Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: Companions of the Night, Vivian Vande Velde

A trip to the laundromat in the middle of the night lands Kerry in what seems to be a gang war. But it's no gang that has a young man, Ethan, tied up and beaten; they're self-professed vampire-hunters and they insist Ethan is a vampire. Assuming they're all mad and this poor boy is about to die right before her eyes, Kerry helps Ethan escape, setting in motion a series of events that put her and her family in danger from vampires and vampire-hunters alike.

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."


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.
*Spoilers in comments!*


  1. I never finished this. I started reading it in seventh grade and lost it somewhere in the middle. Thank you for reminding me :) And great review.

  2. I was thinking about your recent post about dumb books when I wrote this review. I think you'd like it!

  3. I never knew anyone else knew about this book. And a hardcover first edition. That must be lovely. I love The Changeling Prince by her, sad it never came out in hardcover. Wonderful review.

  4. Heather, I've never read any of her other stuff so I'll look that up now, thanks.

  5. I wish I could say I felt the same way about the book as you did but... I'm one of those people who felt the ending was unsatisfying. Don't hurt me! *hides* I really enjoyed the book but the ending had me thinking, "I want moooooore! Please don't go Ethan!!!" @_@;

  6. But that's what's so good about it Sandy/PPenguin!!

  7. Awesome. I'll have to try this one out. I like your summary of what makes a book great. I would agree with your assessment.

  8. I've only read one Vivian Vande Velde book, and it's a favorite. Thinking I should check this one out...(though I am *very* tired of vampires right now. All kinds.)

    Nice review!

  9. I know I've read something by this author, a *very* long time ago, and I'm almost certain this isn't it. (Yep, that's how long ago it was. Scary.) Either way, I really want to read this now. I've been on a vampire hiatus until this week when I picked up My Love Lies Bleeding, and this one is intriguing me because it sounds so well written. If I'm getting back into vamps I need quality not quantity, and you can't get much better a recommendation than 'perfect'.