Review: Team Human

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan. HarperTeen. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Mel Duan has lived in the vampire town of New Whitby, Maine her whole life. She is not a fan of the vampires, and is happy that they stay in their part of town. Mel is not happy to find out that vampire Francis Duvarnery (turned in 1867) is going to be attending high school as a Senior. She is especially not happy that her best friend, Cathy, is entranced by Francis.

Vampires may follow strict laws about not killing or turning people, but that hardly makes things safe for humans. Take, for example, her friend Anna. One moment, she has blissfully married parents. The next, Anna’s father has run off with a vampire, barely remembering to text his daughter.

Mel is Team Human, and she’s going to make sure her friends stay that way.

The Good: Team Human is part supernatural (vampires are real), part mystery (why did Anna’s father leave), part romance (that would be telling), part social commentary (vampire / human interactions and prejudices), with humor woven throughout. It’s also dusted with pop culture references, such as Whitby from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Bathory River (for Elizabeth Bathory). Team Human is smart; or, rather, expects the reader to be smart. It doesn’t explain the sources of these names.

New Whitby is a vampire town. In Mel’s world, vampires are real and people know about them. “New Whitby was founded by people escaping persecution because they were the blood-drinking undead.” In the present day, vampires keep to their side of town, humans to theirs, except, of course, for things like human tourists seeing the vampire sites or vampires visiting the still-living relatives.

A full world has been created; and along with that, some of the things that happen in current vampire books and films are gently mocked. Why, for example, would a vampire want to attend high school? Why would someone so old (and dead) be interested in someone so much younger (and alive)? Just how cold is a vampire, what with them being dead? For example, “most vampires claimed to have been royalty or one of the Astors or something equally snotty. Astonishing how few peasants and regular people got vamped back in the olden days, when it wasn’t regulated.”

Even before Cathy meets Francis, Mel worries about Cathy’s fondness for vampires: “She likes history more than the news and likes books better than most people. Of course she thinks vampires, since many of them are older than dirt and thus basically history books with legs and fangs, are totally fascinating.” Team Human sets up Mel’s biases very clearly, and the reader is inclined to agree with Mel, because, well, human! Who wouldn’t be Team Human? As the story continues, though, Mel begins to realize that just as humans are a mix of good and bad, so, too, are vampires.

The writing, dialogue and plotting reminded me, in the best possible way, of Joss Whedon. (Is there anything other than good in making a Joss comparison?) People are smart; there are surprises along the way (and no, I’m not going to tell, but wowza on the person who turns out to be Mel’s romantic interest); there is more than one first expects; and, one minute I’m laughing and the next …. I’m crying. I have to say, since this is in part a book poking gentle, loving, we mock because we care fun at the whole vampire genre, I expected to laugh. I expected to see interesting references. Based on the other books I’ve read by the authors, I expected action and good plotting. I did not think I was going to cry; I didn’t think this would be that kind of book. It was. I cried. And it was that — the tears — that made me think most of Joss, who can make someone laugh and cry.

Joss can also make someone think: and Team Human does that. Yes, it’s about vampires. But more importantly, it’s about prejudices and fear and learning to overcome those initial biases. It’s also about, well, balance. For example, the process of being vamped. Mel is shown to be very against the process of a human becoming a vampire, and part of it is because of the changes it makes to a person: the not going out in the sun anymore, frozen in time, losing ones sense of humor (no, really). Part of it is also because sometimes the process doesn’t work, and the consequences of a failed vamping are very real. Mel’s feelings have a factual basis, yes, but should fear be how one lives ones life? How one judges others?

One last part, and it’s an important part. Team Human has a great, diverse group of teens. Mel is Chinese American; one of her friends is black; a couple of characters are gay. Since all to often the “default setting” of books is all white, all straight, it’s refreshing when a book reflects a broader world view.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Joelene Reviews; io9.

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