I love a school story. Who doesn’t love a school story? They’re useful to writers because they offer ready-made structure (semesters, lessons, exams); young readers enjoy them because they confirm their sense that their grades and friendships and enmities are the most important things in the world; for older readers they’re an exercise in nostalgia, a return to the comforting framework of the school timetable. Thus P.C. and Kristin Cast’s vampire YA novel Marked, the first in their House of Night series, seemed a good if not unproblematic choice for a mid-pandemic re-read.
Zoey Redbird is just your average regular Mary Sue until she’s Marked by a tracker from the House of Night, the spooky vampire boarding school across town. The Mark indicates that she’s one of the minority of people whose bodies will go through a change that will either turn them into a vampire or kill them. She must now attend schooling at the House of Night, but it’s not just lessons she’ll have to contend with: there’s a mean-girl clique that’s busy doing illicit things with human blood; and her Mark, a filled-in crescent moon instead of an outline like every other young vampire’s, seems to indicate that she’s been selected by the vampire goddess Nyx for some great work.
It’s pretty obvious that some of what’s going on here is to do with puberty, a time when the body changes in unfathomable and alarming ways. The vampire’s always been a figure who has a lot to do with (illicit) sex: blood-drinking has an erotic charge, and vampires generally tend to be presented as stronger, faster and more beautiful than humans. In Marked, when a vampire drinks the blood of a human they gain hypnotic control over that human, as when Zoey accidentally drinks the blood of her human ex-boyfriend: here we see manifested anxieties about consent and control in romantic relationships. Sex appears in non-metaphorical form, too: soon after Zoey arrives at the House of Night, she witnesses queen bee Aphrodite trying to give the requisite hunk, Erik Night, a blow job. Trying: because Erik is both attracted to Aphrodite and not consenting. Later on, we discover that Aphrodite and her clique are busy exerting their power and influence over weaker students to drink their blood as part of illicit religious rituals. So Aphrodite’s menace is tied explicitly to her disregard for consent and her exploitation of abusive power dynamics.
Which; good; it’s important for YA literature to explore issues of consent and abuse. It’s unfortunate, then, that the Casts’ castigation of Aphrodite’s behaviour extends to all sexual behaviour: for instance, Zoey sees blow jobs as degrading and humiliating in themselves for the person performing them, which is not hugely sex-positive. There are other problems of representation too, most notably the novel’s appropriation of Native American spirituality in order to mark Zoey out as a super-special Chosen One. (Incidentally, the vampires’ religion is essentially Wicca, which just goes to show: the link between neopagan religions and cultural appropriation is strong.)
All in all, I think Marked works best as a school story: as an exploration of the emotions and anxieties around sex and puberty in the kind of environment where teens are encountering those emotions, whose supernatural trappings validate young adults’ outsize feelings about the world. It doesn’t really work as a Chosen One narrative, or as a treatment of sex itself (as opposed to the anxieties that sex evokes). I definitely think there are better YA novels out there doing similar work, though, particularly Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Fire, and if I actually knew any teens I’d point them there first.