Book Reviews: YA

So I have a lot of enforced downtime these days, as Davy needs to nurse every few hours, and while I’m feeding him I really can’t do much besides read or browse the Internet. So it’s a good opportunity to catch up on my reading pile.

Here, by the way, is a photo I snapped of Davy a few minutes ago. He’s a week old today! He’s pinking up and plumping out, which is nice to see: in those first few days he bore a noticeable resemblance to Dobby the House Elf. But now he just looks like a sweet little baby.

Anyway, here’s some quick reviews of four fantasy Young Adult books. I like the YA genre; the books are short but the stories are often really good.

Karen Healey, Guardian of the Dead

This is the most substantial of the four novels. I read it after I’d bought a string of disappointing urban fantasy books aimed at adults (I’ll do separate reviews of these in another post), and so it was a great relief to drop into the competence of Healey’s writing and storytelling. I know “competence” sounds like damning-with-faint-praise, but what I mean is that her writing isn’t flashy or self-aware&#8212it just works. Her characters (especially the main) are nuanced and believable, and the magic in the book, which is drawn from native New Zealand mythology, offers a refreshing change from the standard fantasy clich├ęs. I mean, the plot observes some conventionalities—there’s a boarding-school girl who’s sort of an ugly duckling (although not really, because although she’s heavy-set she actually feels pretty much fine about it, and she’s a tae kwon do black belt, so that’s awesome) and as Weird Stuff starts happening around her she ends up discovering some magic talents, and there’s A Boy who she fights with but really likes… But in every specific aspect the story is grounded in New Zealand culture and Maori folklore, which, like I said, makes it feel new and fresh.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Eternal

Okay, if books were food, then Guardian of the Dead would be a hearty beef stew: chewy, filling, full of different ingredients. Eternal, on the other hand, would be a stick of cotton candy. For what it is, it’s good—light, sweet fluff that appeals on a pretty immature level. The hook is a pretty good one: what if a teenage girl was turned into a vampire, but she had a guardian angel who was willing to sacrifice everything in an attempt to redeem her soul? It’s just that the execution is very broad and obvious. There’s no surprises here: the angel is hot, the girl is beautiful (at least, after she’s vampirized), they fall in Tragic Lurve, and eventually they team up to fight crime, or at least some particularly nasty vampires.

I probably would have loved this book if I were still in the targeted YA age range: certainly it’s a big step up from the Sweet Valley High books that I was reading back in the day, and probably right on the level of a book like Darkangel, which I haven’t read in twenty years but remember being quite smitten with at the time. Now, my favorite parts were the interactions among the angels, which are quite funny in a Heavenly Bureaucracy kind of way. I also appreciated the detailed descriptions of Vampire Girl’s luxe wardrobe, although I was pretty discomfited by the equal time given over to the interior decor of her mansion: a Scottish castle with battleaxes on the walls but Prairie-style settles and rugs? Really? I don’t think Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved.

Janni Lee Simner, Bones of Faerie

This book wrecked me. It’s good proof, if any were needed, that YA doesn’t always pull its punches. To continue the books-as-food metaphor: this novel would be a lychee-fruit granita, simple but sophisticated, with a flavor both familiar and unexpected. Here’s the first few lines:

I had a sister once. She was a beautiful baby, eyes silver as moonlight off the river at night. From the hour of her birth she was long-limbed and graceful, faerie-pale hair clear as glass from Before, so pale you could almost see through to the soft skin beneath.

My father was a sensible man. He set her out on the hillside that very night…

In beautiful and savage prose, the book tells the story of a daughter who saves her mother. So there’s redemption—just not quite enough to go around. The story is haunted by the ghost of the baby who dies in the first pages, and in some ways it is simply an elegy, with a resolution that isn’t fully cathartic because it doesn’t pretend to hold an end to mourning.

Mary Borsellino, The Wolf House #3: Fair Game

I reviewed the first of this series on another blog, saying

This is an e-book, and written by an e-friend of mine. I enjoyed it a lot, so much so that I immediately started thinking it was a shame that this book wasn’t traditionally published. I think the conventional editing process would have polished the story a little; but on the other hand, this way it’s only $4.95. If you can stand reading longer works on the computer, The Wolf House is totally worth it.

Mary describes the book as “trashy vampire YA,” and I think I see why she’s slapping the “trashy” label on: this is a universe where all the teen protagonists are bisexual and hot, and there’s a fair amount of spit swapped between characters of all sexes and types, although none of it drawn in any detail (it’s YA after all!). I was personally more interested in the friendships, because these are drawn in achingly precise, if confused and incestuous, detail, making me remember in every bit of my 33-year-old bones exactly the way it felt to be 16 when your friends are your whole world.

Plus, the vampire mythology in the world is fresh and intriguing, raising many more questions that it answers (as is appropriate for book 1 in a series). The writing is professional and controlled, never dragging you out of the plot. I’m still kind of sorry that Mary chose to go with an e-publisher, because I think these books deserve a wider audience—but I can’t deny that the modern publishing structure is pretty f*cked, and so I also admire Mary for going it alone. I think anyone who liked Buffy should ask themselves whether $4.95 is too much to pay for a scrappy, passionate, well-drawn vampire story.

With Fair Game, the third book in the series, Mary is really finding her stride. She has a large cast of characters and switching between voices can produce a disjointed effect (I felt this most keenly in the second book), but in Fair Game she’s become really good at weaving the separate strands of story into a cohesive whole. The stakes are clearer—the sense of threat ramped up—and there are some good answers provided to the questions earlier books raised about the ground rules of this world.

I enjoyed Origins and Overtures, but I think Fair Game is operating on a higher level of craft. I’m itching now for the next book in the series.


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