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Fantastic Fantasy, Scintillating Science Fiction (a Twofer)

Canadian Mountain Goat (you'll understand after you read the post) by Eve Livesey.

Canadian Mountain Goat (you’ll understand after you read the post) by Eve Livesey.

For the reader, like me, who prefers fantasy to reality, at least in books, this has been a pretty knockout year. We seem to finally be fully beyond the various waves (paranormal romance, dystopias, love triangles) that have dominated YA fantasy and science fiction for the past decade. This has been a slow creep, and this year marks the first year where I don’t see any dominant trends. Microtrends, sure — the Arabian Nights and djinn tales have been increasing each year, series fiction is still quite common, and really we’ll never entirely be done with dystopic fiction (that usually isn’t technically set in a dystopia).

(Having said all that, someone will probably point out some trend I am willfully ignoring. I still say this is a banner year.)

So rather than an army of same old same old, this year has brought us a legion of fresh, original genre fiction — I’ve already talked about The Archivist Wasp and Razorhurst, and we’ve all admired Bone Gap and Shadowshaper (and yes, I KNOW we need to review those already. We haven’t forgotten). Joy had a lot of admiration for More Happy Than Not; The Walls Around Us is a tour de force, really, that I am still thinking about. Even genre books we haven’t 100% adored and/or may not be covering here (The Game of Love and Death, Walk on Earth a Stranger, Newt’s Emerald) are distinctly their own books and don’t fit into any easy boxes.

In short, I’m calling this the year fantasy finally moved on from blockbusters and into its own (magical) pride of place.

And today I’ve got not one but TWO fabulous genre books to add to the list of books we say nice things about.

First, the darker horse (fantasy and science fiction is always a dark horse, though, so it’s all relative).

Cuckoo Song coverCuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge
Amulet, May 2015
Reviewed from ARC; 5 starred reviews

Why is this one the darker horse?

Well, for starters, it really is a very dark book, full of misery and despair and a lot of people lost in the vagaries of a shifting world.

Also, it’s young, but not young. The protagonist is 11, which makes it seem like a kids book although developmentally it’s the classic journey that I use to distinguish between children’s and YA: the journey from acted upon to acting upon. (I’m not saying all YA has to be this, mind — but when I have a book on the cusp, this tends to be the thing that makes a book feel YA or not to me, which is subjective but would also be an argument I would bring to the table, looking at developmental assets, were I discussing a cusp book at the table.)

In this case, I don’t believe this is Newbery eligible because the author is British, but eligibity aside, this is almost perfect in terms of suitability for either award.

So that’s why it’s dark, but what makes it a contender?

The writing is stunning. Line after line, page after page, I’ve marked sentences, turns of phrase, images. Precise metaphors that speak volumes, small moments that betray worlds.

The characters are interesting, especially the sisters at the heart, Triss/Not-Triss/Trista and Pen. Their developing relationship is delicate and beautiful; their loneliness and the ways they’ve been neglected and don’t even see it is painful. Their resilience in the face of horror comes across as both absolutely believable for how they’ve been written and also genuinely exciting as they grow and continue to fight their way through a world full of unexpected horrors — and not just the Besiders, who are in some ways easier to understand than their parents.

And the world. I love me a good changeling tale, and I’ve read plenty. This is a new twist on that old tale, and Hardinge pulls it off with aplomb.

(None of which is to say this is flawless — it’s very slow for the first half, and sometimes the specificity of the time period feels slippery, occasionally almost Victorian, other times mid-century in feel. But in the end that paled beside the inventiveness and the language.)

The Scorpion Rules coverThe Scorpion Rules, Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry, September 2015
Reviewed from ARC; 3 starred reviews

I love this book, so I need to gush: Goats! Talis! Greta and Xie! Talis! And oh, that ending.

It’s been months since I read this and yet I keep thinking about it. I find myself recommending it over and over (and incidentally, it’s been a huge hit with my students, which I can’t say for much of anything else we’ve reviewed. That shiny cover probably doesn’t hurt, but mostly it’s just that good). I think I’m half in love with Talis, which is probably something I shouldn’t admit, but he’s the best dictator fiction has ever provided: he’s funny and smart and kind of obnoxious and terribly cruel but also infinitely compassionate, heartless and yet filled with hope for the world, even if hope means killing people. He might actually be saving the world, in his own bizarre and unorthodox and child-killing way. From a critical perspective, the depth of this character stands out; Bow has created something — someone? — who feels utterly alien and yet makes perfect sense. He’s both human and not, petty and immense at the same time. In a year that does not lack for incredible characters, Talis still stands out.

And Greta, who is, in her life, almost better at being what we think AI should be than Talis is — she’s cool and calm and reserved, an ice princess. But also she’s a passionate lover, a deep thinker, and brave. She may not be the most sympathetic character, and yet Bow makes her into someone the reader can admire, cheer for, and even love.

And then there’s the feat of imagination that is the world: the preceptures, the shape of the alliances and conflicts. This could be shelved with all those wannabe Hunger Games dystopias, sure, but here we have a world that is so unlike the high octane formula we’ve come to associate with the subgenre. There is nuance here. This is in many ways a quiet story, set in a tiny, safe corner of an unsafe world, and yet it’s dangerous and exciting, and incredibly creative and unusual.

Then there’s the richness of this at the meta level: there is so much encoded in the text about love: what it is, where the limits lie — or don’t. Love is the literal shackle that keeps the world safe, both danger and savior. Power, love, choice: important ideas, handled nimbly.

And the goats. Did I mention the goats? Uncontrollable and impossible and unexpectedly funny: like a microcosm of the Children.

Really the only downside is that I hear there’s a sequel planned, because the ending struck me as perfect: open, but not unfinished, full of possibility; like Greta, poised on the verge, with anything possible. Having those answers might detract from the artfulness that is the book, but that doesn’t actually matter at the table, so maybe this one has a chance? It deserves a dozen.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Is THE EMPEROR OF ANY PLACE on your discussion list yet? Tim Wynne-Jones. Or have I already missed a post?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      It’s on the list, but I haven’t read it yet — I should get to it by the end of the month-ish. Is it further evidence for the banner year case I’m building? I’m looking forward to it!

  2. Karyn, I love reading your reviews. I read books and think, “Hmm. OK book. Nothing special.” Then I read your review and think, “Wow. That is a great book. I forgot, wished I noticed, or missed all the really good stuff that Karyn noticed, recognized, and gushed-over.”

    Case in point both of these books:
    Cuckoo Song is on our Mock Printz list, mainly because it had five starred reviews and because it fits into the paranormal/horror genre and we were short of those this year. Now I am overjoyed we included it.

    Scorpion Rules is on our possible Mock Printz books. We made our selection before this book was published. I am about half finished with it and was just thinking today I’d recommend we not add it to our list because it certainly does get off to a slow start (I’m about 1/3rd way through.) But now, due to your review, I will keep an open mind and hope to finish it this week.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Thanks Anne! This is my favorite comment ever.

      Seriously, though: In Cuckoo Song, the themes of loss and displacement are really rich for conversation, and yet you can also read this purely for plot (and that language): spooky and creepy and original regardless of the heavy stuff.

      And Scorpion Rules is well worth the read, I hope you will end up liking it! I think that opening from Talis is so immediate and absorbing that I — and my readers — didn’t notice any slowness.

      • When I wrote my above comment Talis hadn’t made it onto the scene yet. Now that I am 3/4th of the way through the book I see what you are talking about. Talis and his snarky comments really add an unexpected dimension to the plot. I am quite enjoying the book. I just ordered two copies and will add it to our Mock Printz list when they arrive. Thanks for the great review.

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          There’s that opening section, too — basically after reading that, I was all in, and then when he actually appeared it was like the book started sparking! Although I was pretty invested in the Children anyway.

  3. Karyn, I totally agree with you about The Scorpion Rules. I’ve been singing its praises since I first read it after BEA (and not just because my review is one of its stars) and love booktalking it to teens at work. For what it’s worth I’ve seen the second book talked of as more of a companion about a certain character so I still have high hopes.

  4. Based on Erin doing research in Mongolia I’m assuming the next book will follow Xie. And given how much she and all of us love Talis we can only hope he will also feature. (I can’t imagine he won’t!)

  5. I am so happy that Frances Hardinge is getting some notice at last! I’m hoping this encourages people to dig up her older books – Twilight Robbery/Fly Trap and Gullstruck Island/The Lost Conspiracy and A Face Like Glass are – well – basically perfect books.

    Which is to say: I liked Cuckoo Song a lot and I’d be thrilled if it wins (though I don’t think it’s got a chance) but it’s not my favorite of the Hardinges at all. I think she’s pulled off themes integrated much more neatly, and here the novel is much more obviously crafted.

  6. I’m SO glad you’re talking about THE SCORPION RULES as a contender! I’ve been obsessed with it since I got to review it (which unfortunately didn’t get it a star, but not because I didn’t try). It’s one of my favorite books of the year and I think it’s SO much smarter and well-crafted than any description of the premise can give it credit for!

  7. I may be late to the game… but why was Walk on Earth a Stranger not considered a contender for the Pyrite?

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I LOVED Walk on Earth, but there were some questions about accuracy raised on AICL. Since there is little I dislike more than having to say why a book I loved loved loved is not a contender, and since those questions would probably be enough to take this out of the final rounds even if it made it that far, I ended up not posting about it. If, however, you’d like to see my handwritten 6 page love screed, written after reading a very early ARC, I’d be happy to share!

      • Tara Kehoe says:

        I just read the posts on the American Indians in Children’s Literature page. I admit that my ignorance of the history probably made me enjoy Walk On Earth a Stranger more than I would have if I’d read the critique beforehand. How unfortunate, as I really enjoyed this book. And yes, any comments you have I’d be happy to read!

  8. I really did like Cuckoo Song. It filled the Lanagan-sized hole in my reading list, and I hope the Printz committee embraces it like they have with Margo’s work.

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