Review: Beautiful Chaos, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

>>Published: October 2011

Abraham stubbed his cigar out on Mrs. English’s side table and rose from the chair. He opened The Book of Moons as if he had marked a specific page.

“What are you doing? Calling more Vexes?” I shouted.

This time, they both laughed. “What I’m calling will make a Vex look like a house cat.” He started to read in a language I didn’t recognize. It had to be a Caster language—Niadic, maybe. The words were almost melodic, until he repeated them in English and I realized what they meant.

“ ‘From blood, ash, and sorrow. For the Demons imprisoned below…’ ”

“Stop!” I shouted. Abraham didn’t even look at me.

Sarafine twisted her wrist slightly, and I felt my chest tighten. “You are witnessing history, Ethan—for both Casters and Mortals. Be a little more respectful.

Abraham was still reading. “ ‘I call their Creator.’ ”

***

The more I read, the pickier I become. Nowhere do I notice this more than with Young Adult literature. With the industry still largely in a state of flux, the YA market is current the go-to money-maker for publishers. It’s the Hollywood studio system, transposed to a different medium: strike gold with a new intellectual property, then sequel the living hell out of it—without, if possible, running the franchise into the ground. It’s hard not to feel a bit suspicious or cynical when you consider the typical YA series production turnaround of only a year in several cases. It’s almost quaint to think back to the Harry Potter saga and the unknown—the indeterminate amount of time between each book. They would be ready whenever Rowling and Bloomsbury deemed them fit for public consumption. Compared to the North American pump-one-out-a-year cycle and it’s hard not to feel that time might be compromising quality.

Certainly this was the case with the most recent 800-pound YA gorilla, The Hunger Games. The phrase “diminishing returns” is being kind to Suzanne Collins clusterfuck of telling-and-not-showing—and after such a strong first entry, too. With the entire trilogy released over just three years, it’s almost impossible to look at the plot, pacing, and character gaps in the second and third books without thinking of how some extra time for polishing and rewriting might have saved the overall tale from the confusion and lack of imagery that plagued the third book, Mockingjay.

It’s with great pleasure then that I can point to the Caster Chronicles series—Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, and the most recent title in the supposed quartet, Beautiful Chaos—and say that sometimes the current model works. And works beautifully.

The Caster Chronicles series is set in the once-quiet mythical Southern American town of Gatlin—a town bursting with equal parts religious fanatics and Southern charm, as well as Casters, Incubi, Seers, Waywards, Sirens, Vexes, gothic cabals raining judgement down on the deserving and undeserving alike, inexplicable earth-wrenching weather patterns and not-so-natural disasters, and whatever the test-tube-baby-Hell John Breed happens to be. Beautiful Creatures, the first in the series, introduces us to Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes—fate-crossed high school lovers who, through a rather dramatic series of events spread over the first two titles in the series (including one pissed off Dark Caster of a mother), are drawn into a generations-old battle between light and dark, good and evil, bleach-white Wonder Bread and whole wheat…

When broken down to its basic bits and pieces, there doesn’t seem to be much to separate the Caster Chronicles from other supernatural YA fare, save for a coat of Southern drawl, pecan pies, and a total absence of glittery, emo-as-fuck vampires (and frequently shirtless werewolves, naturally). However, beyond the magic and mysticism invading the real world premise is a confident, clever, and most importantly, realistic cast of characters.

Beautiful Chaos, the third book in the series, continues this trend in a decidedly non-YA fashion. There are no lengthy recaps for those who might have missed books one and two—no cliff notes for the detailed relationships, family trees, and mythology. The authors of this saga, Garcia and Stohl, jump right into the meat of the tale. They fully expect that you’ve followed along thus far, and that the finer details of Ethan and Lena’s sometimes strained relationship, of Ridley’s power stripping, and of Link’s quarter-Incubus infusion are common knowledge for anyone picking up this book for the first time. To put it bluntly, they’re not willing to hold your hand—not for a moment—and the series is stronger for it. This is YA for the sixteen and up crowd, and they seem totally confident skewing older.

The world’s coming to an end in Beautiful Chaos—or so it would seem. Following the showdown that left the Order of Things shattered at the end of Beautiful Darkness, Chaos picks up without missing a beat, and the ramifications to Lena’s decision to claim herself as both Light and Dark are being felt in everything from extreme disturbances in nature and the weather, to the frantic search—from both sides—for John Breed, to Amma’s rapidly decreasing grip on the dangerous situation that has enveloped Ethan and Lena. Amongst this mess-to-end-all-messes are a Linkubus learning to accept his newfound status (without arousing the suspicion of his bible-toting zealot of a mother), Ridley, who is learning what it means to be a sanitized Siren, and Liv, who is discovering her place in Gatlin after sacrificing her future and her love for Ethan’s happiness.

What pulls all of this together is the quality of Garcia and Stohl’s writing. They’re able to marry the playful with maturity, which the story’s been gifted with via the weight of sacrifice that’s evident in every facet of the series—most notably through the memories of Ethan’s dead mother and her continued influence on events. Even the humour, though, seems as much intended for adults as for kids (such as a couple of great jabs against Methodists). There’s a definite Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibe running through the series’ DNA—a comic awareness that plays to a number of different audiences with equal effectiveness.

The single strongest element, however, remains Ethan and Lena’s relationship. These two have been tested beyond normal means. Where lesser authors might feel an inclination to wipe the slate clean and give our heroes their due reprieve, Garcia and Stohl bring them back from the brink of destruction in the second book without once pretending like their emotional separation never happened. They’re a changed couple in Beautiful Chaos—more adult than I expected. Don’t misunderstand me, they’re still very much doomed teenagers in love, but without certain behavioural extremes that might have dogged them in the past. They understand the role they play now, and the threats that entails. They trust one another, and that trust has been earned. More importantly, they understand the role that others play as well, be they friend or foe. Understanding is the name of the game in Beautiful Chaos. Major antagonists are humanized in an effective manner, and a genuine sense of history and connection—though tenuous between certain characters—is more apparent than ever.

Therein lies the victory of the third title in this series: history. The sense that the characters exist in their own worlds, where details aren’t always obvious to the reader. It was a late-in-the-book moment between Ethan and Link that really worked to this effect, and it’s caused me to look to a lot of other YA titles that I’ve been reading in recent years with retroactive disappointment.

There’s a great deal to be said in defence of the Caster Chronicles series. It feels like a treat—a yearly series that manages to increase in quality, not decrease. I can’t say for certain if the development or production of these titles is handled with any more care than, say, the Scott Westerfeld Uglies series, or the aforementioned Hunger Games (both had truncated release schedules and a few too many frayed, undeveloped points to ignore), but Garcia and Stohl have crafted an inviting serial world that I can’t wait to return to.

*Incidentally, if you haven’t read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and would like it not spoiled for you… maybe read that first. Things I wish I had known…

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