Anouk's chance to finally escape from her family has come. She knows that her parents prefer her sister over her any day, and suspects that her mother wouldn't shed a tear if Anouk died. Well, then. She's going to show them. She's going to do all the things that even a wealthy, privileged American girl with a knack for languages and a penchant for tragic goth clothing would never have the chance to do. She's escaping the country and going on a top-secret dig in the forests of France. What could possibly go wrong?
At the airport, Anouk meets her fellow teammates in the excavation work. Jules is a hipster, Hayden is a preppie, Will is the solid, silent type, and Lilly is the bubbly flower child. Our very non-diverse Breakfast Club complete, they are swept past U.S. security and onto the finest private jet they could have dreamed of. Upon landing in Paris, they are taken directly from the plane into black Mercedes and driven to a wooded estate: the Château du Bessancourt, in the town of Péronne. They are accompanied by their mentor, Professor Thibeault Dorf, and his assistant, Miss Sei.
Upon arrival at the Château, the teens go to dinner are offered some booster vitamins by Dorf. Now kids, what should you do if a strange man offers you drugs? If you answered, "Gulp them down! YOLO!" you belong in this book. Also, we need to have a serious talk about stranger danger. Because Anouk is the only one with a shred of common sense, she refuses the drugs, but a henchman forces her to swallow them. She passes out and awakens in a cell with the other teens. Aha, now they finally get the impression that maybe this was a bad idea.
Further cementing the fact that this situation is Really Bad, as soon as they break out of their cell (because of course they do; we can't have a book of five teens slowly going mad in a cell, right? Oh wait, that would actually be really interesting and way better than what actually happens, but it's time to leave this parenthetical aside for more mind-boggling weirdness), Miss Sei arrives with some henchman, attacks Hayden the Prep, and jams a giant needle into the base of his skull, killing him.
The remaining four flee and figure out that they are underneath the château, which doesn't need any sort of excavating. In fact, it's an entire palace down there, but the rooms also contain deadly traps. The reader then suffers through a two-bit ripoff of Resident Evil as the teens run from room to room, avoiding the inhuman Trackers and also befriending (maybe?) a two-hundred year old Frenchman named Perdu.
Interspersed with the chapters about Anouk and her friends versus the Château of Death are journal entries from the diary of Aurélie du Bessancourt, the daughter of the Duc du Bessancourt, who was building a super-secret complex beneath the family holdings in Péronne. Good timing, because it's the French Revolution, y'all, and the sans-culottes are marching on Péronne to kill the duc!
In vain I have struggled; it will not do. You must allow me to tell you how thoroughly this book bewildered and frustrated me.
I am extremely picky when French history and language are integrated into stories. Not just French--any language and culture, really, but being a French major, I just pick up on some of the French stuff faster than I would say, Hmong or Austrian. Let's examine Aurélie's story first, as it is a bit shorter and somehow less ridiculous than that of her modern-day counterpart, Anouk.
Aurélie doesn't see much of her father, the duc, because he has a mortal fear of disease, and minces around wearing a metal mask (something like a plague mask, I assume) and smothering himself in perfume to, you know, kill the evil miasmas.
|Yes, I know this is Prince George of Wales, NOT a French aristocrat, but it's just too delightful not to use.|
This is actually a good idea, because her papa and Lord Havriel, the chief steward, have been doing strange and arcane things in their subterranean palace. I don't know how else to say this: they are trying to find a serum for immortality, but somehow "grow" a man made of various body parts *cough Dr. Frankenstein cough* in a cocoon (???) and he becomes their homme papillon. A butterfly man. As far as I can make out, he doesn't actually have wings, but the name sounded pretty cool to the duc and Havriel, so hey, why not stylize a butterfly and make that your super-secret symbol? The butterfly man, after growing up, assists his "fathers" with their work, and supercedes them. He is able to make the dead live again, but their conversation skills are sorely lacking. The duc reanimates his wife, but Aurélie is horrified when she meets her dead mother again. After some confused fleeing and negotiations with the butterfly man, Aurélie and her sisters escape the palace. Yay!
But boo! The butterfly man still lives under the palace, and he is a danger to the duc. So somehow these dudes in late eighteenth-century France construct elaborate traps in rooms to keep the butterfly man from escaping, like a room full of moving razor wire and another filled with caustic gas balloons.
Back to the present day...
When Anouk and the teens escape into the palace, Dorf has a freakout. He doesn't want them to die. But by moving through the palace, they trigger the traps and have a very strong chance of dying. However, he also sends his token Asian dragon-lady sidekick (PLEASE STOP WITH THIS STEREOTYPE. DO NOT USE IT EVER AGAIN. THANKS) to track down the teens and then maybe kill them, like Sei did with Hayden.
Confused yet? Me too! Cool!
While running around, trying to avoid being sliced and diced, the teens find a wounded Frenchman. Woohoo! A chance for Aurelie to show off her language skills. Unfortunately, a) the guy is barely coherent and tells them that his name is Perdu and he's two hundred-odd years old, and b) the French is kind of ... awkward. Anouk demands to know if an area is safe, but says, "Est-il sécuritaire?" which just sounds weird. "Est-il sûr?" would have been better, I think. I know this is petty and small, but I think if you are going to have people running around, randomly shouting things in another language, it should sound right.
So anyway, after Will loses part of his hand to the caustic gas balloons and they all get separated and Anouk falls out of a chandelier, she finds out that Dorf is none other than Havriel, and he's hanging out down in the palace with his brother, the Duc du Bessancourt. The butterfly man created a serum that grants immortality, but injected it into Aurélie and her sisters as they escaped, thus denying his creators access. This must have been one heck of a serum, because it changed the girls' genetic code (????) but is only viable until they turn eighteen (see also: The Rains. What is it with this idea that your body is exactly eighteen years old on the day you turn eighteen and thus all your biological processes change on that very day?). Havriel and his brother have been hunting down their family members and drinking their blood to stay young. And not a little taste--everything has to be drained. Yum yum.
So the whole charade about getting the teens to come to France was actually because Dorf/Havriel wanted to eat them, since they are all descendents of the three Bessancourt girls. Anouk is obviously the reincarnated Aurélie, since she has visions and Aurélie's reanimated mom keeps chasing her around going, "Oh! My daughter! La!" and such. Thankfully, the butterfly man comes to the rescue and kills Havriel before blowing up the underground palace. And yet, it takes a really long time for the tons of earth above the palace to make it collapse, so the four surviving teens make it out safely. Anouk has a renewed zest for life and friendship. Hooray!
Aside from some of the issues I've touched on already, one major problem with the book was that it didn't have its audience clearly in mind. The characters were all around seventeen, but they didn't talk like it. They make stunningly poor decisions--even for teenagers--and a lot of the dialogue reads as juvenile. If Bachmann wanted this to be a horror novel, he should have gone into more detail about the butterfly man's experiments. As it stands, we only have hints, edited to keep all the gruesome details hidden. I couldn't even tell you what, exactly, the butterfly man looks like or how two insane aristos managed to grow him in their secret palace in pre-Revolution France.
This would actually be a great script for a D-movie played on the Chiller channel, but it is not successful as a YA horror thriller.