Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Review of Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins

I'm amazed I picked up this book. There are just so many teen books about vampire academies and fairy academies and zombie academies out there that I tend to walk right on by. But Hex Hall, besides having great cover art, gave me the feeling that it wouldn't take itself too seriously, and sure enough, I enjoyed Rachel Hawkins' take on the paranormal school story. Another first-timer, the author is a former high school English teacher, so she does know her teens and can no doubt diagram a mean sentence.

The initial scene in Hex Hall would be the last scene in a different book: young witch Sophie Mercer takes pity on a dateless fellow prom-goer and arranges for the girl's crush to come and dance with her. Only Sophie overdoes the spell and prom goes haywire. (As one boy shouts out, "Carrie prom!") A few days later, Sophie finds herself at a reform school for young Prodigium, meaning witches, faeries, and shapeshifters. All of them have misused their powers, putting the secretive supernatural community at risk.

Oh, and there's just one vampire—who happens to be Sophie's roommate and inspires fear in the other students. One of the funniest moments of the book is when Sophie sees how Jenna has decorated their room:

I don't know what I was expecting a vampire's room to look like. Maybe lots of black, a bunch of books by Camus...oh, and a sensitive portrait of the only human the vamp had ever loved, who had no doubt died of something beautiful and tragic, thus dooming the vamp to an eternity of moping and sighing romantically....
But this room looked like it had been decorated by the unholy lovechild of Barbie and Strawberry Shortcake... The curtains were beige canvas, but Jenna had twined a hot-pink scarf over the drapery rod. Between the two desks was one of those old Chinese screens, but even this bore Jenna's stamp, as the wood had been painted—you guessed it: pink. The top of the screen was draped with pink Christmas lights. Jenna's bed was covered in what appeared to be deep pink Muppet fur.
Jenna caught me staring at it. "Awesome, right?"
"I...I didn't know pink existed in that particular shade."
As you can see, Sophie has a lively narrative voice, which helps counterbalance the darker elements of this story.

Our heroine soon runs afoul of a coven of popular witches, all of whom look like supermodels. When Sophie refuses to join their ranks, they go out of their way to make her life miserable. It doesn't help that the boy Sophie finds herself attracted to, Archer, is dating the coven ringleader, or that Archer insulted Sophie himself when they first met. But a Hex Hall version of detention throws Sophie and Archer together, and they gradually become friends.

Meanwhile, Sophie plays detective, trying to figure out how a student who used to be in the coven died, especially after another student is attacked. She also learns some surprising news about her long-absent father and has a strange encounter with an apparent ghost. A group of humans determined to wipe out all Prodigium provides a big-picture threat that the author will be clearly be developing in future books. Hex Hall ends with a twist that caught me completely off guard.

Interestingly, Hyperion lists this book's intended audience as "11 and up." By which they mean tweens as well as teens, of course. (Amazon just says 9-12, although the book is too teenagey to be considered middle grade fiction.) I'm beginning to wonder if what I would call "wholesome YAs" will eventually get their own category as publishers try to reach the tween market without going quite as edgy as the more mature YA books.

If you've read Marlene Perez's Dead Is the New Black and sequels, you'll have a ballpark idea of this book's tone, although Hawkins tells a longer, more detailed story. For those who like their witches and vampires with a touch of humor, Hex Hall promises to be the start of a satisfying series.

Note for Worried Parents: Girls die in a gruesome way, and there are scary supernatural threats. Also some romance and kissing.

Update: Here's an interview with Rachel Hawkins at Enchanted Inkpot (September 2010).

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