The most obvious comparison to make to Beautiful Creatures is to Twilight. They both feature normal teens who fall in love with supernatural beings. Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight, says that the characters came to her in a dream. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, in their interview with Amazon.com, describe the origins of Beautiful Creatures as follows:
Kami: We actually wrote Beautiful Creatures on a dare from some of the teen readers in our lives.
Margie: Not so much readers as bosses.
Kami: Looking back, we wrote it sort of like the serialized fiction of Charles Dickens, turning in pages to our teen readers every week.
Margie: And by week she means day.
Kami: When we were getting texts in the middle of the night from teens demanding more pages, we knew we had to finish.
Margie: As it says in our acknowledgements, their asking what happened next changed what happened next.
While I have no intention of making a case for the quality of the Twilight franchise,* I think the above quotes illustrate a key difference between the two series. Beautiful Creatures does not read as if it had been inspired by a singularly vivid dream. Instead, it seems to string together serviceable plot elements of Twilight and other major teen fantasy series, only without sufficient atmosphere or characterization to substantiate this lack of originality.
This sounds more harsh than I intend it to be. I have no problem with literary recycling as such. I was cool with Beautiful Creatures. BC is written in a moderately intelligent prose style. It is well-paced. For lovers of fantasy, the supernatural, and YA, like myself, it is a fun book that goes quickly, especially in the last quarter of the book. But it seems like it’s reaching for something it never quite touches.
The book is set in a small South Carolina town, Gatlin, where the townspeople perform yearly Civil War reenactments. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate laments the smallness and small-mindedness of his hometown, and finds relief for his boredom in the new girl, Lena Duchannes. Lena, it turns out, is a Caster. This means that she has magical powers and will be Claimed for either the light side or the dark side on her 16th birthday. Her relationship with Ethan and the dramatic events leading up to her birthday make up the story, which is told through Ethan’s perspective. This is a major drawback, as Ethan is just not that interesting a character. He starts out as a bored, smarter-than-average guy, and is drawn to Lena immediately upon her arrival. By the end of the book, he’s certainly no longer bored, but any further development that may occur in the book’s sequels is only hinted at in this first volume.
The authors attempt a Southern Gothic atmosphere by populating Ethan’s town with a handful of stereotypes: the small-minded Southerners, the bitchy cheerleaders, the oblivious jocks. Several characters, such as Amma, Ethan’s surrogate grandmother, and Marian, his late mother’s best friend, have real possibilities, but are kept mostly to the sidelines. Lena’s enigmatic uncle Macon is an interesting fellow, but the Dark Caster Sarafine, the book’s major antagonist, doesn’t make a real appearance until right before the book ends, when things are just getting good. There is good material in the book, but the authors don’t spend enough time with it. Instead, they distract us with at least two too many high school set-pieces to demonstrate how Lena is ostracized by the aforementioned bitchy cheerleaders and small-minded Southerners.
A few plot-holes are similarly distracting. Ethan encounters Serafine in disguise mid-way through the book. She is clearly evil, but he never thinks to investigate. On Lena’s birthday, he falls for what is clearly a diversion and leaves her alone and open to attack on the most vulnerable night of her life.
I read the book because I saw a trailer for the movie, which stars Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson. I can see why Beautiful Creatures got picked up for film: it has great possibilities. In the book, unfortunately, they aren’t fully realized. I hope Irons and Thompson were given a great script to work with and ham it to the max. I’ll be in the theater, enjoying a box of peanut M&Ms and cackling every time Jeremy Irons doesn’t even try to put on a Southern accent.
*I’ve read all four Twilight books twice each. I have no defense. I’m an intelligent person who reads dumb YA vampire books. DEAL WITH MY CONTRADICTORY NATURE!