Small towns everywhere have a few things in common. There's a group of overly-involved mothers who rule the town via a network of gossip. There's usually a relatively incompetent sheriff's department that gets lazy due to the lack of real crime to deal with. There's kids who will live out their whole lives there, and others who want to leave the day after they get their diplomas. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl do a wonderful job at setting the scene of Gatlin, South Carolina in their novel Beautiful Creatures.
Ethan Wate is one of the kids who can't wait to leave town. He has a map of all the locations in the books he's read that he wants to visit. He hides his books under his bed, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, since even though is family is more progressive than some of the other families in town, it's still not expected that one of the stars of the basketball team would have a bookwormish bedroom. He's had a hard time of it recently, following the death of his mother, and with his father retreating more and more into his study to work on his 'Great American Novel,' he's been relying on Amma more and more for advice and love. Good old Amma, with the little wards she leaves around the house, and her wise advice mixed with cryptic phrases.
He's been having nightmares recently. In them, a girl is falling, and her fingers slip out of his hand. He can never quite make out her face, and he's sure that he doesn't know her, but he also knows that he loves this girl more than he can believe. He can never remember how the dreams ends, and even stranger, no matter how sure he is that he shut the window at night, it's always open when he wakes up.
On his first day of school, after yet another one of these strange dreams, he finds a new song on his ipod. 'Sixteen Moons.' He tries to show it to his best friend Link, but when he goes to pull it up again it's vanished. But there's news at school: there's a new girl. An actual girl, named Lena Duchannes, that they haven't known since they were babies. Big news in such a small town. And even stranger, she's the niece of the town recluse, and living in the house that everyone's convinced is haunted. Arriving at school in a hearse probably didn't help the rumors much, either.
Later in the day, he hears the strains of the dream song wafting up from the band room, but again the person playing it is gone by the time he gets there.
Driving home from a freak thunderstorm, Ethan almost runs over a shadowy figure in the road. It turns out that the person in the road is Lena, and her hearse broke down. As Ethan gets a good look at the new girl, he realizes something: this is the girl that he's been dreaming about.
Beautiful Creatures takes the typical YA romance story and infuses magic. Lena is overprotected for a reason: this year, on her sixteenth birthday, she will be Claimed as either a Light or Dark magic user, with huge consequences either way. Ethan learns more than he ever thought he would about the men he was named after, and each of the 'Families' of Gatlin have more skeletons in their closets than an anatomy classroom.
There's quite a few storylines in this book, possibly because it is the first of a quartet. As such, at times the book drags terribly. At one point, Ethan and Lena's lives turn into "try to find information, can't find information, hang out some more." And while this is how life usually is, it didn't need to be shown to the reader. Also, perhaps because both authors are women, at times Ethan seems to be more of a female character skinned as a high school boy than an actual guy. Both he and Link are completely idealized teenage boys, without any of the crudeness that one expects.
Despite its flaws, Beautiful Creatures is an engaging Young Adult romance, with a well thought out magical system and side characters that fascinate even more than the main ones.
Highs: The Caster Library is every bibliophile's dream.
Lows: Naming a librarian Marian is just too spot-on-the-nose for me.
Verdict: At an intimidating 560 pages, Beautiful Creatures drags occasionally but is still a relatively quick, entertaining read.
Further Reading: A Discovery of Witches, A Shimmer of Angels, Dust Girl