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YA Science Fiction and Fantasy – Part Four: The Spotlight

There is such a wealth of YA SFF that sometimes navigating the shelves can be difficult. At the moment, YA is somewhat fashionable, and that’s good, because when something is en vogue, people read it. People reading is good because books are good. But our focus here is on science fiction and fantasy; we’re going to look at—as promised—the new and established authors of YA SFF that, for whatever reason, stand out above the rest.

Strange ChemistryFair warning dictates that many of the new authors are little robots fresh from the laboratory at Strange Chemistry. I’m a definite Strange Chemistry lab assistant. I love their books, I polish their Bunsen burners. But I do this, because they deserve it. With the fantastic Amanda Rutter at the head of the project, the test tubes are always glowing with the best new ideas and concepts. Basically, they’re incredible; Amanda is incredible, and this spotlight will cover them.

But Strange Chemistry is a new imprint.

I’m not going to delve back into the long history of YA. There’s a lot of it, but for the most part, I feel that the newer and definitely fresher YA books are more worth talking about than a chronologically constructed list.

Furthermore, this is a spotlight; a spotlight highlights things that are incredible. It’s a very narrow spotlight, since although I could present some kind of thesis on the topic, I’d rather keep things focussed here.

City of Bones (cover)The first of my incredible things is one of the definitely well-established series in YA fantasy, and that’s Cassandea Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. I’m not going to talk about the series as a whole, but I’m going to mention the parts that I think make it shine.

Clary Fray. She’s not a kick-ass heroine fresh off the construction line, clad in leather pants and looking over her shoulder on the cover. She’s not a self-pitying girl who mooches over boys she can’t have, thinking up ways to get them. She’s not a bitch, she’s not a wallflower. She’s none of the stereotypes that sometimes, wrongly (!), make up—or used to—the foundations of YA. She doesn’t have low self-esteem, either (thank god). What Clare does with her female protagonist is show a fifteen-almost-sixteen year old teenage girl who cares about her mother, but also cares about herself. She has a strong sense of identity that she retains even though her life gets turned upside down.

Clary is a fantastic character and she shines throughout the series. When she falls in love, she balances her feelings about that, with every other area of her life. Basically she is a normal girl with healthy psychology—and this is rare.

As her counterpart, Jace is an excellent male protagonist who moves through a series of issues relating to a (let’s face it) abusive childhood. It’s subtle and unsubtle sometimes, and totally realistic.

City of Ashes (cover)Tackling issues such as abuse (whatever kind—in fact, every kind, even the ones that fall into grey areas of categorisation) is difficult and yet so, so important. Young adults need literature that tackles hard issues. One of the problems is, that this need for tackling presents “issue books”. These primarily tell the stories of those who experience various shades of abuse or difficulty. They’re useful, insightful and definitely necessary. But what about people who don’t read (essentially) YA lit-fic, or YA regular fiction? Geeks have issues, too. So to be able to follow Jace’s evolution through dealing with both his own issues and the issues that living in the world he does creates, is perfect. The fact that he’s a well-rounded male character in YA is also just stellar.

This is one of the best things about The Mortal Instruments, the fact that the cast is so evenly weighted. This isn’t a series for girls, for boys; it’s a fantasy series for young adults. For people. It’s refreshing. There is a lot of gender-specific marketing in YA, with covers designed with pretty girls and prettier dresses, all airy and delicate and completely a) gender stereotyped and b) alienating of both boys, and also girls who aren’t drawn in by the chiffon and silk and long, tousled locks. Which is a heck of a lot of girls!

Originally, The Mortal Instruments had covers that were dramatic and fairly vague. They were definitely not pandering to gender stereotypes. Now, the covers are (I won’t deny it) prettier, but despite the fact that Jace appears shirtless (presumably to show off his silver scars and his Marks) on the first book, the covers play (especially thereafter) more with colour and the intention of texture than with anything that suggestions one gender or another. They’re muted-yet-bright and very, very dramatic. Which is good.

City of Glass (cover)These dramatic-yet-subtle colours generally do advertise precisely what is in the books. One of the things I’m happiest about is that there isn’t only a gay character (not a side character, either, or someone shoehorning something “other”), but eventually a gay couple. This couple has the same issues and lows and highs as any regular couple. Which is essentially: welcome to life! If Clare does anything with her Shadowhunters and their secret world, it’s that; she simply writes life. Lives that entangle and twist and leap off cliffs they get so awkward and dramatic. Teenage life. That’s pretty much it.

Another element that makes The Mortal Instruments shine is how it handles parent-teen relationships. The teenagers aren’t wrong by default, by reason of being teenagers and therefore unwise. The adults have made mistakes, they are wrong, they admit weakness and generally act human and entirely unique, and true to who they are as their own characters, their own people. Everyone has their own personalities and exhibit weaknesses and strengths and acts unfairly. Nobody is perfect and it’s so utterly brilliant to read a book and see people just like you. Growing up with books just got easier.

Ordinarily Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (cover)I would talk about the Harry Potter books, but in this instance, the wider range of sexualities and personalities and real issues such as abuse (whichever kind) makes The Mortal Instruments seem far more representative of what I’m striving to show. Books about growing up and facing difficulty are fantastic, and Rowling gave this. But there’s no homosexuality, there’s no emphasis of abuse (Harry’s upbringing notwithstanding, mainly because it’s never presented as abuse) or anything that could be classed as the “other”. The Harry Potter series is too “safe”. What I want to know is who is gay, who might be transitioning during their last year, and whose parents are hitting them and how do they deal with that. These things would have been stellar.

With City of Bones published in 2007, Clare’s series is longstanding and keeps getting better and deeper and stronger as it goes on, without ever losing the complete lack of self-consciousness that can sometimes hold a writer back and stop them from doing precisely what they want, how they want. Writers write what they think is cool, and that’s what it should be about.

The Warrior Heir (cover)I’m going to give a sweeping mention to Cinda Williams Chima, since both her Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms series, in particular the latter, are representations of coming-of-age novels that aren’t necessarily faithful to the cliché. Her characters have to face adult decisions whilst being teenagers and it’s great to see how Raisa and Han handle everything around them. The Heir Chronicles are an established series, but a fifth book is releasing this autumn. This is a return to the world of the series, following the completion of The Seven Realms last year.

Moving onto the more recent wealth of YA, I want to talk in depth about Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son. This book didn’t especially work for me, but it’s a strong, important book that marks the beginning of an important series. Without spoiling too much—and nothing that following Tom Pollock on Twitter won’t reveal—there is a Muslim character who is also a lesbian. This sort of character, with their baggage and issues, is uncommonly important to begin to fully cease the marginalisation of perceived minorities. Or, worse, their being invisible.

The City's Son (cover)The fact that Pollock has been told various things such as it wasn’t “necessary” to have a female character also be Muslim, or that a lesbian Muslim is “unrealistic” only further demonstrates that YA fiction that ignores these comments and supposed “rules” is paramount. The Skyscraper Throne series, which kicked off with The City’s Son and continues soon with The Glass Republic is a YA trilogy to keep a weather eye on.

Now we get to the Strange Chemistry.

I’ve already talked about so many of their titles so much (Pantomime, by Laura Lam, Playing Tyler, by T.L. Costa, The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke, etc) so here I’m going to try to be original. Mainly I’m going to talk about books like Skulk by Rosie Best (due October 1st—4th US/UK) and Tainted (the sequel to Broken).

Skulk follows the story of shapeshifters of quite literally all shapes, ages, sizes, races and sexualities. There is nothing left out of this book, never mind the fact that a whole other level of parental abuse is explored within the complicated life of Meg.

Skulk (cover)But what’s more, is the sheer variety of life exhibited inside the story of Skulk. That’s the only way to put the realism of this book: it’s a glimpse into the different socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities that make up a big city like London. You don’t see only the pretty parts, or on the converse, the rough and tough parts. You see everything; top, bottom and middle. Never mind the fact that the story is pacy and excellent and completely compelling. Sometimes YA novels tend to focus the lens in a little too deep instead of pulling back and letting the whole scene into the shot. Rosie Best does not do this; her camera is not only SLR but its focus is set to perfect. She gets the whole scene, but knows precisely when to zoom in.

The main character of Skulk is a size sixteen. Being of the male persuasion, I don’t know what that equates to, but I know it’s certainly not a willowy Isabella Swan or a waiflike Clary Fray. She’s bigger. Meg can join the “realistic girls” club along with The Assassin’s Curse’s Ananna. Meg also has a tyrannical mother who obsesses over her daughter’s weight, abusively so. It’s a Big Thing to write about, since self-esteem is such an issue with teenage readership. Brilliantly, despite being bigger, Meg really couldn’t care less: she is who she is, comfortable with her own identity. That’s where the Strange Chemistry writers really like to shake up the snowglobe and mess up the expected scene: Meg has great self-esteem (comfortable in herself and her release, her art), Ananna is safe in herself, whilst male characters like Ananna’s counterpart, Naji, have horribly low self-esteem and Poltergeeks’ Marcus acts as a nervous, science-nerd back-up to the dynamic and brilliant Juile, a witch who is desperate to prove herself with her magic. Then there’s Broken and Tainted’s Alex Franks who really changes the rules regarding how male protagonists are cast in YA novels.

Broke (cover)Alex Franks doesn’t have low self-esteem and he’s not awkward or nerdy to the point that he’s socially awkward with it. But he does have a secret. He’ll describe it succinctly by saying that his heart “doesn’t beat for him”, something that essentially alludes to the fact that his heart quite literally isn’t his own. Alex is driven and mysterious throughout Broken, which is told from the viewpoint of Emma, but in Tainted we see deeper into Alex’s heart and see that the notion of it just being teen girls who are, to coin the Japanese “dokidoki” over their love interests, is utterly ridiculous. Alex is just as crazy about Emma, just as romantic and soppy and canoodling as any stereotypical teenage girl. It’s perfect. It’s real and it completely obliterates the gender-stereotypes that people don’t think of as often: the things that guys supposedly do that, as with every single stereotype in the world, isn’t a true representation.

Any and all gender-stereotypes need to be obliterated with a ray-gun that heats to kill in zero-to-sixty, because maybe then people can just be people. YA fiction is definitely trying to get the lasers warming.

YA SFF is really beginning to shine, and with established regular fantasy writers such as Joe Abercrombie beginning to write YA, less and less are hardened fantasy fans able to look down their noses at a whole branch of the fiction that makes up the genre they supposedly love. Some will say that writers like Abercrombie are in it for the money (“bagging the cash”), but with the depth of character and setting found in Abercrombie’s work and the same depth of character and setting prevalent in YA, it’s not much of a stretch: it’s just a shift of perspective, of focus, pointing the same lens in a different direction.

Title image by B1nd1.

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