I recently started reading the House of Night books, in part because several people talked them up to me, and in part because a charming waitperson insisted on loaning me her copies of the first two books. (Take that, New York Times and your snobbish lists of things waitstaff can and can’t do…I’m pretty sure “loaning books to customers” would have been on that list if you’d thought of it.)
In the world of House of Night, vampirism happens as a result of changes which occur during puberty. People who are going to become vampires are Marked with a tattoo of the crescent moon, and expected to attend school at a House of Night, which is basically like a finishing school for vampires. If they make it through the changes associated with becoming adult vampires (and not everyone does), then they become something distinctly other than human, but still alive.
These books have been talked up to me because they feature a strong female lead, although she is a bit of a Mary Sue, if you ask me. Zoey seems to be on the fast track to maturity (which other characters make sure to mention with awe), she has powers no other vampire has dreamed of, she’s pretty, and she’s kinda perfect. So I’m not really sure, really, how strong of a female lead she really is. She takes charge, but in part that’s because she’s given these powers which allow her to do that. She’s an object of sexual interest who manages not to become subsumed in a boy, but we’re reminded constantly of her prettiness, and the romantic lives of her buddies play a less prominent role than her own (in the first two books, at any rate).
There are some things about these books which definitely make me uncomfortable. There seems to be a bit of cultural appropriation/noble savage crap going on with the constant references to Cherokee culture, and I’m kind of not a fan of the overt antidrug/alcohol messages in the book. We’re reminded at pretty much every opportunity that people who smoke marijuana and drink are pathetic losers who will never amount to anything and it’s really a shame, because they used to be so cool. Until they started smoking and drinking, of course, and people who do that are so gross.
And let’s talk about ableism, because the authors are using “lame” and “retard” like they’re going out of style (which, really, they ought to be). Anyone or anything which could possibly have these words used to describe it is. Abundantly. Sometimes multiple times on the same page. Interestingly enough, “gay” isn’t used as an insult, perhaps because there is a token neutered gay boy among the friends (and Zoey is constantly talking about how “hot” women are and hastening to add “but I’m not gay or nuthin'” in so many words).
And, of course, part and parcel with ableism is the constant fawning over perfection. Adult vampires are regularly described as perfect, impossibly beautiful, etc etc, which seems to be a common theme in vampire novels in general. The idea of perfection and the almost worship of it is a little…well, it’s annoying. It suggests that being human is somehow a flaw or disease (something echoed, incidentally, in the disdainful attitude many vamps in the series have to humans), and that vampirism is, in a sense, a cure for being a gross icky human. Which rubs me the wrong way, as a human reader.
The decision to appropriate famous people in the arts, letters, and so forth also kind of upsets me. According the books, basically anyone famous who has ever produced something of worth is a vampire. Including current popular figures. I get that the idea is to try to construct a mythology which fits into the framework of the world we know so that we can connect with it, but, again, I find it kind of annoying. The implication is that humans are unworthy and have nothing to contribute to society, other than acting as refrigerators.
Which is funny, since all vampires arise from humans, which means that humans actually contribute the most important thing of all to vampire society: More vampires.
I do think that one interesting thing about the books is the integration of a goddess-centered religion, and the stress on vampire society as matriarchal. While I may not think of highly as Zoey as some readers do, I think that the overall tone of the books is very female positive. A lot of references are made to the historic fear of female power, and the oppression of women who are powerful and try to exert power. The books also talk about the abuse and mistreatment of women who have been in touch with the Divine on some level, and about male attempts to dominate society and penetrate (sorry) female-only spaces.
I also, of course, love that the books are cat positive. Laden with cats. Overflowing with cats. A lot of vampire stories take the position that because vampires are inhuman, animals naturally fear them, but in the House of Night books, cats not only don’t have a problem with vampires, they have an affinity. The relationship to cats is also framed as a partnership and relationship, not an ownership, which I think is awesome. Cats choose their partners in these books instead of being treated like objects, which I think sends some interesting messages to readers about pets and how they are treated.
Of course, these books are pretty predictable. Supposedly gotcha plot points are laughably obvious to me. But that’s kind of the way of books which operate at this level, so I don’t think it bothers me as much as it might otherwise. It’s not like I’m reading these things to be blown away by innovative storylining and plot.
One thing which does kind of surprise and intrigue me is the creativity of the word use. Ableist slurs aside, there are portions of the books which actually have very creative, elegant, interesting, and beautiful language. I noticed it especially in the beginning of the first book, although alas it seems to have gone downhill from there. There were a few turns of phrase which I found particularly delightful, thus making it all the more annoying that the authors resorted to troped slurs when they apparently ran out of creativity. I’m hoping that there will be a return to this awesome word use in later books, because it’s a trait that made House of Night really stand out to me.