Review: Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan ~ vamps, zombies, BFFs

Do we look like we are from a small city in Maine? Um, yes this clubwear was made by LL Bean, can't you tell?

Do we look like we are from a small city in Maine? Um, yes this clubwear was made by LL Bean, can’t you tell?

Good story - Let's hack it and make it great

Good story – Let’s hack it and make it great

Verdict: This book is a light-hearted twist on teen vampire romances without being mean-spirited or satirical. It was a quick read, and while it wasn’t relentlessly silly, it was by nature not all that substantive. With a couple of hacks, this book could have been a bit more polished.

Perfect for: Anyone who wants to read a lighter, funnier, yet not sarcastic take on Twilight. Readers who don’t need romance to be the focus of the story, and who may be more interested in friendship dynamics.

Summary: Set in a small city in Maine within an alternate American history, vampires are a fact of life. They generally keep to their own section of town, and there are strict laws in place preventing vampires from draining human blood or turning people into vampires without their consent. Our main character is Mel, a fiercely loyal friend who throughout the novel tries to help her two BFFs with different vampire-related issues. Her friend Anna is distraught after her loving psychiatrist father runs off with a glamorous vampire patient, cutting of contact completely with Anna and her mother. The main plot of the book is Mel-as-amateur-detective trying to find out more about what really happened with Anna’s dad. Meanwhile, Mel’s other BFF, Cathy, has fallen for a dark and brooding (of course) vampire teen (who is of course actually over two hundred years old) (of course) named Francis who suddenly shows up at their human high school. Cathy falls for Francis instantly and quickly becomes convinced she wants to “transition” into vampirehood. Mel is appalled at the idea, in part because there is a small chance that the transitioning will go wrong and that Cathy will either die or accidentally become zombified and then killed by the authorities. But Mel in general finds vampires to be abhorrent because she views them as creepy old dead things who are cold, humorless, and dangerous. But Mel’s views on vampires are challenged by both Cathy’s stubbornness about wanting to transition, and by a cute boy who has reasons to be sympathetic to vampires.

1 heart No Damsels in Distress

Although Mel views her friend Cathy to be irrational and lovesick towards vampire Francis, there is no damsel in distress dynamic or any other kind of dysfunction between the two lovebirds. Cathy and Francis do fall in love ridiculously quickly, but they make the case that their love is based on similar temperaments and interests, and not because of any kind of fate, lust, or I-hate-you-no-I-love-you dynamic that is so often a trope in YA fantasy romances. And our narrator Mel is certainly no damsel in distress: she likes to take charge and solve problems, and while open to dating is steadfast about not wanting to change for any boy.  What I really appreciated about this story was its focus on friendship, not romance.

1 heartFunny, without being ridiculous

I really enjoyed the light tone of this story, and the slightly daffy narrative voice of Mel. She sometimes acts ridiculous and impulsively, but you get the sense that she is self-aware and slightly self-deprecating. There are times that her hotheadedness and judgmental personality begin to get annoying, but fortunately other characters actually call her on it. She is not a perfect person, but it totally makes sense about why her friends love her despite her snark: she is a loving and loyal friend, and full of laughter.

1 heartAlternate History – Vampires signed the Declaration of Independence

I am totally a sucker for alternate history fantasies, particularly ones set in America, such as Seventh Son and The Curseworker series. Although the book doesn’t go into a ton of detail about how the city if New Whitby, Maine became a vampire mecca, the “historical” information that was in the story was intriguing and just robust enough to create some fun world-building. For instance, there is a passing mention of how smugglers brought slaves to the Maine coast for the purpose of providing victims to vampire residents, before both slavery and vampire murders were abolished. This throwaway fact helps deepen the vampire lore that the authors construct.

I also found it interesting the way that that both the Vampire part of town (known as The Shade) and the “transitioning” process were described, and I wondered if this was meant to be an analogy for the LGBTQ community. In Team Human wide-eyed tourists visit The Shade to gawk at the residents and take pictures because they find vamps to be so exotic. It made me think of straight tourists visiting traditionally gay enclaves such as the Castro, P-town, and Fire Island. I also thought that the term transitioning might have been intentionally used to make a parallel between gender reassignment surgery and this story’s medically authorized procedure to turn into the vampire. At the end of the book, [SPOILER]: when Cathy makes it clear that she will 100% definitely transition into a vampire, and that she wants Mel to accept her for who she is, Mel, who has definitely been bigoted against vampires throughout the novel goes through an interesting mental process. She knows she loves Cathy and wants to stay friends with her, but the idea of Cathy changing into someone different, with different physical characteristics is uncomfortable for her. Mel fears that Cathy changing into a vampire will mean that Cathy is gone forever. A big part of Mel’s growth is to work through her bigotry to be tolerant towards vampires and to realize that in order to keep Cathy as a friend she must love her for who she wants to be. It made me think of the many (usually older) (hopefully) stories of parents who go through a similar thought process of revulsion and grief about the idea of their child going through sexual reassignment surgery before finally coming to love and acceptance.

1 scissors Maine, Schmaine

Despite the cool vampire alternate history, throughout the book I kept thinking, This is set in Maine? Really? I’m originally from the East Coast and my BFF moved to a beach town in Maine, and I can tell you that other than a scene set on a coast with a bunch of rugged caves, New Whitby could have been set anywhere. There was nothing particularly Maine-ish about the town or about the characters. The lack of Maine-ness was at times heightened by some frequent “Britishisms” in the writing, either courtesy of Australian-American Larbalestier or Irish-born Brennan. I really wish an editor had caught those Britishisms!

1 scissorsConveniently Clueless

I’m also a sucker for a fish-out-of-water scenario, so I loved the idea of cute boy Kit being a human raised and homeschooled by vampires who after meeting Mel wants to know more about human culture. But I thought Kit’s characterization was very uneven. Although kept his whole life in The Shade and taught esoteric things like waltzing by his Vamparents, he has also watched a lot of TV. Mostly he acts like a totally normal teen boy, but the writers try to insert humor by having him misinterpret human behavior or make incorrect conclusions. I get what they were going for, but I would have liked it more if his character were more consistent about his level of human knowledge.

1 scissors

Short choppy writing

This was a REALLY fast read, I think in part because the writing was so short and choppy. At times, it made me think of, like, third or fourth grade texts. Lots of short sentences. Lots of simple subject – verb – object sentences. Lots of series of sentences starting with the same word (#meta). There were also times where it felt like a lot of information from a previous chapter was almost completely reiterated in the very next chapter. This started happening more frequently at the end, towards the climax, which dragged the pacing down. I wonder if this was a function of two authors writing the story together.

1 scissors Oh, and that COVER. NO.

I’m pretty much over any photos-of-teens on YA covers, but I find this one to be particularly bad. Awkward and airbrushed, and suggesting a glamour and model-type-aloofness that none of the characters have. Glad to see that Larbalestier’s awesome advocacy for minority teens to appear prominently on YA covers, but I don’t think that the model used here in any way accurately reflects Mel, who is sporty, impulsive, silly and blunt. AND LIVING IN MAINE. I pictured her with short hair, and in jeans and a simple top, and with a sassy SMILE on her face. So much of the book is about how she would never want to be a vampire because she would hate losing the ability to laugh. And the girl on the right, who I assume is Cathy, in the book is described as dark-haired, pale, and kind of dreamy in a nerdy-academic way. That model looks like a twenty year old going to a club, not a seventeen year old poetry fan who likes to read history books in the school library. This cover does not at all capture the light and fun tone of the book. I wish it looked more like the appealing cover for Cat Girl’s Day Off.

Clever reader, you may have noticed that there are THREE hearts and FOUR scissors, despite my overall rating of: 2 scissors 3 hearts Yes! You caught me! But I didn’t want to make a new icon, and I was entertained by the book, so I didn’t want to make it seem to scissory 🙂

1 thought on “Review: Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan ~ vamps, zombies, BFFs

  1. I never even thought of your interpretation of Cathy’s transformation as being similar to announcing oneself as transgender. That puts a different spin on the story, and one I like much better than what I got out of this book. Great review.

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