Pretty When She Dies is an interesting little book. If I were to describe it, I would suggest picturing a room full of Paranormal Romance readers with the clean-cut Twilight-esque types on one end, the likable girls in jeans in the middle, and the punk girl with a dozen piercings and tattoos in the back. Pretty When She Dies is what the last one is reading. It's a series where everything takes on a darker, harder, edge than is usually found in the genre. Much like the Blackthorn books, it straddles the line between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy with the former leaning to PR and this novel leaning to UF.
Way back in the nineties when I was an awkward moody teen as opposed to an awkward moody adult, my favorite pastime was Vampire: The Masquerade. A tabletop role-playing game, V:TM introduced the concept of Gothic Punk. Gothic Punk was a theme which showed a world much darker than our own where elder vampires secretly ruled the world behind the scenes, humans were ignorant victims, and the heroes were the younger vampires who had just enough power to be dangerous but couldn't control their dark sides. Eventually, much like actual punk, Gothic Punk was sanitized to become the unrecognizable backdrop for family-friendly stories where the monsters were about as scary as those in The Hobbit.
Actually, no, I was pretty scared by Mirkwood's spiders when I was a kid.
If you're wondering where I'm going with this, Pretty When She Dies feels like a book which embodies the old Gothic Punk feel. Vampires are terrifying, aggressive in their sexuality, and have no regard for the lives of humans. Normal humans aren't all that great either, being a craptacular species of ignorance and cruelty with only the rare diamond shining through. It's a dark world that still has plenty of edge to it. I found this to be a refreshing change and am inclined to recommend the novel on this basis alone.
Pretty When She Dies starts with Amaliya Vezorak being transformed into a vampire by her college professor. Unlike other settings where vampires are merely misunderstood, this is portrayed as an act of violent assault--as is his dumping the newly turned and hungry young woman in the midst of a college sex party. What follows is a bloody massacre and we get our first real hint this is not going to be your typical vampire novel.
It's interesting so very few vampire novels are interested in the concept of how someone reacts to being turned. How does one's family react? How does one deal with one's newly liquid diet? Who does one feed on? The first half of Pretty When She Dies charts Amaliya as she attempts to survive being a vampire with no assistance. The fact she knows no rules about being a vampire or its laws are all plot points which provide a good amount of tension.
Eventually, our heroine manages to find her way to a place where she can learn about her status as the undead and meet our romantic interest for the novel. Even this proves to be an unconventional sort of relationship. Cian, the head vampire of Austin, is a character who nicely upends many traditional vampire romantic lead roles. He's already engaged to a plucky young human woman who believes in his "good heart." The fact Amaliya comes into his life as a home-wrecker who is quite sure they're vampires rather than human puts a fascinating spin on the whole process.
I won't spoil the rest of the book but it has several unexpected twists and a good use of its mortal supporting cast. Too often, these sorts of books forget humans exist or treat them as something unimportant in the grand scheme of thing. If I'm talking too much about how this book zigs left when most books zig right, this is true. Part of what makes Pretty When Dies entertaining is it does read as a deconstruction of traditional (read: hack) Paranormal Romance plots. Thus, Amaliya is a breath of fresh air.
Indeed, I doubt I would enjoy this book if not for the fact Amaliya is such a rebuttal to so many tired and worn cliches about Urban Fantasy heroines. Her sexual aggressiveness, implied bisexuality, and willingness to cross lines make her a fun antidote to stale "safe" heroines. I, half-suspected, she'd end up seducing Cian's fiance--though that's probably a little too far for today's still-puritanical audiences.
Did I like everything? No, I'm sorry to say I did not. I think the stories pacing was a little off and the author could have eased the reader into a world filled with a heightened sexuality and corruption from the world's own. I spent eight years in college and I never encountered the parties where our young heroine finds. Likewise, the causal number of complete scumbags she meets strains belief. Amaliya is not the most introspective of characters but pausing in the beginning to let us get a feel for her condition would have been welcome. Some audiences may be turned off by the breakneck pace and descriptions during the first few chapters before things smooth out.
In conclusion, I recommend Pretty When Dies but with the caveat that the first part of the story is not my favorite. It takes awhile for Amaliya to settle into her new life and the author to settle into her rhythm writing her. Yet, the book reminds me so much of my wannabe Goth days I can't help but say it was worth the purchase. The book grew on me not only as I read it but as afterward. I'm definitely going to pick up future installments of the series as well. I hope they continue to be transgressive and edgy with Amaliya's dark and sexy side allowed to grow.