Here’s the first half of the Cybils Teen Speculative Fiction finalists, with more to come. Three very different speculative fiction books, but all good solid choices.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Little, Brown 2014.
Glory O’Brien, aimless and disconnected, is about to graduate high school, while her home schooled best friend Ellie is not. Feeling crazy and directionless and having drunk a bit too much alcohol one night, they drink a powdered mummified bat. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even to the characters the next morning, but after drinking it, Glory starts to have visions of the future, a dark future in which a man called Nedrick the Sanctimonious takes over a large part of the US with a strong anti-woman agenda. Glory writes down these visions even as she tries to figure out what her near future should be, what to do about her father who has more or less lived on their sofa since her mother killed herself eight years earlier. She tries, not always successfully, not to be judgmental about Ellie being sexually active when she’s not. The visions of the future are dark and terrifying, the present bewildering, with both Glory and Ellie caught in understandable if annoying selfishness. There’s been a lot said about how we put too much pressure on female characters to be likeable – Glory would be one of those characters. She makes sense and works well for the story without really being sympathetic. I feel a little ashamed to admit that I really do prefer my characters likeable. I still couldn’t put the book down, and there’s a lot to think and talk about, so I think this would be a great choice for a teen book club.
Death Sworn by Leah Cypess. Greenwillow Books, 2014.
Ileni is a trained sorceress of the Renegai, a group that has seceded from the Empire they consider to be evil. Every child of the Renegai is born with magical power, but in only a few does it last to adulthood. Ileni was supposed to be one of those few, and she was among the best in her training. But as she nears 20, her power has begun to fade after all. She’s bent on serving her people in the only way left to her: by traveling as a sorcery tutor to the secret cave hideout of the assassin clan which, by working to bring down the Empire, is an uneasy ally of the Renegai. The alliance is uneasy both because of the assassins’ methods, and because the last two sorcerers have gone missing. She’ll be the youngest tutor ever, the same age as her students, and the only woman.
Once there, the Master of the assassins gives her a brutal demonstration of the absolute power he has over the assassins. She’s given a guide, the handsome Sorin, who is fiercely loyal to the Master’s plan, even if he doesn’t know exactly what it is. And she begins to learn the politics of the students and teachers, concealing the limits of her dwindling magical powers even as she must use them to protect herself and solve the mystery of the dead previous sorcerers. Some of this mystery was easy for me to figure out – but so much of this was done so well that I didn’t mind. I loved the twist of Ileni having complete mastery over a tiny bit of magical power, and I so appreciated that she was able to enjoy a romantic relationship without subscribing to her assassin boyfriend’s belief system. I don’t have the book with me right now, but “I love you, but I don’t trust you” is what I remember her saying. And I really, really enjoyed Ileni’s maturing from seeing the world in black and white to a more nuanced view, all while staying true to herself. Plus, assassins and magic! I have the sequel, Death Marked, out right now.
The Living by Matt de la Peña. Delacorte Press, 2013.
Shy Espinoza thought working on a cruise ship would be a great summer job: good pay, exotic locations, and hanging out with a diverse crew of other good-looking kids his age. He’s bonded especially closely with the beautiful but unavailable Carmen, who grew up like him in a poor Southern California town and also like him, lost a close family member to the new and frightening Romero disease. The close friendships with the other crew might come close to balancing out the classism and racism they experience from the vacationers on the cruise ship, but nothing is stopping the nightmares Shy now gets after unsuccessfully trying to stop a rich older man from throwing himself overboard.
And then disaster strikes. Shy is battling for his life, as the story quickly turns into a thriller, both survival and med tech.
This is the book that won, and I can see why. So often in thrillers, all other considerations are thrown under the plot bus as it barrels along, but de la Peña gives us characters to believe in and a lot to think about afterwards on top of that. I still resent it a little when books make me stay up late turning the pages – but this is really, really well done.