Book Review: The Stranger
I received this book for free from Rachel Manija Brown in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Stranger by Sherwood Smith, Rachel Manija Brown
Series: The Change #1
Published by Penguin on November 13th 2014
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Young Adult
Source: Rachel Manija Brown
Buy from: Amazon • Book Depository • Wordery
Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.
This review was previously published on Bibliodaze. I am republishing it here for my own records, and because this book – and the story of what happened prior to its publication – is an important point in YA history. Not familiar with this piece of history? Cleolinda (as always) has a great rundown.
A few years is a lifetime in YA: #YesGayYA is probably so far back that at least some people are not aware of what exactly happened.
The short version is this: Brown and Smith co-wrote a post-apocalyptic YA book, STRANGER, featuring a diverse cast and 5 POV characters. During their search for an agent for this book (they were already agented, only separately) they wrote a post on Publishers Weekly where they revealed that an unnamed agent had asked them to either remove the POV of one character, or change/hide an intrinsic part of him. That character, Yuki, is gay. Using this incident as an example of the difficulties authors face when they write diverse characters, Brown and Smith called for authors, agents, editors and readers to fight to change these attitudes.
The overwhelming white straightness of the YA sf and fantasy sections may have little to do with what authors are writing, or even with what editors accept. Perhaps solid manuscripts with LGBTQ protagonists rarely get into mainstream editors’ hands at all, because they are been rejected by agents before the editors see them. How many published novels with a straight white heroine and a lesbian or black or disabled best friend once had those roles reversed, before an agent demanded a change?
This does not make for better novels. Nor does it make for a better world.
Let’s make a better world.
Response to the post was mixed. The positive: agents and editors took the call to heart and marked themselves as accepting QUILTBAG content; readers showed that they were eager to buy and read these stories. But there was also negativity: people complained about diversity “being forced on them” and that “wasn’t relevant to the plot”; others still accused Brown and Smith of being liars trying to gain publicity at the expense of the unnamed agent.
After a while it all died down, and aside from the occasional reference to #YesGayYA (and not the book that started it) until this year I heard nothing at all. It wasn’t through promo or hearing about it on social media; I saw the book for sale on a website, a few months after it was published.
Although disappointed in missing the release of the book (not to mention the cost of the ebook), when Brown offered me the chance to review STRANGER for Bibliodaze I leaped at the chance. And I was not disappointed.
I’ve not been a fan of the recent waves of dystopian/post-apocalyptic YA; too often I have found that it is often merely window-dressing to a story that is just pretty straight white able-bodied/neurotypical teens having pretty straight white able-bodied/neurotypical teen problems (apparently only pretty straight white able-bodied/neurotypical people survive The End to be oppressed). That’s not the case with STRANGER, though. Here the wild west of Las Anclais and its surroundings is virtually a character of its own. It has mysteries to unconver and is filled with its own fascinating strangeness. Small creatures that become massive, all-devouring holes; horses crossbred with deer; telekinetic squirrels. And crystal trees that take root and grow from the bodies of still-living people. Their world is strage and alien yet at the same time familiar; it has its own rules and logic that actually does make sense even when it seemingly doesn’t.
The titular Change is also an enjoyable aspect. As a big fan of X-Men anything like this appeals to me, and I especially enjoyed that STRANGER, too, featured Changed people who did not luck out. Just as in X-Men, just as you could end up a Jean Grey or a Storm you could also be a Beak or a Skin. And in a world where people overcame other differences, these strange new humans with their strange new features and abilities are seen as freaks and dangers. Someone could have been your teacher, an utterly trusted pillar of the community, only to hit menopause and become a danger to that same community.
But a world is nothing without the characters and the story, and here STRANGER shines. I’ll admit I was initially a little worried by the number of POVs; while adult fiction is rife with 4+ POVs (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin), YA is rather strict with its limits. Most have a single POV, and 99% of the rest have two (and even then many struggle with differentiating the voices).
My concerns proved groundless, however. In STRANGER each of the five characters is distinct, their voices and arcs helping them to stand out from each other. The story was well-balanced between the characters, giving each one enough time to develop the main story as well as their own place in it. Yuki’s arc and view of the world was different from Jennie’s, Felicité’s different from Ross’s and so on. There was no need to flick back to the start of the chapter to check who the POV was. The only downside with so many POVs is that it took a little while for each character to stake their claim in my mind, slowing down the pace a little in the beginning before rearing up and dragging me along for the ride.
Despite the premise being a very traditional one – a stranger comes to town, stirring things up within its walls as well as being followed by troubles of his own – the setting and characters let the authors take an old story and breathe new life into it. An example of this is one of the main romance storylines: the handsome stranger – made even more attractive by the air of mystery and danger that surrounds him – is desired by two girls. In many other novels this would result in fights, betrayal and maybe even a loss of friendship, but Brown and Smith present a different solution, which delighted me. Although not the one I was originally wanting (my original reading of a character was that they were asexual, and so when proved wrong was disappointed in not having an ace main character in a novel) it was still a very nice changed of trope. Hopefully this is a solution more authors, YA and adult, can learn from.
The most important thing in STRANGER is the diversity. The five protagonists are all POC and with different backgrounds, with one of them also being gay. The diversity is not just limited to the protagonists, either; supporting cast are also diverse. People of all races live in the town, with multiple languages being spoken, and the racial backgrounds are both celebrated and shared. The new culture born from the cataclysm is an actual mix, but not so that there is just one homogenous culture. All religions are acknowledged and celebrated too; a remembrance service has, without comment and just as a fact of life, all religious leaders taking part in leading. And of course diverse sexuality is more than just “the one gay guy”. Aside from protagonist Yuki and his boyfriend, there is a secondary same-sex relationship (two girls) and another secondary character’s parents show up – and they are both women. The diversity here is presented as normal, just as it should be. Characters are not stereotypes, nor do they feel forced into “perfection” due to having to be “representative”. They are just characters, well-rounded and diverse.
Overall, I HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you pick up STRANGER, right now and read it. It’s a highly entertaining tale and I am looking forward to reading the next book, HOSTAGE. Luckily for you and me, it’s already out.
And now to talk a bit more about the original #YesGayYA thing, since I have now read the book in question. Vague spoilers follow.
Unless the plot was originally significantly different with regards to a revelation that is also a very obvious sequel hook, to remove Yuki’s homosexuality and/or POV does major damage to both STRANGER and (I’m pretty sure) future books. To straightwash Yuki removes the major emotional impact of a revelation; without the romance (and thus knowing Paco more intimately), what was “OH MY GOD” becomes “wait, who is this guy again? Why should I care?” If they are
totally cousins just friends there is no longer that extra potential heartache on a relationship that already is aware of future difficulties (one wants to leave town, the other doesn’t).
In addition, to cut out the POV to hide Yuki’s sexuality (and maybe reveal it later) just reduces him to a plot device: he there to provide a skill to solve a mystery, or he just shows up with a thing that sparks a whole mystery for someone else with a Change to solve.
But here’s the thing: plot relevance or no, Yuki’s sexuality is important. It is important to his character and it is important to readers. Everyone needs to see themselves represented in fiction, and not just as someone defined by their race or sexuality. Yuki is more than just the gay Japanese guy: he’s a brave, strong young man who has dreams beyond the walls of his town and is looking for a way to escape. And he’s also Japanese and gay.
It’s not enough to code him as gay and maybe reveal him to be so in future books. It’s not enough to keep queer characters in the secondary roles. Queer and POC characters are the stars of their own stories too, and they need to be written, published, promoted and read.
One Yuki is not enough. We not only need more diversity, we need more diversity of diversity – casts with more than one POC or queer or disabled teen. #YesGayYA is just the very first step. Keep going. All of us, keep going.