A couple of years ago I was asked to recommend fantasy books for a 13-year-old. It happens that I’ve read a lot of speculative fiction this year, some of it officially “Young Adult” and much of the rest featuring young protagonists, so I figured I’d revisit the topic.
First off, there’s an anthology of stories that that aren’t particularly F&SF but are about the sort of people who read such books: Geektastic, edited by Cecil Castellucci and Holly Black. Most of the stories are pretty charming, but I especially loved the editors’ own contribution, “When You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way,” about a forbidden romance at a fan convention (Star trek v. Star Wars, of course). “Quiz Bowl Antichrist” and stories by Cassandra Clare and MT Anderson were also memorable.
In many fantasy novels, the hero is surprised to learn that s/he possesses some special power and must confront the burdens of this talent as well as enjoying its perks. This can serve as an apt metaphor for the real powers that young people wield through sex, cars, drugs, or some uncanny skill in art or math or whatever. Or it can be used to provide cheap gratification, as it did for nerds of yore who fancied themselves as Conan the Barbarian.
A good example of the latter is Seventh Sigma by Stephen Gould. The scenario is reasonably cute: The American Southwest has been overrun by rogue metal-eating min-bots (government experiment gone bad, natch), creating a zone of metal-free and thus low-tech old-timey culture. Our hero is a street kid on the run who latches onto a middle-aged karate-chopping lady and becomes a black-belt secret agent prodigy. I think he’s supposed to be a sort of enigmatic, Byronic David Carradine type, but he just ends up seeming smug as even his rule-breaking exploits win a pat on the head from various figures of authority. The love interest consists, I shit you not, of a pretty girl asking permission to have sex with him. Now an author who can make losing your virginity seem boring and perfunctory has got a special gift.
Vastly more engaging are Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters novels, of which I have read City of Bones and City of Ashes, though there is an element of gratuitous fashion fantasy that may be more appealing to the teen-girl demographic than it is to me (do hot goth stylings really help you track down and defeat demons?). At first the cool Shadowhunter kids look down on Clary as a mundane, and she is torn between envy and contempt for their snooty ways, but eventually she finds her own complementary gift (inventing or discovering runes of special power). Not that this solves all her problems, because she’s torn between the sexy and mysterious but arrogant leather-clad demon-hunter Jace and her nerdy but super-nice best friend, whom she has always thought of as a quasi-brother but who it turns out has totally had a crush on her since like for-ever, and so she finds out that Jace is like really her brother, which means she should be grossed out by the thought of making out with him but she so isn’t, but she thinks maybe the right thing to do is to hook up with Nice Kid because he’s been so good to her and is so in love, but on the other hand isn’t pity sex kind of gross in its own way? And then Nice Kid gets turned into a vampire, which is like totes redic. (The characters don’t actually talk like this.)
In one of my favorite scenes, Nice Kid is reluctant to tell his parents that he’s a vampire now, and a friend brings him a pamphlet with coming-out advice for gay teens. They experiment with phrases such as “Being Undead doesn’t define me, it’s just a part of who I am.”
In the Curseworkers series (White Cat, Red Glove, Black Heart) by Holly Black, America is coming to terms with its population of “workers,” people who can work spells with their hands. The fear of this power has led to the universal practice of wearing gloves—so much so that pictures of people touching each other with bare hands are a form of pornography…as they say, “no glove, no love.” There is a movement afoot to register or even quarantine these dangerous people, though there are also many advocates of—wait for it—workers’ rights. The situation is complicated by the fact that many workers are, in fact, involved with various underground pursuits. Cassel Sharp, who thinks that he is the only unmagical member of a worker family, has focused on developing his skills as a liar and con artist, skills that are essential in his effort to fit in at a swanky prep school. That effort becomes more difficult when his mother get sent up the river for fraud.
I ordinarily have zero tolerance for con artists, but I found myself drawn into Cassel’s continuing attempt to be something resembling a good person amid the competing demands of his phony school persona, his creepy mom (she’s an “emotion worker,” like some other moms I have known), his creepy brothers who work for the Russian mob, a bunch of creepy FBI agents who want to exploit his gift (for of course he has one), and his passion for the girl of his dreams, who unfortunately is the daughter and heir apparent of the Russian mob don (will that make her a don? A donna?). The key, for me, is that Black knows that every use of magic comes with its attendant blowback, and every manipulation has a cost for all concerned.
I can also recommend a couple of other books by Holly Black, Doll Bones (for a more tweener demo) and the Coldest Girl in Coldtown (for those who want vampires).
I’ve already written about MT Anderson’s Feed, a satire that extrapolates current trends toward a a wirelessly wired, advertising-saturated, short-attention-span culture. Funny, touching.
I am not sure if Jo Walton’s Among Others is officially YA, but it is essentially a childhood memoir, full of loneliness, bad boarding school food, the redemptive power of the public library, affection for her native Wales, and a good deal of witchcraft and some fairies.
I also wrote about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King, very witty and entertaining books in a sort of American Harry Potter mode, but not as warm and human as Black or Walton.
The hero of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is not even a kid, but he somehow seems even more unformed and pasty than a YA protagonist. The rather tired series of character-building trials that he goes through and the lame, evasive treatment of sex are staples of less-than-restaurant-quality YA fantasy, and Gaiman can do a hell of a lot better when he’s on. The best thing about Neverwhere is the literal use of tube station names to populate a shadow London (Earl’s Court, Blackfriars, Angel…).
For a more imaginative ‘underground’ London, I recommend China Mieville’s Kraken: An anatomy. It includes some exceedingly weird and scary villains, a church of squid-worshippers, and a statue-inhabiting spirit who once led a slave revolt in the Egyptian afterlife.