It's time to get out my Zimmer frame out, put on my crotchety grandma-voice and say "When I was young, vampires were vampires and girls knew how to handle them!" We had "bit lit" in my day too, and this book is one of the genre's finest examples.
Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde was published in 1995. I would have gotten to it around 1998 when I was fourteen, and I loved it. I reread it yesterday while at the beach and I am extraordinarily happy to say that that I got even more enjoyment out of it this time around. (I recently hunted down a first edition hardback. It's sitting beside me in all it's gold-embossed glory and shall find its home next to my extra special edition of Lord of the Flies in the Pretty, Pretty section of my bookshelves.)
This book is what I call a perfect novel, which is how Peter Carey describes Helen Garner's The Spare Room (2008). In my opinion, a perfect novel tells you what you need to know and no more; it's purpose is to both entertain and provoke; it's set over just a handful of days or weeks, and is necessarily brief; there is just enough back story and no drawn out ending, but the reader can "see" the characters' pasts and futures; it is lyrical and evocative without tying itself up in elaborate language or metaphor; between the lines, the author is conveying great meaning: the book is more than the sum of its parts.
A perfect novel is complex simplicity. But even more important than that, it is a representation of reality, of how the author believes things to be.
This is all rather grand to say about a piece of YA vamp fiction. I'm making Companions of the Night sound like some painfully self-conscious piece of literatshaah, and it isn't. This is a very fun and exciting adventure book; but on top of that, Vande Velde raises very important questions about responsibility, lies, and life and death.
While I love it when authors raise Important Questions and such, I also like it when my heroine isn't dafter than dust. Kerry Nowicki breaks that awful dichotomy between weapons-drawn kickass-machine and colourless rescue-me maiden. Vande Velde borrows heavily from the girl-next-door trope to create Kerry, but it's done with sensitivity and intelligence.
Then there's the vampire. Ethan is manipulative and a brilliant actor--as you'd expect from someone who's had to pretend to be human for centuries. He's an accomplished liar and rational to the point of callousness; scornful of humans but fascinated by them at the same time; hedonistic, secretive and capricious. He's not mopey or Mysteriously Drawn to anyone or insufferably romantic and Tortured. If vampires were real, they'd be like Ethan Byrne.
I know some people find the end of this book unsatisfying. To these people I say phooey! There was only one way to end this book that didn't compromise the characters or throw the author's intentions out the window. In my opinion, it's perfect and also deliciously open-ended.
Companions of the Night is an excellent book that uses monsters--both human and otherwise--to examine what humanity is. Comparing it to the books of the current vampire craze created by Stephenie Meyer is an interesting exercise; in contrast, the vampire craze of my YA years was created by Anne Rice--who wrote of a thoroughly different species of vampire.
The laundry owner grabbed hold of Kerry's shoulders and shook her. "You don't understand," he said to her. "He isn't human. He isn't alive."*Spoilers in comments!*
Kerry was looking at Sidowski, but the own said, "Him," nodding toward the boy.
"What?" she repeated.
"He's a vampire," the owner answered. "One of the living dead. He kills people to feed on their blood."
Their prisoner shook his head, wearing an expression of horror on his face that probably mirrored her own.
Roth took him roughly by the jaw, forcing back his lips to reveal canine teeth that were slightly longer and sharper than normal but certainly nothing to get alarmed about.
A vampire, Kerry thought. They think he's a vampire and they're hoping very hard that I'm not one, too.
It wasn't enough to step into the middle of what looked to be a ritual execution between rival gangs or druggies or international terrorists. She had to fall into a next of grade-A crazies.