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Roundup: Vaguely Paranormal

Paranormal fantasy, which is to say fiction with a fantastic angle, but not set in a secondary world, with at least one character who is not human or not, technically, alive, and a romance plot or subplot, continues to go strong.

(Even if we, as adults who have seen vast quantities of formulaic fiction pass us by, kind of wish it wouldn’t.)

I’m on my second generation of HS students reading this addictive but too-often derivative genre, and my tolerance has decreased a lot over the years. So I don’t read nearly as many of the books marketed toward the paranormal-loving reader base as I did, say, 4 or even 6 years ago. I don’t need to — I read the reviews, buy and display the titles, and let the buzz and pretty cover machines do the work for me.

But some of the books that (more or less) fall into this category are actually quite different from their cookie-cutter compatriots. We’ve had three of them (The Girl With the Borrowed Wings, Days of Blood and Starlight, and Monstrous Beauty) on our contender list from the beginning, and we have at least one reader seriously pulling for a fourth (Unspoken). I’ll be honest — all of these, for varied reasons, strike me an noncontenders for the Printz. But they all rock, so let’s take a look.

Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, Sarah Rees Brennan
Random House, September 2012
Reviewed from ARC

This is being billed as a contemporary teen gothic, and it sort of is (I did say “vaguely paranormal, right?). But it’s firmly set in the now, with a smart, spunky heroine, lots of quips, and a feel not unlike Veronica Mars, which was contemporary teen noir. Atmospheric and moody (and I don’t just mean the Lynburn boys), super fun froth with some smarts. This is one of those Mary Poppins books — pure delight, commercial appeal in spades, beach reading with a brain. It’s not fluff, but it’s a bit thin for Printz consideration.

It’s also first in a series and as a result lots happens that doesn’t come to fruition in this volume, which I maintain is a hardship for literary analysis and Printz success.

But I’m still shocked it didn’t get any starred reviews.

The Girl With the Borrowed Wings, Rinsai Rossetti
Dial Books, July 2012
Reviewed from ARC

This is the one I really wanted to love but didn’t quite (but Kirkus did, as it just made their list).

The pacing was slow and Frenenqer is, perhaps, too much her father’s product to be entirely appealing — and by appealing, here, I mean fully characterized; she exists mostly in her father’s reflection rather than as her own person. I realize this is a deliberate authorial decision and has overarching plot and theme significance, but it results in a character who cannot completely support a first person narrative, especially in terms of emotional intensity or resonance.  It seemed I/the reader was supposed to cheer at the end when she finally does become her own person, but the entire book was moving towards that point in a way that robbed the climax of emotional intensity (that beautiful opening leaves the story no other way to go, really), and Frenenqer is so passionless in her telling.

Even so, had the novel ended with that moment of power, I might have seen this as a more serious contender — the sentence level writing has a still, strange beauty, and there is some fabulous imagery — but the ultimate ending, flying off into the sunset with the boy of her dreams, fell a little too neatly into the paranormal formula.

But looked at firmly within the context of the formula, this is refreshingly different. I don’t know that the setting ever felt real, but it also wasn’t like anything else. Similarly, Anju is weirdly flat (to the degree that at one point I wondered if she was imaginary) — but at least she’s not a spunky sidekick from central casting. And Sangris and the Free People are not vampires or werewolves or anything else we’ve seen.

All of this makes Girl unusual and worth note, but in the end it doesn’t quite add up. This struck me as a book trying (maybe too hard) to break a mold and instead filling the mold with uncommonly fine ingredients. Even more than Amelia Anne, this is one that left me very excited to see what the author does next, even if I’m not entirely thrilled with the debut effort.

Monstrous Beauty, Elizabeth Fama
Farrar Straus Giroux, September 2012
Reviewed from ARC; revisited in final copy

I read this ages ago, as soon as a colleague snagged an ARC at a preview. And then I delayed writing anything, because, as anyone who read this blog regularly knows, Elizabeth Fama is a regular commenter (although less now that she has a book of her own on the table, and her close readings here are missed) and has even penned a guest post or two.

So, you know, baggage.

Thankfully, I honest to goodness loved this book, despite the flaws, and think it’s deeply original and — like Unspoken — may be more horror than paranormal, in all sorts of chilling, delicious ways.

It’s another one that definitely deserved a few stars (all the reviews are very positive, just not starred, making me concerned that this is flying under the radar for lots of folks, when it’s probably the best book I’ve read this year that will 100% appeal to paranormal readers while sneakily breaking many of the formula conventions). And it sold itself — checked out off the processing cart, and then passed hand to hand.

What it does best is completely and brilliantly rewrite the mermaid mythos. Too often, the paranormal creature is just a stand-in for a person, only prettier and a bit longer lived. Syrenka is gloriously, unapologetically other. But despite the otherness (and also that slight habit of killing her lovers, which we see almost as soon as we meet her), she elicits sympathy because she is so strongly characterized. The mythology Fama has created tweaks the existing mermaid tales — and absolutely avoids the hideous Disneyfication of The Little Mermaid — so that the monstrous part is firmly on display, although — so crafty! — of course the real monsters here are humans, from Olaf and his sexual assault to Eleanor of the burning jealousy and hatred.

And Syrenka’s otherness also plays very nicely as a metaphor for adolescence; she may be as old as time, but the way she falls for Ezra and is consumed by her love, the way she must learn to behave appropriately, and even the way she lies to Ezra (by omission), because that’s easier and safer, and insecurity plagues her when it comes to his love — all of this adds up to a kind of developmental adolescence as well as a meditation on humanity and frailty.

More goodness: the writing is assured, the voices of the main characters and time periods distinct, the world fully realized and original, and the plot is relentless: the growing tension in the past story, heightened by discoveries in the present, is nail-biting and a little shivery, especially as the narrative gets closer to what really happened in the crypt.

But the present-day plot points that are less about the discovery of the past and more focused on Hester’s now lack the intensity of much of the rest of the book. Or maybe it’s that Hester is so completely defined by the past that she lacks intensity in her own right? Even the fact that she is a Plimoth reenactor, which is wonderfully unusual and quirky and a smart girl fantasy job, might be the fault of her literally old soul — or it might not be, but I did find myself wondering. In that wondering I realized again just how much stronger of a character Syrenka is. Similarly, Hester’s needy love for Ezra makes sense in the context of the soul-passing, but feels a bit standard-issue — destined, star-crossed love — as it plays out in the novel. Also, the entire boy-next-door who is actually Mr. Right comes across slightly filler-esque (although romcom rather than paranormal in its antecedents) against the rich tapestry of love, jealousy, and murder that make up the rest of the plot.

And really, these are all relatively minor issues; aside from saying the past story is so incredibly awesome that it sometimes overshadows the present, I doubt any of these issues would be worth mentioning in any context other that of Printz discussion.

Moreover, despite the flaws, I could see this making it quite far in the conversation (it’s gotten some love in comments and in my local Mock received some write in votes as well). When I came back to Monstrous Beauty as I organized my thoughts for this post I was immediately sucked right back in and found myself wanting to reread it entirely, enjoying all over again the layered past/present plots and the mermaid mythology. But the ways in which Hester’s modern day story (half the novel) is more critical to the reader as the conclusion of Syrenka’s story rather than as a tale in its own right will keep this from final five.

But oh, how I adored reading this one, and how desperately we needed a smart, dark, passion filled mermaid tale!

Days of Blood and Starlight, Laini Taylor
Little, Brown, October 2012
Reviewed from final copy

Last year I gushed at length about Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I love this series. I think Laini Taylor writes delightfully vibrant, quirky characters who are a little too much but succeed despite that. I’d like to be Karou, or failing that, Zuzanna.

But… this is book 2. So above and beyond minor flaws — and there are some, especially unevenness in tone (I do get that Mik and Zuzanna are there to remind everyone, chimeras included, about what it means to be human, but they were rather relentlessly cute in this book about the terrible, traumatic effects of war) and pacing — this is a book killed by its place in a series. It’s a slice of an arc, rather than an arc; a sliver of character development; and a whole lot of plot and maneuvering of characters in set up for the next volume.

I do think this is going to all amount to something extraordinary — the world building in particular has been fantastic (but looked at in only this volume, there’s not enough of it), and the larger thematic threads that are, as of the end of the second volume, starting to become central are compelling, important themes. The pointlessness of war, the meaning of family, the power of love: rich, heady stuff. I believe that the end will be more than the sum of three great books, but volume by volume there are too many questions, and small flaws that are too easy to see because the brilliant big stuff is not happening in any single volume.

People in charge of the (YA lit) world, can we please get that series award going? Sarah and I already have a whole outline for it.

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.


  1. Monstrous Beauty. I love it. I love it because it subverts the genre in purely wonderful, intelligent ways. I love it because it managed to genuinely creep me out more than once. I love it because the language is there—which makes it satisfying on both the system and sentence level.

  2. Much as I love Unspoken–and I really, really do, being a huge SRB fan in general–I do agree that it probably is a little too on the commercial side for the Printz. I do love the way it plays with tropes of both the fantasy and mystery/Gothic genres and both honors and subverts them though.

  3. Mary Hoskinson-Dean says

    I wholeheartedly support a series award, particularly since the YA publishing world is trilogy-happy these days. And consider the wider cultural context: this year’s Booker Prize was awarded to the second book in a series. (The first one won, too.) And by far the best work on film is done in long-form TV drama. So it’s time to look at the bigger picture (so to speak).

  4. I just got finished listening to MONSTROUS BEAUTY (I read the ARC many months ago) and wanted to chime in. I have many many thoughts (mostly – I love it!) but I’ll focus on Karyn’s criticisms of the Hester plotline, which I think are misplaced. I think how you feel about Hester v. -Syrenka is largely a matter of taste. In fact, as much as I loved the 1872-3 plotline, I found myself wanting to get back to Hester. A couple of thoughts here: first, Hester is in some senses the detective in a mystery novel, which I think accounts for some of the lack of intensity that Karyn mentions. But really, I think that Hester is very well characterized–the historical buff, the library nerd, the complete obliviousness to the advances of Peter–oh wait, maybe I’m just describing myself in high school ;). But that’s kind of the point — she was immediately recognizable to me and I know many other teens like her.

    Also, I completely disagree about Peter–I found him incredibly charming and a perfect foil to the seriousness and intensity of the rest of the novel. After all, *he* doesn’t know that he’s in a paranormal romance – he thinks he *is* in a romcom. And as such, he’s perfect, and has some really great lines.

    Finally I didn’t notice this the first time I read the book because I didn’t know how much mystery was left to reveal, but the weight of the novel really shifts from Syrenka to Hester right around half way, which is also the point at which we start to get a lot more of Hester. Things start happening, she discovers the ghosts, and there’s some action (in the form of Eleanor and the storm) by the end. I found this shift to be very well done (such that I didn’t notice it the first time) so that by the end I was more heavily invested in Hester lifting the curse than finding out more about Syrenka.

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