Who’s a Hero? Who’s a Villain? It’s Anyone’s Guess in This Fall’s Best Y.A. Fantasy

Who’s a Hero? Who’s a Villain? It’s Anyone’s Guess in This Fall’s Best Y.A. Fantasy


As always, Diana’s interactions with the Western world are a good time (“Is Google one of your gods?” she asks). And it’s lovely that this is a hero’s journey times two. Alia taps into her own bravery and Diana learns about sexism, racism and something the Amazons have always dismissed: the courage, resilience and ingenuity of mere mortals.

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RELEASE
By Patrick Ness
277 pp. HarperTeen. $17.99.
(Ages 14 and up)

Every sentence in this gorgeous little novel feels perfect and necessary. Ness, a Carnegie Medal winner, has said that “Release” is influenced by two classics: Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” and Judy Blume’s “Forever.” (I know, right?) The book has the structure of the former — a vast amount of emotional action packed into a single day — and the hyperintensity, sexual heat and empathy for teenagers of the latter. Adam Thorn is 17 and gay, a conservative preacher’s son trapped in rural Washington State. He wants to love and be loved, and he wants to feel understood. He picks up a rose at a flower shop (who will he give it to? His best friend, Angela? His ex, Enzo? His current boyfriend, Linus?) and pricks his thumb … and as the drop of blood falls we’re suddenly in a different world. There’s a Queen, a faun, a vengeful spirit, a murder and a sense of encroaching doom.

The action switches back and forth between the two worlds, both filled with grief and loss and mistakes. Gradually, it becomes clear that both narratives are about the power of a single moment to change everything. It sounds heavy, but it isn’t — Adam and his friends are very funny, and seeing flawed characters trying their hardest to forgive and to grow is truly touching. Also, the sex scenes are so hot they practically set the pages on fire. Ness’s writing is lush without seeming to strain: A bad boyfriend is “all neck and rage,” Mount Rainier at sunset turns “an unseemly, intimate pink.” In an era when young adult books often feel bloated and meandering, this focused, humane book is a joy.

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IN OTHER LANDS
By Sarah Rees Brennan
437 pp. Big Mouth House. $19.95.
(Ages 14 and up)

“In Other Lands” is at once a classic school story, a coming-of-age tale and a parody of Harry Potter. It’s hilarious and sneakily moving. Elliot Schafer is Harry Potter if Harry had been abandoned instead of merely orphaned. Convinced of his unlovability, he wields sarcasm and braininess as weapons.

As the book opens, Elliot is 13. On a field trip to Devon, England, he sees a wall few other kids can see. On the other side: the otherlands. Elliot, a huge reader of fantasy novels, is thrilled. Alas, the humans and harpies and trolls and elves and mermaids and vicious red-eyed, virginity-obsessed unicorns populating the otherlands turn out to be perpetually at war, and Elliot is a pacifist. “Oh no,” he moans, as a dagger flies by his head. “This is magic Sparta.” But he has no reason to go home, so he enters the Border camp’s councilor-in-training program. And he makes two non-nerd friends: A gorgeous elf named Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle and a perfect-seeming blond human jock.

Brennan subverts the familiar Y.A. love triangle in uproarious, touching, unexpected ways, and her commentaries on gender roles, sexual identity and toxic masculinity are very witty. Elven culture, for instance, views men as the weaker sex. “A true gentleman’s heart is as sacred as a temple, and as easily crushed as a flower,” Serene informs Elliot. When another elf tells him, “I was saddened to hear Serene had launched a successful attack on the citadel of your virtue,” Elliot assures her, “The citadel was totally into surrendering.” Best of all, over four years in the otherlands, Elliot grows from a defensive, furious, grieving child into a diplomatic, kind, menschy hero.

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