Written by L.J.Smith
First published in USA by HarperCollins Publishers Inc in 1991
First published in UK by Hodder Children’s Books in 2001
This book is first and foremost the story of two characters’ downward spiral (which can be just as interesting as an upward climb). The first of those and our main character is Elena Gilbert, a classic orphaned protagonist in high school. Unlike other vampire novel girls, though, she is the most popular girl in his class and knows it. She starts off haughty, socially savvy, wanting everything just for the sake of having everything and not caring if she has to hurt a few feelings to get it. If she’d kept on this way, she would have been unlikable but, over the course of the book, her confidence is slowly stripped away and she ends the book being outmanoeuvred at every turn and sliding down the pecking order. Of course, even at her high point, she’s not nearly as clever as she thinks she is and she made some very silly mistakes (going to a deserted graveyard with some very unsavoury boys being the biggest). She even tended to be very petty. However, she loses that tendency as the plot goes on and becomes more outward-looking and concerned for others as the threat level rises. Pity that, again, she’s not as clever as she thinks she is and I can’t help but be glad that she fails a fair few times. Not a good trait in a main character.
The one she’s most concerned for is the light-side vampire love interest of the book, Stefan Salvatore. He’s your classic withdrawn and guilt-ridden good vampire, refusing to drink from humans even if it weakens him and shying away from social contact. He stoically bears false accusations and acts as Elena’s saviour several times. Sadly, he doesn’t attract much interest until the very end of the book. His moral principles may be strong but, when pushed too far, he abandons them in a very satisfyingly violent scene. It’s good to see an author willing to show that even the best, morally-upright characters have their limits. Still, it was a little too late in the story to make much of a difference and Stefan remained pleasant but sadly uninteresting.
The latter of which is the fate that befalls his brother and our dark-side vampire of the evening, Damon. I think the blurb of the book didn’t describe him accurately. He is not a love rival to Stefan, he’s a dangerous stalker. He is willing to commit murder simply to satisfy a grudge against his brother, wants Elena simply because Stefan wants her (notice the parallel between him and Elena), steals her private diary to give to her enemy (I don’t believe for a second that her enemy did it under her own steam) and even turns her friends and family against her simply to make her give herself to him. Dark romantic figure, he is not. He’s not even a very interesting villain. His motives are never fully explored in the book and, thus, we have to rely on Stefan’s reasoning. If he’s right, then the grudge is for very juvenile reasons indeed. It’s a good thing that he feels like a very credible threat otherwise he would have had no redeeming features as a character.
The last character I must mention is Katherine. Most people point to Bella Swan as the textbook vampire novel girl that’s too dumb to live and causes more trouble than she’s worth but Katherine takes the cake. She solves the ‘Boy A or Boy B’ problem in the worst possible way, by accepting both and expecting them to just settle their lifelong feud for the sake of being her companions forever. When that ends about as well as can be expected, she walks out in the sun and kills herself, giving Stefan long-lasting trauma and contributing to their own vampirism. At this point, I sincerely hope it turns out this was a deliberate plot and that she’s an evil deceiver because that’s the only way she can redeem herself as a character.
The other characters are really only there to either help Elena, antagonise Elena or be used by Damon without being well-developed in their own right. The most aggravating case is Caroline, Elena’s former best friend and current enemy, showed so much promise and potential for a good backstory and interesting motives. Then, when her diary was found, that potential is ruined when all the characters find is abuse against Elena and her friends rather than any description of her motives. A big opportunity was wasted.
It’s really not a good trait in novels to treat side characters as one-dimensional in my opinion. Neither is it to under-develop the main characters.
5 out of 10 drops
The research present is hit-and-miss and, sadly, there are more misses than hits. Firstly, Stefan is right; Renaissance men were expected to be physically active and good at sports, just as they were expected to be good at everything else too. Then, the author really puts their foot in it by stating Katherine was from Germany, which didn’t even exist in Renaissance times and wasn’t formed until 1871! Until then, it was made up of lots of little kingdoms: Bavaria, Prussia, Holy Roman Empire, e.t.c. No wonder the fairytale characters of the time found it so easy to get to a different kingdom. And, I don’t think Stefan would have identified himself as Italian when he lived centuries before Italy was unified either.
Druidry is pervasive in the book as well but only as a placename for a character’s general magic powers. I don’t really see any evidence of true druid knowledge (other than the fact that there really were some human sacrifices) and the rituals the characters performed would have to be a lot more elaborate to be closer to druid ones.
As for the lapis stone used by Katherine to go out in sunlight, there may be some good reasoning behind deciding on that stone. Most cultures agree it is a powerful stone and, in Persia and pre-colonial America, it was a symbol of the starry night and, in the Islamic Orient, it was believed to offer protection against the evil eye. One interesting fact: another Catherine (Catherine the Great of Russia) adorned an entire room of her palace with it. However, it is also supposed to symbolise wisdom, truth and good judgement and there’s precious little of that in this book so maybe it’s not totally appropriate.
But, this is a vampire book and it’s clear that the author did some research on that. Well, enough to know all the classic weaknesses and to decide whether to uphold or dismiss them. Then, the author throws a fact at me that I, thinking myself very vampire-savvy, never knew. Vervain (or verbena) is credited with vampire-repelling properties and drinking vervain tea would offer protection from them. Nice to learn something new.
But, that’s really the only knew thing the book provides and the inaccuracies eclipse the points of interest.
3 out of 10 drops
This book really uses the most cliché setting it could – small town America and centring around a high school at Halloween. It also uses one of the most overused clichés in young adult fiction: the girl ‘choosing’ two different boys. Some very cliché plot twists are present too, especially in The Awakening. A fake murder scene becomes a real one, the vampire boy saves a girl from a rapist and they have to fight an evil vampire together. All very standard fare. The Struggle provides a bit more interest. I must confess that the revelation of who really stole Elena’s diary was a surprising anti-climax, the build-up to the villain’s plot coming to fruition proved very good and the payoff satisfying.
However, most of the characters are walking clichés. Stefan is the classic moody romantic character, Bonnie is the classic psychic having visions of doom at awkward moments, Matt is the ‘safe choice’ boyfriend that’s a member of the football team (because that seems to be the only thing American high school boys do), Tyler is the small-minded spoilt brat who turns on Elena for rejecting him and Caroline is the worst of the lot. Not even the discovery of her diary can stop her being a one-dimensional enemy.
The book throws a lot of vampire clichés at us including super strength, hypnosis vulnerability to sunlight and an aversion to running water with only one new one added to the mix. However, it does give us a new spin on it by stating that a vampire gains these abilities by drinking human blood but, into the deal, becomes more vulnerable to the weaknesses. I think this is a very nice dilemma for vampires to find themselves in.
However, that’s the only island of originality in the sea of clichés.
4 out of 10 drops
I’m afraid there’s not much in this department either. The story drops us right into a typical small town American world, Fell’s Church, but with no points of interest within the town other than an old graveyard and a wooden bridge. The book teases us with a parade of the town’s history and a historical figure, Honoria Fell, who founded the town but it doesn’t give us any details, choosing to focus instead on Elena’s emotional turmoil as her plans fall apart. Not necessarily a bad thing but still very frustrating. We don’t even get a lot of world building in the school setting, apart from an annual haunted house every Halloween which, of course, goes disastrously wrong.
There’s no world-building in the Renaissance world flashbacks either. All we know is that Stefan and Damon came from a rich family and Katherine came to live with them when times got hard. That’s it. No details of how they made their money, no information on which city state in Italy they were living in, nothing.
It seems that author sacrificed world building for the sake of the characters and the story. An honourable motive but I still don’t like it.
2 out of 10 drops
If you plan on reading Vampire Diaries, it’s best to read The Awakening and The Struggle together. They feel much like more of a complete story when put together rather than read separately. If I had to pick my favourite out of the two of them, I would absolutely pick The Struggle. The Awakening felt like it was mostly setting up the scene and the characters rather than telling a story. Meanwhile, The Struggle was gripping, suspenseful and had an excellent payoff after all the build-up.
The titular diary segments were used mostly to skip over parts that would slow the story down but some slow segments still remain, especially in The Awakening, and the book could definitely do with a better proof-reader as there were quite a few spelling mistakes. The narrative switches between Elena and Stefan’s point of view and, while that provides a good insight into Elena’s character, it doesn’t provide much of a view into Stefan’s mind as most of what he thinks about is Katherine and Elena. Another opportunity wasted.
The book, in short, is a romance between Elena and Stefan. Unfortunately, it falls into the trap of many human-vampire relationships of coming off as stilted and awkward in its beginning and continuing in that way. Yes, Stefan would do anything to protect Elena but, as I said before, he isn’t shown doing much else except being socially distant. Not to mention, the purple prose they use about each other is painful to read. I must draw attention to the fact that the blurb is very misleading: Damon is not a love rival but a stalker and abuser with few redeeming qualities. While he is a credible threat throughout The Struggle, he still isn’t interesting enough.
I’ve said over and over again that this book is riddled with clichés and the plotline is not different. Elena looks exactly like Stefan’s dead lover, Elena hides her knowledge of vampires for silly reasons (alienating everyone around her in the process), Stefan saves Elena from a rapist and so on. However, despite all the clichés, I found myself enjoying this story in The Struggle. The build-up was good, the failed attempts to prevent catastrophe were well described and the payoff was worth it.
6 out of 10 drops
Overall = 20 drops – A Positive/B Positive