princess/Chosen One, no Murder Mystery – and that in itself is incredibly refreshing. Like, I didn’t even realize how refreshing that would be, to not have to endure another fucking cliche-ridden recycled plotline that I’ve read a thousand times before, until I started Coldtown*. IN THIS FAMILIAR WORLD THAT I TRAVEL, THERE STILL EXIST MYSTERIES TO BE DISCOVERED~~~~
*okay so it gets a whole lot more familiar in the last third or so of the book but I’ll get to that in a moment.Rather than relying on one of the four Approved Genre Romance Plots to get us through, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown sets its focus on Tana, our heroine, as she emerges from one really shitty party with a simple goal: stay human. That’s it. That’s all she wants, that’s all she needs to do to win the game, that’s her pursuit through almost the entire book, and yet it’s enough to drive us through three different settings, dozens of characters, and ultimately keep us pretty invested in and compelled by the story. Tana’s journey is FULL of complications and setbacks and moments when the thing she needs most slips right through her fingers, and I cared about 400x more during any one of those moments than I have in the last fourteen books I’ve read combined.
In worse hands, a story like this could be really meandering – the setting shifts frequently, and since you have no idea what the overall plot arc is going to be, it’s difficult to use that to gauge progress. BUT, because Tana’s goal is so simple, and Tana almost always has some sort of plan to achieve it, the story manages to feel tight? It’s not like she wanders around for days without knowing what she’s doing. She’s always on her way from point A to point B, always following through on a plan, the plan just gets…revised a lot xD.
The story is roughly split into three separate parts with three different feels: it begins with a short, vampire-complicated road trip, followed by a difficult-to-categorize bridging bit introduces us to Coldtown, and transitions from the roadtrip to the big damn vampire political/revenge scheme, which serves as the climax.
Of the three, I actually enjoyed the road trip most, though it’s not particularly fun for the characters. As a reader, though, it serves as a great stretch of world-exploration and development, which I appreciate, because what Holly Black has created here is super intriguing. Coldtown, like her Curse Workers series, has this very distinct “alternate reality” vibe – it’s not an underground world of monsters only select people know about, it’s not some fantasy kingdom that never was, it’s not the distant future we’ll never see, it is HERE, it is NOW, but different. It feels grounded, and lived-in, and like this is what the world could be like under these circumstances. It feels real, and that’s something that I find incredibly rare in YA.
Tana’s America is post-apocalyptic/mid-apocalyptic/at a stalemate with its apocalypse and also adjusted to it. The vibe here is more “outbreak movie” than “dystopia”, and vampirism is treated like a plague rather than a supernatural occurrence. Though vampires have always existed, they only became known to the public ten years prior to the start of the story, after a single vampire carelessly spread the disease, causing breakouts in a few major cities. The government couldn’t cure or stop the rapid spread, so they decided to contain it instead, walling off the areas most badly affected, and largely abandoning the people left inside – vampire and human.
Outside the Coldtowns, life goes on relatively normally, except that people avoid going out after sunset, hang garlic and holy relics in their windows, learn about vampires in school, and are urged by authorities and PSAs to turn in any loved ones infected with vampirism, because outside the Coldtowns, vampires are illegal. Inside, the walled-off cities are run-down and barely maintained, with people scavenging for food and squatting in abandoned houses, but the population and blood supply remains stable thanks to a steady influx of people in search of ~immortal life~.
It’s kind of brilliant, I gotta say. I love the idea, I love the execution, I love the touches Black adds to make the world feel altered and adapted to – there’s a scene with a vampire education assembly staged like an anti-drug rally, to discourage kids from turning to vampirism. On their road trip, our MCs stay briefly at a vampire-themed mall-like mega truckstop brimming with shops and merchandise. People are admitted into Coldtowns with a vaguely hostile but mundane bureaucracy. It’s great, because we see enough of the world outside to put the vampires and their cities in a larger context. You don’t really have to wonder how any of it functions or co-exists, because you see it.
I think Black also does a good job of addressing the vampires in a social context, without resorting to the True Blood-esque trick of appropriating civil rights movements or language, which can be a problem. We’re not inundated with any sort of single anti-vampire agenda as we are given varied reactions. We see the disgusted glares the cashier at the flashy Coldtown truckstop shop gives fetishizing travellers; the cautioning lecture given at the education assembly; the brother and sister fanatical bloggers who romanticize vampires and want to live forever; the running reference to a Dog the Bounty Hunter-like tv show in which a man executes vampires outside of Coldtowns; Tana’s little sister Pearl’s obsession with the live feeds of glamorous parties that thrive within the quarantined cities and have turned good-looking vampires into celebrities, posters plastered on teenage girl’s walls; they’re all bits and pieces that show us how society has reacted to the presence of vampires.
I really liked that Black didn’t have an anti- or pro-vampire dynamic here. She neither glamorizes nor demonizes them through the narrative. Tana, especially, was a welcome relief in that she was actually kind of neutral on the whole concept. She didn’t fall in starry-eyed love with one and daydream about the super special AWESOMENESS of living forever or having powers, plus she fought tooth and nail to keep her humanity when it was in danger of slipping away. She’s wary of vampires; there’s lingering, instinctive mistrust and fear, and the question of how much of the “human” remains in the vampire post-transition comes up often. But she doesn’t hate them, either, she doesn’t see them all as monsters to be slain. So there’s…understanding for the vampires in-story, but also nice little meta jabs at the over-romanticization of them in the genre.
Yeahhhh, like that.
GRANTED, GRANTED, most of the time she is surrounded by dudes, and one of which is a love interest, but I’ll get to that.
I just liked Tana. I liked that she did shit, I liked that she had plans, I liked that she had fucking agency, that she made decisions, that she cared about people, and that she fought for them. But mostly, I liked that she fought for herself.
I feel like I should also mention that there are mountains of side characters that Tana meets along her journey, most of whom are quite diverse, which is…kind of a plus-negative. On the one hand, yeah, our MCs are straight, white (I’m like 90% sure), and cis (except for Aidan, who is bi). Most of the diversity is on the sidelines, and I do feel like they kind of got shafted in that department. There were some side characters who had the potential to be really awesome, but most of what we see them do was all in relation to helping Tana. While they do get a little development, they don’t really have their own subplots, which is a shame. I would have liked to see a lot more from them.
On the upside, this is the first YA book I’ve ever come across that actually had a trans character, and while admittedly I’m not an expert on the portrayal of trans people, it seemed pretty solid. She’s not Othered, she doesn’t die (thank god, I was half-expecting it and these kids drop like flies), and in fact, the last time we see her, she seems like she’s on the road to her own happy ending with the boy she loves, who also pretty clearly cares for her. That’s pretty huge for YA, and she seemed important enough that I could see her and her boyfriend maybe playing a bigger part in the sequel that I really hope is in the pipeline please please please.
So yeah, in general, the characters worked for me, even the archetypes *cough*Gavriel*cough* that usually don’t, and if I had to guess, I would probably say that it is DEFINITELY 100% BECAUSE OF FUCKING CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.
In the midst of the story proper, we get the usual Holly Black Characterization – one chapter will end on a cliffhanger, and the next will open on some flashback meant to flesh the story or character out. While I can see where this might annoy some readers – it’s certainly a noticeably repetitive technique – I honestly didn’t mind too much, because, well, it works. It gives us a sense of who these character are and why they act the way they do, and it’s certainly better than relating all of this shit in dialogue or extended info dumps, I tell you what. I’ll take character development where I can get it, thank you, and unlike some other run-ins I’ve had with this sort of flashback characterization, I didn’t feel like the memories were ever non-sequitur or meaningless. They almost always tied in to a character’s feelings or contributed to exploring their mental state, or added to a running theme.
Now all that being saaaiiiiid, it was not 100% puppies and roses with this book all the time, despite how it may seem.
SPOILERS AHEAD, YO
I’ll admit, after more than half a book off the beaten path in terms of the kind of story that was being told, I was reluctant to get back on it. Suddenly there’s one particular character being presented as the big bad to beat, the threat of political upheaval and world-affecting consequences, blah blah. I was concerned that we’d fall right back in to the dramatic paranormal romance cliches that the book had thus far pretty much avoided.
It turned out…okay. I feel like Gavriel as a character was sort of the trope convergence for the book – his background, his personality type, his role, his plotline, the characters that went along with it, while all better fleshed out than usual, were still unwelcome cliches in a previously cliche-less book. The revenge plot worked out well enough, in fact probably better than it would have in most books that were completely about that sort of thing, but I guess what I’m saying is that in a book that starts off as good as Coldtown does, and is as intimate in scope as Coldtown is…to end up coming to this sort of actiony conclusion is a little disappointing. I was kind of hoping for something…more unique, I guess.
This is probably the nit-pickiest I’ve ever had to get for a book review, btw. “Oh the rest of the book was awesome but this part just wasn’t as awesome”, FLAIL.
However, I AM at sort of a crossroads regarding the relationship between Gavriel and Tana. On the one hand, I liked Gavriel, I did. Though initially he spoke in such a goofy, off-putting way I had difficulty taking him seriously, ultimately he was sort of weirdly charming, and the book was wonderfully frank about him. It was like “Yep, he’s killed people, yep, he had a bad past, but he’s still done bad shit, and yeah, he might feel bad about some of it, but that won’t stop him from doing it again.” I can appreciate that.
And not gonna lie, the sexual tension between him and Tana was thick, ok, and their scenes together were pretty hot.
BUT there is the whole squick and twee factor of hundreds-year-old-vampire-falls-for-teenage-girl. And he does fall for her. I was hoping it’d stay light and ambiguous, just a mutual attraction or lust or admiration. In fact, when he departed about halfway through the book, I hoped he would just stay gone. I mean, I knew he wouldn’t because why would he even be there if that were the case, but I hoped that it would just be…an experience. BUT NOPE. He reappears and eventually declares his love for Tana, because she “saved him” when no one else ever had, and while I can appreciate the significance of that, especially for a not-all-there, traumatized vampire, it’s like, augh.
Love? Love? Really? For the teenage human girl? Did we haaaaaaaaaaaaave to go there?
It feels like a concession to the genre, like okay, it’s paranormal romance, we can do cool weird stuff for most of the book, but we have to include this twee romance aspect because that’s what we’re here for, I guess.
On the upside, while Tana does end up having feelings for him, she never declares her love, nor does relent at the last minute and give up her humanity for him. That’s kind of huge – she doesn’t alter her plans to revolve around him, they don’t ride off into the undead sunset together to be together eternally, and he completely supports that decision.
So basically, it could have been worse.
All in all, I really enjoyed The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Yet again, Holly Black has provided a unique, memorable story, well-written characters, and a fantastically realized world. For a brief 300-someodd pages, I got to remember what I enjoyed about this genre.
Y’ALL GO OUT A BUY THIS NOW K? WE NEED A SEQUEL.