May 2007

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Murder in the Faerie Realm

One of the things I have noticed lately is that there seems to be a dead zone in YA literature when it comes to mysteries. There are tons of great series cropping up for middle grade readers (the adventures and misadventures of Gilda Joyce, Enola Hughes and Kiki Strike to name a few. I wonder why so many are about girls?), but once you hit the teen years they thin quite a bit. There is the usual glut of titles that expect readers to imagine a Nancy Drew-like acceptance for teen detectives by the local police force or have a protagonist with preternatural powers of deduction that have him or her figuring it all out before the adults get a clue (there are also those “just happened to be there” stories that really annoy me to no end). Bennett Madison’s Lulu Dark books were a great exception to this rule; she was closely linked to the mysteries, made mistakes, acted rashly and sometimes got in over her head -- all of which made sense when you read the books. And the Samurai detective series by Thomas and Dorothy Hoobler is another excellent example of how teens can solve mysteries in a realistic and thrilling fashion.

But those are only two titles compared to dozens for the 10- to13-year-old crowd. Sometimes, I swear, being a YA reviewer can really be maddening.

So, in search of decent mysteries for curious older teens, I have found myself falling more often than not for books that dwell in the fantasy genre but really are mysteries first and foremost. Imagine my delight, then, while knee-deep in reading a stack of nonfiction for various reviewing duties, to find Mark Del Franco’s Unshapely Things on my doorstep. A gift from the gods at Ace, for sure, it is a wonderful, smart, and action-packed mystery involving dead faeries, political intrigue, and maybe a plot to destroy humanity.

Del Franco’s book follows the saga of druid Connor Grey, a former investigator for the “Guild,” which is pretty much the FBI of the faerie world. Grey lives and works in a Boston much like ours except it is full of dwarves, elves, flits (small flying faeries), and all sorts of other individuals with some level of magical ability. In Del Franco’s version of Boston they predominantly hang out in the Weird, a rundown urban neighborhood known for its magical residents. When the book opens, Grey is called to help a cop friend, a human, who is investigating a serial killer who targets faerie prostitutes. Grey signs on as a consultant in the case that, from the very beginning, makes no sense. As he follows one trail after another things get complex, and Del Franco has the opportunity to introduce several supporting characters, all of whom he takes the time to develop with separate motivations, personalities and traits. You won’t mistake one for the other while reading Unshapely Things, and will certainly pick a favorite or two from such a diverse cast.

As the story builds to an action-packed climax, Del Franco takes the reader on one twist and turn after another, drops a couple of red herrings, and leaves you guessing just who did what and why until the very end. It’s a great trip and manages to include not only awell-written story but also the development of a whole new version of a major city. Teens will find a lot to enjoy in Del Franco’s title, from the inclusion of Robin and Shay, teenage prostitutes who have their own demons to battle, to Conner, Joe, Meryl and the other denizens of the faerie world who might be adults but live such wildly different lives from our own that they beg to be discovered by readers searching for their own identities and path into the world. Great fantasy, great mystery, wicked cool new world to explore; Unshapely Things has everything it takes to launch a long-running series, and I’m very excited to see what Del Franco has in store next for Connor Grey and his friends.

Justine Larbalestier began the journey of Reason Cansino and her struggle to find a way to survive sanely to adulthood with Magic or Madness two years ago. Readers met a mixed-race teenager with a basically unknown father who was dealing with a mother who had suddenly gone mad and moving in with a grandmother who she has always been taught was the greatest evil that ever lived. Life for Reason was pretty intense from the first page.

Through the first book and its sequel, Magic Lessons, Larbalestier gave her readers visions of magic and mystery in Australia and New York City. Through both books, Reason and her friends, Tom and JayTee, were forced to fight hard and fast for their lives as they struggled to come to grips with the bitter truth behind their magic gifts. In the newly-released final book of the trilogy, Magic’s Child, Larbalestier lets Reason make a stunning choice about not only her future, but that of everyone she cares about. It’s a shocker of a finale that includes some true surprises and will be most satisfying to all of her fans.

What really impressed me about this trilogy is that Larbalestier found a way to reinvent magic. She came up with a whole new spin on the story of the girl hero (this is no Buffy -- or even Faith) and the “gift” of magic. In fact, nearly everything that readers of urban fantasy thought they knew about magic has been turned on its ear by the author as Reason has made her way through her new life. I did not, at all, expect the plot twists that the author dishes out in Magic’s Child or Reason’s most startling and mature decision. It’s just brilliant how Larbalestier winds this story up -- a bit dark, a bit sad, and entirely appropriate. She gives us the reality of magic, its bitter truth and consequences. We don’t all have best friends who end up becoming powerful witches, or school librarians who have spent their whole lives studying the enemy. Most of us are just out here in the world trying to figure out who we are and who we hope to be. Most of us are scared to death everyday about choices and challenges, big and small, that just might blow up in our faces if we aren’t careful. Because of all that, Reason is the kind of hero that will resonate most strongly with so many readers; they will identify with her in spite of their own fervent hopes for being saved. Larbalestier knows the score; she knows that all the saving in this life pretty much comes from what we figure out. The fact that she lets Reason come to that conclusion is a bit of a revelation among YA fantasy writers, and what raises Magic’s Child and the entire trilogy to cream of the crop status.

For lack of a better comparison, I’m going to have to refer to Kristopher Reisz’s Tripping to Somewhere as the Thelma and Louise of urban fantasy literature. It’s very much about two young women who get fed up and take to the road in a wild adventure which results in all sorts of mayhem, soul searching, and no small amount of personal devastation. That it is all over and done with in a matter of days seems impossible, although Reisz does his best to make the timing all quite plausible. The fantasy part involves the reason behind Gilly and Samantha’s quest; the girls are off in search of The Witches Carnival, and, once they are certain it is real, there is no stopping them from rushing off to join it forever. But it’s not easy to hang with the Carnival, believe me.

Tripping to Nowhere is mostly a road novel, and as such it succeeds in all sorts of ways. The slight mystery involves the nature of the Carnival and what its members want from Sam and Gilly. Each of the girls has their own reasons for wanting to run away. A lot of the running seems to revolve around a desire for reinvention, for being someone other than who they are. As that describes not only a high percentage of the teenage population but the adult as well, I was more than happy to go along with it.

Reisz does a couple of very unexpected things with his characters, though. First, Gilly is gay, which by itself is not dramatic at all, but when you realize that she and Sam are the kind of friends who have “benefits,” it all gets very interesting. Sam is not gay but how she feels for Gilly is open to interpretation, and it is because she can not be exactly sure just what they are to each other that Gilly builds almost a reckless need to keep running away. Sam might be taking Gilly for granted, or not -- or she could just be one royally mixed-up teenager (this is at least partly true) -- but sex, love and friendship are all topics of discussion in the novel. This makes it much more than the standard fantasy fare, and really a hybrid of many genres.

There were a couple of points in the story where I wish Reisz had written less; he runs off on tangents with some very minor characters that end up slowing the plot down a bit and keeping the reader away from Gilly and Sam or the family drama they left behind (the only storylines that matter, I think). But overall I think Tripping to Somewhere is a very well-done fantasy that includes a couple of girls who really are not like anyone else I have read. Be aware, though, that there is some sex and the language is pretty fierce (Sam gives the term “angry young woman” a whole new definition), so it is definitely best for the high school crowd and older. I enjoyed it a lot (could not put it down near the end) and was very satisfied by how things turned out. Reisz didn’t back away from the tough parts. Kudos to him for writing this book all the way to the very end and giving us, if not a fairy tale, then at least a fantasy that is well grounded in our own very real and complicated world.

I have a soft spot for fantasy novels that take place on college campuses; it’s the location for so many dramatic personal changes and seems perfect for adventures of the fantastical kind as well (do see Pamela Dean’s wonderful Tam Lin for the ultra-perfect example of this). Nina Kirki Hoffman’s Spirits That Walk in Shadow, a title that has nothing to do with the story, is a first-rate urban fantasy/mystery that starts with a bang from the moment freshmen Kim and Jaimie meet each other in their dorm room on the Sitka State campus. Kim is an artist with an unusual talent for color, but has not painted since a devastating fight with her best friend during her senior year. She has been suffering from a near-crippling depression ever since and, after unsuccessfully struggling through multiple types of therapy and medication, she is determined to shake herself out of her emotional problems at college. What she doesn’t know is that her depression has nothing to do with a relatively trivial high school conflict; Kim is actually prey to a very powerful vampire-like creature that is feeding off of her despair. And the sadder it can make her feel, the more it enjoys its meals. No wonder the girl has not made it through the day without crying in months.

Jaimie is not at all like Kim, she is someone “other.” She comes from a race of magical people and has spent her life learning to manipulate the air around her. This means that she knows how to fly and can manipulate the air into forming some objects. She should be much better at her gift then she is, but Jaimie and many of the kids she grew up with were taught about their abilities by a teacher who warped their education. There are many things she does not know how to do while, conversely, she does shelter some hostile and dangerous tendencies. In an effort to better gain control of herself before tackling the “gaping holes in her education,” she has convinced her parents to send her off to college. The minute she meets Kim she knows there is something seriously wrong -- she can sense the drain coming away from her and, what’s more, she can track it. The problem is that she can not move fast enough to find the source and, more importantly, she has no idea at all how to fight the “viri,” or vampire. Fortunately she’s not on her own when it comes to the magical end of things at Sitka State. Three of Jaimie’s cousins, whom she has not seen in years, also attend the school. There is bad blood between them going back to the nasty little tricks Jaimie had a habit of playing (like turning people into all sorts of animals against their will) during family gatherings. But it is very quickly obvious that she needs help and the cousins, thank goodness, are cool enough to jump onboard and help save Kim.

Hoffman has created a very cool atmosphere in Spirits; she nails the college with all its freshmen orientations and early-day insanity and trepidation quite well and, with Kim, Jaimie, Harrison, Josh and Zilla, manages to create five very distinct personalities that are easy to identify with. The other college kids (any one of whom might be the big bad) are fleshed out, and there is more than one student for the crew to be worried about. On top of everything else, there is the history between Jaimie’s cousins and another viri to contend with -- this history results in their elders not being all that willing to let the kids handle the problem on their own. Interference from on high results in even more problems, but Jaimie in particular is not willing to back down from the fight, so they all keep moving toward the final showdown which ends up involving an unlikely ally and sends the book careening off into the most surprising of endings.

I really liked the characters in this book -- all of them -- and that was pretty unusual. It’s easy enough to fall for the protagonists, but Jaimie’s cousins were each appealing in a different way, and I had a soft spot for all of the students as well. I really liked how the kids banded together and refused to back down, either from the bad guy or the adults. It was nice to see teenagers be smart and tough and spend some time working out just what they need to do to take on a monster. No wild heroics here, but no wimps either. I read Spirits That Walk in Shadow in a day, and I plan to go back and pick up Hoffman’s earlier book, The Thread that Binds the Bones, which also includes Jaimie. I would hope Hoffman returns to this group again in the future; she left readers with some tantalizing hints and I would certainly like to see what happens next.

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize seems to be marketed as a bit of a fantasy/romance, but with a brutal murder in the opening pages, it read as a mystery for me from the very beginning. Orphan Quincie Morris has a hybrid werewolf best friend who she wishes was more of a boyfriend, an uncle who is becoming more and more obsessed with his vampire-wannabe girlfriend, and a major problem finding a chef for her family restaurant in an alternate version of Austin, Texas, who can not only cook like a dream but also act like one of the undead when the patrons demand it.

From the start no one knows why Sanguini’s long-time chef is literally shredded in the kitchen one night while working on new recipes. Quincie gets about five minutes to mourn him before the pressure starts to keep the restaurant open and make sure the cops don’t throw her occasionally-furry best buddy in jail on suspicion. The thing is, once she does hire a new chef, it’s not like everything gets easier, and soon enough she’s basically dropped out of high school, become a regular wine drinker, and started sampling some mighty nasty dishes. Meanwhile, the crime goes unsolved in the wake of multiple murders around town and Quincie finds herself caring a lot less about all of that as she, bizarrely, cares more and more about the restaurant.

Why isn’t she more focused on the death and dying? Her behavior is odd to say the least, and Letich Smith wants you to notice this and wonder what just might be messing with Quinicie’s mind.I probably should have mentioned that to keep Sanguini’s hip and fresh, they’ve decided to adopt a vampire theme. Yeah, it’s just fangs from beginning to end in Tantalize and you know -- you just know for sure -- that it has to get way worse blood-wise before it gets better. That’s just what happens in a vamp novel, and this one definitely delivers on what readers will expect.

What really surprised me about Tantalize is how dark it is. I was expecting something sexy but light -- heavier on romance than murder and mayhem. I really did not expect Quincie to find herself in such serious trouble, or for her poor friend Kieren to pretty much have to sacrifice life and limb in an effort to save her. There is a lot going on in this novel that really has nothing to do with vampires and everything to do with staying true to yourself, asking for help when you should, and for damn sure not turning your back on your friends. When in doubt, keep the friends close.

Tantalize is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a YA version of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. I don’t mean at all in terms of the sex (have no fear: there is no graphic sex in Leitch Smith’s book at all) but as far as vampire life not being a bed of roses. I’ve seen vamp novels as funny and sexy and silly and cool but Tantalize does not show us a bunch of happy shapeshifters and blood suckers. Their lives are complicated and, even though there are always fools who are all for the live forever crap (can’t resist it no matter what you have to eat), Quincie understands early on that getting something for nothing is not how the universe works. In her gradual awakening to just how high the price can be, though, Leitich Smith gives readers a very interesting character to watch. This is a very complex fantasy/horror/mystery novel and should be sought out by any reader with a fondness for something other than the usual high school vamp drama. I’m just going to say one thing of warning though: skinned baby squirrel on a platter.

Okay, now go read at your own risk.

As always there are more YA reads and other literary news at my site, chasingray.com. If there are any questions or thoughts about the column, be sure to let me know over there.

Cool Read: The new anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys professes to be “true tales of love, lust and friendship between straight women and gay men.” I would say that it is much heavier on the friendship angle than lust, and generally is a collection of essays by both straight women and gay men who discuss and acknowledge relationships in their lives that transcended sexual boundaries and enriched them in all manner of ways. High points are most certainly YA authors Cecil Castellucci on the men who helped her recover from a long heartbreak in “My Fairy Godfathers” and Bennett Madison on the incomparable friend who stuck with him as he struggled to find himself in “Shutterspeed.” Karen Robinovitz delights in the fashion pals she has found in “Shop Girls,” a very Carrie Bradshaw/Jack McFarland piece of frothy fun, and Cindy Chupak stands up for her ex-husband before a panel of judgmental rabbis in “Get This,” an essay that gets to the very heart of what should matter most to all of us. Finally, Philip Himberg’s “Family Album” is stellar -- a true look at why love and respect are the central and only vital characteristics of any family. This one alone makes the whole book a keeper and, for YAs growing up with gay parents, it will resonate very deeply.

There are some clunkers in the collection (why is Gigi Grazer’s piece even here?), but overall it is very well done. There is some sexual content, so consider it for the high school kids only, but do seek it out if you know a gay teen or straight girl who is familiar with the sort of relationships the book describes. They will find a lot to identify with in this one, I guarantee it.