Over the summer, I was shopping at a discount store when I spotted this:
I texted the photo to my roommate with the caption “pov you’re in heaven” because that’s the honest truth. Were my eyes deceiving me or was Spirit Bound from the Vampire Academy series finally about to enter my possession?
I first encountered this series in eighth grade. Now, I’m not exactly a Twilight apologist (I’ve got lots to say about those books), but what’s undeniable is that those books had a profound impact on my personal tastes as a reader. Vampires were this cool and illusive subject because they were made to be evil and alluring and at the time I thought their live were so much more interesting than my own. Now, I’m not so sure. You can’t convince me that Dracula never got bored living up in that castle.
For whatever reason, Bella and Edward captured my attention. As soon as I finished those books I went to my local library and searched up “Vampire” in the system. It was like a sign from above (or below, maybe, for Vampires?) when that search result informed me of the young adult book series Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. I checked the first book out.
And thus the obsession was born. Vampire Academy is a bar lower than Twilight in angst, but a bar higher in action. Bella Swan and Rose Hathaway are so different in demeanor that they’re basically incomparable protagonists. Rose is incredibly outspoken and impulsive, frequently getting in trouble for having an attitude. Rose was born a half-vampire, also known as “Dhampir”, so we get to skip over the whole longing-to-be-a-vampire plotline. Dhampirs are like the bodyguards of the vampire world, protecting the full blooded “Moroi” vampires from the evil and soulless “Strigoi” vampires.
Rose is a textbook strong female protagonist. She fights—physically and verbally—all while being considered conventionally attractive by male characters. I name her desirability as part of the attributes to be a “strong female protagonist” as a comment on the fact that a woman’s physical appearance is frequently tied to her agency in our media. Women, whether in books or film, are still constantly subjected to the opinion of the Male Gaze in their portrayals.
Rose is not excluded from the sexualization of the Male Gaze. As a woman in a male-dominated profession, she faces constantly leering from both men and women that if she can’t shape up and become a full trained Guardian, an attractive girl like her will likely end up in vampire prostitution. It’s an innaproprate comment to make to anyone, especially a minor, and it doesn’t go away as she matures. There’s never any mention of her male peers falling to this fate. She’s consistently sexualized throughout the series.
Still, the books are set up to be a big hit. Vampire high school, a sassy lead, and a steamy romance? Why didn’t Vampire Academy achieve the same level of infamy as Twilight? There was a movie starring Zoey Deutch that premiered 2014 and tanked, grossing $15.4 million against a budget of $30 million. And whilst the film wasn’t flawless, it came amidst young adult fiction’s era of dominance in the box office and had a strong performance from the main cast, so one would expect a better number in theaters. I mean, it opens with Bad Girls by M.I.A., and how much better can a film opening get than that?
Perhaps it has something to do with the film aesthetically looking unnatural and low budget at times, or its divergence from the book on certain plot points (when will Hollywood learn?), but regardless the Vampire Academy film is not getting its sequel. It is, however, receiving a second chance through a TV series set to premiere on Peacock! I will be withholding all judgments until after viewing.
I think that the biggest challenge of adapting this story is trying to mask an unavoidable issue from the books: the completely inappropriate central relationship. Sorry Vampire Academy devotes, but I wouldn’t recommend this series to someone the same age as I was when I first read the books. The central romance of the story is between a student and her trainer who is seven years older. That is to say, the power dynamics are heavily skewed. And perhaps I’d feel differently if the book allowed space for commentary on this sort of relationship, but it is devoted to the idea that Rose and Dimitri are meant to be. Rose complains all throughout the story that she’s mature enough to make here own choice regarding romantic relationships, and we seldom get a voice of wisdom from others on the situation because their relationship is secret. Rose wasn’t cool and mature for dating her adult teacher (and neither was Aria in Pretty Little Liars, for that matter), and this romantic relationship shouldn’t have been marketed to me as something to aspire to.
Part of Rose’s badassery is tied to her relationship with Dimitri. But the fact is that powerful young women don’t need older men to “match” them. I think that as an older reader I’m able to at least understand on a fundamental level that this relationship is not healthy or romantic, but the story didn’t give me that. I come to the table with enough knowledge to push back against the narrative of the story. It’s east to get swept up in the moral goodness of the hero and to believe the idea that everything they think is right. The problem is, this isn’t always true. Vampire Academy never asked me to critically interrogate the problems in this power dynamic.
There are reasons that I loved this book in middle school. Rose Hathaway is a half-vampire warrior badass, and the story poses interesting questions by setting up an elitist class system that trains Rose to view her life as less valuable than that of the full blooded vampires. As a young reader, I loved Rose. She pushes back against a system that devalues her and is an incredibly loyal and lovable character. I was craving a funny, smart, and strong female protagonist like her in my stories.
It can be difficult to look back at stores we love and find the flaws in them. In doing so, though, I am reminded of all the ways this story influenced me as a writer and reader, and all of the things I want to do better.