In this dystopian YA novel set in an alternate, steampunk-y version of California, a teenage girl gets mystical visions of tasks that she must perform to save her people.
In 1894, the village of Promise in North California has long helped passengers from a nearby train line that carries the unwanted—lepers, refugees, the elderly, abandoned children—to a workhouse/asylum in British South California. Juanita Elise Jame-Navarro was rescued from the train and brought to Promise as a baby; now 15, she’s become a “mystic traveler”for her tribe. From the Shadow World, she gets a mission to sabotage the workhouse train because a new superintendent plans to cut expenses by killing the asylum’s “expendables.” Juanita has spirit guides to help, such as her ancestor Billy, a locomotive engineer who addresses her as “Little Engine Woman.” After the sabotage, her plan is to escape southward to Mexico, which brings its own dangers—especially from the cruel and powerful Mendoza family. But the planned explosion goes wrong, killing some Promise folk—likely including Juanita’s beloved, Galen—and leaving herself injured. Pilgrims rescue her and take her to their village; feeling betrayed by the Shadow World and heartbroken over Galen, Juanita bides her time. Two years later, Billy again insists on a perilous sabotage mission, this time involving the unscrupulous Antonio Mendoza. Billy believes that the Mendozas can be outsmarted and perhaps even motivated to shut down or clean up the asylum. Juanita’s new quest is to steal a train, blast the tunnels, look for Galen, and recover Carla, an asylum-bound baby. During her mission, she’ll learn startling truths about her family history and discover new strengths.Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are organized around a quest. Although Juanita does indeed solve problems and cover some ground, these are secondary to her maturing understanding of herself, history, the Shadow World, and relationships in both the spirit and human realms. Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Hill (Heroes Arise, 2008) pays attention to the anthropology of her invented culture in ways that enrich the story greatly, often in details that subtly underscore how the society both resembles and differs from our own. For example, Juanita worries about being too plump, but she also likes the soft black hair on her legs because she sees it as feminine. The steampunk influence is also subtle; some characters wear top hats with goggles, and there’s a clockwork man and a mystical tin airship. Steam trains are also important, of course, and Hill has researched their operations well. But this is a book about people, not inventions, and its emphasis is on its characters’ choices and their consequences, as when Juanita wonders, “Who would I be by the time I stopped the asylum train, found Galen and rescued Carla?” However, philosophical musings don’t take the book over, either. Tough, painful, and real things happen to Juanita, making her determination to carry through her mission all the more heroic.
A coming-of-age story that thoughtfully blends mysticism and adventure.
Cameron (Assassins: Nemesis, 2017, etc.) tells a YA fantasy tale about a “nyshin”—a warrior, mage, and hunter—on a desert island rife with danger.
Khya is no stranger to hardship. Life on the island of Shiara is inhospitable at best, and as a nyshin, burdens fall especially heavily on her. Nevertheless, she’s always been able to depend on her clan and the fact that everyone in it works for the good of the many. But everything changes when they threaten to take from her the one thing she can’t give up: her brother, Yorri. Her worries are understandable as her sibling approaches a rite of passage that will determine the course of his life, but the greatest dangers facing her are ones that she can’t even imagine. As storms rage across the island and enemies probe the clan’s borders, a conspiracy begins to unfold that will test everything Khya has ever known. Not knowing whom to trust, she must rely on strange bedfellows: Sanii, a member of the servant class and the love of Yorri’s life; and Tessen, Khya’s sometime-friend, sometime-archrival, and possibly something more. But most of all, she must depend on herself, casting aside faith, duty, and honor for the strength of love and family. Readers won’t be able to put this book down, as the excitement begins from the first page and only grows from there. Cameron expertly blends worldbuilding and intriguing characters with page-turning action scenes and a story that builds in tension and complexity. The novel’s commitment to diversity adds new dimensions to the story, as the cast is entirely nonwhite, and the clan recognizes nonbinary gender identities and complex sexual orientations. The lexicon of unique terms and concepts may be intimidating to some readers, but the vocabulary adds fantastic texture to the world without distracting from the plot. This rare gem of a book has a lot to offer readers, including magic, action, and intrigue on the edge of a knife.
A fresh, original series starter bolstered by a dynamic protagonist and a welcome sense of depth.
In this YA sci-fi sequel, Litwack (The Light of Reason, 2016, etc.) pushes his characters into new physical, mental, and emotional realms as they encounter an unusual, tech-based society.
A thousand years ago, society crumbled into the Darkness. Now, the Temple of Light and its vicars guide the survivors with a stern hand, wielding miracles with dimly understood technology from a secret cache called the keep. Orah and her husband, Nathaniel, have washed ashore in a strange land after sailing from the village of Little Pond. They hope to locate the creators of the keep’s wonders, but instead, they’re greeted by children. Kara, the oldest, is merely 16, and she takes the couple to a decrepit village that’s repaired haphazardly by robots. It also contains devices that can generate a cooked meal from nothing—in seconds. It’s all presided over by the mentor, an elderly man who controls his wheelchair with his mind. He says that the village is full of children and failing machines because the dreamers—the adults who maintained the technology—left three years ago. They “ascended” into a mountain fortress, and everyone in the village hopes for their return. To understand the mentor’s tale better, Orah and Nathaniel visit with “the people of the earth,” who live off the land nearby. Their leaders, Annabel and Caleb, are committed to living without machines and claim that the dreamers’ hope is a dangerous one. In this second volume of The Seekers series, Litwack continues his enthralling tour of a future crippled by hubris and spiritual negligence. Readers will find it heartbreaking when the village children play with inert black devices—smartphones—that used to “let us speak to each other from far away and showed us the way if we were lost.” Throughout, the author explores the area between a soulful grounding in the physical world and the scholarly itch that makes one ask, “Why would we be given a universe so vast and wonderful unless our minds were meant to grow to encompass it all?” The astonishing truth about the dreamers is revealed in careful, dramatic stages. The protagonists’ courage—and Litwack’s magisterial plotting—will spur readers on to the next installment.
A grand, revelatory saga that continues to unfold.
In North’s debut YA novel set in a violently divided, high-tech New York City, a poor girl enrolls in a Manhattan school that serves as an enclave for the fabulously rich, powerful, and dangerous.
An “Orderist” movement has given privilege and rank to those said to have the most “merit,” which include America’s wealthiest people. This state of affairs made California secede from the Union to become a rogue state; meanwhile, Manhattan, the new capital of the remaining 49, is a paradise of affluence for its chosen elite, with such fabulous luxuries as gene enhancements, gated communities, guardian drones, and self-driving taxis. The Bronx, meanwhile, is wretched, drug-ridden, and plague-filled. It’s also home to Daniela Machado, a fierce girl with phenomenal high school grades and impressive stats in track and field. She’s driven by a single-minded aim to attend a local medical school and fight “the Waste,” a mysterious, eventually fatal malady that’s slowly overtaking her political-agitator brother, Mateo. Unexpectedly, Daniela is granted a one-in-a-million chance to attend the Tuck School, a Manhattan academy for the best of the so-called “highborn.” She’s suspicious of the faculty’s motives and of the uber-handsome classmates around her, some of whom are friendly and welcoming, others not. She soon finds out that her predecessor apparently committed suicide, and she gets drawn into intrigue at the highest levels. There’s no shortage of YA sci-fi yarns that focus on the gap between haves and have-nots. But North’s entry is superlative, and his well-rendered setting is a more interesting conceit than Suzanne Collins’ similar Panem in The Hunger Games. Ultimately, what starts out as sort of a fish-out-of-water drama with sci-fi trappings becomes the story of a veritable clash of superbeings, but North maintains expert control over it, much as J.K. Rowling did in her Harry Potter sagas. The action scenes are deftly handled, as are the depictions of compelling, smart, multicultural characters. The background philosophy behind the Orderists also has a sinister verisimilitude (Aldous Huxley is cited, although Ayn Rand, curiously, is not). Both YA and adult readers will be transfixed by this novel, which works well as both a stand-alone and as a series opener.
A promising debut that re-energizes tropes in the dystopian sci-fi genre.
A young baseball star wrestles with disappointment in Schell’s debut YA novel.
In 1954, Angus Woodley “Woody” Twigg is a baseball wunderkind—a gifted high school shortstop who’s slated to soon play for the St. Louis Cardinals. But Woody’s dreams are abruptly destroyed when an accident on his uncle’s farm leaves him with only a thumb and a finger on his left hand. Unable to reconcile his self-image as a “hero” with his new reality, Woody sinks into a deep depression. His life is changed again, however, when a vacuum cleaner salesman stops at his house. The kind, quiet, and profoundly wise Joshua “Pop” Wenger convinces the young man to accept a door-to-door job withhis employer,Supreme Clean, and shares his “commandments”—his tips for successfully closing deals that also happen to be good rules for living (such as “rule #3,” “Always be able to sleep in peace”).After a spirited but ultimately doomed attempt to recover his baseball glory, Woody gets caught up in Supreme Clean’s nationwide sales competition. But the re-emergence of his competitive streak proves that he’s still wrestling with what it means to be a “winner.” As the years pass, he endures heartbreak but also uses his hard-earned wisdom to guide others. The various salesmen of Supreme Clean, as written by Schell, are a joy to discover—believable, eccentric, likable, and each different from the last, such as a Vietnam veteran who may be struggling with severe PTSD and a young playwright whose talkative arrogance gradually gives way to gumption and vulnerability. The author also religiously records his characters’ Appalachian speech—“ain’t” is written as “hain’t,” and “water” as “warter”—and his descriptions of his protagonist are melodious, grandiose, and memorable, such as when Woody remembers his greatest moment at bat: “The pitcher threw a missile intended to conquer and destroy what I love and all I am as a human bean, and with a thirty-five inch piece of lumber I said you cain’t destroy the heart of who I am.”
A joyfully written, American-as-apple-pie tale about what a successful life looks like.
In this latest novel by a prolific author of YA fiction, a teenager’s life spirals out of control as she desperately attempts to evade the savage manifestation of her fear.
Not even high school is safe for Milly Malone, a 15-year-old who must engage in a never-ending battle to keep an evil wolf at bay using her only magic spell. Before she passes by or through a door, takes a bite of food, or speaks, she must count to 100 to stay “on safety’s slender path,” or the wolf of the Dark Wood will wreak havoc. But Milly’s spell is weakening, and when she trips before finishing a count, the Dark Wood engulfs her. This deeply observant and empathic tale isn’t spinning readers into a realm of the supernatural. Stewart (Keep in a Cold, Dark Place, 2017, etc), author of fiction and nonfiction for children, teens, and adults, instead weaves threads of unsettling fairy tales into something achingly real: the first-person narrative of a young girl’s crippling descent into obsessive thinking. After her collapse, Milly is followed by her wolf to a pediatric psychiatry ward. It prowls through her therapy sessions, daily routines, and interactions with the other memorably drawn, authentic, and ethnically and racially diverse teen patients. Milly views her life and those around her through a prism of fairy tales (a tie to her dead mother), and Stewart punctuates the gritty, funny, heart-wrenching narrative with a reshaping of more obscure and unsettling stories by the Brothers Grimm. The wolf’s hot breath and claws feel as real to readers as they do to Milly, but who, or what, is the wolf? The barrier to Milly’s recovery finally crumbles with her realization of the beast’s real-world identity, a disturbing insight bringing hope in its wake. The author doesn’t sugarcoat Milly’s hospital environment. Unpleasant encounters, challenges, and setbacks for both the young patients and staff ring true, as do the breakthroughs, humor, and evolving relationships. At its core, Stewart’s memorably inventive novel destigmatizes mental illness and sends a message that seeking help can make life better.
A deeply affecting, hard-to-put-down work that depicts a girl’s dark odyssey through obsession toward healing insight.