Teeth by Kelli Owen
Review by Tony Jones
If you’re one of the legions of horror fans who have in recent years grown tired of our fanged friends then Kelli Owen’s Teeth puts some serious bite back into an anaemic genre. Vampires must be on the comeback trail as I also recently read a second exceptionally good novel from the same area in Victoria Dalpe’s Parasite Life. Actually, they have little in common except for the fact that they both gleefully dance around with the conventions and stereotypes of what we regard a vampire to be. For example, in both books vampires can live in daylight, neither are they immortal, two centuries would be seen as a decent lifespan. Also, if you think back to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel the Count was also seen in daylight, so perhaps Owen and Dalpe are not so far from the mark?
When we hear of ‘world-building’ in genre fiction most of us automatically think of fantasy and science fiction but Kelli Owen gives the likes of George RR Martin a serious run for their money with the vivid and believable world she creates in Teeth. Fifty years before the novel begins vampires stepped out of fiction, the shadows and folklore and announced themselves as ‘real’ to the shocked world. Within several decades a worldwide Treaty was ratified which gave vampires the same rights as humans. They were also given a clean slate and forgiven for their transgressions in history, specifically murdering and killing.
Teeth begins when most folks have accepted vampires into their communities, in fact, many have known vampires all their lives without ever knowing they were anything but human. Of course, there are individuals and groups who do not accept vampires as equals and the novel makes comparison with American Civil Rights of the 1960s and more topically the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Teeth is littered with smart contemporary comparisons.
For the remainder of this review I am going to forgo using the word ‘vampire’ as in this society it is seen as seriously derogatory and is the equivalent of using the ‘N’ word to describe someone of colour. The socially acceptable term is ‘lamian’ and in the context of the novel most folks use it, unless they’re angry or seen as some kind of bigot. After fifty years of integration lamian organisations such as the Lamian Worldwide Council are trying still trying to wean much of the general population away from the Hollywood misconception of what a lamian truly is and more importantly what it is not. I’m not going to spoil it with any more details than those I have already provided.
Although Teeth opens with what seems to be a violent vampire murder the majority of the plot could be read as a YA horror novel, although it is probably too graphic in parts. The majority of the characters are high school teenagers all of which have some lamian issue or another, this was a very enjoyable aspect of the story featuring believable teen stuff. Teen lamians have a tough time, as when they are around sixteen their human front teeth fall out and bigger, more prominent teeth replace them. This can result in the end of life-long friendships, family problems, and with many others struggling with their identity. All this is sensitively handled and there are obvious comparisons with teens struggling with sexual identity in the society of today.
Some of the main characters include Tamara, who is having a tough time coming to terms with the fact that she is lamian. Then there is Dillon who has been lamian for over a year, however, his mother Andrea is a lamian-hater who pretty much disowns her son. Next up is Madison, who tries to hide the fact that she is about to turn lamian, dreading the moment her front tooth falls out making it completely obvious for all to see. And let’s not forget school janitor Henry who is human but would love to be lamian and is obsessed with the non-humans.
Along the way the stressed teen lamians visit the self-help groups run by Max and Victoria of the Lamplight Foundation which the author cleverly uses to layer the lamian world she has created with lots of quirky anecdotes and clever alterations to our world through their group discussions. Having vampires living with humanity side by side is hardly a new concept but in Teeth it’s very easy to get sucked into Kelli Owen’s vision of the creatures who even eat vegetables!
Teeth was a very entertaining novel but ultimately the central serial killer plot was not as strong as the lamian world building aspects. The teenage lamian coming of age sequences were also excellent, but the over-riding serial killer lacked the same level of interest and did not quite fit with the rest of the novel. From the very early stages the reader knew who this killer was and this plotline was only loosely connected to the rest of the story, but this did not detract much from an otherwise excellent novel. So much time has been setting the scene in Teeth I would be surprised if Kelli Owen does not return to it. It’s crying out for a sequel.
Teeth is a terrific read for anyone looking for a fresh and contemporary take on the vampire (apologies… lamian myth) with engaging characters and clever observations on our world.