Book Review: The Immortal Rules, by Julie Kagawa

Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Rules might seem like your standard paranormal YA at first glance, but don’t let that fool you. Because it’s actually a fantastic book, and more than that, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth delving into. I absolutely love it when authors twist things around and upend dominant narratives, which Kagawa has done very deftly hereā€”and, in case you’re worried, this is a relatively spoiler-free review of The Immortal Rules (in line with what you’ll find in the back cover copy), so you can read on fearlessly if you haven’t read it yet.

Allison Sekemoto is a teen living in the Fringe, the edge of a tightly controlled society run by vampires. The vampires live in the inner city, while humans have the choice between living in the Fringe and becoming Registered to access food (in exchange for ‘donating’ blood), or being Unregistered and foraging for themselves. It’s a dangerous life in a post-apocalyptic society where vampire enforcers known as Pets wait to leap on any humans who appear to be stealing. Beyond the Fringe lies a desolate world effectively ruled by Rabids, humans and animals who carry a virus that makes them uncontrollably violent and bloodthirsty.

As an Unregistered human, Allison hates the vampires with a passion, loathing everything they stand for and viewing them as monsters. But that all changes when she’s discovered on the brink of death by a vampire who offers her a choice: peaceful death, or a second life. She takes the chance and is reborn as the very thing she hates, which propels her on a journey of deeper understanding of both humans and vampires.

There are a couple of really culturally and socially important things going on in this book. The first is that Allison is a woman of colour, which is still a frustratingly rare thing in YA. The second is that Allison is a female vampire, which is extremely unusual in a world where most vampires are male, and they inhabit very specific tropes: they’re dark, mysterious, strong, masculine (much like Allison’s sire-turned-mentor, sigh). So Kagawa is bucking two important trends by casting a woman of colour as a vampire in The Immortal Rules, but she did more than that: she also made this a book that’s not really about romance, which is a striking shift from the current iteration of the vampire narrative.

I’ve written a lot about the changes in the vampire narrative over time (hence the vampires category to the right), noting that historically, vampires were monsters, but now they’re supposed to be sympathetic, romantic love interests. And typically, they’re male love interests, because there’s something dark and untamed about vampire sexuality, something culture doesn’t want to see expressed by women. Women are supposed to be the same, meek ones being swept off their feet by bold dude vampires who show them the ways of love. Women aren’t supposed to be the ones with the complex sensual identities as vampires, the ones who need blood to survive.

Kagawa also made another important departure from the modern vampire here: she chose not to effectively defang Allison. Instead of making her as tame and acceptable as possible by creating excuses for her to be in sunlight, or allowing her to survive on animal blood, Kagawa kept her a monster. Allison will die if she’s exposed to sunlight, and she will die horribly. She needs human blood to live, and not just human blood but preferably fresh blood taken directly from someone.

Allison becomes the thing she hates against her will and she’s forced to accept her monster status and she never forgets it. This is is not about a humanised version of a vampire who basically has all the superpowers with none of the flaws. Allison is dangerous, she is monstrous, and she hates herself for it. She also never forgets it, aware that for all the things she said about vampires before, she has become one of them, and she understands their monstrousness, even as she flutters on the edges of the human world, develops connections with humans, and takes a band of humans under her protection.

This is a radical departure from the vampire fare I’m becoming painfully accustomed to, where there are no real stakes and it’s all gooey romance between a human girl and a compelling male vampire. The Immortal Rules stands out as a text where the author has returned to the roots of the vampire trope and mined it for new depths of material, and she’s flipped some assumptions: yes, people of colour can be vampires. Yes, women can be vampires. Yes, it’s possible to be a monster while also being consumed with very real feelings of grief and loss, and complex emotions for human beings.

This is an adventure more than a romance, although Allison does forge an intimate connection with a human being in her travels. And I like that, because it’s getting so tiring to be subjected to an endless parade of vampire romances. Kagawa has done something distinctive and outstanding here with an innovative and fresh take on a narrative that many people seem to think is tired and played-out. As she demonstrates, the problem isn’t with the idea of vampires, but with how people use it, and there’s a lot more to explore in the world of vampirism and the people (and monsters) who inhabit it if authors are creative and publishers are willing to have a little gamble on them.

The Immortal Rules is complex, twisted, shadowy, and amazing. It’s well worthy of the attention it’s received and it deserves a lot more, because this is a book (and a series) that shows old dogs can indeed be taught to do new tricks.