Books are rarely read in vacuums. I read Team Human right after The Lord of the Rings, and deliberately chose it for the contrast. I’d just read a humongous tome: Team Human promised a quick read. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a mythical time in a land reminiscent of northern and western Europe; Team Human is set in modern Maine. The Lord of the Rings is fairly serious throughout, with a few exceptions like Bilbo’s birthday party. I expected Team Human to be gently humorous (cover blurb: “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”), which it was, with a few exceptions which would be spoilers if I revealed them. And yes, after 1100+ pages of almost no female characters, I was more than ready for a change on that front as well. Basically, Team Human looked like a parody of the Twilight novels, and I was expecting little more. So when I realized that my little bit of escapist reading was also feminist, I was delighted. Which was certainly in high contrast to The Lord of the Rings, although I hadn’t actively been looking for that difference.
Mel Duan has three close friends: Cathy, Anna, and Ty. At the start of their senior year, Cathy falls for Francis, the new vampire student at their high school. Francis’ vampirism is no secret: vampires live openly in New Whitby, Maine. They contribute to the local economy as a tourist attraction, have their own police force, and the town accommodates them with volunteer blood banks and smoked-glass windows in all public buildings. Still, knowing that some of the citizens view other citizens as dinner is bound to create a few tensions, and Mel is horrified to watch Cathy and Francis’ romance develop. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to help Anna, whose father ran off with a female vampire the previous summer. It would be fair to say that Mel doesn’t have the highest opinion of vampires.
Sure, I liked the tone of Team Human—the authors do a fine job of mixing humor with the serious elements of the story. But what really impressed me about the book was that it didn’t treat friendship lightly. Way too often, friendships in novels seem to be there as filler. If the central character has friends, they exist to give the protagonist someone to talk to until the romantic interest comes along, and then perhaps to add a little conflict to the story. Those friends tend to be let go as the central romance gets underway. Here, romance tests friendship, but friendship is really what drives the story. The question isn’t Are Cathy and Francis truly in love? or Will Cathy choose vampirism? but Will Mel and Cathy still be friends by the end of the story?. (Actually, given that this is a vampire novel, it’s not unreasonable to also ask Will everyone still be alive by the end of the story?—at least the ones who were alive to begin with.)
Also, as you can tell from the book cover, Mel isn’t white. Odd though this may sound, I was glad to see that this wasn’t crucial to the plot. See, the last two fantasy novels I read that had characters of Chinese descent, their being Chinese was why they were in the story in the first place (their novels involved specifically Chinese magic). The fantasy element in Team Human is vampires, basic Dracula-style vampires, and to a much lesser extent, zombies. These are not special vampires out of Chinese folklore and Mel doesn’t need to know Chinese to deal with them, which is just as well since she doesn’t speak the language. If the authors had chosen to make Mel white, it would pretty much be the same story.* By not going on autopilot and inserting a white girl here, the authors have put into practice some of those ideals that I’d like to see in books, that I understand that other people would like to see in books, but which so rarely are in books.
Publishers have worried that easy access to ebooks in libraries might diminish their sales. Having read my library’s copy of Team Human, I’m giving serious consideration to buying a copy for myself. Yes, dear publishers, the key is to produce books that are good enough to want to keep!
*Although there is some irony that would vanish if Mel were white. At one point, she speculates that Francis pays more attention to Cathy and Anna (white) than to her and Ty (Chinese-American, African-American)—which doesn’t stop her from expressing several prejudices of her own against vampires.