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.”
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.
So 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!
August 25, 2014 @ 2:29 pm
Just a heads-up … your link to Amazon doesn’t connect to this novel, but to one titled Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta. Stranger can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Sherwood-Smith-ebook/dp/B00INIYEA8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1408991187&sr=8-1&keywords=Rachel+Manija+Brown+and+Sherwood+Smith
August 25, 2014 @ 2:30 pm
Jim, the Amazon link above goes to “Memory of Water” by Emmi Itäranta. The other links are fine.
Jim C. Hines
August 25, 2014 @ 2:36 pm
Thank you both. Fixed now!
August 25, 2014 @ 8:41 pm
Good for those authors–they stood their ground. Glad you enjoyed the book (it does sound interesting!), and that your person–and your marriage–remain intact. 😉 Did anyone really think anything else would happen?
August 25, 2014 @ 10:50 pm
That’s not the issue that makes them idiotic about it. They’re not concerned about negative effects to teens from gay characters. It’s the concern that it might be hard to get schools on board and that even if they do, some parents will protest. It’s more accepted now for “issue” novels about gay issues to have gay characters and protagonists, but in an adventure book, some of them wrongly believe the gay characters need to be absent, despite their quite successful presence in a number of best-selling adventure series, like The Hunger Games.
And they get it from the booksellers, who are going on mainly folklore, not data. It’s the idea that presumed prejudice in the reading audience must be catered to, rather than challenged and going after the audience that don’t have such prejudices (which is most of young people who are the target audience.) This issue is particularly a problem in YA fiction, where the prejudices of adults are expected to control the reading of teens and the education system is involved. It really needs to stop because it really doesn’t help sell books.
And telekinetic squirrels do sound awesome.
Rachel Manija Brown
August 25, 2014 @ 11:26 pm
Kat, what characters are gay in the Hunger Games?
August 27, 2014 @ 12:51 am
Cinna, although Collins doesn’t flat out say “he’s gay!” with a big sign over his head. There’s very little romance in the book beyond Katniss’ issues over her feelings for the two guys.
I gather on the rebuttal that the agency claimed that they had merely asked the authors to switch the story from YA to a Middle Grade novel (ages 9-12,) and that area having to deal with reading comprehension issues, they do tend to be shorter and less epic and less focused on any romance. Therefore, to do that, the authors would have had to cut down narrative pov’s (including the gay one,) and storylines (including the gay one,) and cut out sexual material not appropriate for readers of that age (including most definitely the gay material.) But since they also asked for that to happen to some straight characters, it was totally not targeted, they assert. (This is similar to when you point out that a call for politeness on discussion of these issues has the traditional effect of silencing women and non-whites and forcing them to treat discriminatory positions against them as valid, and the person comes back with but I asked everybody to be polite, as if that somehow does away with the problem.)
Middle Grade/School novels got a boost of expansion in the wake of the YA expansion, but YA is still much more the hot area and certainly the area you’d want to go for if you were selling a post-apocalyptic western. So the question then is, why would the agency want to change it to a middle grade novel, which would in fact be harder to sell and more likely to earn a smaller advance? So it would seem that the agency was uncomfortable enough with the material to try to switch the project to an age group where anything controversial or touchy could be jettisoned. Which still shows the continued problem.
I’m glad that they were able to land the book with Viking and I hope that they do well with it.
Rachel Manija Brown
August 27, 2014 @ 1:37 am
Hmm. I asked because I’ve read the series, and I was wondering if I’d forgotten something. I would say that Cinna is arguably coded gay (I did read him as coded-gay myself) but it’s pure subtext. He never says he’s gay, no one else says he’s gay, he never expresses romantic feelings toward another man, and we never see nor hear of him ever having a relationship with another man. But we do see other characters showing those explicit indications of heterosexual desire and relationships. The major romances are the big triangle (straight) and Finnick/Annie (straight), but there are a handful of married couples (all male-female), plus some discussion of romantic feelings (also all male-female).
I personally wouldn’t count Hunger Games as an example of a bestselling YA with gay characters on that basis – or if I did, I’d also have to count every bestselling YA series with a slash fandom.
That being said, I agree that the resistance to LGBTQ characters is not primarily with the teenage readers. Cassie Claire and Rick Riordan have had explicitly bisexual and gay characters, and teenagers don’t seem to be abandoning them in droves. But as of Malinda Lo’s last analysis, LGBTQ characters STILL only appear in less than 1% of all YA novels.
Regarding the agents, I realize you have only my word for it, but the agency told us “You cannot have a gay character in this novel.” The middle grade issue was brought up after the fact, as justification, after we objected and also pointed out that there seemed to be no problem with having explicitly heterosexual characters. It hadn’t been mentioned at all before. They only suggested (very briefly and without pressing) that perhaps we could also cut the heterosexual romances after we pointed that out. But at that point we’d already had a 20-minute argument over the existence of a gay character. I personally think the whole “middle grade” thing was a red herring.
I assume we would have been fine with a coded-gay character who was never seen in a relationship and never expressed attraction to other boys – the issue was that his sexual orientation was text, not subtext.
Thank you for your good wishes!