Book Review: Team Human, by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

What do you do when your best friend develops a romantic interest in someone you think is wildly inappropriate? What if that person happens to be a vampire? That’s the setup for Team Human, a cowritten romp through a world where vampires have gone public, but they still experience their fair share of discrimination, even in New Whitby, a town where humans and vampires have established an uneasy truce. Smart and snappy, Team Human is filled with delicious references and homages to the vampire genre, but it also manages to be entirely fresh and original, something that is pretty hard to do at this point of extreme vampire saturation. Please note that this review is moderately spoilery; if by some chance you haven’t read Team Human yet, you might want to wait on this!

In the mythology of Team Human, vampires live openly among humans, although many tend to congregate in communities among their own kind. They’re strictly regulated and have their own police force to prevent things like unauthorized feedings and transitions, and transitions require a permit. There are even some zombies in the mix; when a transformation goes wrong and the vampire blood doesn’t take, the result is a zombie, a menace to society with limited self-control and few memories of the past. Zombies are object lessons and warnings, the consequence of breaking the law and failing to observe careful protocols when transitioning.

When a vampire shows up at Mel’s school and her best friend seems to be developing a strong attraction to him, Mel is repulsed. Her dislike of vampires runs deeper than the potential dangers, though; she’s also just deeply bigoted. She thinks of vampires as a hivemind, a unilaterally vicious and dangerous group with no respect for humans, and she deeply fears being around them. As her friend’s relationship progresses, Mel gets more and more uncomfortable, and she comes with with a variety of ways to convince Cathy to abandon the relationship.

Meanwhile, curious things are afoot with the school principal, and Mel has some love problems of her own as she encounters Kit, a human raised among vampires. Kit challenges her attitudes about the vampire community, and Mel is forced over the course of the book to confront her prejudices, especially as Cathy prepares to make a choice that will change her forever, and could potentially permanently estrange her and Mel. Mel is forced to ask herself what matters more: Her hatred of vampires, or her love for her friends.

On a surface level, I love Team Human for all the literary references. It’s a delightful read even if you’re not familiar with all the vampire canon, Jane Austen, and the other influences that run throughout the text. If you are, almost every page features a little Easter Egg to cackle over, and they’re integrated seamlessly into the book rather than feeling obtrusive or forced. There’s a love for the source texts and materials that really shines through, even as Larbalestier and Brennan took the myth in a new and interesting direction.

This is also a story about love and how far you are willing to go for it. Some of the characters are forced to watch people they care for deeply slip beyond their grasp, and in some cases turn into monsters, even if those monsters have a vague memory of who they once were. As Mel navigates the new world that’s opening up for her, she realises that she’s going to lose some things even as she gains others, and that love can come with a sharp cost. And may, sometimes, involve compromise and a willingness to rethink your assumptions and change your attitudes. If she truly loves Cathy, that means sticking with her through thick, thin, and vampire.

Team Human also explores the role of prejudicial attitudes in society, and that, too, is an important part of the text. In a way that isn’t issuey or clonking readers over the head, the book slyly asks people why they are afraid of certain social groups, and illustrates the fact that some of that fear comes from learned social attitudes, but some of it also comes from lack of exposure. Mel hates vampires because that’s what she’s been taught; she considers them tolerated members of society[1. There’s an absolutely hilarious and priceless reference to the mandate for tinted glass on buildings to protect vampires that totally reminded me of people whining about ADA requirements.], rather than actual members of the community.

As Mel actually meets and interacts with vampires, she has to reevaluate her attitudes. For one thing, she learns that all vampires are not the same, and that they walk a variety of paths in life. Some may be vicious and monstrous, but others are kind and loving. In fact, she finds out that vampires are a lot like humans in many ways, with a broad spectrum of attitudes and experiences. She also learns that many intermingle freely and happily with humans, although some are also afraid of humans, and with good reason. They’re well aware of the fact that they’re treated with sufferance in many communities. In this sense, vampires become a marginalised minority, and Mel realises that she occupies a position with some power in society, even though she herself is a minority.

It’s a flipping of the dynamic when it comes to vampires. While the vampires of Team Human possess strength, power, and other abilities, New Whitby was founded to flee persecution, and vampires still don’t enjoy an equal social footing. I like this framing, where we have a chance to see them as a hated and feared minority fighting for more equal treatment in society. Sure, vampires have the capacity to do works of great evil and be total jerks—but so do humans, and Mel has to learn that.