(I was reading this year for the Norton Award. For those who don’t know, the Norton Award is given annually by SFWA (alongside the Nebulas, although it is technically not a Nebula award) to a young adult or middle grade novel that has science fiction or fantasy themes. This year, I read about seventy-five young adult and middle grade novels that met the criteria. Some I solicited and some I bought, but most were review copies or ARCs sent by publishers for the jury to consider.)
As always, I didn’t have a chance to read everything I wanted to (although I got a lot closer with this category than I have in previous years). And because of the way I organized my reading, there are some books around the house which are by friends and by people whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, which I still haven’t read. Also, as always, there are more wonderful things than I can possibly do justice when writing a single post.
Take My Breath Away
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (young adult) – After seeing his good friend Rosza kidnapped by a mysterious man, Finn is viewed with suspicion by his small rural town which thinks he’s lying about what happened. I can’t do justice to the plots and characters in this book with a short review; they are so intelligent and unusual. Brushing in a few points: Finn’s girlfriend is an exceptional character. I was impressed by the sustained emotional strength of Rosza’s perspective during the chapters in which she is imprisoned, and doubly impressed by the way Ruby writes about sexual abuse and trauma in a pragmatic, realistic, non-romanticized or -eroticized way. (It strikes me that people who liked that about Jessica Jones will likely find interesting parallels here.) Finn himself is an excellent, unusual character, with a very different voice than Rosza’s. Finn is also rendered with an intelligent eye toward avoiding stereotypes of men–for instance, he seeks creative solutions instead of using violence as a first resort. My favorite piece was how deep his friendship was with Rosza, even though it wasn’t romantic. I could write at length about that if I were inclined and willing to include spoilers. Anyway, this is a smart book with absolutely beautiful prose, intelligent storytelling, strong imagery, unusual characters, and an unpredictable, thoughtful plot. It’s not structured perfectly, but it’s excellence on other points drowns that minor objection.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (young adult) – This story is told from the alternating perspectives of two young women, one a prisoner and the other a ballerina. Their lives are tied together by a third young woman–Ori, also called the “bloody ballerina.” Once, Ori and the ballerina main character were friends, but after Ori was convicted for murder, she was plucked from her dancer’s life and put into the prisoner’s cell. Both perspective characters love Ori, but the way they treat people is very different. This ghost story works because of the close, detailed characterization of the two point of view characters. Their similar traits and similar drives are initially masked by differences in their accents and attitudes, but slowly revealed as the tension rises. The two unreliable narrators do their best to obfuscate, forcing the reader to almost fight against them as they read, trying to get a clearer picture of events. Ori is never seen in herself, always pinging back and forth between the idealization of first one main character and then the other, a sort of pixie dream girl concocted by their mutual imaginations. The whole book is a game of secrets–characters lying to themselves, others, history–disposable lies, treasured lies–events that are hidden, or misportrayed, or misunderstood. My mental image of the book is of looking at a beautiful nighttime scene through misted glass, watching as it slowly, mostly clears. The prose is gorgeous. The audio recording is excellent, too.
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (young adult) – This was a fragile, dreamlike sort of novel that I have trouble keeping altogether in my head–pieces of it seem to slip away, and other pieces are vivid images, disjointed. That’s pretty apropos given the subject of the book, which is about a fairy changeling inhabiting the body of a constructed doll which has been set in the place of a kidnapped girl. At first, she does not know who or what she is, and the book follows her confused emergence from what she thinks is a “fever.” It soon becomes apparent that her confusion is more than a mild physical ailment, but a magical problem–her first clue is an eerie scene where porcelain dolls try to attack her. The Victorian mood and setting details enhance the story, evoking older children’s stories where adults and children are in different spheres. Despite that barrier, the relationships between the family members were a great element of the book: the doggedly loving (if necessarily clueless) parents, often a rarity in YA, and the strong relationship between sisters. The novel’s mood and characterization are excellent, and the language remarkably lovely.
Wonders of the Invisible World by Chris Barzak (young adult) – When Aidan’s childhood best friend returns to town, Aidan doesn’t recognize him. Then, he does. As a sort of forgetting spell tatters, he learns about pieces of his life he’s forgotten, magic he can do and has seen done, his family history, and secret worlds. The characterization is slow and detailed, drawing each character in a carefully observed way. Language is honed to convey characters’ moods and thoughts through their descriptions, speech, and word choice, giving the book a subtle and layered texture. For me, the book was too bulky in sections, and I think a trimmer version could have retained the intricate characters while eliminating some repetition.
Fallout: Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond (young adult) – I rarely read tie-in novels as an adult, but this is an example of how good the genre can be. In Fallout, Lois Lane–a high school student reporter with a record for being resistant to authority–stakes out her own identity as a character. She’s driven and smart as she sets her sights on injustices and pursues them with vigor, regardless of physical danger. The little descriptions of the classrooms, clothing, and high school life place the reader strongly, and the technology in particular gives the old comic book world a new gloss. Writing that’s good, intelligent fun sometimes gets short shrift–and this is a great example of good, intelligent fun.
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson (young adult) – This strongly voiced historical novel tells the story of a young woman who can magically sense gold the way a dowser can magically sense water. Her parents know the talent is dangerous, but they haven’t disguised her abilities as well as they think they have–one day when the main character comes home, she finds her parents murdered. After their deaths, she’s pursued by their killer, who intends to use her talent for his own purposes. Dressing as a man to avoid capture, she travels west by covered wagon to join the gold rush. The characterization is good here, as are the main character’s voice, and the historical language and descriptions. The plot is tense, often on a razor’s edge as anyone who’s ever played Oregon Trail knows–anyone could die, anytime, of so, so many things. It felt a bit overwritten to me; I would have appreciated it more in a somewhat sleeker version. Also, for readers who are interested in such things, the speculative element is very light; the historical content is more dominant than the fantasy.
Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish by Barry Deutsch (middle grade) – I’ll stipulate here that Barry is a very good friend of mine so I’m not objective here at all. That said, I really adore the Hereville series which is about the magical adventures of Mirka, an eleven-year-old Hassidic Jewish girl who wants to wield swords and find monsters. Magic isn’t all the glamor and fun that adventurous Mirka wants it to be; instead, she finds herself in irritating tangles that magic only makes messier. In How Mirka Caught a Fish, she and her five year old sister, Layele, encounter a fish who has both the capacity to grant wishes–and a thirty-year grudge against their family. The book is warm and humorous, and this entry in the series has particular emotional depth as a marker on Mirka’s path to adulthood.
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Gaudin (young adult) – Yael wants to kill Hitler. And yes, it is a good novel anyway. This novel presents an alternate timeline where Hitler won the war. Instead of extrapolating into the present day, Graudin chooses instead to write about the European resistance movement that would have followed Hitler’s rise to power. The book avoids the weird moralizing of most alternate universe and time travel Hitler-killer stories by being set where and when it is. Yael is a Holocaust victim seeking revenge in her immediate life; she isn’t relating to Hitler as an abstract symbol of evil. In the camps, Yael was subject to Nazi experiments which made her a shape-shifter–and the perfect person to assassinate Hitler. For various plot reasons (the novel’s action often stretches the probable, but not in a way that seems inconsistent with genre norms), in order to get close to Hitler she has to disguise herself as a motorcycle rider and win an important national race. Yael’s active, competent, stoic character provides a compelling point of view that keeps the discussion of motorcycle mechanics interesting. One of the most palpable joys of this novel is the sensory and setting descriptions of the cyclists’ journey across the continent. Wolf by Wolf is a great blend of fun and smart.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (middle grade) – The darned thing about graphic novels if you make them is that they take so long to draw. The nice thing about graphic novels if you read them is they take such a light, enjoyable time to peruse. (And are often rewarding on reread.) Nimona has an art style that looks effortless, but no doubt requires hours of intense labor–which I can breeze through in minutes. Nimona, a teenage girl, wants to be evil. Specifically, she wants to be a villain’s sidekick. She doesn’t have the same ethical barriers that he does, though, and he has to train her how to be a moral villain. There’s a strong backbone of story, and the characters are evocative and easy to empathize with. I got a bit teary eyed at the end. In addition to the emotional substance, there are also a lot of sly snickers, like scenes with Nimona and the villain watching a movie together.
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon (middle grade) – This middle grade book is sprinkled with illustrations by the excellent, quirky, and hilarious artist/author. As a great fan of Ursula Vernon’s, I expect they are wonderful. However, I read a version without them, so my experience of the book was incomplete. As I read Castle Hangnail, I couldn’t help picturing an animated version. Perhaps Pixar? Oh, better yet, stop animation like Wallace and Grommit. The novel tells the story of a young girl who has come to take possession of Castle Hangnail, a villainous lair which is on the verge of being shut down if it cannot find a resident evil person to master it. She volunteers, but the staff suspect of her not really being a witch, which she isn’t. Her struggles to conceal her lack of a magical nature, while simultaneously performing feats of “magic,” ensue. The characters are distinct, colorful, and loveable. The humor is downright silly, but also sometimes sly, giving the narrative a hint of Roald Dahl edge. This book didn’t quite make it to “transcendent” for me, but it was pretty darn great.
Nomad by William Alexander (middle grade) – Sequel to Ambassador which I reviewed in last year’s list. It’s still “a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth”–only this time, instead of fumbling to learn what’s going on, he’s out in space negotiating with aliens. It’s still whimsical and fun, and still has a smart, caring main character who often solves problems with logic and empathy.
An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet (young adult) – Our main character, a young woman, lives in a town recently exhausted by war. Even her brother-in-law was claimed as a soldier, leaving her very pregnant sister alone, and making it difficult for them to manage the farm. Their troubles worsen when the main character discovers a “twisted” creature from some kind of fae-like dimension beyond ours. Where the two worlds touch, they spread contamination and destruction. The main character’s dogged attempts to save her farm in the face of supernatural dangers are interesting, but I was most interested in her relationship with her sister. I found the climax a little strained, and started to lose interest in the adventure plotline, but that’s common for me. Interesting world-building detail tucked in the background: it seems to be a post-apocalyptic setting.
Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly (young adult) – Tina brings her charming brand of humor to young adult novels with this story of a witch’s unwilling apprentice who has to balance life in servitude to an evil witch with A) her conscience, and B) high school. The main character and the voice are charming, and I enjoyed many of the background details about the world. It was a fun reading experience, but looking at it with a more critical eye, there were a number of gags I’d seen before, and the book invoked some stereotypes about high school. So, I have some complaints, but it was good fun.
Death Marked by Leah Cypess (young adult) – I really like Leah’s YA. I think I’ve had one of her books on my list almost every year. (I wrote about the first book in this series last year.) The sequel is about a young woman who is at the center of an anti-imperial resistance movement. (Now I’m starting to sound like Star Wars. Sorry.) Anyway, she’s a sorceress who has been trained in elaborate spellcasting techniques, but has no power of her own–only she can fight the empire with magic. In the previous book, she was learning about her place in the world while she lived among the assassins who, like her, opposed the empire. In this book, she has infiltrated the empire as one of its top students in magic. As she meets the people her revolution wants her to kill, she has to grapple with her conscience, knowing neither choice is clean. I think I liked this one better than the first which is rare for me. The scenes where the main character is learning magic are particularly interesting; I’m a sucker for those kinds of scenes in lots of books. Leah does secondary world, epic fantasy really well.
The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst (middle grade) – Sarah Beth Durst is a delightful writer who tackles different subjects and moods in almost every book. In The Girl Who Could Not Dream, she’s writing humorous urban fantasy for a middle grade audience. The main character can’t dream herself, but she comes from a family of people who collect, distill and sell dreams. Because she can’t dream, she has a special power: She can bring pieces of other people’s dreams to life. Sometimes that’s okay, such as when she brought forth her quirky and useful pet Monster. Other times… The story begins when someone wants to use her as a weapon, to bring those “other times” through into the world. A great, fun, funny adventure read, which I definitely recommend for bringing to kids who like magic and reading and silliness. I suspect it would overlap well with Harry Potter.
Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (young adult) – A dying teenage girl has a rare, undiagnosable disease, which is causing her to drown in the air. She’s in love with a boy, but they both know it’s doomed, the moreso as her symptoms get worse. She’s dreaming of sky cities, and coughing up feathers, and hearing birds talk to her. He finds a description of mythological sky cities populated by bird people. Though they dismiss the possibility, when the main character dies, she finds herself alive again among the city bird people, breathing freely for the first time in her life. The language is clever, with Headley’s skill at choosing the right words to be razors while others are sly and clever. The imagery is beautiful. The main character is melodramatic as hell, but has a right to be as a teenager with a fatal illness. She seemed very true to the kind of artsy, emotional teenagers I knew, although thankfully we weren’t tested by such extremity. I found myself much less interested when she went into the sky. I don’t know if that’s because the language changed (it wasn’t as sly or referential since her experiences were no longer earthbound), because I’m sometimes adventure-averse (I generally find characters more interesting), or because the two pieces just didn’t fit together (I may have impressed on the first part and not been ready to leave). The book didn’t work for me as a whole, but it was interesting.
Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kohrner-Stace (young adult) – This was among the first young adult novels I read this year,so I don’t remember it very sharply. I remember liking the main character, and also the world. The story moves through two major parts–one is a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the main character is a ghost catcher. (She has some really cool interactions with ghosts.) In the other, she enters the afterlife. The first sections were much more interesting to me; I was compelled by the mix of magic and post-apocalyptic signs. The ghost realm was nicely enough done, but seemed less unusual, and I found it a disappointment after the first, vivid setting.
Razorhurst by Justine Larbelestier (young adult) – The novel follows impoverished teens through a violent neighborhood in 1930s Australia. Great historical stuff, neat language, some really nice character moments. Moved a bit slowly for me, and I wasn’t interested in the main plot. I was much more interested in the speculative element which I hope is featured more strongly in the next book.