Here’s my second (and given the timing, probably final) installment on this year’s Whitney finalists, following my earlier post on middle grades finalists. I’ll remind you of my two caveats: spoiler alert, and opinionated reader alert. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions.
Demons, by Heather Frost. Published by Sweetwater Books (CFI). The Seers Trilogy, book 2
Life has gotten a lot more complicated recently for 17-year-old Kate. A few months ago, after the death of her parents, she discovered that she was a Seer: that is, a human who can read auras. Her brand-new boyfriend, Patrick — originally born in the 18th century — is also her Guardian, one of a group of immortals committed to protecting humans from the evil influence of Demons (with the help of Seers). Word has come to them that she’s being hunted by the Far Darrig on behalf of the Demon Lord. Then Kate starts being able to read minds, not just auras, and Patrick and his partner stumble come across evidence that Guardians may not be so immortal after all…
Middle books in a trilogy are the volume for complications, and this book has them. The biggest is Patrick’s life-threatening infection, and the price Kate must ultimately pay to cure it. And while the central conflict of this particular book is resolved, things end with a portent of worse things to come in Book 3.
My initial feeling was that despite all the supernatural elements and plot twists, this wound up reading too much like a standard non-speculative YA novel. Kate’s supernatural gifts neither change her nor challenge her in any fundamental way. Similarly, Patrick shows no real signs of his 200-plus years as an immortal supernatural guardian, except those that happen to make him a more perfect boyfriend: noble, dedicated, and without any inconvenient personal issues or family to distract his attention from Kate (though in the end that turns out not to be the case). The supernatural world of the novel isn’t well enough developed to attract my attention or interest as anything more than props for the story. Perhaps most tellingly, many of the most dramatic moments in the novel — such as the party where Patrick gets into a fight with a football player who wants to force his attentions on Kate — could appear more or less as is in a mainstream YA novel with no speculative elements.
While not poorly written, this book is on a lower level than the other finalists in several other ways as well. The characters are a bit cliched, and somewhat shallow. Plot events seem somewhat forced and coincidental rather than arising naturally out of the situation that’s been developed. The style is overwritten, with adjectives, adverbs, and the like doing work that should be done by simpler parts of speech (e.g., “I blinked, shocked by the simplicity of the anticlimactic message,” p. 263). And there’s a fair amount of what I think of as ethical muddiness, where people make questionable choices without being called on it, and it’s not really clear that the main character’s experiences are helping her become a better or wiser person.
I will say that once Kate is on the road to Las Vegas (idiotic decision though that is) and the plot becomes more about external challenges than about the internal idiocies of being a teenager in love, it becomes pretty gripping. The revelations about the Demon Lord and about Kate’s ability to go back in time are well done. If you like the first part of this book (and presumably the first book in the series) enough to keep reading that far, you won’t be disappointed with the ending.
Destined, by Aprilynne Pike. Published by HarperTeen
This is the fourth and final book in Pike’s Wings series. Despite not having read the previous books, I found it relatively easy to follow — though I’m sure there are dimensions of the story I missed, not having seen them build to that point.
In earlier installments, Laurel — 16 or 17 when this book starts, by my calculations —discovered that though she was raised as a human, she’s actually a faerie, left as a foundling on the doorstep of a human couple whose property hides the gate to Avalon. Since then, she’s been through the gate to start learning how to use her gifts — and has had to confront a variety of dangers as she learns more about the supernatural realm. She’s also changed boyfriends, from her longtime human friend David to her faerie guardian Tamani. Now, though, a danger threatens Avalon itself, and Laurel, Tamani, David, and another of Laurel’s friends must fight together to save it.
One of things I like best about sf&f is good world-creation. And I was pleasantly surprised at just how good the world-creation in this story was, with (among other things) 4 different “seasons” of fairies with their varying gifts, and an Avalon representing an entire parallel civilization with its own technologies. Clearly, a lot of thought and love have gone into the crafting of this world. And the plotting seems quite solid, even when it seems that half the book is taken up with an extended battle against Avalon’s invaders.
And now for the disappointing part. For a story with interesting worldbuilding, a solid plot, and a fate-of-the-world conflict, this reads far too much like a typical teen romance. Thoughts, and the language in which they’re expressed, are often cliched. Conversations feel scripted, without the give-and-take of real conversation. David, and particularly Tamani, don’t make very believable teen males — and yeah, I get that he’s actually a plant-slash-fairy, but really, he’s the awkward teen male bodyguard who’s fallen in love with his charge (and vice versa): not as that boy might be in real life, but as young female readers might want him to be.
A lot of that’s probably a matter of taste. Except that I think the plot was pulling in a more interesting direction. The writing could have been fresher and less clunky, the characters more realistic and better thought out.
There are some indications that Pike had intended to take the story in more interesting directions, character-wise. (Major spoiler alert.) At the end of the book, there’s a rather peculiar Author’s Note essentially saying “you might want to stop here,” but that the question which had “always driven” the story was “How would a regular human react to discovering real magic in the world?… And at the end of such an epic adventure, what really does the rejected member of any supernatural love triangle have to look forward to?” This is followed by a bittersweet epilogue in the form of a letter several years in the future from David, Laurel’s ex-boyfriend whose heroism helped to save the day in Avalon but who is now renouncing his memories of Avalon. It’s the best and most realistic character depiction in the whole book. Ironically, it’s also the only time we see anything from David’s POV (in this book, at least) — which leads me to wonder: is the story Pike wound up telling actually the story she wanted to tell? Because I think I would have found that other story more compelling, its characters deeper, its heroism more real, than the story Pike actually delivers.
Which is not to say that it’s a bad story. Solid worldbuilding and a good plot can take you far. And they do. If only…
Endlessly, by Kiersten White. Published by HarperTeen.
17-year-old Evelyn (aka Evie) is no longer working for the IPCA (International Paranormal Containment Agency). And she’s happy with things that way. Her roommate is a vampire, her sister is in a coma and they communicate through dreams, and she’s friends with an assortment of free paranormals whom we presumably got to know in Paranormalcy and Supernaturally, the books that preceded this one. But what she really wants to do is live in a normal teenage life, ignoring all of what she rightly refers to as supernatural drama, with nothing more serious or life-threatening than spending time with her boyfriend Lend and helping to plan decorations for the Winter Formal.
Of course, things don’t work out that way. And it wouldn’t really be much of a story if they did. Indeed, the story very quickly turns into Evie and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Life. Or month. Whatever. With the fate of all the paranormals on Earth hanging in the balance.
A perpetual source of frustration for Evie (and for us in sympathy with her) is that way that everyone seems to have their own agendas for her, complete with important information they aren’t sharing. Rather, she should simply Trust Them and Do What She’s Asked. Which is one of my own personal hot buttons (one of the reasons why I can sympathize with a lot of YA characters), so I find myself completely in sympathy with Evie about this — particularly as we get the sense that trusting others hasn’t necessarily worked out too well for her in the past, including some of the same people who want her to trust them now.
In case it’s not clear, I like Evie: her mix of sarcastic and serious, her charge-ahead bravery/stupidity (no question which Hogwarts house she would have been sorted into), her fears and doubts. And this is a good story, with enough seriousness to be worth it, but enough fun for that to be keep me hooked. Solid work.
Everneath, by Brodi Ashton. Published by Balzer + Bray (an imprint of HarperCollins).
I don’t really like feeling scared. I find it hard to understand those who do. Mostly, I tend to think they must not find real life scary enough. Or maybe they’re just naturally less paranoid than I am. Whatever.
Anyway. This makes me a less-than-ideal reader for certain types of stories. Books with looming supernatural deadlines leading to unavoidable fates make me hyperventilate and want to throw the book away.
Everneath is just such a book. Six months ago, 17-year-old Nikki — depressed from the death of her mother several months before — had run away from home and her boyfriend. Now she’s back. Everyone thinks Nikki has been on drugs during that time, and she looks it. Actually, she just spent 100 years with her life energy and emotions being drained to sustain the eternal life of Cole, a glamorous member of a band that showed up in their city just a year before. But she hasn’t come back for good. In six months, she’ll be taken back to the Tunnels to be drained for all eternity.
It’s not really a happy story, and none of the things that happen over the course of it make it turn into one. Despite which, I found it oddly compelling. Which I think says a lot for how well-written this “retelling of the Persephone myth” is, and how very much I came to care about the characters. (Well, the ones I’m supposed to care about. Cole could spend eternity sucking ostrich dung and I’d cheer.) In fact, it’s a remarkably powerful story: about love and redemption and sacrifice, and the goodness of life. I’m really glad to have read it.
Feedback, by Robison Wells. Published by HarperTeen
This book has many of the same virtues as its prequel Variant, but less fresh and new. Benson, the main character, is still interesting, but he’s also now ridden by guilt that his earlier plans didn’t work. The characters are more tired and worn-out. You don’t have the messed-up-school-experience trope going anymore. There’s not as much fascination at continually discovering more and more evidence of how messed-up things are, because by the end of the last book, you already knew they were about as messed-up as possible. You just weren’t sure exactly in what way.
Which is a bit of a problem. A lot of Feedback is about trying to figure out how things really are. By this point, though, I’m tired of trying to keep track of it all. Call me a lazy reader, but I just don’t have the mental power to hold all the possibilities and evidence in my mind and keep on readjusting in response to every event that happens. I’m even having trouble keeping all the characters straight in my mind — in part because it has been a year since I read Variant, and I just don’t remember who went with what episode in the earlier story.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that I can’t figure out what the right thing to do would be in Benson’s place, anymore than he can. Less than he can, really. Things happen, and consequences happen, and I can’t tell whether they’re good or bad consequences, and when things finally go right at the end, I don’t really know why. I don’t know what Benson has learned at the end — which, yeah, is kind of like life, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Does it?
Lest this all sound too negative, let me say that there are many things going for this book. The writing is still crisp and clear, the plotting sound, the characters and their interactions vivid. The book casts as dispassionate a lens on the question of how humans act outside the civilizing influence of social codes and structures as any book I’ve read since Lord of the Flies — but with more space for acknowledging the positive side of human nature.
So I don’t regret reading Feedback, and I don’t find it a disappointment. At the same time, I don’t find it especially exciting either. It’s well-written, and I’m glad to know how the story ended — but that’s pretty much it.
General Comments and Observations
- Each of these books except Everneath was part of a series, and a sequel to at least one other book. For all except Demons, this book concludes the series.
- Demons was published by CFI; the other four, by respected national YA publishers (3 by HarperTeen). None includes any Mormon content or characters, though Everneath is technically set in Park City, Utah. And in Demons, a saintly pastor from the past chooses to go along with a decision that doesn’t seem right, because he feels it is right when he prays about it. But that’s pretty much it in terms of spiritual/religious elements.
- All of these books take place in today’s America, though several feature a hidden space or world as well. Feedback is basically science fiction; the others are fantasy, though Everneath straddles the line between fantasy and horror. Endlessly and probably Destined qualify as urban fantasy, if by that you mean fantasy set in an everyday America that nonetheless is populated with supernatural races and/or magic.
- Destined is written in third person point of view alternating between Laurel and her faerie boyfriend Tamani. All of the others are in first person point of view, which in the case of Demon alternates between Kate and Patrick. Despite this dual focus, in both Destined and Demon the central protagonist is clearly the teenage girl, as it is for all of these books except Feedback — probably not coincidentally the only one of these books that was written by a guy.
- All of the protagonists are in a romantic relationship that plays a major role in the story. In each case, there’s a past or would-be present romantic rival to the protagonist’s love interest. The boyfriend is the protagonist’s supernatural protector in Destined and Demon. Unshared secrets are a major problem in several of these relationships. Another common source of stress is the tension between the guy’s desire to protect his girlfriend and the need for her to be involved in risky situations, because of her unique position or powers or whatever. All of the novels involve I’ll-sacrifice-myself-for-you themes (typically going both directions). Three of the four novels with a female protagonist (all but Everneath) involve the girl rescuing her boyfriend at some point.
- All of the books have single-word (but multisyllable) titles. Just saying.
Thoughts on Genre
Most science fiction and fantasy readers tend to hold the opinion that real life is boring enough to experience, let alone read about. That’s why we read science fiction and fantasy. It’s also, by the way, one of the reasons for the ongoing fiction between sf&f readers and the literary fiction crowd, who mostly buy into the realist tradition in fiction, though that’s started to change with postmodernism.
YA fiction, in contrast, is a genre largely driven by teenage narcissism. It’s not necessarily the most realistic of genres, but the setting and issues are by and large those that teenagers deal with in real life: romantic relationships, relationships with parents, choices and their consequences, and growing up.
(Don’t interrupt with exceptions; I’m busy making generalizations, here.)
The thing is, those of us who liked (and like) science fiction and fantasy generally didn’t like reading about normal teenage life any more than we liked reading about real life in general. We might read some good mainstream books with teen characters, such as The Chosen by Chaim Potok, but even those tended to hold our interest best if they featured an unusual plotline and/or life different from our own.
There’s a long tradition of juvenile sf&f, such as the books by Andre Norton, and arguably Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. These books typically feature a child, teenager or young adult meeting challenges within a fantasy or science fiction setting. While such books often feature a coming-of-age by the main character(s), overall they fit pretty well within the general sf&f tradition. Several of this year’s middle grades Whitney finalists fit this description.
My point is that I’ve tended to think of what’s now called YA speculative fiction mostly in this same light, as sf&f with younger protagonists. What I’m starting to realize, though, is that this isn’t so much the case. Yes, there’s a fantastic element — sometimes surprisingly well developed, as in several of the books I’ve reviewed here — but it’s largely harnessed to the telling of otherwise standard YA stories about otherwise standard YA protagonists.
Which probably accounts for why a lot of it tends to fall outside my area of primary sympathy as a reader, even though as a writer I’m currently at work on several stories that fall within this category. (I’ve also written a realistic quasi-YA novel. And Willa Cather is one of my favorite authors. Hey, I said I was generalizing!) It also may account for other things as well, such as why the LDStorytellers group tends to show up for LTUE but don’t necessarily think of themselves as part of a Mormon sf&f community.
And I think I’m overstating the case. But there’s something to this, even so.
First, I have to say that none of these books are an embarrassment: not to me as a reader of Mormon fiction, not to the writer, and not to the Whitneys. It’s a strong field, and I don’t regret the time spent reading any of them.
The books have varying strengths. Each is a worthwhile read for those who like that type of thing. My top choice, surprisingly (to me), is Everneath, for a layer of character development and thematic focus that I didn’t find in the others. Following that, Endlessly, for its consistency, competence, and sure touch with the character’s voice; and then Destined, for its world-creation. Then Feedback, for the sheer competence of its writing, but with some minuses mentioned earlier. And finally Demons, which falls just a little short in plausibility, plot, and character interest.
The moral of the story? I like more syllables in the title. Of course!