I have a love-hate relationship with fantasy lit. On the one hand, I am deeply drawn to them; on the other, it takes me awhile to get into the world-building aspect with unfamiliar words and equally unfamiliar terrains. Hence, I tend to be very picky when it comes to reading fantasy – most notably in YA. I am happy to share that these two recently-published YA novels are not only meticulously crafted, they feature fearless female protagonists who kick butt.
Written by: Daniel José Older
Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015
Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photo taken by me. Book Award: Kirkus Prize Nominee for Young Readers’ Literature (Finalist) (2015)
Sierra is a highly-talented young artist who makes murals around Brooklyn City. When she started noticing a few of the painted murals around the city gradually fading and crying, and a zombie-like creature hunting her down for reasons unbeknownst to her, she initially started to doubt her sanity – as any self-respecting teenager would probably do. The supernatural aspect in this fantasy novel had a touch of folk legend wrapped around it. This unique ability of Sierra – passed down in her family across generations – is believed to be part of her ancestry – with her comatose abuelo perceived as the once-leader of this community of artists able to sense spirits, and who serve as conduits allowing the essence of departed beings to take form through spellbinding stories, art, and music.
Perhaps what made this story special for me was how anthropology was subtly interwoven into the narrative – with a White social scientist Professor named Wick who immersed himself in the shadowshaping world with every intention of mastering it and harnessing the power for his own benefit – sounds familiar? He makes for a pretty eerie yet credible antagonist. I like how Nydia, the graduate student who runs the Anthropology Archives in Columbia University, shared this valuable insight about conducting field work with a group of people who dabble with forces beyond rational understanding: “I’m just saying: Who gets to study and who gets studied, and why? Who makes the decisions, you know?”
Sierra is not without her flaws, but she never struck me as particularly self-absorbed unlike other female teenage protagonists in YA literature. Sure, she has her body-image issues – she thinks of herself as coffee-coloured with not enough milk, a little full around the tummy area – but it did not take up too much of the story. I did tend to get a bit confused with all the characters and the dialogue (this book, decidedly has its own voice which worked for me), and the unfamiliar supernatural actions brought about by the distinctive powers in this story, but I was able to catch up eventually. There is a Latin vibe to the entire narrative that is difficult to articulate, because it has seeped into the very words in the page, filling the reader with its own taste, humour, and grace. I also appreciated the poetry that serves as the riddle in the story – I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app:
This novel practically has it all: salsa, rock bands, paintings, mural wars, a budding romance that never seemed trite or annoying, kick-ass friends, the gritty New York scene, and a female protagonist who embraced her heritage and her power with relative fear but also with remarkable equanimity (and hardly any whining at that). Definitely a book that you should discover and read for yourself.
Written by: Susan Dennard
Published by: A TOR Teen Book, 2015. ISBN: 0765379287 (ISBN13: 9780765379283)
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.
I resisted this book, initially. It seemed to have similar resonances with my favourite YA fantasy series, Shadow and Bone, which happened to be on the list of my outstanding reads in 2014. There’s the presence of mythical creatures believed to be extinct but are slowly being brought back to life (think magical stag, sea serpent in The Grisha Trilogy), and the Nubrevnan Admiral who commands a ship (think Nikolai Lantsov in Siege and Storm). Except for a fairly-detailed map in the beginning, it also didn’t help that the book does not include a list of characters, a glossary, and the usual referencing notes that would assist forgetful readers (like myself) about which character belongs to which empire – and the differences across the variety of witches in the novel.
I am not sure if it was the dance between Safiya and Merik that reeled me in – or Safiya and Iseult’s Threadsister connection, or simply the fast-paced action in the novel, but I found myself unable to stop reading until one in the morning.
Safiya is a study in contradictions. Unlike other usual teenage female protagonists who tend to be unfailingly-self-conscious to the point of self-absorption with the constant “why me?” pasted on their foreheads, this young woman has an unbridled spirit, perfectly capable of wielding a sword, and knows the science and art of verbal fencing. Yet despite these evident strengths, she has a vulnerability that she doesn’t really apologize for, but is simply a matter-of-fact part of who she is as an individual. She is fairly accustomed to a life on the run with threadsister, Iseult, in her attempts to conceal her magic that allows her to determine truth from falsehood – apparently, a very rare magic prized by the warring empires (think Game of Thrones but YA version – and crafted way better than Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen).
Iseult is another interesting character. She is depicted to be the shadow to Safiya’s light. Perceived as an outcast by most, her threads have been intertwined with Safiya’s since the time that she saved the latter from a near-death experience (which pretty much sums up most of their adventures together). Iseult belongs to a band of misfits that has very strong resonances with gypsies in real life. In fact, the setting has a very European vibe to it – with places like Veñaza filled with canals or Praga – just to cite a few. Iseult has a stammer which is perceived to be highly unbecoming of a Threadwitch, something which her mother frequently points out. She also seems to be intimately connected with another vile antagonist that is only just barely introduced in this first novel. I particularly love how her magic allows her to witness emotions in lusty lilac, throbbing red, or pulsating purple – I promise, this is YA, and would even be a good read for the highly-advanced middle grade reader with a hankering for fantasy.
While I am sure everyone would be pining for Merik, the Prince of Nubrevna, I was most intrigued by Aeduan, the Bloodwitch with the red eyes. He is relentless, highly-skilled, and seems to possess Wolverine-like healing capabilities that makes him the perfect assassin. And did I mention that he also happens to be a monk with a shadowy past?
I believe that the spaces provided for other characters to emerge is one of the book’s strengths – there are a lot that were only sketchily mentioned (the Puppeteer, the Raider King of Arithuania, the Empress of Marstok who controls iron, the deceptively-flippant and immensely good-looking Prince Leopold whose intentions and motivations remain indecipherable to me at this point – among others). All these serve to raise the justified excitement over the next book and the one after. This book promises to be one of my greatest fantasy YA reads this year.