Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ew, Yuck, Repeat

by Scott Westerfeld
Razorbill, ©2005

Peeps is Scott Westerfeld's attempt to create a vampire book that is "new and interesting, while still being full of bitey goodness". Short answer: he succeeds. In all of his novels, Westerfeld weaves the culture into his storytelling, and this is no less true of Peeps.

Cal Thompson has spent the last year of his life hunting down every girl he's kissed for the last year, ever since he was infected with a disease that turns ninety-nine percent of those who catch it into crazed, cannibalistic recluses who fear the sun and everything they ever loved. Cal himself is one of the "lucky" ones, made stronger and faster by the disease, but at the cost of becoming a carrier - infecting everyone he comes into intimate contact with the disease.

To make his life even more difficult, the parasite causes carriers to become more intensely attractive and easily attracted to others in order to spread itself more effectively. Even worse, Cal is tasked with finding his progenitor, the girl who gave him the disease in the first place, before she can spread the disease to others. Unfortunately, there are things more terrible than vampires in the depths of the City, and his search seems to be taking him directly into their path.

By grounding his story in scientific realism and evolutionary theory, Westerfeld makes his story much richer than your average modern vampire fare. Rather than relying strictly on tired emotional stereotypes and vague, worn-out mythologies, he infuses the genre with warm, freshly oxygenated blood. Try not to groan too hard...

Westerfeld presents a unique twist on the vampire mythos, deeply grounded in our own reality, with its parasites and diseases infinitely more terrifying than anything the author could have made up himself. What's really great about this book is that Westerfeld recognizes this fact, and uses it to make his own story more interesting and icky. Told through the voice of Cal, every other chapter is actually a brief description of the life cycle of some horrible real-life invisible parasitic monster or other. The result? Believable, scary, dynamic vampires and a story grounded in thoroughly modern sensibilities: plus a readership left with a healthy terror of ants, rats, cats and tropical rivers. (ewww!)

Another great aspect of Scott Westerfeld's writing is his fluency with modern language; he has a knack for lending a sinister twist to the everyday vocabulary of the under-thirty set. Cal Thompson, the narrator, is a typical (if geeky) nineteen-year-old boy surrounded by other college-age characters, all living on their own in a real life city; you never doubt this, because all of Westerfeld's characters and places sound exactly like what they're supposed to be. Without crossing into gratuitous descriptiveness, the novel also doesn't flinch from real-world sexuality and emotional complexity. Written with wry humor and a mild obsession for the bizarre and terrible, Cal's pains, fears and attractions are accessible and real.

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