LitStack Encore Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

by Sharon Browning
Holly Black

Holly Black

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 
Holly Black
Little, Brown Books
Release Date:  September 3, 2013
ISBN:  978-0-31621-310-3

In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday,
here is a slightly updated review of one of our favorite spooky novels.


Now THIS is what a vampire tale should be like.  Forget that it’s written for young audiences; the story and issues the characters have to deal with are timeless and applicable to all ages.  Forget that it has an element of romance in it; so does life, usually, and the romance that comes with this story works, and is appropriate without poking and prodding the plot to try to stretch it over an artificial edginess.  Forget everything about what you think you are going to read, and just sit back and enjoy it.

Tana is your typical teenager, growing up in a small town 50 miles from Springfield, Massachusetts, going to parties on the weekend and getting ready for her senior year at high school.  Then again, she’s not totally typical, because she’s a relatively good kid; she’s popular enough, but not a cheerleader or a drama queen or a jock.  She’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s responsible, she can be counted on by friends, by teachers, by her dad and sister.  And she listens, really listens, when others talk to her.

But everything is not typical in Tana’s world.

You see, in Tana’s world, there are vampires.  An epidemic of them, in fact, to the point where to go out at night between dusk and dawn puts your life at risk unless you take precautions.  Something as simple as an open window in the dark could invite attack.  Garlic, holy water, other religious talismans – these might deter a vampire, but only daylight, beheading or a stake through the heart can stop them.

It hadn’t always been this way.  Vampires had always existed, yes, but in small, exclusive, almost secret societies where the older vampires maintained strict control over their kin.  But about ten years earlier, a rogue vampire decided to not kill his victims; instead, he merely drank from them and moved on, leaving them alive, but infected.  And he did this in a frenzy, spreading the infection before anyone realized what it was.

Those infected by a vampire’s bite would suffer a drop in body temperature, a manic heightening of the senses and an overwhelming craving for blood.  This became known as turning Cold.  If an infected person refrained from drinking human blood until the infection was flushed out of their system – which could take up to 88 days – they would return to normal.  If, however, they tasted human blood, the infection would mutate, killing the host and then raising them up again, “Colder than before.  Cold through and through, forever and ever.”  They would become vampires, eternal  yet trapped at that point in their lives, undying yet hungry, always hungry for blood.

The infection could only be transmitted by vampires, not merely by one who was Cold.  But because those who turned Cold were in danger of mutating should they ingest blood (let alone that in their hunger they usually killed the person on whom they feasted), anyone who showed the slightest indication that they had been infected would be quickly quarantined.

At first private institutions attempted to handle the Cold, but the risk quickly became too great due to the different ways the infection could affect the host.  Eventually, in the interest of public safety, Coldtowns were established.

All infected people and captured vampires were sent to Coldtowns, along with the sick, sad, or deluded humans who went there voluntarily.  It was supposed to be a constant party, free for the price of blood.  But once people were inside, humans – even human children, even babies born in Coldtown – weren’t allowed to leave.  The National Guard patrolled the barbed-wire-wrapped and holy-symbol-studded walls to make sure that Coldtowns stayed contained.

Springfield was the best known and the biggest Coldtown, with more live feeds, videos, and blogs coming out of there than from Coldtowns in much larger cities.  That was partially because it was the first and partially because the Massachusetts government made sure that people trapped inside had power and communications sooner than the others.  The outbreak in Chicago was contained so fast that the quarantined area never had a chance to evolve into a walled city-within-a-city.  Las Vegas was Springfield’s rival in live-streaming vampire entertainment, but blackouts were common, disrupting feeds and making regular viewing unreliable.  New Orleans and Las Cruces were small, and the Coldtown in San Francisco had gone dark a year after its founding, with no one broadcasting anything out…

So back to Tana, this typical girl in a not so typical world.  One where vampires are an accepted menace, where bounty hunters reach celebrity status, where sequestered cities are filled with not just vampires and the Cold, but also a lace and velvet clad subculture of freaks and goths and sanguinarian media seekers, both devoted and pathetic.  It’s just the way her world turns.

One Saturday Tana heads off to a party, held at a friend’s house out in the countryside.  She lets lose a bit, gets wasted and ends up hiding from her ex-boyfriend in a bathtub with the shower curtain pulled around her.  She passes out and doesn’t wake up until the next morning, with an ache in her head, a kink in her neck – and a house full of dead bodies.

A window had been left open and during the rowdy revelries, vampires had invaded, killing everyone in a bloody, gore strewn, vicious attack.  Tana had been spared merely because she had been artlessly hidden, unaware of the massacre happening throughout the rest of the house.   As she walks the bloody house in horror, she realizes that she cannot react, cannot freak out, for there could still be vampires in the basement or in one of the darkened rooms; until she gets out of the house and away, there is danger.  She must remain calm: retrieve her car keys from her jacket in the bedroom and drive to safety.  Then she can have a meltdown.

But when Tana gets to the bedroom, she is astonished to find her ex-boyfriend, alive but gagged and tied to the bed as if being held for a later feast.  And there is someone else in the room, as well.  Another boy, gaunt, pale, with dark hair and crimson eyes.  A vampire.  He is also gagged, and chained.  She can’t just leave Aidan there, to be blood fodder for who knows what once the day ends.  But the vampire – he has also been imprisoned; he looks as if he has gotten the bad end of some horrible deal, and Tana knows he, too, is at risk.  So, in an impulsive act of compassion she rescues both, but in the process they barely escape the vampires who had been sleeping in the basement below; Tana is scratched by an unholy fingernail clutching at her leg as she drags herself out the window and into the sunlight.

Has she become infected?  Aidan certainly has been, but can he be saved?  And what to do with the vampire who is now wrapped in black plastic bags in the trunk of her car?  Who is he, and why had his own kind imprisoned him?  There is only one place to go now, to not only find answers but to give each of them a chance of survival.  They must head to Coldtown.

Holly Black has built a chilling yet recognizable world in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  Her explication of what the world has become unfolds through Tana’s thoughts, memories and reactions.  These are not simple impulses; Tana is a girl full of nuances and possessing a strong moral fiber, but she is not a saint.  She is torn, and some of the decisions she makes have consequences that she neglects to consider.  She is not a hero with sudden super powers, but a very real girl, with a depth that we immediately can connect with for it feels genuine, it feels very possible.

A word of caution, though:  this is not a “pretty” book (which is a good thing).  It is full of blood and gore and violence.  There is sadness and tragedy, not all inflicted by vampire fangs.  There is beauty, but most of it is soiled and torn, and some of it is only a thin, brittle veneer that attempts to cover horrors that most feel compelled to look away from rather than confront.   There is slickness and pandering and a desperation borne out of a deep seated need to belong, even if amongst monsters.  But there is, yes, some honor, some goodness, and even some love in this book, and those fragments harbor a thin slice of hope for those who refuse to be swept away with the garbage and the death and the spoils of the morning.

Even if supernatural horror isn’t your genre of choice, or even if it is but you’ve been burned by too many sparkly vampires and too much syrup in your blood splatters, read The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  It will renew your faith.  On so many levels, it is one heck of a good read.

~ Sharon Browning

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