At first glance, Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan looks like a Twilight spoof, or rather a funny antidote to Twi-mania. There's the title, plus the whole concept: A teenage girl who tries to keep her best friend from dating the sexy but uptight vampire who comes to her high school.
But thank goodness, there's a lot more to this novel than that. It's actually a fantastic coming-of-age story, that manages the near-impossible feat of making vampires interesting again. And it features one of the best new young heroes we've seen in ages: Mel, a teenage girl who hates vampires and loves to investigate mysteries. This book isn't just for people who need a vampire palate-cleanser, but for anyone who loves a good story about growing up. Spoilers ahead...
In Team Human, Mel and Cathy are best friends, even though they're sort of opposites. Mel Duan's a goofy and rambunctious girl who's always joking around, doing fencing, and playing sports, while Cathy is more serious and bookish, and loves to read poetry. So when an ancient but stunning vampire named Francis enrolls in their high school, Cathy and Francis quickly become an item — and Mel starts scheming to break them up. Because, as the book's cover tag explains, "Friends don't let friends date vampires."
Like I said, it looks at first like it's going to be the anti-Twilight. But to its credit, this book manages to turn things around and become thing something much more unusual and complex. Something closer to real life, where things aren't as simple and clear-cut as we'd like them to be.
At the same time, Team Human does do a great job of reinventing vampire lore. This book manages to come up with a spin on vampirism that makes sense, and yet isn't like anything I've seen before. In particular, people who become vampires run the risk of dying — but also of becoming zombies instead of vampires. The human-to-vampire conversion process is carefully regulated. Which brings me to the other interesting point: This is a world where everybody knows about vampires, and their existence is highly regulated. There are also lots of other clever inventions, like the notion of some remorseful vampires getting surgery to try and give them some of the traits of their lost humanity, like the ability to laugh.
But even though the book does breathe new life (so to speak) into the played-out vampire idea, it also shows us why Mel dislikes them, and presents the best, most succinct explanation of what's wrong with wanting to be eternally young:
Being a vampire is their job. Vampires have long-term investments, of course. And modeling careers. The camera loves Ludmilla von Doesn't Need Airbrushing. That's part of what I think makes vampires so boring. Once you're a vampire, you don't ever need to be anything else.
So, no "vampire cowboy" or "vampire fireman." Mel does plenty of poking fun at vampires, especially Cathy's love interest Francis, who's unrelentingly solemn and pompous:
Francis was sitting as if someone had tried to put a stake through his heart but accidentally inserted it where the sun did not shine — which I guess is anywhere for vampires, but in a place where the sun does not shine even for regular people. His hands were folded on the table, in the empty space where his tray should have been.
As you can tell, the first-person narration is lively and fun, and occasionally screamingly funny. Try to imagine Mel narrating an Anne Rice novel. And like we said, Mel is probably the greatest thing about this book — she's a refreshing protagonist, who makes mistakes and gets stuff wrong, but is instantly likable and relatable. She's also American-Born Chinese, and the authors do a great job of making that feel real without laboring the point. Given how anemic or bland so many YA protagonists are, it's really great to encounter one with a strong personality.
The relationships among all the main kids, including Mel and Cathy but also Mel's ex-boyfriend Ty and their friend Anna, are really nicely fleshed out, and they feel like real kids. (There's some great Team Human fan art here, which gives all the characters a cute anime treatment, which I like better than the actual cover art.)
And then meanwhile, there's a mystery which Mel investigates — and thankfully, it does not feel tacked on or gratuitous. Mel's friend Anna is the daughter of the school principal, who's been acting very strange ever since her husband ran away with a vampire. Not surprisingly, something more sinister is going on, but it's not entirely what you expect. And the resolution fits in neatly with the rest of the book.
Mel gets a love interest of her own, which is where the book really turns your expectations on their head. She meets a cute boy named Kit, who's been raised by vampires since he was left with them as a baby. Kit's perspective on vampirism is, understandably, very different from Mel's, and watching the vampire-hating Mel fall in love with a boy whose family are all vampires adds a whole extra dimension to the book. Kit's uneasy among humans, and he thinks all human girls are nymphomaniacs, which leads to a few awkward moments here and there.
All in all, this is a book you should get for your teenage kid, or for any of your friends who love Twilight (or love to hate Twilight, for that matter.) But also, even if you're just sort of bored with vampires, you'll find this book a refreshing read. It's young adult fiction (and paranormal romance) that doesn't feel like it was built around a set formula, or created to fulfill a marketing niche. It's a neat story in which growing up isn't just about facing your fears or whatever, but about realizing the world is more complicated than you ever thought. Really neat stuff.