A boy falls in love with a girl at 17, marries her at 21, and at 28 he comes home to find her and his son lying in a vast, slippery pool of their own blood. He stares at their mutilated bodies for minutes, maybe hours. Time has no dominion over him, as does everything else that comes with it. He knows who is responsible for this sickening act – the face of the man is a permanent scar in his mind. And as gradual as the sun raises its head to peek from dawn till day, life becomes meaningless. Nothing else matters now.
So, he does the honourable thing. He picks up his shotgun, ambles to his car, drives to the house of the one whose face taunts him, and murders everyone he encounters – men, women, children, even the pet dog. When he’s done, when he has the man spread-eagled beneath him, broken and torn in every way possible and not quite possible, he allows the vengeance prickling his eyes and mangling his heart to ease off. Febrile convulsions follow.
His hands are numb, so he drops his gun. His arms are heavy, so he lowers them to his sides. His legs are drained, so he sits by the door. The holes in his stomach and chest burn and weep crimson tears. His head sags right. There is a place better than this world, a place where he must go now. Living is inconsequential. Fighting the overpowering exhaustion is futile. He welcomes death like an old friend.
Just as I have now accepted that YA Paranormal is what it is and will never be what it is not. Inevitability has always been the number one rule, and I have fought this war of attrition for too long. It’s time to accept and move on.
That said, how beautiful is Beautiful Creatures?
Beautiful Creatures parades a good many characters, but first let’s focus on the stars of the show.
Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes.
Ethan is a sixteen-year-old boy. He loves his iPod. He has an absentee father, just like virtually every YA lead character today. He’s in the basket ball team, but that doesn’t mean much to him. He loves books, the complex, tome-like kind. He has the uncanny ability to describe what a girl is wearing. I don’t mean her underwear. Oh no, Ethan doesn’t think about girls’ underwear. I mean her clothes, the design, the folds, the patterns.
Video games and music that don’t include the lyrics, “Sixteen moons, sixteen years,” are for oddballs, like Link, not our dear Ethan. After all, he has better things to do. And what could be better than sixteen-year-old boy hanging out with his grand aunts. Ethan loves those old women. He enjoys every second with them.
Enter Lena Duchannes.
Misunderstood Lena Duchannes.
Lena is a caster, kind of like a witch. She’s super powerful. She can do super amazing things. She’s very pretty too, but everyone at school hates her because she’s an outsider and, yeah, she’s pretty. Ethan doesn’t care though. He’s willing to allow the basket ball team and the entire school ostracise him for this girl. He’s seen her in his dreams, like really, he has. She’s special. Plus she’s not blonde and she doesn’t have big boobs like Savannah and Emily and the other hot girls at school. Who needs hot, blonde girls? When you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, and you’re in the basket ball team and you could have a hot, blonde girl as a girlfriend, it makes more sense to turn the other way and go for the other ordinary girl.
Throughout the book, Ethan spends time with no other teenager except Lena. No need hanging with his dudes when he’s got her and Sixteen Moons thumping in his iPod. During the times they are together, they hold hands, they kiss. They whisper sweet nothings to each other. They do this mind instant messaging thing: Ethan thinks and Lena hears; Lena thinks back and Ethan hears.
They do a lot of cuddling too, even when they’re in bed. They hold hands in bed. They kiss in bed. Nothing else happens.
You’re thinking it. I’m thinking it too. So, I’ll just say it: Ethan is not queer.
I have a theory about Ethan’s real identity. At the end of the series, Ethan’s true self will serve as a huge reveal, like Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker: I am your father. Ethan will tell Lena: Lena, I’m a drag king. I don’t have a penis. That’s why I can’t have an erection around you.
You might think I’m making fun of Beautiful Creatures, but I’m not. I think this would be an awesome twist. YA needs more diverse characters, not just black people, Chinese people, little people, or Eskimos. YA needs gay people too, but not just the politically correct ones – you know, the nice boy who discovers he’s gay and hides his identity, and then falls in love with the boy next door, then realises the only way he can truly be happy is to come out of the closet, and in the end he’s voted as his school’s prom queen. YA also needs the other gays, the ones that dress up too. The ones that change their sex, like that man who got pregnant – he’s a guy but he’s a woman too. Like Ethan.
But that’s just my Ethan theory.
As much as I like twists and mind-blowing reveals, the fact of the matter is Ethan is presented as a guy in Beautiful Creatures, and he makes one hell of a lousy guy. It’s like casting Angelina Jolie as a male stripper, and she successfully fakes the baritone voice, and the walk, but there’s still something feminine about her character ... like the swell on her chest ... or how she doesn’t have an erection.
Lena is a much better character, from afar. I enjoyed seeing her through Ethan’s eyes. You have no idea how glad I was that I didn’t have to spend 500+ pages inside her head. Lena might be strong willed and brave, but she’s not emotionally invincible. The jibes and accusations lobed at her by her classmates burn, and though she stands her ground, there’s a raw vulnerability about her defensive approach. She uses poetry to soothe her anger, writing all over her hands, her bed posts, her walls, and her ceiling. If Beautiful Creatures were written from Lena’s POV it would’ve been 900 pages of super teen angst.
Her invulnerability is only tied to her human side, though. As a caster, Lena is one gigantic Mary Sue. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
There are other memorable characters in Beautiful Creatures, like Amma, who loves spelling out words whenever she wants to drive a point across. She more than makes up for Ethan’s lame dad who spends all his time in his study instead of manning up and being a father. Your wife died. So? You’ve got a kid. Shut the hell up, stop crying like a bitch, and take some goddamn responsibility over your son. Damn absentee parents. Amma’s verve is refreshing. She’s the matriarch you don’t want to mess with.
Marian sounds like she could’ve offered more, especially being Ethan’s late mother’s best friend, but like Ethan’s dad she doesn’t appear often enough in the book to manipulate my emotions.
Uncle Macon is the Dumbledore of Beautiful Creatures. Always around, but never really around, if you know what I mean; cryptic in his daily dealings. But unlike Dumbledore, Macon’s secrets suck, and he gets rather irritating before the book’s end.
Link, Ethan’s supposed best friend – I say supposed, because in 563 pages Ethan hangs out with him for like 6 times – is sort of stuck between being nobody and somebody. The only time he matters is when he tangles himself with the enigmatic, lollypop-sucking Ridley.
I loved Ethan’s grand aunts. I wouldn’t have spent as much time with them as Ethan did, but they did offer a fun read, especially when they argued, or the comments they made after they found stuff they had lost a long time ago.
If I had to pick one character as my favourite it would be Ridley. Cool, smoking hot, badass, sex appeal oozing Ridley. She wasn’t a pretend teenager like Ethan, and she served as the book’s somewhat tortured character, torn between following her evil instincts and helping her cousin, Lena.
Score: 7/10 (you can thank Ethan for knocking a point off)
Forget about Ethan and his bizarre sexual asceticism. The real character in Beautiful Creatures is the old southern town, Gatlin. A town filled with bizarre, crippled personalities.
The people of Gatlin are ignorant, annoying, old-fashioned, lame, probably racist, and quite twisted sons of bitches. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve read southern American depiction of this kind. Either there are lots of people out there who don’t like the south or the south really is this way.
There is a scene where Lena gets really upset and her powers activate and shatters the window near her. Normally, you would expect a reaction like: who broke the window? But in Gatlin, it's: she broke the window. I saw her do it when she walked by.
Someone questions this logic: but she hasn't got blood on her hands.
A sharp, irritated reply: what are you, CSI? She tried to kill us!
From there, the whole town wages a personal vendetta on Lean - parents, teachers, students - everyone. It's ridiculous, but - hey - it's Gatlin.
In the world of Beautiful Creatures there are casters, witches as I explained, and Lena is one of them. Unfortunately, Lena is also, like I explained, a very, super awesome powerful caster, with little to no limits on her powers, which makes me believe Beautiful Creatures has no rigid magic system. Or maybe it does, but I honestly couldn't make heads or tails of it. One minute, Lena is breaking a small window, the next she’s walking through fire, making snow fall, and freezing time.
Then there’s The Book of Moons, an excuse for Admiral Deus Ex Machina to make an impromptu appearance whenever things get too tough for our heroes. Apparently, it is the most powerful caster book in the universe, and now it belongs to the most powerful caster in the universe. Gee. Why do we need a sequel?
But it’s not all bad. The authors were able to take some popular supernatural creatures and tweak them for the better. I was absolutely impressed when I discovered Uncle Macon’s true identity and his fascination with dreams.
The whole claiming-on-your-sixteenth birthday was a nice touch, particularly with the way the book ended.
The authors, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, make a remarkable writing team. I know they know this. In fact, I know they’re so in love with each other’s writing that neither of them could tell the other to stop rambling and get on with it.
Too much rambling in this book, I tell you. There’s just no way to justify Beautiful Creatures’ length – 563 pages, significantly less than 300 of which make up the main plot, and the others, just rambling upon rambling. Ethan rambles. Christ. Jibber-jabber, jibber-jabber, Jibber-bloody-jabber.
On the bright side, the authors were capable of representing Gatlin in all its glory. Forget all that negative stuff I said about the town; it might be a weird place, but it’s still a well-written weird place. I’m not sure calling Gatlin weird is even a criticism. I think Gatlin was always meant to be weird.
Kami and Margaret might score a B in descriptive writing, but their efforts only garner a D in dialogue. The dialogue writing in Beautiful Creatures is inconsistent at best. Sometimes it’s good. Other times – most times – it’s just laugh out loud.
Though I’ve never been a fan of written accents, I thought the authors conveyed an authentic southern drawl when Amma and Ethan’s grand aunts spoke.
(Do note I am not an American. The closest I’ve ever come to a hearing a southern talk is on TV. I might be wrong about the accuracy of Beautiful Creatures’ southern lingo).
Unfortunately, the authors go on commit the heinous crime we writers call “monologuing”. The villains talk and talk and talk and explain. The heroes listen and listen and listen and reply back.
Beautiful Creatures’ dialogue problem is further exacerbated by most of its characters’ inability to shut up and move on, always repeating themselves, over and over, like a bunch of three-year-olds pestering mummy and daddy for ice cream until mummy and daddy are fed up and lock them up in the basement. To illustrate, here’s how a typical conversation between Ethan and Uncle Macon enfolds:
Ethan: Tell me the truth. Tell me everything I need to know to save Lena.
Uncle Macon: You don’t understand. You wouldn’t understand. Telling you the truth will destroy everything. I’m trying to protect you.
Ethan: We need to save Lena! The only way to do that is if you tell me the truth.
Uncle Macon: I love Lena, but I’m trying to protect her.
Ethan: You just don’t care about Lena.
Uncle Macon: I care more than you know. I’m trying to protect her.
By this time you think the conversation has ended, cos as we can see Uncle Macon has made it quite clear he’s not telling Ethan anything.
Ethan: Still, dude, just tell me the truth. Come on!
Uncle Macon: The truth will set us all free, but I won’t do it. It’s for Lena’s protection.
The funny thing is the so-called truth Uncle Macon keeps evading isn’t as earth-shattering or life-threatening to Lena as is implied. Certainly not something he couldn’t have told her before the big battle. Hell, if he had told her the truth she would have been more prepared to face her enemy.
I don’t know why too many YA authors employ this plotting technique. The problem with it is it could blow up in your face. When a character goes to great lengths in explaining that he’s keeping a secret to protect another character, that secret better be bigger than the universe when it’s revealed, or it’s going to one anti-climatic mess.
Ethan dreams about a girl. He meets her at school. Her name is Lena. He finds out she’s a caster. They fall in love, deeply in love. But it turns out their love story might be fleeting, because on Lena’s sixteenth birthday, which is fast approaching, she will be claimed. Getting claimed is a nifty way of saying she will turn good or evil against her will. She’s certain she’s going to turn evil. So she and Ethan search for a way to ensure she remains good.
There’s nothing wrong with this plot. What’s wrong is its execution.
When I started Beautiful Creatures I loved it. Halfway through, I kept it aside (not out of boredom) and got my hands on Justin Cronin’s The Passage. I think that’s part of what ruined Beautiful Creatures for me. I went on to read Cronin’s masterpiece and came back to Beautiful Creatures, sort of like watching Casino Royale halfway, watching the whole of Inception, and expecting to enjoy the rest of Casino Royale afterwards.
You see, Beautiful Creatures should have been more than this. It had that spark that should’ve lit up the sky, but only flared a bit. Too many pointless scenes got in the way. The plot would flow smoothly for a while then Ethan and Lena would go off at a tangent, doing stuff that had no connection with the main plot. Nothing wrong with that, except the authors wasted too much time deviating from the main plot, to the extent that I didn’t remember some of the earlier major plot clues when I got to the end of the book. So, rather than the reveals and twists exploding before my eyes, they deflated like punctured bicycle tires.
Characters like Ridley, Larkin, and even the big, bad villain, were ruined by the very people who created them. These characters started off great, promised excitement, and delivered less than expected of them, certainly less than they were capable of delivering. Pity. Reminds me of The Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (Video Game); there’s a scene where the prince, having realised the gravity of his error, says “I am the architect of my own destruction.”
I liken Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl to amazing painters, who after producing a masterpiece pick up knives and puncture holes in their art, and then put it out for an exhibition.
Beautiful Creatures, The Forrest of Hands and Teeth and The Demon’s Lexicon all have one thing in common: they feature excellent premises and are written by excellent writers, but in the end they all crumble like shattered, eleven-foot high Lego bricks, in their quest for greatness. (Wait. That's three things.)
Why? How? I have no idea.
I’m done with Forest, but I haven’t given up on Lexicon and Beautiful Creatures.
For those of you looking for a YA book with a real male lead character, look elsewhere. If you’re a girl (or a rather strange boy) looking for Twilight Romance, you know, all the touch, touch, touch, kiss, kiss, kiss, no sex, then Beautiful Creatures is perfect for you.
Final Score: 8/10