Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Vampire Academy

To help us enter into and better understand the entertainment shaping today's youth, I offer my latest review of books effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at the worldview in the story.

This review will look at Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.  Ms. Mead's MA in Comparative Religion from Western Michigan University fits well with her love of folklore and mythology; it's no surprise that Vampire Academy combines both. 

The series won the 2010 Teen Read Awards, the 2011 Kids' Choice Awards, and the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. As of 2013, the series has sold 8 million copies in 35 countries. Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters has just hit the big screen. The critics aren't impressed, but the target audience seems to be.

Lissa is a Moroi, a living vampire who wields elemental magic (earth, wind, fire, water, or a combo platter of sorts). It’s part of the Moroi nature, a gift that connects them to the world. The Moroi live in fear of the Strogoi, the undead vampires who have an existence “dark and twisted, the greatest of all sins, both against the Morio way of life and nature itself.” The Strigoi lose their vitality, gifts, and heart as they enter a soulless world devoid of light and life. Literally.

Rose is Lissa’s guardian. Her father abandoned her, her mother is totally uninvolved in her life, the girls in her school think she’s a slut, her teachers don’t trust her, and the boys just want to take advantage of her. But she is also Dhampir, half human and half vampire, and she lives to protect and serve Lissa to the point of giving her life (and sometimes her blood) for her.

The Moroi and their Dhampir protectors are always close, but Lissa and Rose have an unusual connection: Lissa brought Rose back from the dead. Now, Rose is one of the Shadow-kissed, bonded with Lissa in a way that allows her to feel her emotions and see through her eyes. It’s not a pretty sight.* The more Rose sees the world through Lissa’s eyes, the more her mission clarifies: “Save her from herself.” And when she thinks of herself as a savior, she’s not kidding. “I don’t believe in angels. I believe in what I can do for myself.”

One of the main plot lines involves Rose learning what it means to be a protector. She must be selfless, smart, sacrificial, deadly and trainable.  She’s maybe two of those at the beginning; she’s at least learning what the others are like by the end. Her trainer, Dimitri, offers a generally solid example of faithful dedication to a relatively good cause.  

You may have noticed the “hedge” words in the previous sentence. If all the elements in the story had supported that message, I could envision a Vampire Academy series that eventually celebrated light and life. Unfortunately, I can’t shake the sense that characters are being emptied of the life they long to preserve.


Here's the hole in the heart of Vampire Academy: everyone is so consumed with avoiding the ultimate evil that they don’t see the incremental steps they are taking into the darkness.

There are human Feeders who live to give blood to the vampires. Because the Morio saliva offers a rush with each bite, some people need the bite like other addicts need drugs. They waste away, disdained by everyone else who sees them as weak. The Morio – the guardians – look down on this dependency, even though they can’t survive otherwise. Rose notes the hypocrisy, but what's to be done? It's just the way it is.

This use and disdain of others comes with a price. When a Moroi teen brings his disdained meal to a party, Rose confronts him for so blatantly feeding in public. He responds, “She’s just lunch.” He petulantly takes the girl to a room; Lissa notes he would “do even worse things to her.” For Rose, “It reminded me too much of what a lot of Moroi guys thought they could do to dhampir girls.”

In other words, the Moroi men treat dhampir women like meat, like Feeders who exist to satisfy sexual cravings. Even when their deplorable treatment is not this obvious, the dynamic lurks in the shadows. See, Dhampir women can only have children with Moroi men. Since the Moroi men aren’t going to marry them, they repopulate the necessary Dhampir population thanks to mistresses and prostitutes.

As you might imagine, the communities where these breeders live do not have a good reputation. Rumor is that many of the women become “blood whores” who let the Moroi men drink their blood while having sex. This is particularly disgusting, though the book does not clarify why. (Did I already note this won a Kids' Choice awards in 2011?) So the Moroi men, the good vampires, treat women like meat. They feed on them and breed with them as if they are merely objects to me enjoyed and used.

How is this not bringing a form of death to those who long for life?

It’s no surprise that this climate fosters a callousness in everyone. As much as Rose dislikes how the Moroi men use women, she’s not above using men when it suits her. She seriously makes out with a Moroi guy basically because she’s bored. He was just a toy for her desires. She stops short of letting him have sex with her, but it wasn’t a resistance in principle (as we see when she gets a shot at Dimitri).

When Dimitri finds out about her selfish seduction, she defends herself: “Why is it wrong to …I don’t know, have fun? I’m seventeen, you know. I should be able to enjoy it.” And Lissa gives Rose all the exciting details of having sex with Aaron in six words: “I don’t know. It wasn’t anything.”

Hasn't something important been lost here?

These are high school kids who have already absorbed two distorted lessons about one of the most intimate ways people connect. Lesson One: Sometimes sex is a tool for selfish entertainment no matter how the other person feels. Lesson Two: Sometimes sex “isn’t anything.”  I constantly hear how the Christian insistence on purity and self-control is prudish and unhealthy, but can we really argue that the sexual experiences here show the good life in any meaningful sense of the word? 

A moment of moral clarity appears when Dimitri stops Rose as she does her best to give him her virginity. It turns out they were under a lust spell, and Dimitri stops what they are doing. He gives Rose two reasons: he’s twenty-four and she’s seventeen, and dhampirs can’t let their relationships cloud their ability to protect the Moroi.** 

Near the end of Vampire Academy, Dimitri offers an though-provoking comment:

“What would you want if you knew you were going to be converted into a Strigoi against your will? If you knew you would lose all sense of your old morals and understanding of what’s right and wrong? If you knew you’d live the rest of your life – your immortal life – killing innocent people? What would you want?”

That's a great questions. But what if you were becoming Strigoi without realizing it? What if you were losing an understanding of right and wrong? What if you were hurting innocent people? What would you want? I would want to be saved. And it’s going to take more than someone who only knows how to do things for herself.

Perhaps the series will lead Rose in a direction of wisdom, goodness and life. Perhaps there is a broader story arc that shows the subtle dangers of compromise and hypocrisy. That's a literary academy to which I could send my kids. At this point, I have trouble seeing how that kind of school is being built.

*Liss is a cutter, and a very graphic scene is sure to be a trigger for some girls. It's presented as unfortunate and sad, but nothing is resolved or offered as an alternative. Rose concludes it “was the only way to make the internal pain go away.”

**Where's Tom Imura when you need him?  Dimitri and Rose sleep together in Shadow Kiss.  I assume the reasons given for not sleeping together in Vampire Academy still hold.

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