Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: Dark Companion

Title: Dark Companion
Author: Marta Acosta
Publisher: Tor/Forge
Imprint: Tor Teen
Pub. Date: July 3, 2012
ISBN: 9780765329646

First, the publisher’s summary:

Orphaned at the age of six, Jane Williams has grown up in a series of foster homes, learning to survive in the shadows of life. Through hard work and determination, she manages to win a scholarship to the exclusive Birch Grove Academy. There, for the first time, Jane finds herself accepted by a group of friends. She even starts tutoring the headmistress's gorgeous son, Lucien. Things seem too good to be true.

They are.

The more she learns about Birch Grove's recent past, the more Jane comes to suspect that there is something sinister going on. Why did the wife of a popular teacher kill herself? What happened to the former scholarship student, whose place Jane took? Why does Lucien's brother, Jack, seem to dislike her so much?

As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove--and what she would risk to stay there... 

I love paranormal thrillers set at boarding schools for girls. I love school stories in general, but if I could only read one sub-genre for the rest of my life, the PTBSG would be it. Yes, that’s a pretty unwieldy acronym, but how often do you make up one in every day life? Never. It’s good to seize the opportunity to create one when it presents itself.

Among my favorite PTBSGs are Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series and Lois Duncan’s Down a Dark Hall. There are tons more potential favorites that I haven’t read yet: Hex Hall, Vampire Academy, The Name of the Star. One could make the argument that there isn’t the need or room for another PTBSG. But Dark Companion has its own compelling spin on the sub-genre, and is definitely worth reading.

Warning: this review will be totally spoilerish. If you don’t want to know pivotal plot points and secrets, read no further!

For those of you who are on board, the deep dark secret of Birch Grove is that the headmistress’ family and various other powerful figures are vampires. At a certain point, Dark Companion feels poised on the edge of a free fall into the clich├ęd. But the twist of human girls serving as “companions,” in arranged relationships that focus on providing blood but can also get romantic, is captivating enough to keep you reading after you figure out that the central paranormal secret involves vampires. The key to Dark Companion is that vampires serve more as metaphors for the tough choices that girls face, and less as supposedly fascinating supernatural beings.

The novel is at its weakest in scenes set in the impoverished urban neighborhood of “Hellsdale,” where Jane grew up as a foster child. Acosta is able to depict stereotypical characters such as the evil foster mother, the prostitute with a heart of gold and the kingpin who is generous as well as lethal with enough flair that you gloss over how stock these minor characters are. But the setting of “Hellsdale” is problematic because there’s no real sense of a physical environment. The neighborhood feels a bit like something out of Harold and the Purple Crayon, in which the picture of the setting starts, but never really gets completed.

Dark Companion is at its strongest in Birch Grove, while exploring the bonds of female friendship and Jane’s challenges. The theme of female empowerment is subtly woven throughout the novel. Jane must choose whether or not to become a vampire companion, and she’s presented with the inspiration of various examples of adult women who’ve chosen different paths. The most interesting of these women is her friend Mary Violet’s mother. Initially, she’s just someone rich enough to have the leisure to paint over sized canvases of female genitalia that are mocked by her children. But by the end of the novel, she’s a strong woman who helps Jane as both a mother and mentor figure.

Though the novel is advertised as a modern Jane Eyre, Dark Companion feels much more like the feminist answer to Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse series.  These vampires aren’t going to sweep you off your feet and ride off into a sunset of violence and romantic obsession. They’re the self-centered socio-economic elites who use a girl as an object, imagining that material compensation justifies the harm of the transactional relationship.

Jane’s journey to achieve a better life without selling herself out is very engaging. Even if you’re not obsessed with school stories, you should read Dark Companion to vicariously enjoy the triumph of the disadvantaged but smart girl when she’s pitted against the big, bad world.

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