Tag Archives: fantasy

The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

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The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Knopf, 2019.

An oblique and confusing YA murder mystery (is it? Is that what this?) set in a remote Australian town looks at issues of identity, heritage and injustice through an Aboriginal lens.

16 year-old Beth Teller is dead but that doesn’t stop her helping her white father, a detective, who is the only person who can see her. He is investigating a fire in a children’s home which has left one dead (adult) body and a mysterious Aboriginal witness, Isobel Catching. When I was a lot younger, I was very fond of a British TV show called Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), about a pair of detectives, one of whom was dead. I thought this was where this novel was going. I was wrong.

Though not initially, as Beth’s narration follows her father’s investigation in a relatively straightforward, just the facts, sort of way. But added into that, she  witnesses his grief at her death in a car crash and his refusal to make peace with her mother’s Aboriginal family.

Then we get to Catching. Her evidence is given in the form of abtruse and symbol-filled free verse. I found it somewhat incomprehensible, but Beth’s dad starts picking out connections to the fire and to the history of the children’s home.

When Beth died, she had a glimpse of “what comes next” but believes she has to stay with her father until he can accept and move on from her death, and this somehow becomes wrapped up in solving the mystery; in the meantime she is “trapped between two different sides to the world” and this somehow becomes wrapped up in Catching.

In an authors’ note, the Aboriginal brother and sister team gives some background on the history and culture of their people, before and after brutal colonization, as well as explaining some of the stories that inform Catching’s narrative.

Though this short novel switches uneasily between a police procedural and an ambiguous fantasy, it brings welcome new voices to American YA literature.

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña
Random House, 2019

This latest and very solid entry in the DC Icons series is a contemporary YA origin story for Clark Kent. 17-year-old Clark feels isolated by the astonishing powers he has but can’t quite control, and when he finds out that he is actually from another planet he feels even more of a freak.

The author makes the deft and timely connection between Clark being an “alien” and the change of Smallville from accepting community to one that is suspicious of those who are different, especially the Mexican migrant workers. Sadly, the author rather bludgeons the reader over the head with this connection and a few less mentions would make the novel feel less didactic.

Canon character Lex Luthor plus new characters, the Mankins family, are recent arrivals in town who appear to be philanthropic and upright citizens but may be connected to the mysterious disappearances of immigrants from the town. As Clark and his high school journalist best friend Lana Lang investigate, they uncover some nefarious goings on around the mysterious craters that are sprinkled around Smallville.

Clark is such a straight arrow he has the potential to be a dull protagonist but his earnest search for an identity and a role make him relatable, and his warm relationship with his parents and tentative romance with Gloria Alvarez show him as very human.

After many thrills and spills, the bad guys are unmasked and their dastardly plot is foiled. Clark realizes his job is to “protect not punish” and as he decides he will do everything in his power to make his adopted planet “a better, safer place,” his journey to becoming Superman is set.

Otherwood by Pete Hautman

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Otherwood by Pete Hautman
Candlewick, 2018.

This strange and eerie middle grade is a sophisticated and cerebral fantasy about alternate realities.

8 year-olds Stuey and Elly share a love of playing in the woods between their houses, particularly in the shelter created by a deadfall of trees, which they name Castle Rose. The woods used to be a golf course owned by Stuey’s ex- bootlegger great-grandfather and back in the 1940’s he vanished from there along with his arch-enemy, the district attorney Robert Rosen.

Shortly after their 9th birthdays, Stuey shares this family secret with Elly when they are in Castle Rose and she just disappears in front of Stuey’s eyes. Of course nobody believes him, but when Stuey goes back to Castle Rose he occasionally sees Elly there and it turns out she thinks he disappeared and, in her reality, nobody believes that either.

Hautman does a terrific job of setting up the fairly complex idea of alternate realities and the mindboggling twists that go with that. As their worlds and the people in them take different paths, Stuey and Elly comes to realize that somehow the secret has broken reality into two and it is up to them to try to glue it back together.

Despite their differences – Stuey thinks he comes from a planet “where everybody is blond and chunky and we don’t talk much” and Elly is from “Planet Opposite” as she is skinny with curly hair and talks a lot – the kids are both thoughtful and realistic about their situations. They know that nobody will believe what actually happened and so they lie to conform, in turn making themselves question what really happened.

Weaving in themes of loss, redemption, and the power of friendship, this is a charming novel that will appeal to readers looking for an elegant but satisfyingly smart fantasy.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager

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Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
Candlewick, 2017.

11 year-old Fidelia Quail, bereft from the death of her parents for which she blames herself, is captured by a pirate, Merrick the Monstrous, in order to help him reclaim his treasure which is buried in a cave at the bottom of the sea.

Eager does a great job with the main characters. Fidelia is a curious, inventive, persistent, and confident girl. She takes some major emotional knocks but keeps going. Her parents’ passion was marine biology and Fidelia shares that with them but adds her prowess at invention to aid the study of the underwater world. Her “water-eaters” should give her the ability to stay under water long enough to get Merrick’s treasure, if only they’d work. Merrick is more than just a arrrr-spouting pirate: he has an interestingly complicated backstory and fatalistic view on his future. There’s more even to Fidelia’s guardian, Aunt Julia, than the stereotypical librarian she presents to the world.

I found the setting a little confusing. It seems to be in the Caribbean in a vaguely Victorian steampunky era, but all main characters are white and some of the technology that Fidelia is working with seems supermodern.

What I really liked about this book is that it defies expectations. I spent a good chunk of the novel assuming that Fidelia parents weren’t really dead but guess what (sorry, spoiler) they are! There is a genuine sense of loss in this story that is rare for middle grade novels as everything is not alright in the end, just like life.</span

Middle graders looking for a pirate adventure might be surprised by some of the twists, but will be rewarded by the story of a feisty girl who overcomes many obstacles.

The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby

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The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby
Candlewick, 2018.

In this middle-grade historical fantasy, set in World War II, the ghosts of London attempt to foil a Nazi plot. Throw in a little Indiana Jones and you have a rather jumbled but sweet tale set during the Blitz.

12 year old Flossie died 16 years ago and is now the turnkey, or protector of the dead, in Highgate Cemetery – one of London’s “Magnificent Seven”. On her wanderings around London she sees a mysterious ghost in an SS uniform who seems to be able to do things that the dead aren’t usually able to. She investigates further and with the aid of the other turnkeys and several Chelsea Pensioners (retired veterans of the British army) she starts to find out what the Nazi has planned. There is also an affecting secondary plot about a young girl whose house is bombed and who hovers between life and death.

Rushby has created an interesting world, though its one in which the rules seem to be made up to suit the plot and coincidences abound. The kindly and gentle characters, all dead and white, seem to come from a nostalgic past in which stiff upper lips and the Blitz spirit were the norm, with the exception, of course, of the irredeemably evil Nazis. The Mayan crystal skull that the SS officer is using has more than a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Although clearly a labor of love for the author who weaves in many of her personal passions, this feels like it could have been written in the 1950’s and seems like it will have little appeal to American kids.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Delacorte Press, September 2018.

Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old gothic horror Frankenstein story is given a YA feminist update in this stirring retelling from the point of view of 17-year-old Elizabeth Lavenza, a minor character in the original tale. White (And I Darken series) largely hews to the original tale, albeit told through a lens in which smart women are suppressed and trapped by contemporary norms, but deftly twists the ending to bring a whole new light to our understanding of the characters.

At the age of five the orphan Elizabeth is brought into the Frankenstein household to befriend and, it emerges, to help socialize the out of control genius Victor. Elizabeth sees this as a way of assuring a safe future for herself and makes herself look “fragile and sweet, incapable of harm and deceit” while chafing at being forced into this subservient and dependent role. Years later when Victor cuts off all contact with them while he is studying at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth pursues him there, scared that he has abandoned her, but is horrified at what she discovers.

Elizabeth reveals far more perception, emotion, and intelligence than her society allows her and her narration has the elegant formality of the 19th century while flowing swiftly, moving between the past and present. Though the reader will probably be aware of the monstrous experiments that Victor is undertaking, Elizabeth’s dawning realization is artfully drawn.

This novel happily stands alone for those who have never read the original; however, those who have read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (or have read the Wikipedia précis like I did) will thrill to the subtle and profound changes the author has made.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018

The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.

After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would  America be made “safe again”.

This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.

Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.

The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.