Review

Sword, by Amy Bai

Sword, by Amy BaiI am so far behind on posting reviews. Let’s start with Sword [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Amy Bai. I believe this is Bai’s first novel, and it’s an impressive debut. Sword is a YA fantasy with swords (duh) and magic and kingdoms and betrayal and all that good stuff. From the publisher’s description:

For over a thousand years, the kingdom of Lardan has been at peace: isolated from the world, slowly forgetting the wild and deadly magic of its origins. Now the deepest truths of the past and the darkest predictions for the future survive only in the verses of nursery rhymes. And prophecies are just nursery rhymes for gullible fools. Right?

So thinks Kyali Corwynall, daughter of the Lord General and the court’s only sword-wielding girl. She’s never bothered believing in faery stories. But one day, an old nursery rhyme she’s heard since childhood begins to come true, naming her as Sword and her brother and best friend as Song and Crown, saviors of the kingdom. When that ancient magic wakes, the future changes for everyone. In the space of a single night, her life unravels into violence and chaos.

The opening few chapters felt a little slow to me, mostly because what I was reading seemed familiar. We’re introduced to Kyali and her skill with fighting and swordplay, her brother Devin and his bardic magic, and their close friend the Princess Taireasa. But once the plot picked up, I was hooked hard. Much of the book made me feel like a kid again, getting caught up in the excitement and the battles and the prophecies and the characters and their relationships. It hits many of the notes of a good page-turning fantasy.

That brings up my other stumbling point, because while I love the tropes of fantasy and I’m generally thrilled to revisit them, there are a few I could do without. Early on, Kyali finds herself holding a room against multiple enemies while the princess escapes. They ask where the princess has gone, and naturally she refuses, which leads to this exchange.

“I think you will tell us eventually, general’s daughter.”

His meaning was plain.

Oh, gods, she thought — death, she had braced herself for. This possibility had never occurred to her.

She would just have to find a way to die, then. After she killed as many of these as came near her.

I almost stopped reading here. Not because the scene was bad or badly written, nor did it feel gratuitous. It’s simply not something I wanted to read.

But I kept reading, and I’m glad I did. The consequences to Kyali are intense, and shape her character for the rest of the book. But her internal struggle isn’t solely from the implied sexual assault (it’s never explicitly spelled out). There’s another kind of trauma related to her magic, and that turns her into…not a stone cold warrior, but a woman trying desperately to project that coldness in order to protect the people closest to her.

I enjoyed the use of prophecy. It’s another trope, but something about the way Bai wrote the story brought new energy to the idea. Prophecy isn’t a mysterious riddle. It’s not a set of plot coupons to be collected. Its a burden. It’s as much a mystery to be unraveled and understood as the political machinations and the clashes between armies. And it puts Kyali in the role of warrior, with her brother as the bard, which was a nice reversal.

The secondary characters were interesting and engaging. (For those who’ve read it, am I the only one who was shipping Devin and Prince Kinsey?) There’s a lot going on in this book, and all of the players fit the story, and were people I wanted to read about.

There’s an energy to the story that’s hard to describe. It might be a first novel thing. You should take this bit with a grain of salt, because I’m pretending to read the author’s mind, and that often ends badly…but reading the book, I could almost feel how excited the author was to share the story and these characters. That excitement and love and affects my own reading, which is a good thing.

Sword is book one in what I’m guessing will be a trilogy, so the end of the book isn’t the end of the story. No cliffhanger ending though, which I appreciate.

Overall, I think it’s a good book. I also recognize that some elements may not be to everyone’s taste.

The first twenty-four pages are available online, if you’d like to check it out.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

One of the coolest things about being an author is getting advance copies of books that aren’t out yet. Such was the case with Elizabeth Bear‘s western steampunk Karen Memory [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], which comes out on February 3, 2015. I got to read it back in November. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!

Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, here’s the publisher’s description:

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

What the publisher really should have opened with is the fact that this book features a steam-powered Singer sewing machine mecha-suit that’s been heavily modified and upgraded. Readers might ask if it really makes logical sense to transform a sewing machine into something so complicated and mechanically convoluted. To which one could reply, “Who cares? It’s a freaking sewing machine mech!”

While there are other elements that are just plain fun, there’s a lot more going on in this book. You’ve got a group of women teaming up against several different layers of villainy, from a serial killer to large-scale political mind-control schemery. There’s high-stakes action with a nice bit of romance thrown in. Some of the plot revelations and twists at the end came a little too fast for me, but that might be a matter of personal taste.

Karen and company aren’t exactly the privileged class of 19th century society, and Bear doesn’t ignore the prejudices of the time. She’s worked to create a diverse cast of characters, but those characters face additional challenges. Marshal Bass Reeves is a black man, and at one point is threatened with lynching. His partner, a Comanche named Tomoatooah, is forced to flee the town. And while Karen is relatively open-minded and accepting, you also see her using the language of the times, and occasionally stumbling over her own prejudices.

While Karen and her allies live and work in a bordello, nothing sexual happens on the page. Karen’s life isn’t romanticized, either. Bear acknowledges that this can be ugly work. But it’s not something that needs to be on the page for the story Bear’s telling.

Bear brings together a strong plot, an engaging voice, and good characters. (I’m particularly fond of the foul-mouthed Madame Damnable.)

Check the Tor website for an excerpt.

Book Reviews: Stross, Valente, and Snyder

Jennifer Morgue CoverI’ve fallen behind in my book reviewing again, so this is my attempt to catch back up, starting with The Jennifer Morgue [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Charles Stross.

This is part of Stross’ Laundry Files, about magic and computers and government employees. In this one, “Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker for The Laundry, must stop a ruthless billionaire from unleashing an eldritch horror, codenamed ‘Jennifer Morgue’ from the ocean’s depths for the purpose of ruling the world…”

This was another fun read, similar in tone to The Atrocity Archives (which I enjoyed, and reviewed here). Only there’s an added twist. Without getting into details, Stross has found a clever way to write a tribute/parody of a certain other subgenre, one which fits perfectly with the rules of the world he’s created. It felt a little forced in one or two places, but for the most part, I enjoyed watching Stross play with the tropes and structures of those other books, while occasionally smiling and thinking, I see what you did there.

The character of Ramona was fascinating, and representative of the real darkness Stross gets into with these books, beneath the humorous surface. People have talked to me about feeling uncomfortable with Lena Greenwood’s character, with her nature and the way I chose to write her. Ramona created similar discomfort as I read–she’s possessed by a succubus, meaning she has a physical need for sex, as well as using sex as a weapon of assassination. While I’m not sure Stross handles this perfectly, neither do I, and I give him credit for not ignoring the problematic aspects of Ramona’s character.

Overall, if you enjoyed the first book, you’ll almost certainly like this one as well. They’re smart, different, and bring enough humor and darkness and action to keep things moving.

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Fairyland CoverNext up is Catherynne Valente’s award-winning YA book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], about a 12-year-old girl named September who leaves Omaha during WWI to travel with the Green Wind to Fairyland, where she befriends a wyvern who’s part library (only A through L), meets witches, rustles wild bicycles, confronts a queen, and so much more.

Valente’s imagination shines through from every page, presented in lush language by a narrator who offers their own commentary throughout the book. It felt like I was reading an old-fashioned tale of young, fantastic adventure, with shades of Wonderland and Narnia and more. I enjoyed it, but I could also see reading this one to my 9-year-old. I suspect he’d get a kick out of it.

My guess is that a lot will depend on whether or not you like Valente’s style in this book. I’d definitely recommend checking out the excerpt on the publisher’s website.

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Finally, there’s Lucy A. Snyder’s Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (and Other Oddities) [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], a collection of “12 humor stories about computers and the forces of evil.” I received a review copy of this one in audio book format, as read by Mary Bertke, and listened to it while driving to and from ConFusion earlier this month.

The collection starts with step-by-step instructions for installing Linux on a dead badger, but this is only the start. From there, the stories begin to explore the implications of a world where you can reanimate the dead with the right hardware and operating system. Many of the stories take the form of news reports, exploring everything from the implications of zombie call centers to the special Kung Fu mode you can activate in your dead badger.

The first story went on a little long for my taste, but I liked the larger picture Snyder created as the collection progressed in its satirical exploration of a world — particularly the corporate world — that’s gotten its hands on magic. As someone who’s worked both in tech support and in the land of cubicle bureaucracy, many of Snyder’s ideas felt just familiar and plausible enough to be funny. (And also depressing, now that I think about it … how many of us could be replaced with zombies at our day jobs?)

Three of the stories are available on Strange Horizons:

Legend of Korra 4×2: Korra Alone

Legend of Korra
4×2: Korra Alone

Full episodes available at Nick.com.

Episode Summary (from the Avatar Wiki): While being haunted by a shadow of herself in the Avatar State, Korra reminisces about the hardships she went to in the course of three years. In 171 AG, she retreated to the Southern Water Tribe in an attempt to heal her body and her mind. After two years and with Katara’s help, she was able to recover physically, though continued to have visions about Zaheer and the attempt on her life. In 173 AG, she set out on a journey across the world to reconnect with Raava, though to no avail. In 174 AG, while wandering through a small Earth Kingdom town, she decides to confront the vision of herself and ends up losing. However, when a small dog begs her to follow it, she does so and after passing out in a swamp after a new confrontation with her Avatar self, she wakes up in the home of Toph.

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Book Reviews: Clines, Rothfuss, and Hearne

I’m falling behind in my book reviewing, so I’m going to cram a few together in one blog post.

Ex-Heroes CoverBook the first: Ex-Heroes [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Peter Clines. This is basically a post-apocalyptic zombie book with superheroes, which is an interesting premise. As powerful as the heroes are, they’re not invulnerable, and they’re vastly outnumbered. They’ve established a stronghold called The Mount, in the ruins of Hollywood, where they scavenge for supplies and do their best to protect their citizens from the exes (ex-humans), as well as a street gang that’s discovered some powers of their own.

Clines hits a lot of the expected beats for a zombie story, including flashbacks to the beginning of the disaster, various scenes of humans being trapped by exes, and the terror of the endless sea of undead at the gates. I appreciated that there was at least one twist that I didn’t see coming. (And it has a blurb from Nathan Fillion, which is both cool and incredibly envy-making.)

I’d recommend this one to fans of zombies and Watchmen.

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The Slow Regard of Silent Things - CoverBook the second: The Slow Regard of Silent Things [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Patrick Rothfuss. Pat writes an interesting introduction to this novella (novelette?), in which he warns people, “You might not want to buy this book … it doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do.”

More than anything, this struck me as a character study. Auri is a secondary character in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. In this book, we follow a week in Auri’s life.

Depending on how you read it, there isn’t a lot happening in this book. Auri lives beneath the university, a world of empty caves and tunnels and pipes and ponds and abandoned rooms. In some respects, she reminds me a bit of Luna Lovegood, a character who sees the world in a very different and odd way. But in Auri’s case, you get hints of her past, of someone who was broken and rebuilt herself and her world.

If you’re looking for a strong plot, or for a story that has an impact on the greater world, you should probably skip this one. Auri spends her days exploring, finding lost objects and putting them in their proper places, exploring different rooms, and searching for the right gift for him.

The writing is gorgeous, and I was fascinated by Auri’s character, who seems to walk a very thin line between beauty and crippling OCD. My only complaint is that I wish she wasn’t so fixated on him (Kvothe, from Rothfuss’ novels). I understand that this is in keeping with the books, but it frustrates me to read such a beautifully written woman whose existence revolves around a guy. I’ve just been reading too much of that sort of thing lately.

That said, it’s a beautifully written story, though it won’t work for everyone. It inspired me to try some new things with my own writing and characters.

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Hounded - CoverBook the third: Hounded [Amazon | B&N | Indiebound], by Kevin Hearne.

This is book one of Hearne’s popular Iron Druid chronicles, and I can see why he’s done so well with it. It’s page-turning fun, with a 2000+ year old druid called Atticus O’Sullvain living in Arizona with a delightful Irish wolfhound. For a long time, he’s been hiding from a very angry god who wants a sword Atticus stole centuries ago.

Lots of action, a good helping of snark, and entertaining, larger-than-life characters, from the werewolf and vampire legal team to the possessed bartender to the Irish widow Atticus hangs out with, swapping Irish tales.

There’s also a bit of hetero-male wish-fulfillment going on, with several beautiful and powerful women who all want to sleep with Atticus. On the other hand, Hearne presents a range of female characters, all with their own strengths.

In sum, a fun and entertaining read.

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So, that’s some of my recent reading. Any of these three strike you as interesting? Or if you’ve read them, feel free to share your thoughts.

Zero Sum Game, by SL Huang

I very rarely read books electronically. I know, I know … but I don’t own an e-reader, and I spend way too much time staring at screens already. But I was stuck on the plane Sunday evening with nothing to read, so I pulled up my copy of Zero Sum Game [Amazon | B&N | Kobo], by SL Huang.

I finished it two days later.

Here’s the official description:

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower … but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem…

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

This is a fast-paced thriller with lots of action and fighting and a diverse cast and secret organizations and subterfuge and general sneakiness and ass-kicking. Cas is cold and efficient, but with just enough humanity to keep her somewhat sympathetic. Her two companions bookend her nature quite well: Rio is basically a serial killer channeling his violence toward the bad guys, while PI Arthur is the heart and morality of the group. The conflict between them is very well done, particularly Arthur’s horror when he realizes who Cas’ friend is.

I’m also quite fond of computer guru Chester, a wheelchair-using geek who reminds me of Oracle. (With the caveat that I haven’t read Oracle in the comics; I’m just familiar with her character from talking to my fellow geeks.)

The overall conflict is perhaps familiar, but still engaging: a group with mental superpowers is manipulating the world to make it better, even if that means brainwashing and killing those who get in the way. It presents some good ethical dilemmas, since the antagonists have set things up in such a way that hurting them could actually help other villains.

The one problem I kept stumbling over was Cas’ powers. I can buy that she’s a math supergenius, but instinctively seeing and understanding the math of the world around you is one thing. Being able to apply that math to put every bullet exactly where you want, to hit a kid with a tennis ball after three ricochets, to weave a motorcycle through traffic at insane speeds, these things kept snapping my suspension of disbelief. The physical aspect is a whole other superpowered skillset, one that’s never mentioned.

On the other hand, her superpower is math. How cool is that?

We do get hints about Cas’ backstory toward the end, but we’ll have to wait until at least book two for the details. Overall, the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, but again, I suspect that’s because Huang is setting the groundwork for future books.

Nitpicks aside, I devoured this book, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, Half Life, which should be out in January.

Legend of Korra 4×1: After All These Years

Legend of Korra
4×1: After All These Years

Full episodes available at Nick.com.

Episode Summary (from the Avatar Wiki): In the three years after the Insurrection of the Red Lotus, Republic City has come to terms with the spirits living in the metropolis, Kuvira and Baatar Jr., along with their supporters, have traveled the Earth Kingdom in an attempt to reunite it under her militaristic rule, and the Air Nation assists there where needed. By 174 AG, Asami Sato helped modernize Central City Station and Prince Wu is groomed to ascend the vacant Earth Kingdom throne with Mako momentarily serving as his bodyguard. Meanwhile, Kai and Opal stop a robbery in the State of Yi, though are unable to restore the town’s supply lines, leaving the reluctant governor no other choice than to agree to Kuvira’s terms for help and hand over the town to her command. Korra was set to reunite with Team Avatar in Republic City, but has been traveling alone for the past six months, making a rough living with earthbender cage fighting while hiding her identity as the Avatar. More

The Tribe Series by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Ambelin Kwaymullina was the other Guest of Honor at Continuum earlier this year. She’s a delightful, intelligent, and all-around wonderful human being. Ambelin is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people, and is the author of a number of award-winning picture books as well as a YA dystopian series.

She was kind enough to give my daughter the first book in that series as a gift. I picked up the second at the convention. Having read them both, I am now waiting Very Impatiently for the third and final book to come out!

Book one is The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. Book two is The Disappearance of Ember Crow, and doesn’t appear to be out in the U.S. yet. I’m not seeing it from Book Depository, either. Grumble.

Here’s the description in the author’s own words:

The Tribe is a three-book dystopian series set on a future earth where the world was ripped apart by an environmental cataclysm known as ‘the Reckoning’. The survivors of the Reckoning live in an ecotopia where they strive to protect the Balance of the world, the inherent harmony between all life. But anyone born with an ability – Firestarters who control fire, Rumblers who can cause quakes, Boomers who make things explode – is viewed as a threat to the Balance. Any child or teenager found to have such a power is labeled an ‘Illegal’ and locked away in detention centres by the government.

Except for the ones who run.

Sixteen year old Ashala Wolf leads a band of rebels who she names her Tribe. Sheltered by the mighty tuart trees of the Firstwood and the legendary saurs who inhabit the grasslands at the forest’s edge, the Tribe has been left alone – until now. A new detention centre is being built near the forest, and when The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf begins, Ashala has been captured by the government and is on her way to interrogation…

I loved these books.

Dystopia is popular these days, as is dark, gritty, often hopeless fiction. While these books certainly have a dark and dystopic setup, there’s also hope and joy and life and love. You read the books and you don’t walk away thinking, “Well, the world sucks, and everything is hopeless.” You walk away thinking, “Humanity sure screws things up sometimes, but we will survive, and we will make things better in the end.”

The characters are wonderful. Heroes and villains, humans and [spoilers]. There’s such a range of powers and personalities, and it all just works. I particularly like that we see a similar range in the government and elsewhere. There are no monolithic blocks of good or evil people. You get a sense of the larger struggle playing out throughout the world.

You wouldn’t think a book about an interrogation would be such a page-turner, but I lost several nights’ sleep to these books.

I did feel like book two stumbled a little at the beginning. When Disappearance begins, Ashala has retreated from the Tribe after accidentally injuring someone she cares about with her power. This part didn’t quite work for me, but that might be because I’m 40 years old, and I forget that Ashala Wolf and the rest of the Tribe are still kids. Regardless, once we moved past that part, the story once again sucked me in and wouldn’t let go.

Book two expands the scope and the worldbuilding in wonderful and completely unexpected-but-consistent ways. It’s a book about love and despair and history and family and religion and hope and evil and so much more.

So here’s the deal:

  • You need to go pick up book one and read it.
  • Candlewick Press needs to hurry up and release book two so I can push all of my U.S. readers to get it.
  • Ambelin Kwaymullina needs to magically make book three be out now so I can read it and see how everything comes together.

Any questions?

Radiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith

Radiant cover artI was fortunate enough to receive an advance review copy of Karina Sumner Smith‘s debut fantasy novel Radiant [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], which comes out on September 23. It’s a dystopian future fantasy, billed as book one of the Towers trilogy.

From the publisher’s description:

Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.

When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.

With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

The central premise made me think of Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” You have the same horrifying choice: the Towers can create a utopian existence, but only by horrifically enslaving and using their Radiants. We meet the Radiant, Shai, and see first her fear and pain, but as the story progresses, we watch her realize that if she does choose to stay away, she’ll be dooming her home Tower. It’s a great setup for the book.

Xhea doesn’t know a lot of this at first. She just knows she’s been hired to deal with a tethered ghost (Shai). It’s how she earns a little extra money and a hit of magic, which acts very much like a drug for Xhea. The summary talks about how Xhea’s experiences awaken a new, dangerous magic within her, but I think what’s even more powerful is the friendship and loyalty Shai awakens. Xhea has grown up in the dystopian ruins on the ground beneath the floating towers. Shai has grown up a tool of her society, little more than a glorified super-battery. Neither of them have much experience trusting others, nor reasons to do so. Which makes the relationship that develops between them that much more powerful. It feels like a well-written love story without the romance, if that makes sense. That relationship is great, and was for me the most touching and engrossing part of the book.

The secondary characters were well done too, often hard-edged and worn down by their broken society, but you still see glimpses of humanity and kindness and more.

There were some times when it felt a little bumpy — description that didn’t quite come together to create a clear picture in my mind, or scenes were the pacing felt a little off. All of which is pretty standard for a first novel, and none of it bumped me out of the story or diminished my enjoyment.

While this is book one of a trilogy, Radiant is relatively self-contained, coming to a satisfying ending while leaving some of the bigger, societal conflicts for the next books. I just hope Xhea has an easier time of it in the next one, because that girl ends up on the receiving end of more than her share of breaks and bruises.

You can check out the first chapter on Sumner-Smith’s website.

Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Three years ago, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith went public with a post about a post-apocalypic YA novel they had written together. During the submission process, they received a response from an agent who offered to represent the book, “on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.”

They refused.

Their post led to a great deal of discussion about the need for gay characters in YA literature. The agency in question also posted a rebuttal.

Stranger - CoverSo that’s the backstory. The book eventually sold to Viking Juvenile, with a publication date of November 2014. I’m happy to have gotten my hands on an advance copy :-)

Stranger [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] definitely has a western feel to it, as noted in the publisher’s summary:

Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, “the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. “Las Anclas” now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

I liked this one. There’s a lot of imaginative worldbuilding going on, particularly around the different powers people develop and the new forms of wildlife. The crystalline trees are awesome and terrifying. Also: telekinetic squirrels. They don’t get a lot of page-time, but just the fact that there are telekinetic squirrels makes me happy.

Smith and Brown rotate chapters through five (I think) different PoV characters, which was a little tricky to keep track of in the beginning, but I think it worked well. I’m less thrilled about the different font used for each PoV, but since I was reading an ARC, I’m not sure the publisher will keep that quirk in the final version. It might not bother you, but it distracted me.

There’s a lot going on here. You’ve got the eponymous stranger Ross Juarez, a loner with a bit of PTSD who finds a sense of community for the first time in his life … but there are those who don’t want him around, and others who just want to use him. There’s the larger conflict with a power-hungry king who’s been conquering neighboring towns. There are multiple romances. There’s internal political struggles between a family trying to create their own dynasty as leaders of Las Anclas and the changed sheriff who messed up their plans.

There’s also an ongoing story about discrimination and prejudice. You have open hostility and fear, and some of that fear is almost understandable, given the damage changes can do when people can’t — or don’t — control them. Poor Ross gets fear and suspicion from both barrels, as a stranger and someone with a suspected change.

I’m impressed by how well the multiple relationships, stories, and characters all come together. It did feel like there were some loose ends when I finished, and I’m hopeful those will be addressed in future books. But Stranger provides enough closure that I didn’t feel cheated. It’s a good ending, one that makes me want to pick up book two.

Oh, and yes, there are several non-straight couples in the book, and they’re treated with the same respect and variety as the straight couples. Surprisingly enough, I did not burst into flames, nor did my own heterosexual marriage immediately crash and burn. Go figure.

ETA: I’m told there will be a sequel, and it’s called Hostage, and it’s already written!