Speculative Fiction that Surprised Me
Recently, I've had the good fortune to read speculative fiction that surprised me. Why did these books leave me gaping? Honestly, at how good they were.
In addition to falling within speculative fiction's broad brush, the novels are all YA, have been nominated for major awards, all have adaptations to television/movies in the works, and two have won awards.
Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders
I was blown away by how good this book is. It reminds me of the original Star Trek with its optimism and inclusiveness. The original Star Trek moved the boundaries of inclusion by featuring a Black woman and an Asian man in starring roles as officers in Starfleet. Charlie Jane Anders does something similar with the sheer diversity of her characters in ethnic origin, neurodiversity, and LGBTQA+ identification. This is done brilliantly in a manner that is in your face, lighthearted, touching, and nuanced. Even more impressive, all this is accomplished without sacrificing the yarn's sci-fi suave.
The protagonist is Tina, a teenage girl destined to transform into an alien superhero. While this is an obvious metaphor for transitioning, Anders handles the subject with such aplomb it adds to the overall sense of fantastical adventure thrumming through the novel. This and other explorations of identity and purpose add interest and gravitas to the story without impacting its good-natured lightheartedness.
The other week I finished book 2 in the series, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak. While considerably darker than its predecessor, it is an exciting story full of diverse characters who will win your heart and mind. I can hardly wait for book 3, Promises Stronger Than Darkness.
Clown in a Cornfield by Adam Cesare
When I first saw an advertisement on Facebook for this novel, I thought I'll never read a book with such a corny name. Many relentless ads later, I learned the story had won a Bram Stoker Award for best young adult horror. So I figured, what the heck, hokey name or not, I'll give the book a try. I expected an okay read at best. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Hands down, Clown in a Cornfield is one of the best horror novels I've ever read. The protagonist is a likable final girl with a tragic backstory and an equally likable father. Some of the other teenage characters aren't enjoyable at first, but they grow on the reader enough before they get picked off to make you feel sorry when they die. Alongside the horror is a generational conflict between the elder townsfolk and the teens that makes slayings just plausible enough to give the yarn a little extra creep factor.
Cesare has written a sequel called Clown in a Cornfield 2; it's on my TBR.
Scholomance (series) by Naomi Novik
This is a series I almost didn't finish. I found the protagonist, El, insufferable in the first installment. Her constant judgmental bad attitude is just as relentless as the innumerable monsters hunting the teenage students inside the magic school known as the Scholomance. This made for an exhausting read that wasn't particularly satisfying.
However, I picked up the second book on a whim when I saw it available in Libby. El was somewhat toned down in the second installment, more mature. She was still annoying at times but not nearly so exhausting. Being familiar with the inner workings of the Scholomance, I was ready to plow through page after page of plucky student wizards blasting through monsters left and right. Overall, it was a fun read. When I checked out The Golden Enclaves, I expected another fun read. Instead, what I found was an amazingly satisfactory conclusion to the series. It left me feeling like Scholomance is one of the better YA series I've read in quite a while. Novik managed to pull off a great character arc in El, who goes from insufferable in the first book to annoying in the second book and finally matures in the third installment. Don't get me wrong, El is still a frustrating character in book three at times but in a good way.
If you don't find El intolerable in the first book or can at least ignore her shortcomings, you may find the series an enjoyable and memorable read.