“Beautiful Darkness” illuminates

Reprinted with permission from the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor

First, a few words… Being well past my teen years and having a daughter who isn’t there yet, *shudder* I really had no interest in the YA – or young adult – literature market. Then I drank that Twilight kool-aid and the rest is history. As a result of my – er – hobby, I’ve been exposed to several other popular books in this genre and recently had the opportunity to read the first half of the “Beautiful” series for my job. Poor me – reading for a living;)

A few years ago the term “YA” would have been lost on me, but I now know it’s the fast growing genre of books geared toward teenagers – or young adults as they prefer to be called. Now this market is populated with titles such as “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” which have blurred the lines of popularity, being read and loved by all ages.
Joining the supernatural YA party last year was the novel “Beautiful Creatures.” It was followed up a few weeks ago by the highly anticipated “Beautiful Darkness.” I read both to see what all the fuss was about and was beautifully enchanted.

The magical universe found in “Creatures” and “Darkness” was conjured by two good friends, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. In the imaginary town of Gatlin, South Carolina, the biggest excitement revolves around Civil War reenactments and pie-baking contests. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate was biding his time at Jackson High until he could escape after graduation. The new arrival at the beginning of his sophomore year changes everything, including his perspective of the backward little southern town his family had called home for generations.

Lena Duchannes is like nothing Gatlin has ever seen. She’s beautiful and quirky, deeper and more complex than the belles who rule the school. She’s also been haunting Ethan’s dreams before they even meet. Once they do — and inevitably fall in love — he finds out Lena is a Caster, ensconced in a family of other Casters and mythical creatures. The word caster refers to spells, a good euphemism because no one wants to introduce their new girlfriend as a witch.

“Beautiful Creatures” guides the reader on Ethan and Lena’s journey into love, magic and danger as Lena approaches her penultimate sixteenth birthday. It is then that her fate as a Caster is decided – she could go Dark or Light and I don’t mean her hair color. Her fate is inexorably tied to those around her and “Creatures” leaves us with tragedy and more questions as Gatlin’s secrets are slowly revealed.

The sequel opens with Ethan fervently hoping the changes in Lena’s mystical world won’t affect their strong, yet complicated bond, but of course there wouldn’t be a very long book without conflict and more danger.

Ethan’s hometown turns out to be even more cloaked in secrets than he could have imagined. People he’s known all his life have dimensions he must accept no matter how contrary they are to his long held perceptions. Even without the element of magic, this is something that teenagers struggle with every day. It’s always a shock to find out there is a person behind the name Mom or Dad – a person with loves, losses, secrets – a person with history.

The mother lost to Ethan before the series takes place is that person for him, and revelations about her and others in his family rock Ethan’s world as he fights to save Lena from herself.

The “Beautiful” series wins my praise for several reasons, one of the biggest being that it never talks down to its audience. Ethan is smart and so are many of the characters in his world, but there is nothing geeky or awkward about his intelligence. He accepts that there are bigger, better things waiting outside of Gatlin for him without a sense of arrogance.

Also, I was surprised to discover the stories – written by two women – were almost exclusively from Ethan’s perspective. They infused his voice with telltale male references without falling to stereotypes, thus making him believable and immensely likable.

One of the most interesting characters is Gatlin, the town itself. Although both authors now reside in California, there is a love of the south woven through the words of both books. Sometimes it mocks and teases, but with an underlying affection that makes me want to try fried green tomatoes.

“Beautiful Darkness” ties up some loose ends while unraveling many more. Fortunately there are two more books in the series which will publish over the next two years. There are some dark themes and violence in the books that may be too strong for sensitive, younger readers, but none of it is graphic or gratuitous. I recommend it for that coveted YA demographic as well as adults who like a good southern romance without the bodice ripping.

Besides creating a magical place with fascinating people, these books are extremely well written — never talking over or under the reader’s head. Start with “Beautiful Creatures” and you’ll soon want to add some magic to your shelf with “Beautiful Darkness.”