The Awesome is a YA novel about seventeen-year-old Maggie Cunningham, an apprentice monster hunter, who must lose her virginity so she can finally go on a vampire hunt. Vampires can smell virgin blood, you see, and it makes them go berserk. Hopefully, one might think, this will turn out to be a parody of the YA paranormal romance taboo on sex. A look at the book’s cover only intensifies this wish: it’s garish green and pink, featuring a fanged skull and a background of not-quite-skull-and-crossbones, which on closer inspection turns out to be composed of hearts and crossed wooden stakes. The layout makes one suspect that all the author really wanted was a book saying “The Awesome Eva Darrows.” Surely this must be ironic? Please? We’ll see. After all, we’re not actually going to judge a book by its cover, are we?
So I made a little catalogue of preliminary questions to which I wanted to find answers in the course of my reading: 1. Is this book serious about the whole “virgin” thing, or is it commenting on trends in YA supernatural fiction? (Keeping in mind that a good parody must also take its subject matter seriously and have its characters act accordingly.) 2. Would my inner teenager want to read this? 3. If I were a teenager’s mother, would I want my kid to read this? Those last two questions include: how is the female protagonist portrayed? Are there any non-white and/or queer characters? If so, how are they portrayed? And, considering what seems to be the main topic here, is it all about sex, or do we get a captivating monster hunter plot as well? Because I like to read books for their monsters.
We’re off to a pretty good start with Maggie beating up bullies on the first page, using words like “butthole” and confessing to wanting to key a rich woman’s Jaguar just because. In the course of the story she reveals to us, bit by bit, that she’s not only a different kind of YA heroine from Bella Swan (or, indeed, Buffy), but that she’s also definitely not a two-dimensional character. She thinks she could lose some 30 pounds (p. 69), but she seems to be comfortable with her weight. She enjoys a good meal, and she’s physically fit to a degree that she can single-handedly win a game of paintball against a group of guys who seem to be seasoned players of the sport. She doesn’t wear cute clothes and keeps her brown hair in a short pixie cut for practical reasons. After all, when you’re hunting monsters, you want to be fast and flexible; what you don’t want is to offer some undead beastie a good handhold. (I almost self-high-fived. This is what I keep shouting at the screen during most films that feature fast zombies or similar creatures chasing humans. Short hair, good shoes! But do they ever listen?)
Mom told me at the tender age of nine that the oogedy boogedy things were all real and Mommy’s job was to exterminate them. It was like killing bugs, only in her case, the bugs were nine feet tall and ate human flesh.
[. . .]This was what Mom did, it was what my grandparents did, and if I wanted to carry on their completely insane legacy, it’s what I’d do, too. Some families had dentistry practices or drywall businesses. Our people hunted monsters and put ’em back in their appropriate crapholes. (p. 13)
This is a big part of Maggie’s everyday reality, and it’s also an example of the book’s tone. It’s chatty and sassy, at times a little too much so for me, but I can see how that could appeal to a young readership. It might offer a refreshing contrast to books in which there is no swearing at all. Because, let’s face it, when you’re eye to eye with a werewolf (or bang your toe against the furniture), uttering an impulsive curse-word is totally realistic.
Maggie is home-schooled by her mother, a single parent with a quirky sense of humour and a penchant for leather jackets and rock music. After (and sometimes instead of) lessons they hunt ghosts and ghouls located and assigned to them via the Monster Finder app (which Maggie calls the “MFer”). And Maggie likes her unconventional life. She doesn’t want to be like all the other kids. All she wants is to get her journeyman’s license for hunting big game, i.e. vampires.
[My best/only friend Janice] thought we were the coolest of the cool with all our guns and glory. Also, she liked vampires. She totally bought into the Edward Cullen sparkly vampire crap and she knew Mom got to interact with real ones. I liked her too much to tell her how brutal and disgusting fangers were; let her have her pretty Robert Pattinson illusions. (p. 32)
Because the smell of virgin blood turns vampires into uncontrollable, mindless killing machines, our protagonist sets out on a quest to get laid—Darrows remembers to mention the importance of using condoms (more points to her)—but it turns out that boys can be inexperienced and clumsy. Also drunk. And, as the plot progresses, let’s face it, really okay too.
After a couple of straightforward but not too predictable twists and turns, the story turns out to be about more than just teenagers trying to have sex (whew!). There is also the problem of a vampire prince having put a bounty on Maggie’s mum’s head, and the emotionally even more taxing one of Maggie’s coming to terms with the fact that her mother is dating a vampire. One plot-twist I enjoyed most revolves around their discovery of a nice, friendly, intelligent zombie who eats ducks and pigeons rather than people. At first I thought that Darrows’s reason to include this character in the story had to do with showing us how ridiculous "vegetarian" vampires are, but there’s more to this plotline than one may at first assume.
Stylistically, the book is a very, very easy read. (Very much like the sparkly vampire books to which it refers.) You can probably devour it in a day or less. The funny dialogues between Maggie and her mother are among the highlights of the book. Maggie herself seems to be oscillating between her fear of being “too dorky” and trying to convince herself that she is awesome (because being a monster hunter is cool). She is a tough kid, but she is human and vulnerable in the right places. And yes, at one point in the story there is an actual, detailed but not too graphic, and pretty realistic teenage sex scene—which is all about affirmation and body positivity. (When Maggie wants to turn off the lights, her boyfriend asks her why. “Cause I’m squishy.”—“It’s a good squishy” [p. 166].) Maggie can also be good for a laugh, like when she’s smuggling balloons filled with holy water in her bra.
As for the other points on my list, there are two lesbian side characters, the monster-hunting couple Allie and Tina. Tina is described as fat, too, which doesn’t make her any less cool. Unfortunately they remain mere two-dimensional background sketches. There’s also one (!) African American side character, who gets a very brief, cameo-like appearance. The author doesn't seem to feel entirely comfortable describing him, comparing him to “a black Mr. Rogers, with rich dark skin, an inviting smile, and a sweater-vest” (p. 179).
There is a bit too much of the “funny slang,” and too many forced pop culture references where they aren’t really needed, like “Soylent Green for everyone” (p. 79). I wondered whether teenagers would even get the more dated references to Soylent Green, Mothra, and the like—but then realised: if I can read over references to American network TV shows I’ve never seen and still understand the plot, then this also works the other way round. Besides—and if the book teaches us anything, it’s this—never underestimate kids! In the end, it’s about two things: which story is being told (a pretty entertaining one with lots of comments on contemporary YA fiction) and how it’s being told (in a way that may seem a bit over the top but that might also get young people to enjoy the book). So would I be okay with my own (theoretical) teenage kid reading this? Yes, very much so. It’s unlikely to win Darrows a Nobel prize, or even the Clarke Award, but it’s about all the right values, and it’s a fast, funny read.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, Weird fiction and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.