Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Dia Reeves’ Bleeding Violet is set in the fictional town of Portero, Texas. Like any other sleepy supernatural town, there is certainly more to this one than meets the eye. The inhabitants are divided between some locals who are well aware of the dangerous, hidden, supernatural portals that populate the town, while others live in ignorance.
Sixteen year-old heroine Hanna attempts to reconnect with the mother she has never met and to navigate teenage existence in this odd town filled with secret doors to different dimensions. Her story is complicated by a host of psychological conditions for which she is medicated, and by the supernatural monsters that she encounters. Hanna struggles to merge her primarily Finnish (Anglo/Caucasian) upbringing with her physical resemblance to her absent African-American mother. She is forced to balance this racial and cultural uncertainty with the discrimination she faces as a supposed non-supernatural outsider in Portero.
Once Hanna learns that her psychoses are a result of her supernatural heritage rather than an actual psychological condition, she embraces her gifts in the hope of saving her mother from the evil spirit that has possessed her corporeal form. Helping Hanna is the brooding Wyatt. He is a member of the Mortmaine, a militia-esque group that protects the residents of Portero from the unsavory entities that dwell on the other side of the town’s many doors.
The writing is rich and the story psychologically complex. There is some sexual content, and the violence, while beautifully described, is graphically intense, and perhaps better suited for a more mature adolescent reader.
I should have known, after reading Katherine Paterson’s hearty endorsement in the introduction, that this book would be dangerous for my sleep. I couldn’t put it down and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning finishing it!
Words in the Dust, Reedy’s first young adult novel, is inspired by a real girl he met while serving in Afghanistan. The main character, Zulaikha, has a cleft lip; in traditional Afghanistan, she’s always been the brunt of jokes and shame. But writing provides her the opportunity to express herself beyond the limits of her disfigured appearance and to remind herself of her deceased mother. When American solders enter her village, they offer her cosmetic surgery, her older sister gets engaged, and she begins to take secret reading lessons with an older woman named Meena – her dreams have all come true. But Zulaikha learns that fulfilled wishes are not as simple as they seem, and life is often very complicated.
The text is filled with relatable, engaging characters. There are moments of intense action and suspense, such as the flashback to Zulaikha’s mother’s murder by the Taliban, as well as moments of heart-rending sympathy, such as the scene of the tragedy that befalls Zulaikha’s sister. Zulaikha deals with difficult adolescent issues like self-identity, bullying, and fairness, as well as larger adult issues of freedom, like women’s rights, honor killing, arranged marriage, and war. Zulaikha is a positive example for young girls: her choices are not easy, and she manages to pass through challenges with sincere grace and maturity.
Cindy Pon continues the adventures of Ai Ling in Fury of the Phoenix, the 2009 sequel to her debut novel, Silver Phoenix. Chapters alternate between two complementary story lines. In one, Ai Ling joins her friend Chen Yong as he seeks his father. The (unlikely) second story line occurs in the distant past, following the rise to power of Zhong Ye, our heroine’s immortal adversary from the first novel in the series.
The story begins with Ai Ling attempting to stow away on the Gliding Dragon. A dream has told her she must get aboard; Chen Yong’s life depends on it. Once Ai Ling is aboard and Chen Yong is safe, they decide it is best for them to pose as siblings. The perilous voyage, combining pirates and sea monsters, is complicated because the young duo must share a cabin. And, as if dealing with palpable sexual tension weren’t dangerous enough, both hero and heroine must navigate the customs and politics of a foreign land. The storylines merge when Ai Ling battles Zhong Ye for Chen Yong’s soul.
The second narrative takes place three hundred years in the past and follows the young Zhong Ye as he chooses castration to enter the service of the emperor in the Palace of Fragrant Dreams. The ambitious eunuch gains the favor of the emperor by saving his life and providing him with a fertile concubine to give him an heir. In the process, Zhong Ye begins a love affair with the concubine’s handmaid, Silver Phoenix. As the story unfolds, Zhong Ye must choose between his love for Silver Phoenix and his desire for immortality.
Pon braids both narratives beautifully with fast paced action scenes and detailed descriptions. It’s not often, well, perhaps ever, that an author creates a story with a truly sympathetic villain, much less an emasculated protagonist. Fury of the Phoenix navigates a sexual, political, and racial politic so as to challenge the stereotypical themes in most of the novels in the genre.
Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia is the debut novel by author Cindy Pon. Set in the fictional land of Xia, the story follows seventeen year-old Ai Ling hopes on a quest to find her father, who is being held captive at the kingdom’s imperial Palace of Fragrant Dreams. In turn, she hopes to save herself from a forced marriage to a despicable local merchant. Her journey includes supernatural powers, mythical lands, magical monsters, and the realization that her destiny is controlled in part by an incarnation from a past life.
We learn Ai Ling can read minds and control the actions of others; we discover that her past and present are inextricably bound to the Silver Phoenix, consort of the immortal Zhong Ye, advisor to the imperial line. Of course, this is the reason that Zhong Ye holds her father captive at the imperial place. Master Zhong wishes to return the full spirit of his heart’s desire to Ai Ling’s corporeal form, and knows the only way to draw her to the palace is by using her father as bait!
Of course, what would a high fantasy adventure be without a couple of travel companions? Joining Ai Ling on her quest are brothers Chen Yong and Li Rong. Chen Yong is the illegitimate son of one of the Emperor’s consorts and an emissary from the land across the sea, Jiang Dao. Both brothers are athletic and dashing, but Chen Yong struggles with his orphaned existence and mixed race identity. He’s not just here to help Ai Ling, he’s searching for the truth about his parents and his origins.
Pon weaves Silver Phoenix’s past with Ai Ling’s present and Chen Yong’s search rather neatly. The story is action filled and artfully descriptive. Pon is obviously a foodie-- I can’t remember the last time a story made me feel so hungry!
The narrative does contain mature scenes with graphic violence, including a near rape.
In the current trend of young adult fantasy and science fiction, the high fantasy mode hasn’t been particularly prolific. Pon provides not only highly developed fantasy but also, notably, a much needed non-Caucasian heroine in a non-Western context.
Lish McBride’s debut novel, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, stars Sam, a young necromancer, as he learns a little bit about life, love, and, of course, raising the dead. It’s touted as a comedy-injected addition to the current wave of YA speculative fiction. The author biography even jokingly declares that McBride was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest.
Meet Sam LaCroix, community college drop-out, Plumpy’s burger joint employee, and necromancer. Sam doesn’t know he can raise the dead until a chance encounter with Douglas, another local necromancer, who calls him out to stop loafing and accept his true nature. Douglas decides Sam’s time is best spent learning to use his newly discovered powers. While Douglas teaches him necromancy, Sam finds himself sharing a cage with a pretty werewolf. And, provided the were-girl doesn’t decide he’s dinner, Sam might learn about more than just his new powers.
McBride’s humorous title is promising, but the disjointed narrative shift between the first and third person dampens the prospect. Also problematic is the temporality of the pop culture references. While these references are sure to be a hit with an adult (crossover) reader, I expect the humor will be lost on any young adult without the Wikipedia app on his or her smart phone.
The Agency: A Spy in the House is the first novel in Y.S. Lee’s Mary Quinn Mystery series for young adults. Set in Victorian London, the story introduces us to seventeen year-old Mary Quinn, the orphaned daughter of a Chinese sailor and an Irish seamstress. It follows Mary on her first assignment for the Agency, a “collective” of secret agents working out of Miss Skrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.
As the story opens, a twelve year-old Mary finds herself before a magistrate, convicted of theft and sentenced to death. Rescued from the gallows, she accepts a position at Miss Skrimshaw’ Academy. Though Mary learns how to navigate London’s polite society, but restless nature desires more. When she admits this to her instructors Miss Treleaven and Mrs. Frame, they proudly offer Mary a position with the Agency. Of course, she accepts, and after an expedited training period, is placed in the Thorold residence. Posing as a hired companion to the family’s haughty daughter, Mary gathers information about possible nefarious dealings in Mr. Thorold’s shipping business.
This assignment takes a turn as she is almost caught searching Mr. Thorold’s home office. When she ducks into a closet, she discovers that she isn’t the only one investigating Mr. Thorold! Mary eventually teams up with the handsome young stranger from the closet, James Easton. The two follow a trail that leads them to a refuge for Chinese sailors. While searching the refuge, Mary is discovered by a caretaker who recognizes her, remembers her father, and provides her the opportunity to learn about her father-- and herself. As the plot thickens, Mary and James find themselves rushing to solve a mystery fueled by greed, piracy, and murder.
Lee, a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture, has modernized the period detective novel by raising issues of diversity, gender roles, and classism. Writing in third person, Lee alternates between Mary’s and James’ perspectives. This is Mary’s story though, so James’ voice sometimes seems an afterthought. The story includes some romantic tension, but not so much that it overshadows the rest of the plot. Overall A Spy in the House is an enjoyable read.
Set in New York City and rural upstate New York, Liar follows Micah, a high school senior with a penchant for compulsive lying. She is seeking the truth about her boyfriend’s murder, and she seeks her own peace about being a werewolf. Her attempts to reconcile human and wolf are complicated by race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic stratification in a complex high school and urban environment.
The story opens as Micah deals with her “boyfriend” Zach’s grisly death. When she becomes the prime suspect, she must race to find the real killer. But one side effect of her time in wolf form is memory loss. So, while she suspects that the killer might be another werewolf, she is not altogether sure that she isn’t indeed responsible for Zach’s death herself. As she works through grief and possible guilt, we discover that her need to lie compulsively stems from her parents’ desire to keep the “family illness” a secret. The relationship with her parents is complicated by another mystery, the death of her little brother. Micah hopes to prove her innocence and thus stave off permanent exile to the family’s farm in rural New York. Most importantly, she hopes for the courage to reveal the truth about the “family illness.”
Larbalestier’s story artfully incorporates the supernatural into the complexities of multicultural existence in modern America.
Part psychological thriller, the story is not linear; Micah bounces between telling of present and past events. Sometimes this is confusing. Nonetheless, the writing is smart, fast paced, and beautifully constructed. At its conclusion, we and Micah realize just how inconsequential the truth can be.
Falls, Kat. Dark Life. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0-545-17814-3. 297 pages. $16.99. Young Adult.
Dark Life is probably best classified as dystopian science fiction. Following the catastrophic rise of sea levels, twenty percent of North America is under water. The forty-five remaining states have formed a Commonwealth that functions in a constant state of emergency. Since the new frontier is now the ocean, where scientists and pioneers work underwater farms to provide the Commonwealth with sustenance, the setting is underwater off the Eastern seaboard of the former United States. Families live in “subsea” homes made from soft-sided membranes modeled after deep-sea invertebrates, mostly jellyfish. Children born and raised in these deep ocean settlements are sometimes referred to as Dark Life, and are thought by their Topsider counterparts to have special powers.
One of these Dark Life adolescents, Ty, is the teenage son of scientist/underwater terra-formers. Both Ty and his nine year-old sister Zoe, born subsea, possess unique talents suited for underwater living. In the first chapter, Ty scavenges among the ruins of the now submerged New York City, though doing so violates his parents’ rules. While investigating an abandoned sub, he discovers Gemma, a teenage Topsider and ward of the Commonwealth, who is searching for her brother. Ty agrees to help Gemma, but the search proves way more dangerous than either could imagine. They find themselves caught in an unfolding mystery that involves seagangs, escaped convicts, secret experiments, and the Benthic territory’s struggle for equal representation in the Commonwealth.
Falls’ Dark Life is a neat little gem. Writing in first person from Ty’s perspective, she re-imagines the American Wild West. Her underwater setting is rife with settlers, outlaws, prospectors, and posses. She mixes an appropriate amount of action with world building and character development to create an enjoyable read. And while Ty is a well- rounded character, I wished Gemma was a bit more developed. All in all, Falls’ prose is well constructed and pretty evenly paced.
It’s been a while since I read something so compelling that I took it everywhere I went, just so I could read it whenever I had a spare moment. Stacey’s Jay’s imaginative novel is impossible to put down. The initial concept is outlined in the book jacket, arresting in its so-simple-it’s-amazing hook: “Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted most…Romeo Montague.”
Now come on! How brilliant is that? Don’t you wish you had thought of it? And Stacey Jay takes that wonderful premise and runs with it, creating a novel steeped in intrigue, mystery, and the dueling forces of good and evil.
In Jay’s novel, Romeo kills Juliet as a sacrifice to gain immortality. After her death, Juliet becomes an Ambassador of Light, a spirit who can inhabit bodies on earth when her help is needed to unite soul mates, and Romeo becomes a Mercenary, an immortal soul on the side of evil. The erstwhile lovers meet again and again on earth in their respective afterlives, always fighting each other for soul mates. If Juliet unites them, she scores one for her team of Ambassadors. If Romeo can convince one soul mate to kill the other, the Mercenaries’ power grows. But are Romeo and Juliet simply doing what they have to do to keep their immortal bosses happy, or are they pawns in an ancient game? And when Juliet finds her own forbidden love – and it’s not Romeo – will she ruin her chances at a peaceful afterlife?
Stacey Jay takes the common conception of Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate pair of lovers and turns it on its head. Juliet hates Romeo, and Romeo is slick, sadistic, and deceptive. With vivid descriptions of graphic violence and macabre visions, the novel edges into gothic horror territory. The suspense is thrilling, the characters are just mysterious enough, and the sense of “What is going on?” will have you racing through the book’s 300 pages to see what will happen to these formerly fair lovers.
Along with the mysteries and unanswered questions, the characterization of Juliet and her relationship with Romeo contributes to the suspense. Juliet – always on the side of good but carrying a bitterness and resentment that darkens her – ultimately learns what love is for. And because Romeo and Juliet have such an epic history, there’s an element of wistfulness for what they used to be. While you may not root for them to end up together, you do feel sorrow for the tragedy they both went through.
Overall, Juliet Immortal is a tantalizing exploration of a fantastic concept. It does suffer a little from the common YA ailment of instant, all-consuming love between teenagers who have just met, but… so did Romeo and Juliet.
In Paper Covers Rock, narrator Alex Stromm, a student at a prestigious Virginia boy boarding school in the 1960s, struggles with the death of a friend by keeping a journal – the next “Great American Novel” – using the anonymous pen name “Is Male,” based on Moby Dick’s narrator “Ishmael.”
In the weeks that follow his friend’s accidental drowning, an incident in which Alex played a major role, he struggles with issue of truth vs. falsehood, confronts the reality of loss and his guilt regarding the accident, and realizes that his choices in friends play a major role in the shape of his life. The journal helps him escape his fear and guilt.
Through all of this, Alex’s English teacher, a recent college graduate in her first year of teaching, fosters his creative writing, as well as his fantasies. The hot-for-teacher crush, while slightly “icky,” is written in a believable way and she suffers the consequences for letting down her guard and allowing herself to get too close to a student.
Overall, Paper Covers Rock is an excellent read – not overly exemplary in terms of teenage behavior, but real and pragmatic in terms of the consequences of one’s poor choices.