I was reminded of the controversy surrounding this title in its infancy when I happened upon a Big Idea article about it last month. I'm pretty sure the authors are quite tired of the novel being tied to the someone-asked-us-to-change-our-gay-characters tempest, so I won't go into it all over again: they said no, they sold the novel anyway, they rode off into the sunset: /end trans.
What hasn't been said as frequently about this novel is how unexpectedly generous toward the future it is, in some respects. Racial hostilities are all but forgotten. Species hostilities - well. Something new to obsess over is just human nature. Telekinetic squirrels, cute fuzzy pets which prove disastrous, and all-age involvement in community protection is an interesting addition. Kirkus joked that this new subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction could be called uptopian dystopia. A complex, thoughtful book, it's not quite all good-feels and happy endings -- the novel opens with someone running for his life...
Summary: This novel's focus is split among five narrative voices. The novel opens with a prospector, Ross, running for his life, trying to find shelter a dude shooting at him plus blood-sucking trees. This post-apocalyptic Las Anclas - possibly once Los Angeles, but now "the anchor," ostensibly to hold onto the last fraying vestiges of society - is now the world of Mia Lee, Felicite Wolfe, Ross Juarez, Jennie Riley, and Yuki Nakamura - all young people with different desires and yearnings and frustrations and hopes and fears, who live and work in, feel responsible for and crushed by their big-little village-outpost-town. Las Anclas is hard to explain, nearly impossible to find, and difficult to leave. An engaging, new-things-per-page, indulgent read that will set up a fun quartet of books for readers who are ready for something different and well sick of the Hopeless Dark Future thing dystopia has been selling.
Peaks: New Things Per Page: there are TONS. I read this in two sittings, over meals, and my food went ice cold each time, as I neglected to eat while blinking over chiming trees, telekinetically thieving squirrels (JUST. IMAGINE. THE. HORROR.), a doctor who warps time (Cue Dr. Who theme), furred...protosnakes, goat cheese kimchee, antlered horses... the list goes on. The Change has wrought a TON o' weird in the former U.S. Further goodness is found in the diversity of the characters - of size, sexualities, ethnicities - the people are varied and rich in description and stereotypes are faint memories - somehow, Future Wild West LA is way cooler than Present-Day Urban LA.
The novel is peripherally about open prejudice vs. the serene, chiming words in the foreground, wish-I-could-gut-you in the background kind that I used to call "genteel prejudice" when I was in college. There's a clash against our own brains when we indulge in that kind, and it's going to hurt someone, somewhere in the course of these four books. It's just introduced in this first section, but I can feel the portent. Sometimes, the worst thing in the world is a polite racist...er, species-ist...
Relationships are complex in this novel - and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by them.
Valleys: The first and most problematic issue of the novel for me is an issue I have repeatedly with post-apocalyptic narrative - and which may be answered in the ensuing three novels of this series, and I'm content to wait for it -- but it's that pesky WHY? factor. Why has apocalypse imploded the world? What scientific goof caused The Change? How long into the future is this novel projected? For all that the novel is extremely, extremely detailed, with sometimes overly dense passages describing things, this information is not really explored. As I said, it may come later; despite its completed story arc - it does finish reasonably well - it was still kind of a set-up novel.
There are five narrative voices that each have their own font. While this wasn't much more than a minor disruptive thing for me, for at least a couple of other readers I've talked to HATED IT, and it threw them out of the narrative each time. Be forewarned if that sort of thing annoys you, and be prepared to read through anyway.
The novel felt uneven in some ways to me - sometimes the characterization and character motivation was tight and clear, other times I felt I was wading through murkiness. There is just SO MUCH going on that the authors seemed to lose track of the reader at times. Having this ONE novel spread out between a pair of books might have made it easier for me to clearly see each character and actually feel them - and feel for them. I liked both Jennie and Mia, but wasn't sure how I should relate to them, partially because most of the time experiences in books are binary - someone must win, someone must lose. These two girls are attracted to the new boy, and no one has to lose, exactly, not at this point, anyway. That's both a good thing, but an enigmatic, ambivalent, maybe-let's-not-come-to-a-conclusion-on-this bad thing as well.
As previously mentioned, I struggled with character motivations - the bad guys at times felt like paper villains while at the same time the plot seems to be asking us to have sympathy for them and understand their fears and actions. Again, I'm just more accustomed to more specific and defined tropes and want to go for the easy route - white hats, good guys, black hats, bad guys. You won't find that ease here.
Finally, I have a hard time buying that suddenly in the amorphous, post-apocalyptic future, racial divides and hostilities will be discarded in favor of ...species divides. The Change is a massive and disruptive force upon the world, and when we're all working on saying "It" and "Not It" about a thing which divides us, the subdivisions seem even more important, to my mind, not less. I could be wrong.
Conclusion: The YA novel narrative conceit "Mysterious new boy comes to town," is such a worn and hoary trope that it was a little shocking to find a novel which not only exploits it, but even titles the novel STRANGER to make sure and bop the reader over the head with it. Yet, despite its slightly uneven execution, which left a few things untied at its conclusion, this novel took the worn trope and turned it on its head. Whatever my mild confusions or objections, none of these drawbacks prevented me from buying the sequel, which tells you pretty much all you need to know. Jump on it; the sequel's already out.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of my local public library. You can find STRANGER by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!