Unnatural

Unnatural by Michael Griffo. 352 pages, Kensington.

This is a Young Adult (“YA”) novel. Not a genre I usually traffic in, unless it crosses over into strong science fiction or horror.

So why did I read it? And why write this review of it? Well, you see, the last time I tried a true YA novel, I attempted to read Twilight. I made it until about page 90 or so, and just gave up. I couldn’t stand it. However, I’ve seen the movies of both Twilight and New Moon, so I know the story. And this book here, Unnatural? Basically… it’s Gay Twilight. Or, Twilight for gay teens, if you prefer.

On that premise, I had to at least give it a try.

When I was a teenager, there wasn’t Gay Anything as far as books went. I didn’t come across any positive portrayal of gay person at all until I was in college. I’m aware that times have changed quite a bit now, and I see and hear about kids coming out of the closet while they’re still in high school. Heck, it seems like a lot of teens today are never even in the closet to begin with. I was curious to see what a book like this might be like.

Like Twilight, this is a story of a mortal who falls in love with a vampire, a love that turns out to be so strong it breaks through the barrier that separates mortal humans from immortal vampires. Like Twilight, there’s a pretty deep and clever mythology around the particular vampires (and other supernatural creatures) that populate the novel. And like Twilight, there are good and evil factions warring against each other, with our love crossed teens at the center.

But unlike Twilight, this is pretty darn good read. Unnatural moves along at a brisk pace, the character’s motivations are pretty clear and understandable, and there is no bizarre superimposition of pious morality overlaying the whole thing. And also unlike Twilight, it’s a lot of fun, and pretty sexy to boot. Well, as sexy as the author can get away with and still keep the book firmly in the YA camp, that is.

As the novel begins, Michael Howard is a sixteen-year-old high school student living in Weeping Waters, Nebraska. Tall and blond with striking green eyes, Michael is an excellent student who dreams only of getting out of Weeping Waters and moving on to somewhere else, the sooner the better.

Michael lives in a small farm house with his mother and his grandparents. When Michael was three years old, his parents divorced. His mother moved in with her parents, and they’ve been there ever since. Michael has never met his father; all he knows is that his father is British and lives in London. His mother never speaks of him.

Michael is tormented and bullied at school, and treated with disdain by his own grandfather. Even though Michael has never come right out and said it, everyone pretty much knows he’s gay, and he suffers endlessly because of it. And his mother is no help, lost as she is in alcohol and pills.

Then one night, Micheal’s mother commits suicide. And within a few hours, his life changes. The father he’s never met arrives for his mother’s funeral, and announces he’s going to take him back to England and enroll him in a prestigious private school, Archangel Academy. Saddened as he is by his mother’s death, Michael is thrilled to finally leave Nebraska and start a new life.

Archangel Academy is everything Michael hopes it would be – and more. Because on his first day there, he meets Ronan Glynn-Rowley, a handsome, muscular, dark-haired boy the same age as Michael. And, it’s love at first sight for both of them.

Ronan, of course, is not what he seems. Although he really is only sixteen years old, he is a vampire, a special hybrid who only needs to drink blood once a month and can walk around during daylight without problems. In fact, other than being immortal and possessing supernatural strength and speed, Ronan is otherwise strikingly human, right down to his piercing blue eyes.

Archangel Academy, as it turns out, is quite the hotbed of supernatural activity, and Ronan is not the only vampire (or even the only kind of vampire) that walks these grounds. Even among the close group of Michael and Ronan’s friends, there are some who are not what they appear to be. As Ronan makes plans to bring Michael permanently into his life, so that they can life together forever, others try to do everything they can to pull them apart.

That’s enough of a summary to give the flavor. There are lots of supporting characters that help to build the world of the book. Two of my favorites are Ronan’s mother Edwige, and Ronan’s brother Ciaran. Ciaran is a human who desperately wants to become a vampire, and Edwige is both a Machiavellian bitch and a lovingly devoted mother at the same time.

This is clearly the first book in a series; in fact, the novel ends with the prologue and Chapter 1 of the next book. I suspect I’ll be reading the others as well. Because… well…

OK, so this isn’t Great Literature. I personally think it’s much better written than Twilight, and that the characters are a lot more fun. But this is not Anne Rice or Stephen King or Philip Pullman . Unnatural is rather derivative, pulling elements from Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and every other popular supernatural fiction of the last 10 years. The two lead characters are almost too perfect for each other. And everything does fall into place a little too neatly at the end.

But, you see… it’s like this. I felt this book in my heart. I was a gay teenager myself. And when I was in high school, there just weren’t any books like this around. I had no stories to read about romantic love between two handsome young men who were destined for each other. I love the fact that here’s a fun, enjoyable, entertaining Young Adult novel where not only are the two lead characters gay… but they are celebrated and heroic. They are admirable.

If the teenaged me had been able to read this book, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would have read it several times. I would have fantasized about being Michael or Ronan. I would have imagined myself falling in love with a handsome man and living happily ever after. Maybe, just maybe, if I’d been able to read a book like Unnatural when I was in the age group it’s written for, I would have become comfortable with who and what I am a lot earlier in life.

And so, while I was reading and enjoying Unnatural, I was also hoping that somewhere, some shy gay kid is reading it as well. And it’s allowing him to fantasize about a future. And it’s showing him a way out and a way up. Because that’s why I love reading. It’s not always about the highest quality prose or the most fascinating plot or startling characters or exciting twist endings. Instead, what’s most important is enjoying a good story with people you like, one that maybe gives you some new insight you didn’t have before.

And at that level, Unnatural succeeds very well. Go get yourself a copy and walk along the fogbound paths of Archangel Academy.

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