The five Whitney finalists in the YA (young adult) speculative category are all terrific stories–not surprising given that they represent the top five of one of the largest categories of the Whitneys, and all five books are published with national publishers. Two of the books–J. R. Johansson’s Insomnia and Kasie West’s Pivot Point–represent strong debuts by new authors to watch.
1. The first of the nominees is C. J. Hill’s Friends and Traitors, the second in her Slayers series. (The first book in her series was also a finalist last year). I’m a long-time fan of Janette Rallison (the real person behind Hill’s pseudonym), and while her Slayers books are very different from her (very funny) YA novels, there’s still a lot of humor and relationship drama in these books. Though this book is the second in a series, it doesn’t seem to suffer from the second book syndrome–partly, I think, because the characters still have some compelling arcs.
The Slayers books are based on the premise that dragons exist–and that exposure to an unhatched dragon egg can awaken “Slayer” DNA in the descendents of Slayers. Tori, the privileged daughter of a senator, is the main character in the series, but she’s joined by some pretty compelling secondary characters, including Jesse, the boy she’s fallen for, and Dirk, Jesse’s best friend. (Dirk even gets his own point-of-view chapters in this second book). In Friends and Traitors, Tori is just beginning to come into her own as a Slayer when she has to put all her training aside to return home from “summer camp” for the school year and a high-profile life as a senator’s daughter. Because of the danger of associating outside of camp, Jesse breaks things off with her. And while Tori is heartbroken, she finds some solace in her friendship with Dirk, who isn’t afraid to break a few rules to see Tori outside of camp. Of course, that might be because Dirk is struggling with a few dangerous secrets of his own.
I have to say that I really loved the interplay between Tori and Dirk. While I don’t agree with all of Dirk’s choices, I found his position to be a complicated and compelling one. I didn’t love Tori’s relationship with Jesse as much–he winds up coming across as a bit of a prig. Still, it’s hard not to love a book that has the heroine zooming across the sky in a Wonder Woman costume (and fully aware of the ironic humor in her appearance). And the dragons are beautiful and dangerous and heartbreaking all at once.
2. J.R. Johansson’s Insomnia
The great thing about the Whitney’s is that I end up reading (and liking) books I might not otherwise pick up. I’m not a big fan of horror–or even thrillers (just ask my husband about pre-screening every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But I enjoyed this one. The story line is quite original: Parker is a Watcher, which means he’s forced to inhabit the dreams of the last person he makes eye contact with each day.
What this mostly means is that Parker doesn’t sleep. Ever. And the sleeplessness is slowly killing him. When he meets a new girl at school, Mia, whose dreams are strangely restful (and the first time Parker has been able to really sleep in months), he becomes obsessed. Not romantically obsessed–just desperate to find ways for her to be the last one he sees each night. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for Mia to be completely creeped out by his behavior and to try to avoid him. Even his friends think he’s finally lost it. But when strange things begin happening in his own dreams and Mia is threatened–Parker doesn’t know if he can trust himself anymore.
What I liked about this book was that Parker was an unreliable narrator. He genuinely doesn’t know if he’s capable of doing some of the horrible things he’s afraid he’s actually done. Sometimes the writing style was fragmented and a bit disjointed, but I think that perfectly reflected Parker’s state of mind. And yes, sometimes (frequently), Parker is a jerk. But he doesn’t want to be that person, and he works toward changing it. I also thought Johansson did a nice job throwing in some unexpected twists.
3. Kasie West, Pivot Point
There’s a lot to love about West’s debut novel, starting with the engaging premise: Addison Coleman lives in a top-secret community in the contemporary US that’s a haven for people with advanced mind abilities: telepathy, persuasion (her mom’s ability), the ability to detect any lie (her dad’s), and many more. Addie herself has something much rarer: she’s a Clairvoyant (technically: Divergent) who, when faced with a decision in her life, can “search” along two alternate pathways. Her Searches feel so real to her that it’s as if she’s lived these alternative lives, which can be awkward, for example, when Addie’s pressed to give a reason why she said no to a guy who just wanted to ask her out. But for the most part, her searches have been over minor decisions: go out with this guy? Study this subject?
Until she comes home to find her parents are divorcing, and she has to choose. Normally, this might be hard, but not impossible. But Addie’s dad is leaving the compound–if Addie chooses to go with him, she has to choose to masquerade as Normal and leave all her high-tech gadgets behind her.
The book follows Addie on two alternating paths (alternating chapter by chapter): one is her real life, the other is a Search–but you don’t find out which is which until the very end. It’s to West’s credit that she keeps both story lines compelling and engaging, and it’s easy to see the overlaps between the two alternating realities. And while romance features prominently in both lines (different boys, of course), romance isn’t the only–or even the main–plot point for the books.
One of the things that made the story work for me was how much I liked the characters, especially Addie. Unlike so many heroines in paranormal romances (and elsewhere) these days, Addie wasn’t extreme: she wasn’t particularly brave, or kick-ass, or confrontational, or rule-breaking . . . she was just Addie. I think that made her more relatable for me. The story isn’t particularly deep: but it’s fun, fast, interesting, and–maybe more importantly–doesn’t feel like a lot of other books out there. Highly recommended for YA fans. (And if you like this, pick up her YA contemporary, The Distance Between Us, also a Whitney finalist and also fantastic).
4. Brandon Sanderson, Steelheart
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this book, because the post-apocalyptic, super-hero genre seems pretty well saturated. But Sanderson has this magical ability to create new worlds–and this book was terrific.
A few years before the start of the book, Calamity happened. (It’s never quite clear what Calamity is, though I assume later books in the series may make this clear). And following Calamity, the world saw the rise of Epics, ordinary humans with powers so extraordinary that they soon ceased to seem human at all. In the opening chapter, life still functions as usual, with many people, David’s father included, believing that heroes will rise to challenge the Epics. But here’s where Sanderson’s world differs from so many super-hero narratives: in this world, there are no heroes. The epics do what ordinary, corruptible mortals do when confronted with infinite power: they become infinitely corrupted.
When an Epic named Steelheart comes to claim Chicago as his own, David’s world changes. The opening chapter was immediately riveting, including a few horrifying images that are going to remain with me for a long, long time. (Read with caution if you are a mother. And/or squeamish). And in this sequence, David sees something no one else has seen: he sees Steelheart bleed, which means this Epic has a weakness. One he wants so badly to bury that he destroys the entire building where David is and any potential witnesses. David escapes by lucky chance. (This isn’t a spoiler–you get all this in chapter one).
Fast forward ten years, and David is obsessed with Epics. He’s studied everything there is to know about them, including their weaknesses, with an eye to destroying them. And when the Reckoners (the only group of humans to fight the Epics, who have essentially taken over the world) come to town, David seizes his chance. Because not only does David want to fight epics, but he has a plan to take Steelheart down. But for his plan to work, he has to convince the Reckoners to trust him . . .
The world Sanderson creates here is fabulous: fascinating powers (and weaknesses) for the epics, interesting technology, and the character interplay among the Reckoners is fun to watch. But mostly, he keeps the action moving along so quickly that it’s hard to put the book down. Sanderson even manages to raise some interesting moral and ethical questions about the nature of power and those who seek to wield it. Fun, fast, fascinating–a great read for people who like action, dystopian, super-heroes, or even just a good story.
5. Robison Wells Blackout
As a founding member of the Whitney Awards in 2007 (and former president of the Awards Committee), it’s no surprise that Wells is a favorite in the Whitney community. (His novel Variant won best YA novel in 2011). But Blackout legitimately earned its place as a finalist.
In a not-so-distant future, a group of teenage terrorists attack targets all across the US, targeting valuable infrastructure, tourist landmarks–anything to raise fear levels. When it becomes apparent that these terrorists possess uncanny abilities, and these abilities are related to a virus that only targets teens, the US government responds by rounding up *all* teenagers, and attempting to recruit those with useful powers. If it sound vaguely X-men-ish, well, it is. But still highly enjoyable for that (or maybe because of that).
The story follows four point of view characters: Alec and Laura, who are part of a terrorist cell, and Aubrey and Jack, former friends who attend a small town high school in rural Utah. Jack is a typical poor kid; Aubrey used to be just the same until she discovered that she could turn invisible–and got recruited by the most powerful girl in the high school. Aubrey’s rise to popularity caused a rift between the two, but when both are taken to a government camp, Aubrey pledges to stay with Jack. But when the unthinkable happens and Jack gets sorted into a high-power camp for kids with the virus and Aubrey is let loose, Aubrey risks her life and freedom trying to save Jack.
Some reviewers disliked the alternating points of view, but I liked getting into the minds of the main characters, though obviously I connected more to Aubrey and Jack than Alec and Laura. The book is setting up a series, so not everything gets explained or resolved in this book (and having read Wells’ previous books, I was pretty much expecting this). If I had a complaint, it might be that–as with Variant and Feedback–the focus on an intense, quick-paced plot sometimes overshadows character development.
A couple of things interest me about this current batch of nominees. Though all are “speculative” to one degree or another, all are set in essentially contemporary (or slightly futuristic) worlds–there is no epic fantasy, no off-world science fiction. For the most part, they deal with ordinary teens dealing with extraordinary powers, or ordinary teens struggling with the extraordinary power of others. I’m not sure if this is a fluke, a telling statement about the judge’s preferences in this category, or a trend in YA publishing (which is increasingly picking up YA contemporaries)–but I find it interesting nonetheless. It seems to me that part of what makes this trend so compelling is the element of teenage wish fulfillment. Didn’t we all secretly wish we were somehow extraordinary? (And didn’t we secretly believe that we were extraordinary, even if we hadn’t realized that potential yet?)
And despite Jessie’s observation at Dawning of a Brighter Day about the female-skewing Whitney finalists, that preference for women authors and women-centered stories isn’t in evidence here. Two of the finalists are by male authors; all but one (Kasie West’s Pivot Point) feature male point of view characters. Insomnia, Steelheart, and Blackout would appeal particularly to male teen readers.
Of course, these aren’t the only great YA speculative novels to come from LDS authors in 2013. If this is your kind of genre, you might also want to check out these:
*Brandon Sanderson’s YA fantasy (also contemporary feeling, though it exists in an alternative universe), The Rithmatist
*Brodi Ashton’s sequel to Everneath, Everbound
*Dan Well’s Fragments (sequel to Partials)
* Renee Collins’ Relic, an alternative historical fantasy set in the American West (in my opinion, we don’t have nearly enough of these. I love Patricia Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, though she’s not LDS, so she doesn’t really belong in this list).
*Kiersten White’s Mind Games–another contemporary-ish speculative dealing with the special powers of two sisters (one who sees the future, the other who has perfect instincts)
*Natalie Whipple’s Transparent–similar in feel to Blackout, as it deals with teenagers who acquire special powers. But in this case, the main character is in hiding from her father, who runs a Mafia-style mob and needs her invisibility.
*And in terms of indie and small-press novels, Lani Woodland and Melonie Piper’s Pieces of Jade was a lot of fun, as was Wendy Knight’s Warrior Beautiful.
Have you read any of the YA speculative nominees? What did you think? What YA speculative novel by an LDS author did you read last year that you think should have made the cut?