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WesternSFA
Dark Companion
by Marta Acosta
Tor, $9.99, 364pp
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Read this one. Just… read it.

Mesmerizing and fantastic, gritty, tough yet transcendent, Dark Companion is the best vampire story I have encountered, anywhere, ever.

Somehow, six-year old Jane Williams survived the murderous rampage that killed her mother, but she lost her memories and became a ward of the state, shunted from one foster home to another in a crime-ridden urban hellhole. Now, at sixteen, she has a chance at a new life. She has worked hard to transform herself from just one more hood rat into someone who might find a way out via education, and she has been offered a scholarship to Birch Grove Academy for Girls. Accepting means leaving behind her friend Wilde, who is spiraling down the dark ways of street survival, but Wilde is genuinely happy for her friend and the opportunity she has earned. Surprisingly, even the local boss, 2Slim, makes sure Jane gets out of the hood safely.

Jane does not care for literature, preferring the reliability and reality of chemistry and math; she plans to become a forensic scientist. Like an electron transposed to a higher energy valence, she goes from a squalid foster home to the Academy, where the school’s Director, Mrs. Radcliffe, makes her welcome. Not only is Jane invited to Radcliffe family dinners, she is asked to tutor their younger son, Lucian, called Lucky, in Chemistry. Since he is the most gorgeous young man Jane has ever seen, this seems too good to be true.

Jane has to establish herself academically and socially among girls with entrenched alliances; however, she recognizes the dynamics and already knows how to handle herself. She forms new friendships, especially with the irrepressible Mary Violet, who is Jane’s opposite in almost every way. But both with Lucky and in her classes, Jane finds her rational view disrupted by emotional storms. She also realizes that there are mysteries and dangers that seem to be converging about her. Why is Lucky so fascinated with her in private, but so aloof when others are around? What does he want of her? Why does his brother Jacob seem so protective at times and so appallingly insulting at others? Why are there bloodstains on the stones of the amphitheater in the heart of Birch Grove? Would she be safer back with Wilde? And is it only her imagination, or is there an affinity between her and the spirit of the trees themselves?

Mary Acosta sets the mood for the entire book with the poem quoted at the very beginning, and for each chapter with passages from classics of gothic fiction and horror. I had never read “Paper Matches” by Paulette Jiles before; it rips your heart right out of your chest. Oddly enough, the epilogue, which is exquisite, reminded me of the image of the goddess Kali. I have long felt that the idea of Kali dancing on the corpse of an infant is meant to represent that She takes to her all the destroyed and abandoned children of the world and somehow redeems their deaths, and all their lost potential, by her dance. I do not know if Acosta is familiar with that iconic Indian figure, but she seems to have found a corresponding European tradition. At the end of the story is a Tor Teen Reader’s Guide with questions, assignments, and discussion points, well-suited for either book club or educational settings.

Dark Companion is not delusional, self-indulgent “Mary Sue” pap; it is a literate, engrossing and soul-transforming story that is one of the few books marketed primarily to teen girls that I would not hesitate to recommend to teen boys as well. With perfect accuracy it depicts friendships, hardships and joys, the subtle betrayals of self and others, seductive temptations, and influences to which young adults are heir. I completely forgot my age as I read; I was right back in high school. Whether you grow up in the worst part of a city, the best part of town, or anywhere in between, some experiences are constant. Aren’t we all, at heart, Jane? ~~ Chris R. Paige

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