The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L. J. Smith

May 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm (fantasy, fiction, L. J. Smith, novels, romance, young adult) (, )

NOTE TO READERS: This book review contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

My love affair with The Vampire Diaries started back in 1991 at the age of twelve. I took an immediate shine to Elena, Stefan, and the rest of the gang, and spent many a night snuggled under my bed covers with the latest volume in hand, letting L.J. Smith’s spare and fast paced prose transport me from my hot New York City bedroom to the tree lined streets of Fells Church, Virginia.

I was beyond psyched when I found out Smith was reviving the series after seventeen years, but like many of the grown women who as pre-teens formed Smith’s original fan base, I was immensely disappointed in the result. The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall contained more holes than a block of Swiss cheese and more filler than a jelly doughnut. Drastic changes in tone and world rules made the book feel like it belonged to a totally different series. I, however, took comfort in the knowledge that after writing something as awful as Nightfall there was nothing Smith could do to make The Vampire Diaries series any worse.

I was wrong, of course; dead wrong. In The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls, Smith finds new and creative ways to destroy her characters, plotline, and world rules.

Shadows Souls picks up right where Nightfall left off. To rescue Stefan from the menacing kitsune, Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith must descend into the Dark Dimension, a land of eternal twilight where demons and vampires rule, and damned souls live out eternity as slaves with little hope of ever ascending to Heaven.  As they search for the hidden halves of a mystical key that will free Stefan, Damon and Elena grow closer until Elena is unsure which brother she truly loves.

Shadow Souls sports many of the same problems as Nightfall. For one, the timeline is still screwed up. Not that I expected the original timeline to have been magically restored. There’s not really anything Smith could have done to fix it short of creating a time warp, or saying the events of Nightfall were all just a dream. I have to give Smith credit, though, for reducing the presence of 21st communication technology in Shadow Souls. While it doesn’t restore the timeline, it does make the story feel a little more “timeless” thereby making it easier to imagine the action taking place in 1992 (as it should have  had Smith stuck to her original timeline) instead of 2009.

And, while I’m at it, I also have to give Smith credit for reinstating the original symbolism behind the act of exchanging blood. In the original tetralogy, exchanging blood was a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, however, Smith killed the metaphor by asserting that vampires don’t actually have sex because blood lust takes the place of sexual desire. The shift wasn’t just abrupt and disconcerting to fans, but it robbed the series of its sensuality and removed the idea of pleasurable, consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the series.

But Smith attempts to correct that mistake page 4 of Shadow Souls in which Elena states that “vampires show love by exchanging blood.” Sure, it’s not entirely on target, but saying that exchanging blood denotes love is far more in line with the original metaphor than the sexless, loveless definition put forth in Nightfall. And since “making love” is a euphemism for sex, I’m willing to accept Smith’s little revision. In addition to the reduced presence of 21st century communication technology, her willingness to revise a problematic definition shows that Smith did indeed listen to her disgruntled fans, and made an effort to correct the problems as best she could.

Still, it’s not enough to save Shadows Souls. At 608 pages it is just as bloated as Nightfall; overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Smith’s editor over at HarperCollins should be given her walking papers because she’s obviously not doing her job.

In Nightfall, Smith indulged in what I rather generously called “character back-tracking.” Other readers called it “total character decimation,” but I tried to cut Smith some slack. Though I recognized many of the abrupt character turn arounds as inconsistent and illogical, for example Damon’s inexplicable return to vain, bad boy head space after taking small but firm steps to coming a good person in The Fury and Dark Reunion, I still thought the behaviors as “in character” based on the previous books.

I can’t cut Smith any slack for Shadow Souls, though. This time she really has  successfully managed to annihilate one of her main characters. The victim? Elena Gilbert, herself.

One of the primary pleasures of the original tetralogy is watching Elena go from self-centered, conceited “mean girl” to caring, selfless, and ultimately noble human being as her narrow world view expands. She grows, she allows herself to be changed by her experiences, and by the end of Dark Reunion she is a totally different person than she was in The Awakening.

In Shadow Souls, however, Elena morphs back into the conceited princess she was at the start of the series. It’s evident on page 3 when she says, “I…don’t think it’s vain to say that I’m beautiful. If I didn’t know I was, I’d have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment.” And on page 14, when explaining that her supernaturally-charged blood is irresistible to vampires, she says, “… [N]aturally, they come after me…It’s as if the world is full of honeybees and I’m the only flower.” Elena has not talked about herself like this since The Struggle! Once she realized she was not the center of the universe, that there were people in her life who she loved more than herself, she stopped viewing herself as an object. Elena’s vanity is three books in the past, and seeing it pop up in Shadow Souls without any explanation or foreshadowing is jarring because it negates all the growth she underwent in volumes three through five.

Smith doesn’t seem to realize there is a disconnect between the selfless Elena of The Fury and Dark Reunion, and the selfish, conceited Elena who shows up in Shadow Souls. Throughout the book supporting characters go on about how caring, selfless, loyal, beautiful, and all around perfect Elena is despite the fact that she doesn’t do anything to warrant the praise, and actually does quite a lot to contradict it, the most obvious being *SPOILER ALERT* her decision to cheat on Stefan with Damon.

From the start of the book there is a heat between Elena and Damon that was not present in the last three volumes. Smith gives no explanation as to where this new passion came from or how it developed. Literally, you just open Shadow Souls and, boom, there it is. By page 26 Elena and Damon are “exchanging blood” and continue to do so right up until they rescue Stefan around page 500.

The fact that Elena cheats on Stefan, the boyfriend she claims to love so much she’d willingly die for him, and cheats on him with the brother who is responsible for putting his life in peril in the first place indicates a remarkable lack of caring and common sense on Elena’s part. She obviously isn’t thinking of Stefan’s feelings while she’s making it with Damon. She isn’t even thinking of Damon’s feelings. As Damon grows more attached to her, rather than end their little affair she fans the flames, continuing to tease and flirt with him, all the while claiming she could never ever be with him, that Stefan is her true love. Those don’t sound like the actions of a loyal, selfless, compassionate person, do they?

Smith realizes how badly this scenario reflects on her characters, so she uses magic to justify their behavior. She attributes Damon’s attraction to Elena to her supernaturally-charged blood that is virtually irresistible to vampires. He is thus compelled to “exchange blood” with her. By taking free-will out of the equation Smith saves Damon from being held responsible for his actions, much as being possessed by the kitsune excused him from being blamed for all the chaos he wrought in Nightfall.

Whenever they kiss a psychic link opens up between Elena and Damon, allowing them to access each others thoughts and internal landscapes. The first time they kiss Elena comes face to face with Damon’s inner child. (I’m serious. She really does. I’d tell you to stop laughing but…there’s no reason you should.) Elena feels such compassion for this scared little boy, wants so much to comfort him that she feels she must continue the affair with Damon just so she can save his inner child! By framing Elena’s conscious and repeated transgressions as compassionate Smith tries to redeem Elena in the eyes of the reader, but the whole inner child subplot is so ridiculous this attempt is a complete failure.

Now, I could have bought the Elena and Damon plotline if Smith had tried giving it some depth. Elena is only eighteen, and eighteen year olds DO do stupid shit like cheat on their boyfriends for no other reason than because they can. It seems like the only reason Smith included the inner child subplot was because she was unwilling to let Elena be imperfect. Ironically, it’s that choice that gives rise to Elena’s old vanity, destroys all of her previous character growth, and turns her into an unlikable heroine. Rather than watch Elena carry on the affair convinced of its necessity to saving Damon’s inner child, I would have liked to see her wrestle with her decision to cheat on Stefan. I would have liked to see her try to justify her actions to herself through non-magical means. I would have liked to see Elena experience some moral quandary or internal conflict over her feelings and actions. I would have liked Smith to allow Elena the luxury of being a person rather than an ideal. Doing so would have given the book some much needed grounding, and given Smith the opportunity to deal with relevant themes like honesty in relationships, desire versus love, and developing a of personal code of ethics. Furthermore, it would have allowed Elena to grow as a character. She would have had to face a new challenge – one just as frightening as any supernatural threat – and wrestle with questions she’d never had to ask herself before: Is it possible to love two people at the same time? Is it morally right? How do I deal with these feelings without hurting anyone? Is it even possible? What do my actions say about me as a person? Do I like what they say? These are questions teenagers across the globe ask themselves when entering the arena of sex and love. I have no doubt readers would have been receptive to a confused and imperfect heroine who was a little easier to relate to.

The only redeeming aspect of Elena’s “mean girl” persona back in The Awakening and The Struggle was her self-confidence and assertiveness. Elena Gilbert always got what she wanted and always had a plan for how to get it. Smith may bring back the bitch in Shadow Souls but she forgets the self-confidence and assertiveness. With her true love in mortal peril what’s Elena’s big rescue plan? Leave everything up to Damon. Follow Damon’s lead, let Damon decide what to do, do everything Damon says. Elena has virtually no agency and it’s really sad.

Oh, and did I mention that Elena cries or gets teary-eyed no less than 33 times through the course of the book? That’s once every 18 pages! Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Bonnie supposed to be the cry-baby? Tears punctuate emotionally moving experiences. But when a person cries at everything none of their experiences seem special. Elena cried so often that instead of sharing her pain or joy when she did, I just rolled my eyes at how overly-emotional she was being.

I did not recognize the Elena Gilbert I’d come to know over the course of five books in the helpless, thoughtless, conceited little girl who showed up in Shadow Souls. I spent all 608 pages trying to figure out why Smith was trying so hard to prevent her characters from growing and evolving, what narrative purpose was served by allowing Elena and Damon to regress. Then, it hit me: Smith doesn’t know how write anything else. All of her books contain the same recycled love triangle, the same seductive bad boys and resistant Mary Sues. She never gives the reader anything new or different. She hasn’t let Elena and Damon grow because she doesn’t know how to write growth or how to depict characters other than the tried and true “types” she has been using for decades. That realization was, for me,  a stake through the heart of The Vampire Diaries series.

I have a rule. I call it the two book rule, and the two book rule states that if any writer to whom I’ve been unwaveringly loyal writes two books in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I stop buying their books. I created the rule to save myself both time and money, and to affirm that I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on crappy books. Reading Nightfall and Shadow Souls wasn’t just a joyless experience, it was downright painful. So, it’s with great regret that I say I will not be buying any more books by L.J. Smith, not even the final installment of The Return trilogy. I don’t care about Elena, Damon, Stefan or the rest of the gang anymore because it’s obvious they are done growing, and where’s the fun in reading about people who don’t grow or change?

If you’re a fan of The Vampire Diaries I advise you to keep your distance from Shadow Souls. Reading it will only piss you off. This review only touched upon the most troublesome aspects of the story, but there are tons more. For instance, Smith’s continual use of female victimization and slavery as a plot device void of any social context or commentary. I could write a dissertation around that topic alone.

Don’t read Shadow Souls. Don’t read Nightfall, either. Instead, watch The Vampire Diaries television show. The writing, plot lines, character and relationship development, and pacing are all infinitely better. Smith could learn a thing or twelve.

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The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall by L.J. Smith

March 26, 2009 at 11:59 pm (fantasy, fiction, novels, romance, vampires, young adult) ()

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.

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