YearsBest2013Edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein and published by Kaleidoscope

As stated in the introduction to this anthology, YA literature – although young in publishing years – has now fully arrived as a thriving and viable market, and  Speculative Fiction in this age bracket, outstrips all other genres for popularity in Film and TV, as well as publishing. Year’s Best, edited by Krasnostein and Rios, celebrates a tremendous breadth of talent and creativity by YA authors. That they have a devoted and growing audience is, I hope, a sign that YA has dug itself in as an industry of the future.

This anthology comprises twenty-one short stories. While pushing the ‘short story’ boundary to encompass everything from flash fiction to novelette, editors Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein have kept a tight ship when it comes to their YA policy. I appreciated their definition (stated as ‘having teen protagonists and relating to teen lives’) given the broad spectrum that the YA classification has come to encompass. Not only does it make perfect sense, it also serves to keep the readership audience close, while still opening doors to different perspectives and experiences appropriate to that age group and mind set.

They have cast a wide net to arrive at this collection, and it’s by no means a cherry-pick from the biggest publishers. Traditional, electronic, and self-published authors are represented and hail from Great Britain, the USA, Europe, Asia, Ireland and Australia. The stories they have written range even further, many taking place in the author’s country of origin. This variety of location adds authenticity to a collection in which diversity of viewpoint is a key theme. The lead characters represent a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities, socio-economic groups, religions, and sexual orientations; and also, because this is Speculative Fiction after all, supernatural, super and quasi-human, and extra-terrestrial.

Although dystopian YA was still the hot ticket in 2013, there is a well-rounded selection of genres and sub-genres here (including a few dystopias, for those of us who are only happy when it rains).

The stories are pitch-perfect as you would expect, given the editors’ guidelines, and you won’t find any cross-over confusion or discomfort. As stated, these are written for teenagers and deal with teen issues and motivations – good, bad, uncomfortable and, most importantly, real. I particularly liked ‘What We Ourselves Are Not’, by Leah Cypess and ‘Persimmon, Teeth, And Boys’, by Steve Berman as examples of this point. Most of the stories contain a subtext relating to, or serving as metaphors for, issues common to this transitional period into adulthood. But these guys do it in style with werewolves, cyborgs, vigilantes, superpowers, and ghosts.

The protagonists take on epic quests, awkward truths, harsh realities, dreams of the future, failed experiments, monstrous desires, and – most confronting of all – their own potential for triumph, failure, good, and evil. These are the modern day folk stories and fairy tales – the monster in the woods, the wolf in granny’s clothing, the dark nature within – complete with morals, cautionary predictions and deft commentaries of human nature. They are thought-provoking, sometimes shocking, and heartfelt. We should give thanks that there are writers who care enough about the adults of the future to craft tales that speak to generations increasingly bereft of guidance.  ‘Mah Song’ by Joanne Anderton was a standout for me as a chilling tale of human nature and the origins of religion and civilisation.

The wealth of themes and mood in these stories – funny, grim, poignant, reflective, and brimming with energy – represent the ever-changing emotions characteristic of the teen years. Some of the stories are so delicate and introspective that they seem to inhabit the moment from one breath to the next. Some burst outwards like the pages of a graphic novel. I think that every reader, though, will find a moment in at least one that will ignite a spark of recognition – a moment of ‘I know exactly how that feels.’

I often caught myself imagining reading this at age fifteen. How would it have changed my view of my own destiny? I imagine having some of these characters to identify with and worlds of possibility opening up to me. This is the beauty of Speculative Fiction stories written for this age group. They grow the imagination like nothing else and lend support to the creation of personal identity.

There is so much to engage, identify with, and entertain in this book that I find it difficult to do it justice in one review. I want to delve into each of the stories and discuss the intricacies, expose the wisdom, and talk at length about the clever use of symbolism and wry humour. But that is for you to discover and appreciate. And I hope that you do.


 PURCHASE YEAR’S BEST from Twelfth Planet Press




wooley_Town-Called-Dust_coverIn this novel, the first of Justin Woolley’s new YA fantasy series, Australia is a very changed place. The cities have been overrun by ghouls and humankind has retreated inward to the Red Centre – the last place most of us would want to have to survive in. The epicentre of this last stand of civilisation is the walled township of Alice, which governs and protects the surrounding farms and smaller townships. Protection comes in the form of a ghoul-busting army – the Diggers – and the care and maintenance of a twelve foot, ghoul-proof fence. Those of you who are grinning already at the twist on some well-known references will enjoy what else is in store.

Dust is one of a few townships that lie on the very edges of this boundary. Like outback towns of old, it functions as a marketplace for the outlying farmers to visit once a month and sell their produce. What sort of produce, apart from livestock, would you be likely to get from a farm in the middle of a desert? Well… dirt, mostly. Enriched dirt, that is and has become a very precious commodity.

Once again proving the tenacity of the human race, the Dirt Farmers of Alice have managed to scrape a viable living from enriching the soil itself with fertiliser and selling it in volume to crop growers. It is on one such farm that we meet Squid Blanchflower, a timid orphan boy who has grown to the age of sixteen under the ‘care’ of his Aunt and Uncle on their dirt farm. Squid has known nothing but hard work and hard treatment since he can first remember. Despite this, he is a thoughtful young man with a hunger for knowledge, whose largest dream is to be allowed to study at the local school.

Back in the bustling centre of Alice, Lynnette is also struggling with unreachable dreams for her future. But where Squid has nothing, Lynn has it all. The only daughter of Colonel Hermannsburg, chief military advisor to the Administration and a widower, she has all of the education, food and comforts she could ever want. And yet all she craves is a life in the army, the one doorway permanently closed to her by the rules of society. To add to her frustration, her adopted brother has just been sworn in to the Diggers after graduating from training with distinction. After spending every spare moment secretly teaching herself swordcraft and tactics, the injustice is nearly more than she can bear. But girls do not become Diggers, just as dirt farmers do not become scholars.

Fortunately for Lynn, she has inherited a headstrong, stubborn nature from her mother. Fortunately for Squid, he has the gift of intelligence because a tidal wave of events are about to shatter his small world and lift him to heights he could never have imagined.

A breach has been made in the ghoul-proof fence and a horde of thirsty monsters are lurching across the desert towards humanity. Alice is prepared – they have been training generations of Diggers to defend against just such a threat – but a power struggle between Church and State leads to rash decisions. Some see this crisis as an opportunity for personal glory, others as a chance to seize absolute power.

In Dust, Justin Woolley has given readers a grand old tale with a distinctly modern twist. It’s a very entertaining mash-up of an adventure, an epic fantasy with a Wild West/Steampunk flair, and also zombies. I really liked the frontier-town styling of Alice, and the idea of central Australia as a last bastion of humanity. The addition of medieval religious zealotry and hint at historic human folly having been the root of this battle for survival, make it all the more interesting. There is some very imaginative and successful world-building here and more than a few enjoyable surprises.

I found this to be one of those stories that sneaks up on you. It begins fairly simply down a well-trodden path, introducing original elements along the way, and it would be easy to say it was going to be straightforward and predictable. The story may hold familiar elements for readers of the genre, but that is far from all that there is here. The author has done a great job of gradually layering his story, extending it downwards and outwards until there is a very complex structure on which to hang the adventures of Squid and Lynn. He has achieved this also with an economy of words, great chapter length, and pacing that really rips along.

Both of the central characters were engaging, and their personalities complemented each other without being too obvious. Their back-stories were intriguing and the revelations were well-paced right up to the end. The ghouls were appropriately repulsive and frightening. The violence was gruesome where sensible, for a zombie story, but not excessive. I honestly can’t tell anymore what is considered age-appropriate levels of violence. As a guide, though, I consider this to be mid-level in terms of graphic descriptions.

I was genuinely disappointed when this story ended because the clever devil had gotten me in, and I am looking forward to the next instalment, ‘A Town Called Smoke’.

de la cruz-frozenFrozen is the first in a new dystopian fantasy series, co-written by the hugely popular Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston. It’s a bit of a genre-splice, featuring a blend of dystopia, fantasy, and dragons with a drop of mysticism thrown in for good measure. Fans of any of these themes will find something to entertain them here.

This story takes place in a future America, ravaged by wars and an ecological disaster that has left the land masses of earth blanketed in ice. Heat and food have become the chief commodities and survival is managed by martial law. The citizens have carved out a harsh and meagre life in what is left of the cities, sequestered from the rest of the country by perimeter barriers and armed guards. The wastelands beyond are frozen garbage dumps populated by scavengers, hungry wildlife and monsters.

Nat is living incognito in New Vegas, which has survived to become a frontier town with all of the associated vice and violence. To the casual observer, she is just another croupier in one of the larger casinos but beneath the disguise she belongs to a small percentage of people who carry the ‘mark’, a physical indicator which has led to persecution and flight. This genetic abnormality is much more than a mark on the skin, carrying with it strange abilities which link the group to a mysterious higher power. Nat experiences this as a voice in her head that guides her actions, urging her to embark on a journey that will unite them.

It was this voice that enabled her escape from prison and directed her to her current employment. The owner of this particular casino has something the voice wants, something that will aid her in the journey to find her people. Once Nat acquires it, she is advised to hire a group of mercenaries who keep themselves from starvation by performing dubious services. Together, led in secret by Nat’s inner guide, they set out on a perilous voyage to find ‘The Blue’, a legendary place of salvation which many pilgrims seek but none have so far found. It is here that Nat will discover that her destiny holds implications for the human race, earth and much more.

Readers of fantasy adventure should feel right at home with Frozen. Despite the weighty-sounding subject matter, I found it to be a light, easy to read story that just skims the surface. A ‘don’t think too hard’ book where everything makes sense, sort of, and follows a path of exposition without delving too deeply into anything.

I must admit that I found it difficult to care much about any of the characters. For my taste, they were a bit stereotyped. Of course, stereotypes and archetypes serve their purpose, but I prefer new slants on, and explorations of, characters. I was disappointed that I found exactly the same people here as I would in many long-running sci-fi adventure series: the damaged and special heroine, the tough guy with a sensitive interior, the rag-tag group of mercenaries – a couple with hearts of gold, a red shirt and a couple who are beyond redemption. Having said that, some readers will find this comforting and enjoy it all the more for that familiarity; or maybe, they’ll be discovering these character types for the first time.

Frozen is certainly appropriate for a YA readership but probably not for the Middle Reader edge of that range, and I am certain that there will be an instant audience for the series. I have not read any other of Melissa de la Cruz’s books, but I see that they are many and all of the supernatural variety, so this new series will not disappoint her many fans and probably win her some more.

Look out for the follow-up, ‘Stolen’, which is being released in the Northern Hemisphere in Spring 2015.

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