Reviewing SF&F for Young People Part I: Okorafor, Ac Rosen, Blake, Brosgol, Dolamore
This year, I’m binge reading science fiction and fantasy books that are accessible to young adult and middle grade audiences. I’ve picked about thirty to review (1). They’re books that I felt I had something to say about, not necessarily the books I loved most. They’re all good enough to be worth reading, though, or I wouldn’t bother to review (2).
AKATA WITCH by Nnedi Okorafor (highly recommended)
Teenage protagonist, Sunny, discovers that she has the ability to learn magic. She makes friends with other teens who have the same abilities. They take lessons together, explore the magical world, and eventually form a coven to fight off a serial killer who is butchering children in order to fuel his own spells.
Sunny and her friends are memorable and interesting characters, each well-drawn through their traits and actions, but especially through their exceptionally written dialogue. Despite the ensemble cast, it’s never difficult to remember, crisply, who everyone is and what they want. Even the secondary characters are extremely well-rendered.
Reading about a setting that’s still unusual in American fantasy was nice, especially since Okorafor’s Nigeria seems sharply observed and non-sentimentalized. (She clearly wasn’t following the rules on how to write about Africa.) The strong imagery helps create a magic rich system that seems much more complex than what’s on the page. The world-building feels seamless and deep in a way I feel Okorafor often manages, creating a real sense that the settings exist both before and after the characters wander through. Other characters seem to be having their own adventures; we just happen to be watching this one.
The novel suffers from a rushed ending. The plot is foreshadowed for a long time, then suddenly turns up, and all of a sudden everyone’s rushing to finish things, and then the book is over in a way that feels unsatisfying. There’s no time for the danger to build, no time for complexities and reversals. The bulk of the book is about the journey of learning magic, and it’s rich and wonderful. The adventure feels tacked on. It’s not that it couldn’t have been an interesting adventure; the premises were interesting; but the structural issues caused it to pale in comparison with the beginning of the book.
ALL MEN OF GENIUS by Lev Ac Rosen
Violet Adams wants to attend college so that she can create mechanical and magical wonders, but the best colleges only accept men. Assuming her brother’s identity so that she can apply, Violet sneaks into a men’s-only school, knowing that if her deception is discovered, she’ll be sent to prison.
As an educated reader would guess, a book featuring a cis-woman living as a man is going to be full of mistaken identities, farcical situations, and puzzled lovers. All Men of Genius includes all that stuff, and it’s fine. It’s often fun.
But the real joy here is the description of the mechanical and magical wonders being made at the university. They. Are. So. Cool. I enjoyed the plot and the characters, but I probably would have still read the book if it had been nothing but a list of awesome experiments the characters were doing.
Don’t get me wrong—the book is good on other stuff, too. Fun historical details. Characters you can get behind, including the main character and her brother, but most especially an unexpectedly rich secondary character, Miriam.
There are some pacing problems—it’s clear about midway that all the characters are going to get along famously once the secrets are revealed, but the adventure plotline hasn’t really begun by that point, so there’s a large chunk of text that doesn’t have much drive behind it. When the adventure clicks into high gear, it doesn’t have much time to develop, so it doesn’t feel as realistic as it might; the villain’s motivations come across as thin. And the last attempts to wring suspense from “will they or won’t they?” read like the paper tiger’s pacing the cage; not only is it clear to the reader what’s going to happen, but it feels like it must be clear to the characters, too.
Anyway, all that’s true, but the major point here is: AWESOME SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENTS.
Also, a really funny sequence with a bunny.
ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD by Kendare Blake (recommended)
Ghost-hunter Cas travels the country chasing ghost stories. When he finds the ghosts, he exorcises them with his magic knife. He’s never had a problem until he encounters Anna (dressed in blood), a powerful and violent ghost whose strangeness draws Cas to investigate before he kills.
I don’t know if this is the year of awesome ghosts or if ghosts are always awesome or what, but this book featured some awesome ghosts. The awesomest of all is Anna (dressed in blood) who steals the book and runs away with it. The imagery describing her is amazing, from her physical presence to the chilling murders she commits, her character is compelling, and the best part of the book is the resolution of her plotline. Cas himself is a somewhat generic protagonist, a not-so-interesting guy in an interesting situation, but some of the other characters also stand out, such as Cas’s awkward, spell-casting friend. The tightly wound plot unspools suspensefully… until the very end when some things resolve too quickly and fail to meet the “inevitable” part of “inevitable and surprising.”
One thing that I’ve discovered in this reading ‘bout is that almost all adventure novels veer off at the end this way; it seems like it’s hard to toss all those balls in the air, keep them flying, and then successfully catch them all without letting one slip.
ANYA’S GHOST by Vera Brosgol (recommended)
This graphic novel depicts the story of Anya, an unpopular and resentful high school student, who’s out walking one day when she falls into a hole—and not just any hole, but one inhabited by a skeleton, which in turn is inhabited by the ghost of a sad girl with a puff of hair like a dandelion. The ghost sneaks a piece of her skeleton into Anya’s bag so that when Anya is rescued, the ghost can follow.
The art here is fun, sometimes funny, and intuitive to follow, even for people who don’t spend much time reading graphic novels. Anya’s grumpy, awkward, angsty adolescence is easy to identify with; she’s not always likeable, but she’s hard-headed and determined and interesting. The central mystery kept me turning pages, but unfortunately, the book didn’t quite manage to execute its leap into horror, leaving the ending a bit pallid and expected.
BETWEEN THE SEA AND SKY by Jacqueline Dolamore
Mermaids can turn into humans, but only if they’re willing to endure the shooting pain of each step. After her sister is kidnapped, Esmerine braves the pain and enters the harbor city in search of her. She understands little of the human culture around her, but luckily she runs into a childhood friend: a young, bookish man with bat wings, native to the sky as she is to the sea.
The plot of this novel was a little weird for me in places. For instance, some of the conceits about sirens vs mermaids seemed unnecessarily complicated. The book also draws from what I assume is the mythology about selkies, saying that if a mermaid in human form gives up her magic belt (equivalent to a seal skin?) to a man, she’s freed from the pain of walking, but loses her ability to transform back into a mermaid. The abhorrence of giving up the ability to return to one’s natural form is central to the way the plot unfolds, but it doesn’t entirely make sense—the man seems to be able to return the belt, which would seem to mean that the mermaids can zip back into the ocean, then return to the land whenever they want. Or rather, whenever they can get the men to cooperate. I can see how that would be a problem—many mermaids are kidnapped, and even if they’re not, is it really a good idea to trust the fundamentals of one’s freedom to someone else?—but it doesn’t seem like it’s an *impossible* arrangement, the way the book seems to treat it.
For me, the pleasure in this book came in its quieter moments, when the characters had time to sit and talk. There’s a long sequence in a bookstore which doesn’t entirely fit into the quest plot line (or, at any rate, seems to take a lot of the page count when it’s technically not moving the plot forward much), but it was one of my favorite parts of the novel, a kind of tactile pleasure, establishing the world the characters inhabit. Once Esmerine finds her sister, Dolamore does a delicate job of describing the awkward intimacy of their reunion as they find out they didn’t know each other nearly as well as they thought they did. I wasn’t up for the adventure on this one, but where the book is at its best, it evokes an interesting, quiet tone that feels almost like it comes from a historical novel.
(1) I’m doing my reviews in alphabetical order, but I haven’t finished reading absolutely everything I’m planning to. I may tack some on at the end, out of order.
(2) Consequently, please interpret “recommended” as “especially recommended.”
My philosophy on reviewing: I love books and I love talking about them. My goal is to support both readers and writers. It’s my hope that reviewing books and creating conversation about them is ultimately beneficial to both.
With few exceptions (and none here), I prefer to talk about books I’ve enjoyed. Please assume that if I talk about a book here, I enjoyed reading it, even if I’m criticizing the hell out of it. I’m the kind of person who could nitpick through the apocalypse and still have complaints left for the howling void.