So many people I admire were talking up this book – including Charlotte – that I had to read it, especially when I heard that Brown and Smith are self-publishing the second volume to avoid editors trying to talk them out of “too much diversity”. This is one that I loved so much that I’m pretty sure my review can’t do it justice.
Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. Viking, 2014.
In a post-apocalyptic America with an Old West feel, prospector Ross Juarez is running for his life, barely making it past a stand of singing crystal trees. He’s so weak from hunger that when Elizabeth Crow, the sheriff of the nearby town, finds him, he’s hanging onto a vampire tree.
We’re soon introduced to many of the teen citizens of Las Anclas. There’s its young engineer/mechanic, Mia Lee, whose doctor father takes Ross in, teacher and would-be Ranger Jennie Riley, her boyfriend Indra, and transplant Yuki Nakamura, nicknamed “the Prince”, as well as Felicite Wolfe, the scheming mayor’s daughter. (Scheming daughter or scheming mayor? Yes.)
We can tell right away that this is a changed and dangerous world – people live in walled towns to protect themselves from viciously mutated wildlife, both plant and animal. The story makes it clear that race, gender and sexual orientation are not at all issues the way there are today – but that doesn’t mean there’s no prejudice. Humans are still human in their deep-seated tendency towards prejudice, and whatever caused the changes that we first see in the deadly singing trees didn’t leave humans untouched. The Changed have new, somewhat X-Men like mutations that give abilities from the useful – such as healing abilities or enhanced strength – to the bizarre, like the ability to make dust devils. This is what currently fractures people, with most living in towns of either Changed or Normals. Las Anclas is one of the few that officially welcomes both – but that doesn’t mean that the Changed are necessarily treated equally. Dark-skinned Jennie Riley, for example, is a little concerned that she might be just a token Changed person to the Rangers.
Ross’s arrival has brought even more change, as he’s brought with him a dangerous and rare artifact, one that the cruel leader of a nearby town will do anything to own himself.
I’m using the word “dangerous” a lot – that’s because there are a lot of dangerous things here. It’s still a fun story to read, with things to appeal to lots of different readers. The ensemble cast is a little hard to keep track of – the story is told from about five different viewpoints – but each narrator has a distinct voice and type face to help keep things clear. I think it would make for a fantastic full-cast audiobook. All of the characters were interesting (a couple of them were less likeable, for balance), the action is fast, the world-building intriguing and original. There’s a fair amount of violence and realistic looks at PTSD, though the sexual content doesn’t get much more explicit than kisses. I was expecting to have to wait for the next book, Hostage, but it’s out already! I shall have to put in a request for it.
I’m now racking my brains for similar titles, and am failing to come up with anything that feels similar. Maybe teens who enjoyed Tony DiTerlizzi’s Wond-La books when they were younger, and definitely fans of high-action epics with a sense of humor, both teens and adults.