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cover of Stranger


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. (source)


Friends, I am conflicted about this book.

(Now I'm wondering how many of my book posts start like that. Probably a ton.)

I struggle with YA a lot, anyway, and have from the very beginning when I started reading it in 2005. I find many SF YA novels (especially dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories) to be very same-y in the writing, as if a) there's a guideline people editing YA use to strip the narrative of all the author's personality/voice, or b) there's something happening similar to what happens in fanfic where a certain style of narrative gets popular and then it gets copied to death by people still finding their writing voices. Readable and recyclable, as I started calling it when it became obvious to me what was happening. I have a lot less patience for it in original fiction, because with books I have to do a little bit more of the world building, and also I expect there to be professional editors between myself and original fiction. After this book, I need a new category: c) was there an editor at all?

If I was being generous, I'd call myself notoriously picky about writing in original fiction. If I weren't being generous, I'd call me myself a huge asshole, because when in an otherwise good story I'm kept from connecting with the characters by writing I find subpar or not well edited it's amazingly frustrating. The writing here was like that kid from Home Alone: Lost in New York, setting up traps in an unfinished, under construction house for me to fall into in every chapter. When certain characters spoke, I would get anxious because the dialogue was hitting my humiliation squick it was so cliche and predictable.

I do recognize my humiliation scale is more finely tuned than others. I am that person who can't watch gag reels or comedy where people feel awkward/trapped/embarrassed. Your mileage may vary.

When you want to edit the entire book as you're reading it, so badly that you get distracted from the story itself, that's a problem. It felt like this story wasn't edited at all, which is frustrating, because the characters, the existence of the Changed people, and the politics of people without powers were so great. Seriously, this book deserved so much better re: editing to help the flow of the narrative and the dialogue so it sounded less rushed/awkward. EDITOR, WHERE WERE YOU??

no I wanted the opposite of this


The diversity aspects are all there. Multiple people of color! Who are integral to the story! They interact with one another: they fight, they date, they develop friendships, they win at some adventures. \o/ The able-bodied hero trope is booted into the metaphorical ditch so our actual hero, struggling with his changed physical abilities, comes out the other side of his depression over losing full range of use of one of his hands. He adapts and discovers he's the same badass in a fight he was before his accident by learning how to use his body in new ways. This book explores three characters navigating polyamory and it's amazing. There's a whole thread about a boy acting on his feelings for his friend and it has a happy ending. Except, wow, continuing the trope of queer kids getting injured after feelings have been either recognized or validated, how are you doing? Nice to see you out and about...again. This wasn't an intentional choice, I'm sure, because the character in question isn't a main character and there are story reasons it follows, but it just made me tired. This queer side character isn't miserable over their sexuality, so let's make them miserable over something else! Sigh.

Way back in the past, there were serious charges laid at the door of an agent (and through this, a call to action by all agents/publishers to address representation issues) when it came out that a request was made to remove a same sex relationship from the story and change a character's sexuality outright. I have no clue how much the version that person saw and the version I read differed, but wow. Given the content of the book, that's somewhere around Level 90 on the bigotry scale, and also pings my radar hard. The lesbians somehow don't matter, and the sole dude in the polyamorous relationship with other girls didn't matter. That's not fishy at all; I spent a lot of time (more than I did with the book, in fact) wondering about these details in the context of how I felt about Ash re: the sexuality of girls/women and the presence of men in a relationship to validate it.

All that drama back then put this book on my radar, anyway — the idea there could be an awesome-sounding story about queer kids that didn't revolve around the endless process of coming out, or facing violence/misery due to their sexuality, in an SF setting? Yes, please.

But I can't get past the writing. There were other problems, too: too many characters, period, for the length and scope of the book. There's five viewpoint characters, and they all have an orbit of smaller supporting characters, so many that it was impossible for me to really grapple with anyone's story beyond the eponymous stranger of the title, Ross, and Mia and Jennie, two girls that he befriends. Yuki, whose backstory actually gets some of the richest consideration, still felt shallow somehow, maybe because I was so overwhelmed with all the other characters it was hard to engage with him. Everything about the way this story is told felt mildly self-conscious and nervous, over-explaining the worldbuilding and sometimes shoving the various diversity aspects forward in ways that overshadowed the story. It reminded me of how first drafts of things I write when I pick them up for the first time after putting them down. I did enjoy that the text doesn't get overly didactic about explaining what the characters are going through. It doesn't define Ross's PTSD. It doesn't label the relationship that Mia develops. It doesn't draw direct lines between the prejudices experienced by Changed and the current-day prejudices that we live with.

I was also pretty impressed with the touches on the worldbuilding: the tight knit community with problems and prejudices who still manage to care about their town; the animals with powers that turned them into super pests; super effective creepy killer crystal trees; and the Change itself. There's probably an essay to be written about the Change/gender/pregnancy/social costs that I don't have in me right now, but I'd definitely read it because I'm so curious about those choices (hint hint someone write this).

But the writing again, especially in regards to Felicité, whose sections, especially with her parents, embarrassed me because the dialogue and interactions were so over-the-top silly. It wasn't limited to her, since the action scenes often felt very weird and aborted, and dialogue of side characters in other sections pinged me, too, but most of the issues centered here.

I expected Felicité and her family to start monologuing like cartoon villains every time they appeared on the page. I dreaded her sections, dreaded other characters interacting with her or her parents, and figured out way too late that Felicité's obsession with power and problems making personal connections was way more complicated than the book managed to successfully foreshadow. The revelation we're faced with doesn't make me empathize with her and doesn't seem to change her in any noticeable way. It distances me from her and her internalized struggle, because she was set up as an antagonist and given no redeeming qualities at all besides one moment of care for another person who isn't her or part of her ulterior motives. Clichéd interactions between female characters were trotted out early on and that finally killed it for me when added with everything else; I didn't particularly dislike her, but I just stopped caring. Pitting a girl against each other over a boy — political motivations rather than personal aside — is tired, and I wish people would stop using it no matter how "realistic" it is in order to set a character apart as conniving and vindictive and brainwashed into bigotry. This trope as shorthand can feel free to walk off a cliff. Unless the trope itself is being explored (and it wasn't really, not here), I'm uninterested.

On the plus side, this book isn't for me and was never meant to be, which makes my inability to endorse it irrelevant. It's for kids who don't have my ridiculous hangups about dialogue and the habit of reading aloud to themselves, who want books featuring people like them and their friends. It succeeds there! There's an ambitious story here, a mystery and a western rolled into a post-apocalyptic ball of adventure. which I really don't care about at all because I spent so much of the book distracted. I am an adult with Writing Preferences; as a teenager I read everything, whether I thought it was crappy or not, to get a hit of whatever I wanted at the time. I'm sure that hasn't changed much. Everything representative can matter deeply when it's so difficult to find that representation elsewhere. I tried to order this for my library, but the library was ahead of me. Way to go, library!

Go forth, little book! Make some people happy!

It's not a story about white people surviving the apocalypse while everyone else who isn't or can't pass as white ends up super dead in whatever catastrophic event ended life as we knew it, so +20 Diversity. I'll just sit around and be sad that the writing and I couldn't make it work.

snoopy the dog lying on top of his red doghouse in the rain


Maybe I'll have better luck with the sequel, if it comes out? (Because, seriously, I want to know what's up with those trees.)

Other Reviews:
A Fantastical Librarian, A Reader of Fictions, Lady Geek Girls and Friends, yours?

Date: 2014-11-17 07:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
You've certainly made it sound intriguing! But at the same time you're warning me off it.

I'm conflicted about your review!

Date: 2014-11-19 02:02 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] jinian
Well, I'm only a few chapters in, but I can agree that the trees are very effectively creepy! But I don't know about the color thing: I can't help considering a biological mechanism for that given my plant bio background and I'm not coming up with any.

Date: 2014-12-04 01:53 pm (UTC)
starlady: a circular well of books (well of books)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Do you like any of Sherwood Smith's other books? Because it seems to me your problems with the book really boil down to problems with Sherwood's style, which I will admit took me some getting used to when I first started reading her books.

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