Sunday, August 9, 2009

Marked: The House of Night Book 1 (book) by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

The basic setup of this book - young person finds out he/she is special and gets taken to a school for special people, only to find out that he/she is even more special than the other special students - is not original. Don't get angry at me, House of Night fans - I'm not saying I didn't like the book, I'm just saying it's not very original. I really did enjoy the book, because I like books of this type. Also, it makes it incredibly easy to come up with a list of read-alikes (at least for this first book - the later books may be a different story).

Synopsis:

All Zoey wants to do is be a normal girl, living a normal life. She wants her almost-boyfriend Heath, a handsome quarterback, to stop guzzling alcohol, and she hates what her family has become since her mother married John Heffer, who's a member of the People of Faith and expects his new family to conform to their beliefs. Although her life has its rough spots, she is not happy when the Tracker finds her at school and Marks her. Once she's been Marked, everyone around her is afraid of her, including Kayla, who Zoey thought was her best friend. The only one who doesn't automatically fear her is Heath - he seems drawn to her and she to him, although she eventually realizes that what she's really drawn to is his blood.

The people at school fear her, and her mother and stepfather want to drive Satan out of her with the help of the People of Faith. With no one else to turn to, Zoey runs to her Grandma Redbird. Grandma Redbird has never forgotten her Cherokee heritage and made sure that Zoey didn't either, teaching her various Cherokee rituals over the years. Zoey figures Grandma Redbird is accepting enough to still love her, and she'll know what to do. If something isn't done soon, if Zoey doesn't go to the House of Night, she'll grow sicker and sicker until she dies.

On her way to Grandma Redbird, Zoey hits her head and has a vision in which she meets Nyx, the vampyre Goddess, who tells her that she is special and will act as Nyx's first true Daughter of Night. When Zoey wakes up, she finds that her grandmother has taken her to the House of Night. Grandma Redbird eventually leaves, with the assurance that Zoey will be taken care of by Neferet, High Priestess of Nyx and now Zoey's mentor in the House of Night. It's already apparent that Zoey's not the average fledgling - the crescent moon tattoo that she was Marked with is completely filled in, like that of a mature vampyre. However, only Zoey knows about her meeting with the Goddess. Something compels her to keep that information a secret from Neferet.

During Zoey's tour of the House of Night, Neferet has to leave for a few minutes, and Zoey stumbles upon a female student offering a male student a blow job. It's obvious that the two have history and that not all of that history is good. The guy turns the girl down and then spots Zoey - the two of them have some kind of moment, until the female student gets pissed off and Zoey runs away. Later on during her tour, Zoey finds out that the female student is named Aphrodite (students can choose to rename themselves when they enter the House of Night, and that's the name she chose for herself). Because Aphrodite is the leader of the Dark Daughters (sort of like a combination Honor Society and sorority) and is therefore likely to become High Priestess one day, she thinks she's queen of the school, and she hates Zoey and anyone else who doesn't follow her lead.

Because vampyres don't like the sunlight (they don't burst into flames, but their eyes are extra sensitive to it), classes are held at night. Zoey gradually gets used to her new class schedule, which includes "Vampyre Sociology 101," "Drama 101" (in the outside world, vampyres are heavily represented in the arts - for instance, most big-name actors and actresses are vampyres), "Lit 101," "Fencing," "Spanish 101," and "Intro to Equestrian Studies." During her drama class, she sees the boy she saw with Aphrodite again - his name is Erik Night, and he's a fifth former (Zoey is considered a third former - I believe you're considered a full-fledged vampyre when you make it past the sixth former stage).

Although Zoey makes lots of friends and enjoys her classes, it's not all light and happiness. Fledglings like Zoey and her friends can die at any moment. The Change is tough, and two third formers die during the course of this book. Also, having Aphrodite as her enemy doesn't exactly make Zoey's life easy. Because it's obvious that she's special (what with her filled-in Mark and all), Aphrodite invites her to a Dark Daughters ritual, hoping to scare her off by slipping her some real blood in her ceremonial wine without telling her. Usually, a third former wouldn't like the taste of blood yet, but Zoey's not a regular third former. The wine tastes good to her, although she throws it all up when she finds out it contained blood from a fellow third former (fledglings aren't allowed to drink human blood).

Zoey doesn't like the Dark Daughters in general and Aphrodite in particular, but she agrees to join in the hopes of overthrowing Aphrodite. Things have happened during various rituals that have led Zoey to believe that she may make a stronger potential High Priestess than Aphrodite, so Zoey's friends happily back her.

Because she believes that cleaning up the Dark Daughters is vital, Zoey almost misses out on a chance to date Erik Night, but the two have a date lined up by the end of the book. Also, Zoey does indeed manage to take over the Dark Daughters, but Aphrodite, whose special ability involves having visions of future misfortunes, warns her that she doesn't know what's really going on and that she's only going to be used - Zoey's first thought when she says this is of a vague and bloody vision Aphrodite had and the red-eyed ghosts/zombies/whatever of the supposedly dead third formers Zoey had seen. Oh, and Heath, who Zoey accidentally managed to Imprint (bonding him to her like a lovesick puppy, something a third former shouldn't be able to do) will probably be ok.

Commentary:

Like I said, the basic idea behind this book isn't original. "Special schools for special people" can be found all throughout young adult and children's literature. The world the authors have created is interesting, although I'm not sure how well it would hold up if more details were given. What I mean is, human beings are frightened of vampyres. However, vampyres are so insanely popular in the arts that all the really well-known people in any area (painting, acting, etc.) tend to be vampyres. Vampyres like Aphrodite help prevent major disasters (Aphrodite tries to hide her visions, but, when she can't, the information from her visions helps prevent things like plane crashes and more). I'm sure there are vampyres with other abilities that the world at large finds useful. There are rules against vampyres feeding willy nilly from humans. And yet, despite all of the good things vampyres do for people, their popularity, and all the rules they have protecting human beings, they're still feared. It works from afar, but I'm not sure how cohesive it would all be if the Casts tried to create a fuller picture of the outside world. However, it looks kind of like they're going to keep the focus on the House of Night and vampyres, so maybe that won't ever be a problem for them.

While I liked the book as a whole, it kind of bothered me how neatly everything came together for Zoey, especially since she seemed to have such bad taste in friends and boyfriends in her human life. As a human, her best friend was an airhead who was trying to steal her almost-boyfriend (Zoey always calls him that, as though to distance herself from him, but it really just makes her seem wishy washy - it's obvious Heath isn't going to change, and you already think he's lacking in brain cells, so just dump him already, Zoey!). Her almost-boyfriend cheated or almost-cheated on her with her best friend and was slowly killing all his brain cells with alcohol and drugs. After she's Marked, Zoey instantly ends up with a crew of nice, trustworthy friends who don't act the slightest bit jealous that she's obviously meant for great things and has Erik Night, the hottest guy at the school, chasing after her. The only remaining sign of her previously iffy taste in people (other than that Heath continues to be a problem) is her decision to be with Erik Night despite the little things that prick her attention - that he was with Aphrodite for so long despite her obvious meanness and selfishness and that he didn't seem to have any problems with Aphrodite drugging a human guard.

Near the end of the book, when Neferet makes Zoey the new leader of the Dark Daughters, Zoey finds herself wondering why she ever felt she couldn't tell Neferet everything. My theory, which Aphrodite's final words seem to support, is that Neferet and other mature vampyres are involved in whatever it is that makes fledgling vampyres that appeared to die in the Change turn into something red-eyed and evil. Zoey didn't see the first third former die, but she did see the second - she sees Neferet give him something to drink, something that supposedly makes his death less painful, and she's told that Neferet is always there for the fledglings who die.

At the time, all of these things seem like the activities of someone who's trying to help fledglings with inevitable death, but what if the stuff she gave them to drink turned them into something else? What if Neferet is always with those who reject the Change just so that she can help them become true monsters? There have been several times when Neferet has gone cold and scary, and Zoey always brushes those moments off, but what if there's something more to them? After years of being sexually abused by her father, Neferet may not have many reasons to like humans, so maybe she's working against them while appearing to try to help vampyres and humans live in harmony.

Unrelated to all of that, I wonder: what's with the popularity of facial tattoos lately? Pretty facial tattoos also came up in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, and I'm sure they've come up in other books I've read recently. I suppose that when/if all of these things are made into movies, the facial tattoos will make for some lovely visuals.

Again, unrelated to all of that: I wonder if church groups have been slamming this series? The only organized religion (other than all the Nyx worship) that comes up in this book is the People of Faith, who make me think of the people who make their kids burn Harry Potter books and Pokemon stuff.

The suggestions below are in no particuar order.

Read-alikes:
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - After spending 10 years with his uncle, aunt, and their bully of a son, all people who hate him, Harry Potter learns that he is a wizard and has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although things don't exactly become easy, as he tries to deal with a new magical world he knows nothing about, his celebrity status in the world of witches and wizards, and a powerful enemy who tried to kill him when he was just a baby, Harry still manages to enjoy himself and make friends. This series has a wider audience than I expect the House of Night series does, but it'd make a nice suggestion for someone who just wants something with magic and the "special school for special kids, starring the most special kid of them all" theme.
  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book is Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Although the Zeetes Institute isn't a school in the same way the House of Night is, it does have a bit of the "special school for special people" feel. Like Zoey, Kaitlyn finds herself dealing with potential romance and darkness and danger just under the nice surface of the Institute.
  • The Initiation (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Secret Circle series, although it is no longer available on its own - the link will take you to the Amazon.com page for a volume combining the first book and half the second book (what were they thinking?!). Cassie isn't thrilled to move from sunny California to gloomy New England, but it isn't long before things get interesting for her. Her new school is practically ruled by a group of gorgeous teens who appear to be feared and/or respected by everyone around them. Cassie gradually discovers that, not only do these teens have special powers, so does she. As she gets involved with the group, she begins to fall for the boyfriend of one of the girls. This book and series, like Marked, has magic, a group of girls who think they're better than everyone else, a school setting, a female main character who may be able to make everything right again, and romance. Several characters are similar to characters in Marked.
  • Gakuen Alice (manga) by Tachibana Higuchi - When Mikan's best friend leaves to attend the mysterious and elite Alice Academy, Mikan goes after her and tries to become a student at the academy herself. Alice Academy turns out to be a special school for children with amazing abilities (like flying, telekinesis, etc.). Once Mikan manages to prove that she belongs at the school, she becomes a student. Unfortunately, students are allowed little contact with the outside world, and there are other secrets the school and its teachers are hiding. This is meant for a younger audience than Marked, but it's still quite a lot of fun. Like Marked, there are indications that the children at the school are being used in some way. Those who'd like something else with the "special school for special people" theme (with Mikan, like Zoey, being one of the most special of them all) and a bit of romance might want to try this.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Talia is part of a very restrictive community that she doesn't feel she fits in with. She dreams of being able to leave and serve Heralds (sort of like travelling peace-makers, although they do much more than that) and their Companions (beings that have bonded with humans and that look like horses, but that are at least as intelligent as humans). Talia's wish is granted when a Companion finds her and bonds with her, taking her away to be trained as a Herald and the new Queen's Own (emotional advisor to the queen). This is the first book in Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series. This is another "special school for special people" recommendation and has quite a few other things in common with Marked - Talia's oppressive home life, the book's detailed descriptions of her classes, equestrian class, weapons class (for Zoey it's fencing, for Talia it's quick and dirty self-defense), etc.
  • The Summoning (book) by Kelley Armstrong - After Chloe Saunders suddenly starts seeing ghosts, her father and her aunt have her admitted to Lyle House, a home for troubled teens. All Chloe wants is to convince the adults at Lyle House that she's better and can leave, but it's not long before she starts noticing that there may be something sinister going on. A couple of the other teens at Lyle House are convinced that Chloe really can see ghosts and is, in fact, a necromancer - they may know what they're talking about, since one of them can do magic. This isn't a "special school for special people" book, but it has the same sort of feel at times. Like Zoey, Chloe has to deal with sudden freaky changes to her life, new friends and enemies, people who can't necessarily be trusted, and potential romance (a very tiny part of the book, since Chloe is more concerned with getting to go home that finding herself a guy in the slim pickings of Lyle House).

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