Vampires, we all know them and at one point they were supposed to be scary creatures that could take over your soul, drink your blood and destroy you. Well, over the years to say the vampire has lost some of its scary edge is an understatement. While Dracula did have some sexiness to him, the modern perception of the vampire is less scary and more sexy. Enter Scott Westerfeld and his two book series which includes Peeps and The Last Days. These books tell the story of a world on the brink of apocalypse, overrun by vampires, but not your average vampires and are rarely referred to as such. Rather, they are “peeps” as the title indicates, peep being a shortening of the term parasite positive. You see, in Westerfeld’s tale, parasites cause the stricken person to shun both the light and that which he or she loved in their previous life. Throughout the first novel Peeps, Westerfeld injects a logical scientific explanation for many of the tropes of the vampire legend. By doing this, Westerfeld allows the novel to be read on many levels: a vampire novel, a young adult novel [which it is marketed as], a horror novel (mashed up with science fiction), or a dark fantasy novel.
Westerfeld tells the story through the first person narrator of Cal, a young man who came to New York to study biology, but lost his virginity and gained a parasite. There is a powerful metaphor there, illustrating an extreme danger of unprotected sex, but Westerfeld cleverly does not brow beat the reader with this metaphor.
Another clever ploy Westerfeld throws to the reader is the structure of the novel. Odd numbered chapters narrate Cal’s current story, while the even numbered chapters provide a science lesson, of sorts, on different parasites. It is Westerfeld’s remarkable storytelling ability, and endearing character of Cal, that makes these “parasite” chapters so much fun to read, and as compelling as the unfolding story we see through Cal’s eyes.
Westerfeld provides a deep history and background to the peeps, specifically the world of the Night Watch. The Night Watch policies the peeps (and underworld) and provides an organization to what could be an otherwise chaotic darkness. The Night Watch is, in effect, the governmental body of the peep society, and their mayor has been in office for hundreds of years. Shortly after Cal became infected with the parasite, the Night Watch recruited him because of his unique nature – while not a full blown peep, he still carries the parasite. He is able to benefit from some of the effects, such as enhanced senses and strengths but he can still infect anybody, including young women to whom he is attracted, through a simple kiss.
In Peeps, we join Cal in the middle of the action, illustrating Westerfeld’s strong skills at drawing in the reader. As the novel unfolds, Westerfeld reveals more layers to Cal’s character, his acquaintances and the deeper mystery Cal only touches upon in the early pages. Cal was charged with finding those people he infected, wittingly or unwittingly because he was not initially aware of the extent of his condition. Cal learns that more is going on than the Night Watch is willing to tell him. Dark creatures long slumbering soon waken and the disease which makes these “peeps” is changing. The spread of the disease threatens the world.
A clever writing style, endearing characters, and a rich background provide an enjoyable reading experience, whether you are a young adult or beyond that stage and have read numerous vampire novels.
Whereas the narrative or Peeps was singular, The Last Days focuses on multiple characters (Moz, Pearl, Zahaler, Alana Ray and Min) who are forming a band as the world is crumbling; garbage is piling up, rats are seen in droves and cats stare with an odd gaze. Soon after Pearl becomes a member of the band, Moz notices “black water” erupting from a fire hydrant in the City streets for the first time. The sludgy material is just one indication that something strange and discomforting is boiling up from below the streets of New York City, once rare earthquakes are more common and people go mad for seemingly no reason. Westerfeld uses a clever device in naming the chapters of the book. Also, each chapter is from the first person narrative POV of the members of the band and this provided a nice context for the characters and the story. I felt this made their shared experiences all the more believable and plausible. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear the music the band is playing is more important than they could initially imagine. It might be a stretch to say their music has the same global unifying effect as Bil S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan’s Wyld Stallyns, but a profound effect nonetheless.
Of course the darkness of this apocalypse might not be so strange to readers of Peeps. While in Peeps. Westerfeld played around with the vampire formula, here these vampiric clues are only in the background. So much to say that The Last Days is almost an anti-vampire novel; the typical genre clichés are not as blatant and seem very naturalistic to the story. For example one character realizes that garlic helps to sooth the sickness they feel. Another character has trouble with daylight. The Last Days plays with music and its power much in the way Peeps played with science.
The Last Days improves slightly on the world introduced in Peeps by show the sprawling and encroaching decay and desolation in New York City through multiple characters. The piling garbage and crumbling world in which the characters live seems almost matter-of-fact at the outset. Many of the portents of the coming doom are relayed through word-of-mouth; either from the parents or the kids peers. The music and the decaying constructs of civilization in New York City unite the band and because we see NYC through multiple characters, the level of dread is heightened and feels more ‘real.’ The novel is as much (maybe more) about the band coming together as it is about the potential, looming apocalypse.
Westerfeld is a pretty big name in the Young Adult market and he’s also published a split space opera Succession, which our bagel overlord John D. reviewed: Book 1 is The Risen Empire and book 2 is The Killing of Worlds. Westerfeld’s Uglies books are perhaps his most popular books, and his most recent series, the Leviathan steampunk novels, are also popular. That said, the Peeps series shows a slightly different and darker side of his storytelling offering terrific twists on the vampire myth that bring into the mix secret societies, the power of music, and scientific postulations. The books are fun, smart and very concise. All told, Westerfeld tells a very engaging story in Peeps / The Last Days and are highly recommended.