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Fantasy You Don’t Want to Miss, a Two-fer
Let’s talk about heart books. Because today I want to call your attention to two books that are long shots at best, but which I loved them dearly as a reader. More than that, despite the flaws that I predict will ultimately sink them, these are strong books that deserve close attention. Both are contemporary fantasy, one in the magic realism vein and the other in the send up all the tropes and take no prisoners vein. (Ok, that’s a pretty niche vein, but still.) Other than genre, their bisexual protagonists (something I didn’t put together until halfway through this review), and their likely distance from medal territory these don’t have much in common – but that’s ok, because every book deserves to be considered on its own.
First up, the sophomore effort from Moïra Fowley-Doyle, who with this book cemented two things: her place in the list of authors I will always read, and editor Kathy Dawson’s place as the editor of my heart (Jane, Unlimited is also from her current list. Plus looking back, Chime and Printz honoree The Returning. And I’m skipping like a thousand other books she’s done that have picked up awards and love.)
As with The Accident Season, Fowley-Doyle here gives us a lyrical but still realistically set contemporary fantasy steeped in secrets, hyper-local history, and the thin space between real and magic. Even the characters find themselves wondering if it’s all just coincidence, and the magic is uncanny and strange but also small and almost explainable as coincidence and imagination. It makes for an immersive, moody read in which the locale plays a significant role — the lake, the woods, the derelict housing development, the smallness of the town, the ubiquity of Mags.
Spellbook of the Lost and Found blew me away the first time I read it, both for the writing and for the structure. The two parallel stories, which turn out to be connected far more deeply than just through the titular spellbook, balance each other. One is about lost things and one about found, but in many ways they turn out to be the opposite of what the lists of lost (Hazel and Olive) or found (Laurel) at the start of each chapter would have you expect. Laurel, Ash, and Holly ultimately lose so much. Each other, innocence, and for Ash and Holly, happiness. Olive and Rose, Hazel, Rowan, and Ivy ultimately find so much more than the things they have lost, although those losses range from the mundane to the terrible. They find love, acceptance, and each other; they find deeper connections to their families and deeper self-awareness and strength. The thematic work is strong and the word I kept coming back to, for the structure and the ways in which the themes of loss and finding play out in dozens of ways, figurative and literal, is “tight” — this is tightly constructed, with serious literary ambitions that are mostly realized.
Also of note is the treatment of female friendship; Olive and Rose are each other’s everything, but that level of being closed off and insular isn’t always ideal. Watching Olive acknowledge her love for Rose and stand by Rose while also recognizing that their friendship can be stifling and a little air isn’t always bad makes for powerful reading, and the subtheme of friendship is beautifully realized in myriad forms; compare Olive and Rose’s friendship to Ash, Holly, and Laurel’s, in various permutations, or even Hazel and Ivy’s, and it becomes clear that the novel embeds a study of healthy and unhealthy friendship. Rose’s experience with date rape and the way it robs her of her confidence is also nuanced, if short-lived (the magic elements help her move forward perhaps more rapidly than is entirely realistic, although the magic is so well integrated and Rose so well realized that it didn’t strike me as a cheat, just better than reality without magic). Finally, the world is more deeply textured for the representation of people in myriad forms – Rose is half Indian, Olive wears a hearing aid, both are bisexual, Hazel is a lesbian. None of this is explored deeply, but it also doesn’t come across as tokenism; the hearing aid, for example, is ever-present and a significant aspect of Olive’s interaction with the world.
So what’s going to keep this in long shot territory? Well, the characterization isn’t consistently strong. Ivy is a device. Rowan has a slightly manic pixie quality to him, from his cap to his innocence. Hazel and Olive and Laurel have distinct stories and characters and yet their voices blur together; only the details made it clear who was talking if I read too fast and forgot to look at the name at the start of the chapter; depending on the chapter, it could be a page or two before I knew who was talking. On my second read, it was easier to both admire the construction and notice the blurring of the voices, and that second part is what makes me suspect this won’t stand up to a truly close scrutiny by the committee.
Oh my heart. This book made me happy. It’s laugh out loud funny and also fantasy, which is not exactly a common pairing, and in a dark, miserable year when it seems like the sky really IS falling, this was exactly the breath of fresh air I needed.
In Other Lands has an interesting pedigree. It started life as an online short story prequel to another short story (in Monstrous Affections). And then it grew. For those who want the details, Sarah Rees Brennan has a delightful blog post that describes (in possibly slightly improved-upon-reality terms) how it all went down. No surprise, given this back story, that the novel is episodic and the pacing is a little uneven, but it’s so bright and sparkly and smart and deep that it hardly matters.
(My love here is so strong that I am kind of having trouble being coherent and linear in my thinking or writing, so if I start babbling just head over to this wonderful Tor review that says everything I wanted to say, better and more with the coherency; I especially appreciate the reviewers thoughts on sexuality in In Other Lands; they make some points about how healthy and important it is that Elliot has a series of meaningful sexual relationships within the course of the book — too often we only see one destined love, or the aftermath of something, and that’s just not the norm for most kids, queer or straight. I would add to that also that there’s something really wonderful about Elliot’s lack of hangups about attraction; he’s probably the most literal example imaginable of pansexuality, given the plethora of species in the Borderlands and Elliot’s open attraction to many of them.)
There is a lot here to admire, both on the meta level (sexuality, abuse, child soldiers, trauma, fantasy tropes that we should question more often) and on the specific writing level. On the writing side of the equation, the most outstanding of the standout qualities is Elliot, both in voice and in character. He’s cantankerous and funny (often unintentionally; it takes him a long time to understand himself). The decision to write in close third person is perfect; it keeps the reader close to Elliot, whose perspective sets the tone, but also provides a dry, deadpan delivery that has just enough distance from Elliot for us to understand some things (like the fact that he doesn’t hate Luke) long before Elliot is ready to admit it. He’s smart and determined, and he is a bundle of qualities — a pacifist who never backs down from a fight (with words), self-effacing but also irritating and desirous of attention and praise, manipulative but interested in making the world better — that initially seem a little all over the place but turn out to be the absolute natural outcome of the really terrible childhood he’s endured between his father’s neglect and the abuse — often physical — heaped on him by classmates. He’s annoying, yes, but it’s also very easy to see why other characters end up liking him. He’s the most delightful, real, raw character I’ve encountered in literature in a long time, and the perfect foil for this swords and creatures portal fantasy world he’s fallen into and can’t help but question. He loves it, but that doesn’t mean he can’t hold it accountable. Which is exactly what’s happening in literature, and especially in fantasy literature it’s important, and hard, and not something that will go unopposed — witness the HUGOs controversy. Art imitating life FTW, with a side of self-referential commentary on itself. Which is impressive regardless, but even more so when these heavy ideas go down with some inappropriately loud snort-laughter.
The pacing, as I mentioned, is a little uneven, but this is a deliberately episodic narrative, and each episode is its own gem. The book is divided into years, and each year seems to get a little longer and deeper (that’s perception, not page-count based), which makes sense; the stakes get higher each year as well. And there’s not exactly a full resolution, which is another spot-on authorial call; there’s a happy romantic ending, yes, but the romance wasn’t a huge part of the book; the oblivious reader might not see it coming at all. In terms of the larger world, the ending is just the opening of the next chapter; Elliot has fought for change and made some headway, but there is so much still to be done, and he’s ready to do it. This adds to the sense of reality that pervades the utterly secondary world across the border; this is a book about real people behaving in real ways given who they are and where they are.
Let’s talk about those other people for a minute, too: Elliot is not the only piece of strong characterization. Serene is a little over the top, but not for an elf — in the context of the fantasy tropes Brennan is tackling and toppling, Serene is an outstanding bit of subversion. She’s an elf in ways that are totally in keeping with, well, Tolkien (archery skillz, love of nature, lives in the woods in a large family clan kind of situation, beautiful, allied with humans), but Brennan’s elves are matriarchal and Serene is almost offensively misandrous, except that it’s such an upending of gender norms in the real world that it’s funny. (It would not be funny if the whole book was set in Elven society, and I suspect it’s not so funny for the male elves, but Brennan gets that and treads the comedy line very carefully. We laugh more when we’re a little uncomfortable, after all.) Luke, the third of the main trio, is another character who upends expectations, and for all that his character is more subtly handled than Serene’s, he’s equally effective both for the commentary he embodies and as an individual. The very slow reveal that he’s actually incredibly shy — maybe even saddled with social anxiety — upends perfectly the golden hero stereotype, which is further cemented by Luke’s surprise mixed-race heritage.
I could probably keep writing, mostly because I really want to talk to someone about this book. The more I write about this one the more I rethink my “no medal hopes” stance. (I considered rewriting the intro, but actually I think the process of laying out the points and seeing where I landed is a good model of how there’s a full committee inside my head.) It has an incredibly deep and complex meta-textual narrative (with easter egg references to a number of other fantasy works), a delightful but also deep in-text narrative, complex characters, and rich portrayals of sexuality and trauma and friendship. Plus pretty illustrations. And while it only received two stars from the YA end of things, Locus and Tor were both pretty effusive, because the literary space this occupies is one that is in a conversation with the genre as a whole and absolutely deserves serious attention.
So I am nominating this, in that imaginary way we do. Here’s hoping there’s at least one fantasy reader on the RealCommittee who can see what a gem this is in the context of fantasy literature as well as YA literature.
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.
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