Overlooked YA Gems

First of all, I’d just like to apologize for the lack of updates! Work has been crazy, and in between that I’ve been racing to pound out a rewrite on my novel for the annual NOHSCBWI (Northern Ohio Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, a.k.a. “no-squibee”) Conference later this month. Now that that’s done with, I’ve finally got a minute to finish this latest blog post.

Yay!

Okay, so, just speaking in terms of books that are under the radar not just in part because there is no existing film franchise–although whether you like to admit it or not, it can be a BIG red flag indicator of a book’s or book series’ popularity, or at the very least can be a marketing strategy as far as boosting book sales are concerned–but also in part because there is no, or there is lack of a combination of (that I can see as someone who unfortunately doesn’t has time or financial means to get out all that much) heavily surfaced fanbase in anything from merchandise (there’re those evil corporations again!), Internet fora, cosplaying, fanfiction, fan art, and the like–these are books that for the most part, are (probably) overlooked by most people in the ever-growing genre of YA fiction (thank you J.K. Rowling).

Basically what I’m saying is that if I were to mention, say, The Hunger Games or Twilight to someone who doesn’t generally follow literary circles and the like, they’d very likely know what I was talking about (and even in some cases, unfortunately, more by the movies than the books–duh). But if I mentioned a gem like any of the books from Melina Marchetta’s The Chronicles of Lumatere trilogy, most people would probably be like, “Huh? Chronicles of What?” And I have to quote Alan Rickman’s Metatron from Dogma on this, because it is, undeniably, somewhat true: “You people. If there isn’t a movie about it, it’s not worth knowing, is it?”

This past year I’ve been brushing up on my YA as usual to keep up with what’s trending and what’s not to to see if some gems emerge. And emerge they did in some of what I consider to be overlooked ones at that. The four I came across I will list in order of awesomeness, saving the awesomest for last naturally, in relation to how much they manage to permeate in the average reading circle to the ratio of how much they give me ALL THE FEELS while reading them.

They are: 1) Beautiful Creatures, Book #1 in The Caster Chronicles by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (yes, I know this was recently made into a film, but I will explain why it’s on this list), 2) Watersmeet by Ellen Jensen Abbott, 3) Pure, Book #1 of The Pure Trilogy by Julianna Baggott, (there are info bits floating around the Net though that Fox2000 has bought the film rights for this recently, however this has not been confirmed by any sort of entry on IMDB) and 4) Finnikin of the Rock, Book #1 in The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

4) Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures Movie

Personally, I’d like to call this the “feminist answer to the Twilight series”. Lena Duchannes, the romantic heroine in this book, is a thousand times better than Bella Swan will ever be, and trust me, even in if it were a Vampire Bella vs. as-yet-Unclaimed Lena Duchannes duel, Lena would knock Bella flat (“bolt of lightning, boom you’re fried”).

As far as this being overlooked, yes, there was a film adaptation made about it, but unfortunately, as I understand it, it wasn’t enough of a box office success that I don’t think it’ll warrant film adaptations of the remaining three books in the saga. Which is a shame because Lena’s character is so much stronger on the page than Bella’s is, and yet Bella’s series is the one that’s the hit. What will become of girls who take Bella as a role model seriously? Argh.

Not only that, but Beautiful Creatures wins in other ways: in Beautiful Creatures Lena’s supernatural family is way more badass and (ahem) supernatural than Edward Cullen’s is, and the stakes are bigger too: the town of Gatlin’s pushed on the path of a literal witch hunt in addition to (SPOILER) Lena’s own dark mother trying to kill her, while  in Twilight some random vampire decides out of nowhere to eat Bella while the town of Forks is blissfully unaware of vampires (even though the Quileutes are aware of them more or less) living among them.

Actually, if Lena were to assemble vampire allies, she’d probably want someone like Benjamin, who could control the elements, since she is, after all, a type of Caster called a “Natural”, which is a Caster that can basically call the powers of Nature to her command (hell yeah). And I still stand by the fact that I’d’ve rather read stories about Benjamin, or about the life and romance between Garrett and Kate, or even Alice and Jasper, that (ugh) Bella and Edward.

But I digress.

Since the film adaptation didn’t do so well though, it’ll probably go the way of Eragon and go on without franchise notoriety. Which is a pity only in that the series with the better female role model will likely go less revered than the one that puts feminism to shame.

Which I think says something about where things are headed in terms of what some teens think they want to read, what some authors think they want to read, and what results in how teenage girls think love and relationships realistically work, and other things that relate to great strides in feminism.

Actually, it’s more than that: Stephanie Meyer’s intention was in fact to have a strong heroine in Bella, and yet Edward constantly has to save her, and when he lies to her and leaves to “protect her”, she mopes like clearly there’s no point in living without him, and when he comes back into her life, rather than give him the beating he deserves (even if she would break her fist doing it) she takes him back without the slightest reprimand to his reprehensible behavior. Argh. 

Meanwhile, Lena tries to push Ethan away, and yes for the same reason Edward tries to push away Bella, but where Twilight fails in making the stakes of their staying together as big as the stakes of their being apart, Beautiful Creatures does: their love isn’t just forbidden because she’s supernatural and he’s not, it’s forbidden because their families in a sense, and even more so, the town of Gatlin, try to tear them apart. In Bella and Edward’s relationship, Edward is the only one who does anything to try and tear them apart. Yeah, there’s the Volturi, but they wouldn’t be a problem if Edward would just get over himself and turn Bella into a fucking vampire. Lena can’t bite Ethan and turn him into a Caster, so that’s a divide that can’t technically be fixed, but Edward’s problem is he just whines about Bella’s immortal soul, blah, blah, blah, and ugh, I get the idea of it, but Meyer very poorly executed it. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have it too, but they got the balance of it right, treating their main couple as equals, who have to help each other to survive.

With the movie having done so poorly at the box office though,  Beautiful Creatures, as I said, probably won’t achieve franchise status and probably fall into the woodwork. So thank you, Hollywood, and thank you to all who made it possible to let something like this happen, brainwashing minds into thinking Twilight is such a golden story. Now, no, Beautiful Creatures isn’t a golden story either, not like Harry Potter (lol, they both have magic-wielders) but in terms of metals, I’d put Beautiful Creatures at at least a bronze caliber, while I’d put Twilight at a green rusted copper status.

3) Pure

pure-e1328573832984

In keeping with the current dalliance with dystopian fiction courtesy of the popularity of The Hunger Games, many other books have sprung up trying to give their own interpretation of the sucky future we’re going to have and how it’s going to be up to teenagers packing heat to save us.

Some I will mention honorably (only because I haven’t read them) include the Divergent books by Veronica Roth (soon to have its own film debut), the Delirium Trilogy by Lauren Oliver, and the Eve Trilogy by Anna Carey, as well as the Gone Series by Michael Grant.

But this about Pure by Julianna Baggott, the first in a trilogy of it’s own. This one I bring up because I’ve actually read it–and for how much dystopian novels have the tendency leave me depressed (I wanted to THROW the book when Finnick got the axe in Mockingjay, lamenting, “Argh! It’s Lupin and Tonks all over again!”), I’m glad I decided to read this simply for the poetry of the language Abbott uses to describe her vision of that sucky future that gun-wielding teens will have to save.

But that’s what I like about it, not just for it’s grittiness and it’s beauty easily flowing together, but it’s underlying statement about the consequences of war, and what it means for the children who inherit the world having to survive in the destruction brought on by their parents. And that’s done with such realism–Pressia gets roped into a rebel army, a rebel army that acts more like an organized, militarized street gang, and she’s taught to use a gun, and meanwhile, things inside the Dome aren’t as rosy as the people outside think, but rather something dark and sinister to those inside too, all on it’s own. There isn’t a monism to the darkness, but darkness coming from different angles, as well as coming from inside people as well as without, in the harsh and cruel environment created by “the detonations” and that which the Dome is trying to create in its idea of a “perfect human race”.

I’ve read rumors that Fox2000 has bought the film rights to this, but the thing I’m concerned about is that, again, the movie might not do so well at the box office, because the story isn’t about beautiful teenagers who fall in love–though there isn’t a lack of a romance in this book, in fact there are two romances blooming with hints at a third amour from the past–but many of the characters are drawn realistically: they’re not perfect, especially those who live outside the protection of the Dome, which gave everyone on the inside protection from the effects of the detonations that took place years before and created this nightmare world. Those who didn’t make it into the dome were mutated, fused with objects they were in contact with during the blasts from the detonations, if they managed to survive at all. For instance, the main heroine, Pressia, was holding a doll when it happened and now her one hand’s been fused to a doll’s head, so that she has a “doll’s head fist” that’s now a part of her and would be like cutting off her actual hand if it were surgically removed.

Now the people inside the Dome are “pure” but they’re realistically drawn too, there’s no glorifying of anyone’s physique (we should leave that to worlds that contain sexy anime guys). Protected from the effects of the detonations, they have no mutations, and are in fact a little beautified in that they’re working to genetically cultivate “the perfect human”. While the main character Pressia is imagining that life in the Dome is a continuation of the way things used to be according to an advert from that world which suggests everything we associate with normality, the truth of it is that life in the Dome, while not openly harsh, is very much sinister. Here we come across the other main character, Partridge. His father, one of the bigwigs of the Dome, has fed him the story that his mother died while trying to save people from the detonations, and is hailed as a martyr. His older brother, Sage, was a golden boy who took to all of the genetic conditioning very well, while Partridge has difficulty with it. Later however he finds out that his mother might not be as dead as he thought, and in fact the reason he has such trouble with the genetic conditioning could be because of efforts his mother took to protect him from it before she disappeared.

Disillusioned by what his father is becoming (and it’s clear that the effect of genetic conditioning on his father is not exactly a good thing) and what his father might have done in the past, Partridge breaks out of the Dome and stumbles across Pressia while rumors go around that there’s a “Pure” running loose.

And there are a whole lot of other things going on: there’s a nursery rhyme among the “wretches” who live outside the Dome that powers of purity can be obtained by partaking in a Pure (making the bones of one into soap and washing with it, that sort of thing), and there are characters who, like Pressia and Partridge, are beautifully drawn with both darkness and light: a boy who’s body was fused with a flock of birds and now has their wings fluttering out of his back, a leader of the rebel army who was fused with his younger brother on his back and who’s job it is to train the new recruits, a girl in the Dome who’s targeted and put in an insane asylum for girls after Partridge’s escape because she was seen associating with him, and there are creatures called “dusts” that come up out of the desert wastelands and snatch people and drag them down into the ground to their deaths, there’s a clan of women who used to be housewives who are now fused to their children who will now never grow up and have become nothing more than strange growths on their mother’s bodies, and among all this is a world composed of all what would be left behind from the one we know now if that world was shattered into a million pieces and then clumsily rebuilt.

Needless to say, it’s a complex and very well-drawn world, that has one of the best characteristics I like to find in worlds, one that’s harsh and ugly but there is somehow a beauty to it regardless. And I would love if indeed this trilogy of books, The Pure Trilogy, would make the franchise mark if only because the message would serve as an excellent cautionary tale, one of those well-told commentaries on the environment and on the waste and consequence of violence and war, not to mention the issue of eugenics, which has been an issue in the past but has never been as extreme as this as of yet. But it could be. And the reason it’s well-told is because it doesn’t hammer it in preachily. Like with many of the films of renowned Japanese storyteller and animator Hayao Miyazaki, the situation tells the story, the story doesn’t tell the situation. So we don’t feel like it’s yelling at us and telling us what horrible creatures we humans are (not so much anyway), it’s just a story that draws on what can be very true about us as a species, particularly in the case of grownups screwing up the world and the next generation having to clean up the mess. It’s what I like best about the YA genre, one of the best tools it has to offer literature, and these are the kinds of stories I want to tell.

2) Watersmeet

Watersmeet-4j

Actually, this one and Pure kind of tie for two, but I’ve put it above Pure mainly because I did actually want to read this just for myself whereas with Pure I read it mainly for quality assurance before giving it as a birthday present and ended up liking it and appreciating the story it was telling. But I came across this one while trying to write my supernatural/speculative fic YA novel in the library, and noticing it sitting on the shelf from where I sat at one of the tables, it seemed like something I ought to read in relation to the subject matter I myself was trying to tackle–the search for a missing parent, moral ideas about man vs. nature (and should there even be a vs?), that sort of thing. And I ate the book up from the second my reading brain recognized that this story was something well-written with real emotion-evoking passages. It’s the good old kind of fantasy world that has dystopian elements weaved in very well, a society that’s hugely flawed in its religious radicalism, which involves outcasting anyone who deviates from what’s considered to be the “perfect image”. Again, like Pure, but sort of…pre-eugenics eugenics. Ahem.

So what’s the story here? Well, there’s this fantastic world built on this belief that a sort of god-man named Vran freed humans from the horrors of things like dwarves, centaurs, fauns, fairies, and other creatures considered to be low simply because not only are they not human, but not humans who bear the likeness of Vran himself,  a golden-haired blue-eyed Adonis. The focus begins on one particular village in this land called Vranille, where like in other villages, anyone who doesn’t fit the ideal image of Vran (fair hair, fair skin) is an outcast, along with anyone who has a deficiency, like a lame leg or some other injury or imperfection or blemish. The elders and leaders of the village claim charity, like they take in and care for those who have a lame leg, or are mentally impaired, but underneath there’s a dark disdain for them that made me sick with anger at the hypocrisy of it. The outcasts are treated as less-than-second-class citizens–actually they’re treated as less-than-human–and if someone does happen to possess the ideal image of fair hair, fair skin and the like, but gets some sort of horrible injury, they’re immediately outcast. There is one character I can’t stand in particular, again because there’s a bit of hypocrisy, and that’s this one girl who’s actually an orphan but because she’s one of the most perfect examples of what’s considered the ideal image, the image of Vran, she manages to avoid the status of outcast, and in turn, she uses what power she has over those who are outcast to her fullest advantage, bullying and abusing girls like our heroine, Abisina.

Now Abisina, well she’s simply an outcast because she’s dark-skinned, dark-haired, and green-eyed, the opposite of what’s ideal. That and her parentage is questionable in that nobody knows who her father is. Her mother, Sina, is the village healer though, so Abisina is somewhat protected. But that all changes when this sort of nobleman I suppose you’d call him named Caratch come to the village, and incites a mob-fest igniting a passion in all those who aren’t outcast to round up those who are and burn them to purify their village. That in turn will please the god-man Vran and will solve all of their problems–end the famine and drought, and drive away all of the demonic centaurs and dwarves and other vermin. Fueled by their desperation, the villagers take up the cry without a second thought and all hell breaks loose in the village. Sina manages to get Abisina out of the village, urging her to seek out the father she never knew, but she herself is captured by the mob and Abisina learns after all the blood-lust in the village is quelled that she was burned along with all of the other outcasts, leaving behind only her necklace–a gift to her from Abisina’s father, and a tool she can use to find him.

She’s eventually taken in from her wanderings by a dwarf and his grandmother. The grandmother dwarf takes pity on her, but the dwarf understandably is suspicious after the way humans treat dwarves in general. At first Abisina is distrustful too, but after some time with the dwarves, she comes to realize they’re not what the people in her village considered them to be. Eventually, the dwarf accompanies Abisina on her journey to find her father, who is said to lead a group of people who live in a hidden place called Watersmeet, a home of creatures who commune with each other and the earth, and no one is an outcast, where trees grow great and huge at the meeting of three great rivers, hence the name. On their journey, Abisina and the dwarf encounter obstacles that include an unfortunate run-in with a band of centaurs that are indeed quite monstrous and attempt to do Abisina mischief.

But at last they reach Watersmeet, and Abisina is reunited with her father, and though she’s forced to undergo a little character arc of her own, she eventually overcomes prejudices she grew up with along with everyone else in the village of Vranille, and takes her place as her father’s daughter when they’re drawn into a conflict against the sinister Caratch, who is more monster than anything else, and all those who believe Vran is a savior, rather than a root of evil, as he truly is.

Like Pure, there’s a lot of application to our world today here–prejudice, tolerance, and again the relationship of man and nature, including what it means to subscribe to human arrogance, among other things. And again, the world created is solid, and speaks to the escape I used to enjoy as a child, an escape to a world other than my own, and a story that like Pure and Beautiful Creatures, features a heroine with a measure of her own strength, and at the very least is interesting to read about, involved in the turmoil of a story rife with emotional upheavals and real characters who feel real things. It can take itself seriously, without being silly about it, which is something that can happen if a story in a magical realm isn’t told very well.

The only reason I put this at second is that it doesn’t quite reach the emotional zenith that the number one book next comes up with. It certainly has it, don’t get me wrong, but the next book brings it to a whole new level, where no one is entirely good or bad–in fact where the entire story is about conflict as a natural state of humanity, and what it means for people to be confronted with their flaws in the face of adversity. Watersmeet certainly has it, and there is certainly raw pain as well as raw joy, but this next book is not so much magical because of a population of fauns and fairies and other sorts of fantasy creatures, but magical because of the mysticism and mysteries of human existence itself that are explored.

1) Finnikin of the Rock

finnikin-of-the-rock

This book, I was feeling ALL THE FEELS (there it is!)–I mean when I got to a scene early on in the book that had me choking back tears (already), I knew I’d found a veritable diamond. From the very beginning the story is set up to lead the reader into sympathizing with the characters, but like real people, none of these characters are perfect. Some are a little better ethically than most, but again all the decisions are made based on what humans would do naturally, based on human ramifications. And just when I’m frustrated to my core with a character I’m rooting for because I can see how stupid or blind or flawed their actions are, they manage to bring me back with the good in them that shines through, if not always in the most conventional way, that proves that deep down they’re still human beings, and they’re just trying to make the best of their awful situations.

The villainy in this book is mostly how these characters are pitted against each other by simple human vices. Save for a few characters, no one is purely evil or purely plotting to commit evil. That and those who are just awful people, they’re never given any “screen time” to speak of, or at least we’re never invited into anything like an explanation of an evil plot (which is not something I would necessarily omit, if I knew what I were doing with the material, but it’s definitely something I noticed). We just hear about how terrible they are, and then they’re disposed of or dealt with while those who survive are left to do what they can to manage living in a damaged world.

In this first book in The Chronicles of Lumatere Trilogy, the story is about a boy named Finnikin in a kingdom called Lumatere in a made-up world called Skuldenore. A very subtle dark magic tears apart his idyllic childhood with his father and best friends the Prince Balthazar and the Prince’s cousin Lucian, forcing half the people of Lumatere into exile and the other half trapped inside with an imposter king who took the throne by slaughtering the entire royal family, but not before raping the true king’s daughters–yes, there is rape in this book. Marchetta certainly doesn’t talk down to her young adult audience.

While Finnikin’s father, the dashing captain of the king’s guard, is locked up in a foreign prison for refusing to bow to the imposter king, Finnikin and his mentor the king’s former First Man, are called upon to take charge of a mysterious girl named Evanjalin who claims to be able to lead them to Prince Balthazar–a girl who “walks the sleep” of the Lumaterans who didn’t make it out of their kingdom when the imposter king took power, and is on a mission to bring justice to the enemies of the Lumateran people. The reason those who didn’t make it are trapped is because there’s a curse on Lumatere that’s foretold to be broken, and meanwhile those who got out of the kingdom and are in exile are treated like animals in some places as those who were not born into nobility wander in droves without a land to call their own, often dying of terrible fevers and famine. But with this girl, Finnikin is drawn into taking his place among the stories of his people even as he records them in his book, the Book of Lumatere. After facing dangers to free his father and reunite him with the exiled King’s Guard, a chain reaction is begun to unite the exiles of Lumatere and take back the kingdom from the imposter king. And the imposter king we never meet, we only hear about the cruelty his soldiers force on those trapped within the cursed kingdom’s walls through what Evanjalin reports after walking the sleep of the people trapped inside.

There’s a lot more going on here, but I’d have to practically rewrite the novel to go through it all. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on, and I like that the focus is about the people dealing with the darkness in their world, rather than a simple good vs evil. Now, while I write stuff that does have that sort of conflict, I want to be able to incorporate stuff like this in my work too, because it is so gripping. I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, Froi of the Exiles, which focuses more on a side character in the first book, a boy Finnikin and Evanjalin come across who starts out as a street urchin but proves himself to be worth more than that and is taken under Finnikin and Evanjalin’s wings. It’s certainly as well written as the first, but if I had to pick a favorite so far (even though it’s still early in the game) I’d pick Finnikin. I love his story, I love his desperate search for his father and his need to reconnect with him, I love the depth of love he develops for Evanjalin, and I love that no matter what all these characters do that isn’t quite okay, they’re just trying to survive. Evanjalin’s story is fascinating too, and inspiring, though even she too isn’t quite perfect, and I don’t always entirely agree with her, but I understand where she comes from, and that she’s just trying to shoulder a burden that wasn’t meant to fall on her but did, and for what it is, she handles it beautifully and without complaint.

Now for those of you who have read Marchetta’s debut fantasy trilogy, I will touch the on subject concerning what she had to say about her books being made into films (which was basically that she wouldn’t), per an article from Hypable.com. Basically it isn’t that she was against the idea of it ever being on screen, it’s just that there’s so much to her story that trying to cram it into one two- or three-hour movie would be an injustice to the original material because, as with most film adaptations of novels, much is lost, and there is a lot going on, as I’ve said before. She would however be completely open to the story being adapted into a TV mini-series (you know, like Stephen King, lol). But that way less would be lost, as opposed to more.

And I can see her point. There are a lot of things that would be lost in translation to a theatrical release film version of these books, and wouldn’t do the books any credit or justice (*cough, cough* Eragon). But on the other hand, I have my doubts that it would get pulled off, only because I’m not aware of any fan hype to have these books made into a live action mini-series (but PLEASE prove me wrong!). Me personally, I’d actually love to see it as an anime. Something like the Tales from Earthsea adaptation by Goro Miyazaki (yes, that’s the son of Hiyao Miyazaki) based on the books by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Oh yeah, I'd be up for an anime version, if all the guys were this hot. Yeah. I'm not afraid to admit that. :3

Oh yeah, I’d be up for an anime version, if all the guys were this sexy. Yeah. I’m not afraid to admit that after all I just said about realistically drawn characters. :3

But we’ll have to see. Fandom for stories like The Hunger Games (Harry Potter goes without saying) gives me some hope.

And after I finish these books off, (as well as Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, ALSO soon to be a film, produced by David Heyman, the same guy who produced the Harry Potter films–Harry Potter fans taking on new projects for the win!), I’ll probably be off to plunder another dystopian book, of which I have the entire trilogy, I just have to read it (ha, ha). The book is Delirium.

200px-Delirium_Sandman

No, not Delirium from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comics. Delirium, by Lauren Oliver (although Delirium from Sandman is awesome).

deliriumlaurenoliver

Now if you love any of these books and happen to know of a wider fan-base than I’m aware of, great! I’m probably not aware of it though, because again it’s something that’s unfortunately slipping under the mainstream radar. That doesn’t mean however that I would not be averse to being a part of the conversation: if there’s a group of rabid Lumatere Chronicles fans that join in cosplaying in the like, I’m totally down with that.

And of course, there’s probably a plethora of other YA gems that aren’t recognized for the gems they are, but these are the ones I know about that I’ve read in the past year and feel deserve more credit than they’re given and am a bit sad that they’re not in favor of stories that really don’t deserve it as much (*cough* Twilight and *cough* The Host–thank you, Stephanie Meyer, and yes, this time, I’m being sarcastic).

But that’s another one of those hard things: is it the story itself, the substance, or all the right “pieces” in all the right places that makes a story sell well (before we even get to the film rights bit?)? And that segues into a preview to my next blog post, in which I bring up the discovery that the writer of the latest crime thriller Cuckoo’s Calling turned out to be J. K. Rowling…

…and suddenly it’s a big hit.

fuck logic i have magic trixie

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