Stranger, by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith (Viking Juvenile, YA, Nov. 2014)--is the most beautifully character-focused adventure set in a damaged Earth I've read in years. And as the snow begins to fall in earnest, it's nice to be revisiting somewhere warm--southern California, many years into the future...still hot and dry, but now a place damaged by solar storms that destroyed all things technological.
In wastelands full of strange mutated plants and animals, prospectors scavenge for treasures. But there still places where people have built communities that work...and one such is the small town of Las Anclas. There a diverse group of people keep themselves safe from the threats of the outside world...but though ethnic diversity is taken for granted, there is still tension. Some of the people have Changed, and some have not. Some of the Changed can do impossible things with their minds and bodies, some have bodies that are not quite human. And some of those who are Normal are repulsed and hostile to these changes. And on top of that tension, there's the fact that many of these people have gone through trauma--horrible things have happened, and there's a good chance that there is more to come.
Into the world of Las Anclas comes Ross Juarez, a badly wounded young prospector who has never known what "community" means. He brings with him a treasure--a book that holds information that could make Las Anclas safe, or destroy it. For he is being pursued...
Much of the story is told from Ross's point of view, but many other characters are front and center as well--young people, trying like all teenagers to make sense of their world and their place within it. For Ross, the whole idea of having a place is itself alien, but slowly he learns that trust, and even love, are possible. And as an added bonus, there were plenty of older people with interesting stories of their own too.
I loved it. The world building is diverting as heck, what with all the strange things (deadly crystal trees, teleporting squirrels, monstrous pit mouths, and more), the community of Las Anclas and its beautifully characterized residents is a joy, and the depth of caring I started feeling for them made me hold the book more and more grimly as the tensions mounted and the town, and all it stood for, were threatened.
I said on twitter that it was "so good I had to keep taking breaks," and since I usually praise a book by saying I "read it in a single sitting" I thought I'd explain. I was so right there with Ross and Jennie and Yuki and Mia (lovely, geeky Mia!) that my introverted self periodically became overwhelmed by my mental interaction with them, and I had to recharge. So the breaks weren't because I wasn't enjoying, but because I needed to step away, and let things sink into my mind.
If your curiosity is piqued, do visit the authors' Big Idea post at Whatever, in which they tell how they built their world and peopled it with kickass grandmas, and gay kids and straight ones and wondering ones, where, to quote their post, "an African-American girl who joins the town’s elite military Rangers wonders if she’s their token… telekinetic" and where books are precious things, and education goes on in spite of everything....
There are two interesting things about the publication of this book. One is that an agent from a major literary agency asked that a gay character be made straight, or else that his viewpoint be removed. The authors did not do so, and you can read more about that here. The other interesting thing is that the subsequent books in the series will be self-published; you can read more about the reasons for that decision here.
Note on age of reader--I told my kids about the agent wanted to eliminate the gay character, and this made my 11 year old, the voracious reader, want badly to read it in a show of support (and he liked the cover and the premise). After reading it myself, I can say it's not one I would have thought to have given him--there is a lot about romantic relationships--thinking about them, finding them, building them, ending them--and he's not (I think) thinking along those lines himself. Yet. But it's not a bad thing to be introduced to what's going to happen to you in the future by people you can trust and empathize with (the characters in the book), and though there is violence, and horrible things happen, it's certainly no worse than The Hunger Games. So I will leave it around the living room for him to try if he feels so inclined...and if he doesn't, I will more aggressively foist it on him a year or so.....
So in short, if you are a fan of challenging futures, this is one for you, if you want to add diversity to your reading, check it out, but even more so, if you are a fan of brilliant characterization, read it now! (Of course, if you are a fan of non-stop action that leaves little time for reflection, and don't care what's going on inside people's minds, you might like it less well).
And finally, thank you, Rachel, for sending me a copy to review!