March 27th, 2012


Book Report: Otherworldly YA

Very soon, just about everything I've been working on for the past year or so will be off in someone else's hands (at least for the time being). That means today will be errand day after lunch, and then I think I'm going to do some housework. There's something about the quality of light in the spring that makes messes look messier, so what felt comfortably cluttered in the winter now feels like a depressing, unbearable mess.

I've been doing a lot of reading, trying to get through the books on the Nebula ballot (I made a stab at the short stories, but I don't see that happening in the time I have left, unless I put everything else aside). I've discovered that I like the historical or otherworld YA books a lot better than the contemporary-set YA books, perhaps because without stuff like high school, prom, etc., I can relate more to the characters. Or else without that stuff the story focuses on the higher-stakes issues. In fact, the line between adult and YA gets really hazy without high school being an issue. As an adult, I have no desire to relive high school.

There were a couple of books that I really enjoyed. One was The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. It's about a princess who, on her 16th birthday, is married to the young king of an allied country in a political arranged marriage. Then she finds herself caught up in all sorts of intrigue because this kingdom is under attack and there are various factions all dealing with the enemy in different ways. It seems at first as though there will be the Standard YA Love Triangle, but then things veer wildly in different directions, which was rather refreshing. This is very much a coming-of-age story, in which a fat, spoiled princess has to grow up fast and get a lot stronger (physically and emotionally) to deal with everything she has to face. One thing I really liked about this book was the treatment of religion. This is an "other world" fantasy that seems to have a lot of analogues to our world, and the core faith reads a lot like the way Christianity might have developed in a different place. The scriptures are similar but just different enough to be different, and the rituals are different but still work in a thematic way. Usually in fantasy, faith is either ignored entirely or demonized (the bad guys are the religious people), but in this world, prayer has some real power -- that can also be misused. This is apparently the first in a trilogy, and I'm curious to see what happens next (the sequel is coming in September).

Then there was Chime by Franny Billingsley, which I don't think I would have picked up if it hadn't been on an award ballot, mostly because of the cover. The cover shows an overly made-up woman lounging in a black lace dress, and it gives the impression that it's some quasi-goth vampire romance, which couldn't be further from the truth. I noticed that the upcoming paperback release has a very different cover that seems to fit the book better. The book is set in the early 1900s in a remote English village on the edge of a bog, where the nature spirits from British folklore are still a very real thing. This village still has witch trials, and our heroine is on trial for being a witch. The book is her account of everything that happened to get her to that point. She admits to being a witch -- how else could she hear and communicate with those beings who live in the bog? She's even done some horrible things -- at least, she's sure she did, since she is a witch, and who else could have done those things, but her memory is pretty hazy. In the name of progress, the bogs are being drained, and that has led one of the beings to curse the town with a terrible illness. Our heroine's twin sister (who's probably autistic, but of course that term wasn't really used by this sort of people at that time) is ill, and she has to decide how she can possibly let people know how to stop the illness without letting on that she can communicate with these beings and revealing that she's a witch. It's all very atmospheric and a little spooky.

I admit to some minor frustration near the middle when I figured out what was really going on (thanks to some characters telling the heroine what was going on) while the heroine didn't/couldn't see it, but then as you get deeper into the book you can see what a tangled web she's caught up in. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the romantic relationship because it was so differently refreshing for a YA book. The guy refers to himself as a "bad boy," but really that just means he's not living up to his father's expectations of him. He's been kicked out of university for goofing off, and he really doesn't have the patience to be a scholar. He's boarding in the heroine's house so he can be tutored by someone in town, but he blows off his studies. Still, he's about as far from "bad" as you can get because he's incredibly kind, is very caring, jumps in to help when there's a crisis and is a loyal friend. Watching the friendship and love grow between him and the rather prickly, closed-off heroine is really enjoyable. It's one of the few YA relationships that actually seems healthy to me, something I'd want for my daughter (if I had one). He's also proof that a nice guy who doesn't have to be healed with the heroine's love or who doesn't act like a controlling jerk can still be interesting.

Then there was a book that was published as an adult book and that's on the "adult" ballot but that I couldn't distinguish from the YA books, Among Others by Jo Walton. This book is set in the late 70s and is about a girl who fled her abusive witch mother and ended up with her estranged father, who lives with his three hyper-controlling half-sisters. Her aunts send her to boarding school. Her lifeline has always been science fiction and fantasy books, and her love of these books provides the first connection to the father she's never known and to her chances of friendship in this new place. But meanwhile, her mother is out there and out to get her, and opening herself up could lead to disaster. It's kind of a fantasy novel about science fiction. In ways, it reminds me of Tam Lin, in that there's a very real, relatable story about school life with a fantasy world woven in the background. You could get a really comprehensive reading list from this book, with the titles and authors that are name-dropped throughout. I found myself keeping score: "Read it, know him, sat on a convention panel with him, read that." For that reason alone, it's practically a must-read for science fiction and fantasy fans. I need to go back through the book and make a reading list because there were a few I missed that sound interesting.

Meanwhile, I've finally started reading my pre-publication advance copy of A Game of Thrones. I figure that would be a good idea before the second season of the TV series starts. Thanks to the TV series, it's a lot easier for me to get into than it was the previous time I tried, back before the book was released.