I was twelve when the first book in The Vampire Diaries tetralogy was released back in 1991. I was immediately taken with the pretty, popular, and strong-willed Elena Gilbert, as well as her two vampire suitors, the sensitive Stefan and his womanizing brother Damon, not to mention Elena’s loyal friends Meredith, Bonnie, and Matt. Reading The Vampire Diaries was a transformative experience for me. I found Smith’s deliberate and well paced prose incredibly appealing. I also found her ability to make the simplest physical interactions between characters sensual without becoming sexually explicit, very admirable. When I wrote my senior thesis during my final year as an undergraduate Creative Writing major, I listed Smith as one of my primary influences as a writer.
Smith went on to write three more YA trilogies with a supernatural slant, as well as the successful Night World series, before withdrawing from the writing world one book short of completing the Night World series. Twelve years after the publication of her last novel and eighteen years after the publication of the last volume of The Vampire Diaries, Smith is back with the fifth installment, The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall. Though Nightfall is the first book in The Return trilogy, the series picks up right where Dark Reunion left off, making them the continuation of a series rather than a stand alone trilogy.
It must be noted from the get go that I have not picked up a YA novel since I was sixteen. Coincidentally, I outgrew YA fiction around about the same time Smith stopped writing it. As a result, I don’t really know what appeals to the YA audience these days, and can’t even guess at how a reader in the appropriate age demographic would respond to this novel. I can only evaluate it as a grown woman and long time fan that still possesses a great deal of love for the series.
It having been such a long time since I’d read the first four books, before starting Nightfall, I hauled out my first edition paperbacks and re-read the entire series to refresh my memory. My response this time around was less favorable than when I was twelve. I found it very difficult to like most of the characters. Elena is incredibly selfish and manipulative. I couldn’t figure out why I identified so much with her when I was younger. Of course, I realize the series is all about how Elena goes from being your stereotypical “mean girl” to a caring, selfless, and ultimately noble person, but that doesn’t change the fact that she remains almost entirely unsympathetic through the first two books. Stefan’s insistence on blaming himself for every negative thing that happens to the people he loves struck me as narcissistic. I liked Damon up until he forced Elena to exchange blood with him by threatening to kill her little sister, thus resulting in a metaphorical rape scene that is later referenced as the night Elena “succumbed” to him. I thought Bonnie was too sensitive and Matt was a door mat. Don’t get me wrong, all the characters have redeeming qualities. I just felt their flaws outweighed their virtues, making them difficult to like. The only character I didn’t have to work at liking was Meredith whose occasional “mean girl” tendencies and biting sarcasm were eclipsed by her level-headedness and compassion.
The writing, however, held up. Simple and descriptive, spare and deliberate; every scene, sentence, and snippet of dialogue advanced the plot. There wasn’t an ounce of fat to trim. Every single word in those books needed to be there. There are precious few writers in the world who can construct such tight stories, and it’s the primary reason I loved Smith’s books.
That said, twenty pages into Nightfall I knew something was wrong. Dark Reunion, the fourth book in the series, ends on the morning of June 21, 1992, and Nightfall picks up seven days after. Yet, all of a sudden there is 2009 technology in a 1992 world. Damon carries a hand held video recorder. Stefan has a personal computer. Everyone has a cell phone and they all make video calls to each other on a regular basis. None of these devices were readily available in 1992. If they had been, the first four books would have been significantly different since many of the most frightening scenes occur because one character can’t get in touch with another.
There is nothing I hate more than authors who disregard their own timelines or world rules. I think it’s the hallmark of a lazy writer. After seething for a while, I came up with an idea that I thought might explain the sudden time shift. I went down to my local Barnes and Noble and picked up a copy of the most recent edition of The Vampire Diaries. And there it was, just as I’d suspected – the years had been removed from all the diary entries in the reissued texts. On the final page of Dark Reunion, the diary entry Bonnie writes is simply dated June 21st, instead of 6/21/92 as in my first edition paperback.
I can understand Smith and HarperCollins wanting the books to appeal to today’s teens and thinking the only way to do so is by making the books as modern as possible. But disregarding the original timeline only hurts the series. First, it makes the books inconsistent. Assuming Smith hasn’t made any major changes to the original texts, having the characters go from possessing no modern tech devices in the first four books to having tons, is jarring. It changes the tone and alters the intensity of the dangers the characters face. Second, assuming that YA readers won’t read anything that isn’t set in the present is absurd and shows a marked lack of faith in young readers. If they can suspend disbelief long enough to accept that vampires walk freely among us, surely they can acknowledge a time when cell phones and the internet were not part of everyday life. Young readers can be drawn into a well written story even if it doesn’t take place in the present. I don’t see anyone rushing to modernize Little Women, The Secret Garden, or The Outsiders, and I’m pretty sure those books remain popular. Third, it totally disregards their other target demographic, pre-existing fans of the series; those of us who are already invested in the story and already familiar with the timeline. Making such a dramatic changes disregards the continuity of the series and the intelligence of the readers.
Though that was the first, unfortunately it was not the only problem I had with Nightfall. At 592 pages, Nightfall is a bloated novel. Though Smith has always written epic fiction, none of her previous books contained so much unnecessary material. There are entire scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, reveal character, or add depth to relationships. For instance, the first half of the book contains multiple love scenes between Elena and Stefan that reveal nothing the reader doesn’t already know. They serve no purpose other than to bog down the narrative. There is lots of unnecessary dialogue and redundant description, both of which are very uncharacteristic of Smith. I figure she could have cut a good 250 pages without sacrificing anything essential. The deliberate plotting, tight prose, and good pacing I’ve come to expect from her are completely absent here.
The story itself is simple – seven days after returning from the dead Elena Gilbert has forgotten everything she ever knew. She can’t talk, write, and can barely walk. She doesn’t recognize her friends and is completely reliant on Stefan. Elena’s return super-charged the already mystically saturated Fell’s Church, turning the town into a beacon of power that can be sensed by supernaturals across the globe. New beings with bad intentions begin flocking to Fell’s Church. When a handful of pre-teen girls start making uncharacteristically bold sexual advances on the men in town, Bonnie, Matt, and Meredith know something’s up and enlist the help of Stefan, Damon, and Elena to get to the bottom of it.
A number of things have changed in YA literature since Smith’s last novel hit the shelves. It is now acceptable to openly address matters like sex, pregnancy, and sexual orientation. It’s more acceptable for teenage characters to curse. Topics that had to be tip toed around back in 1992 are now fair game, and Smith does her best to throw each and every one of them into Nightfall. Characters who never so much as uttered the word “darn” in previous books shout “hell,” “slut,” and “bullshit” in Nightfall. Though the words themselves are not particularly shocking, they are out of character for the kids using them.
Sex plays a key role in Nightfall. There are several scenes in which barely dressed pre-pubescent girls proposition Matt while rubbing suggestively against him. These graphic scenes leave the reader feeling so dirty, showering at the end of each chapter is well advised. In the first four books the act of exchanging blood is used as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, the metaphor is made blatant when it is explained that vampires don’t actually have sex because bloodlust takes the place of sexual desire. This was hinted at in the previous books, but by refraining from stating it outright Smith allowed the reader the choice of taking the metaphor at face value or imagining that there was more to the act than what was being stated outright. Over-clarifying the metaphor not only robs Damon and Stefan of their sex appeal, but it robs the reader of their fantasies. Before, a reader could imagine Damon or Stefan having sexy fun time with Elena. Now, that option is off the table. It removes the idea of consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the story, replacing it with the aforementioned pre-pubescent advances which ultimately paint sexuality as a dangerous thing. This marks a drastic change in tone. In the first four books tact, subtlety, and imagination were king. Controversial topics were handled delicately and that sensitivity was very attractive. It indicated a willingness on Smith’s part to trust her readers to piece together what was going on without having to be told outright. Nightfall, on the other hand, is all about getting in your face. The garish sexual displays and over-explanations rob the series of its sensuality.
Many readers and reviewers have stated that Smith tossed all the character development she built in the first half of the series out the window in Nightfall. I wouldn’t go that far. Nightfall contains plenty of solid character development that’s in line with the previous books. Take Matt for example. In Nightfall he finally gets sick of being a push over and begins standing up for himself. Bonnie is still determined to be brave in the face of danger, and we get to witness her failures and successes. Elena sacrificed her life in The Fury, and played guardian angel to her friends in Dark Reunion. Since she spent four volumes becoming a better person, it makes sense that she would return to Earth as a living angel, at least temporarily.
But there are a number of irregularities, and some character back-tracking. For example, at the end of Dark Reunion it’s indicated that consummate villainess, Caroline, is on her way to mending her rift with Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith. Yet, Nightfall opens with Caroline making a deal with a demon to “get back” at Elena. Her motivation is skimpy at best. On page 10, Caroline explains “I’m just so tired of hearing about Elena this, and Stefan that…and now it’s going to start all over.” But, for all intents and purposes Elena is still dead. The only people who know or can know she is alive are the people who saw her materialize in the woods. Since no one can know she is alive, Elena can’t over shadow Caroline the way she used to, therefore Caroline doesn’t have anything to fear and her sudden shift back to mega-bitch makes no sense.
Damon’s struggle to come to terms with his noble side continues in Nightfall. We see him show concern not just for Elena, but Bonnie, Meredith, and even Caroline, referring to them collectively has “his girls.” We see him save Bonnie from certain death more than once, not because anyone forced him to, but because he wants to. The only problematic aspect of his character arch is his sudden decision to actively start pursuing Elena again even though he seemed to have given up the quest and accepted her love for Stefan by the beginning of The Fury.
Both Caroline’s and Damon’s decisions to go after Elena are instances in which Smith sacrificed character continuity in the name of plot. Rather than allowing her villains the redemption they were well on their way to earning in Dark Reunion, she turns them back into “bad guys” to keep things interesting. This is what readers are railing against when they go on about the demolition of character in Nightfall. These particular choices feel forced and are not in line with the character development that took place in the original books.
Overall, Nightfall was a let down. I wanted to adore this book the way I adored its predecessors, but the choppy prose, changes in tone, and disregard for the original timeline prevented me from doing so. I could have accepted everything else if only the writing and continuity held up. Fans across the Web are hailing this book as the worst in the series. Even Smith herself admits Nightfall is not her best novel. I hope Smith will take in the criticisms and listen to what her fans are trying to tell her. The bad reviews aren’t meant to insult. They are the pleas of frustrated fans trying to remind Smith why they loved her work to begin with, and hoping she will bring wayward elements back in line with the original text as the series progresses.