Published by Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin)
Hardcover, 312 Pages
2005, ISBN: 0-59514-031-X
Scott Westerfeld is a clever writer, and it shows in his novel, Peeps. From a storytelling perspective, he plays a lot of tricks with the reader. This is almost necessary, considering the novel is a vampire story, a cliché seen many times before, and likely to be seen many times after Westerfeld’s novel. One of the tricks Westerfeld plays is that he rarely refers to his vampires as vampires. Rather, they are “peeps” as the title indicates, peep being a shortening of the term parasite positive. You see, in Westerfeld’s tale, these parasites cause the stricken person to shun both the light and that which he or she loved in their previous life. Throughout, 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, and even a dark fantasy novel. Peeps is equal parts all of these things, and on the whole, a page-turner and helluva lot of fun to read.
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 – it isn’t a pulpit from which he preaches. Rather, it is one of many layers Westerfeld expertly adds to Cal’s character.
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 Westefeld’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.
Another way Westerfeld plays with the vampiric tropes is to give a history and background to the peeps, specifically the world of the Night Watch. The Night Watch runs the underworld, policing the peeps and providing a form of 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. While he does not succumb to the most extreme effects of the parasite, he is able to benefit from some of the effects, such as enhanced senses and strengths. The only real drawback is that he can infect anybody, including young women to whom he is attracted, through a simple kiss.
Part of Cal’s initial assignment is to search out those victims he created, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Cal did not know he was infected immediately, so he passed along the parasite to some of his girlfriends. This is where the novel starts, right in the middle of the action, illustrating Westerfeld’s strong skills at drawing in the reader. As the novel unfolds, Westerfeld more fully drew me in, revealing more layers to Cal’s character, his acquaintances and the deeper mystery Cal only touches upon in the early pages.
As I said, the vampire is a cliché across all forms of fiction and storytelling, so Westerfeld’s novel is bound to draw comparisons to other writers. However, the cynical tone, organization behind the vampires and the first person narrative reminded me a bit of Charlie Huston’s recent novel, Already Dead. While Huston’s novel is definitely for the adult crowd, readers who enjoyed that novel will find a lot to enjoy in Peeps.
I think it is clear I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. 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. Westerfeld has me sucked into his world and I’m looking forward to the next novel in this storyline, The Last Days.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford