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REVIEW: "Tess of the Road," "Torn," & "Children of Blood and Bone"

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KEND

If you’ve spent much time at all browsing the shelves of the young adult section at your local public library or indie bookstore (Independent Bookstore Day is coming up on April 28!) you’re probably already aware that fantasy is having something of a moment. Young adult literature has always been something of a refuge for fantasy, so this is perhaps nothing especially new, but there does seem to be something especially … magical … about the first four months of 2018. Magic and magical systems have been established, revisited, or interrogated in exciting ways conversant with a rising generation of change-makers. Teenagers are leading marches in cities all across America, and authors like Rachel Hartman, Rowenna Miller, and Tomi Adeyemi are publishing works which are guaranteed to fan the flames of widespread social awareness of systemic injustice.

This is the wokest of #WokeLit moments, and it remains to be seen whether publishers are simply capitalizing financially off of the broader climate or whether they are truly allies in the battle against sexism, classism, and racism (as portrayed so finely in these three books, respectively). That said, the fact that these three specific books all exist in the world and were dished up by three separate publishers in 2018 speaks to a long-awaited sea-change. A turning of the tides that I, for one, am grateful for.

And thus begin my reviews.

*****

I have waited a long time for Tess of the Road. By which I mean: I did not know that my soul had a gaping wound in it that would be filled by this book, but lo, such a wound did indeed exist. And Hartman was there to put me back together again, which was really quite convenient and really quite nice of her all at the same time. It’s worth noting, too, that I have not yet read Seraphina or its sequel Shadow Scale (or the short story The Audition, which is freely available online). You can be sure I’ve now bumped these works up my to-read list. But it is likewise worth noting that reading Seraphina and its sister works is not a prerequisite to reading Tess of the Road, despite the fact that this book occupies a shared universe and includes important cameos from shared characters.

Why doesn’t it matter? From the first line of this book, the characters belong fully to themselves. By page 4, six-year-old Tess has married her cousins using a storybook about pirates, and is on the verge of abandoning her imaginary husband: “Unlike her mother, Tess could abandon the old prune whenever she wished and return to her first love, piracy. That’s exactly what she did.” There’s no way not to fall in love with Tess, sweet and ferocious and incorrigible and exactly the soul of every childhood grown into sour young adulthood through no fault of its own. Realizing that things break and people can hurt you is one of the hardest lessons of childhood, and it’s one which buries its sting deep. You don’t need any more context than your own experience to recognize yourself in Tess and to hope that, perhaps, you can embody even a modicum of her spirit.

As an asexual, agender, and aromantic reader, I do not have a great track record with coming-of-age fantasy novels for young readers, all of whom seem to embrace the idea that sex is the pinnacle of romance and romance is the pinnacle of growing up. And at first glance, this would seem to hold true here, in Tess of the Road. After all, Tess gets into trouble in the first place for her sexual precociousness. This is not a new concept in literature or the world at large, and it’s one which had my teeth on edge, even as I sunk into Hartman’s gorgeous sentences. And Tess does go on to have a kind of sexual awakening, replete with partners and so forth. She has an eye for spotting nonstandard behaviors in others, as well, replete with speculations about what might or might not be happening in other peoples’ bedrooms. I mention this because it shouldn’t work for me, specifically, but also because I quickly got past it once I began to trust Hartman not to toss people like me completely under the bus, and once I realized people like me aren’t the ideal reader for this book. Young women with appetites are. And heaven knows they need representation in literature, and haven’t gotten it, and here comes Hartman with a robust world and a delightful heroine who carves out a place for herself in a world not entirely given over to female independence.

Young readers need to know that sex isn’t some mystical force which either destroys you irrevocably or gives you some transcendent experience; it’s a thing bodies do which can hurt or heal or do nothing much at all, depending on who’s involved and what they’re going through at the time. Sex, it’s important to note, is also not the sole point of this book. It is something which reviewers are likely to get hung up on, however, whether they like or dislike what Hartman’s done with it.

For me, the joy of Tess of the Road lies in its rich language and its equally rich world populated with multifaceted, surprising characters. Hartman understands empathy in a way that few authors do, and Tess of the Road is a testament to that empathy. This is a book which moved me to tears, and profoundly undignified giggles. It’s a book for all readers, especially those young women who find themselves struggling to feel welcomed by this world of ours.

(Tess of the Road is published by Random House Books for Young Readers, and was released on February 27, 2018.)

*****

Of these three books, Torn is the most recent. As with Tess of the Road, I am not this book’s ideal reader—but even so, I can see the appeal. Unlike Tess of the Road, which focused in on sexism and gendered issues with a laser-like intensity, Torn is most interested in examining class conflict on a grand scale. Enter Sophie, who sews charms into clothing is really quite good at it. She’s a business owner with a lot of responsibility riding on her shoulders: the success of her business and its employees depends on the efficacy of her charms and her ability to punch above her weight in social situations, while her brother’s safety and the fate of his growing revolution depends on her ruthlessness and her ability to harm as well as help others with her not-so-little magicks.

And yes, there’s a romance. And yes, he’s a Duke. Who wears a uniform. And a ceremonial sword. And who happens to be something of an amateur botanist as well as a potential heir to the throne which Sophie’s brother is so intent on overthrowing by violence.

To complicate matters, Sophie is introduced to high society by way of an influential court figure’s legendary salons, where women (and the occasional man) of privilege display a surprising awareness of and sensitivity to the lower classes’ experiences and needs. And thus Sophie’s allegiance is divided (or, yes, torn) between the class she was born into and the class which she has worked so hard to ingratiate herself with. In true Les Misérables form, everyone involved on all sides of the conflict are objects of empathy, and sympathy, and their deaths when they arrive are the regrettable consequence of … what, misunderstanding? The failure to talk things out? Fine, I’m as dramatic as they come, but if someone low-key sexually assaults me in Act 1 I’m not going to give him a sympathetic death in Act 5. Miller makes some interesting choices on that front.

The unfortunate truth is that Torn is less interested in constructing a believable revolution than it is in utilizing that revolution as a backdrop for the somewhat pedestrian romance and division-of-loyalties tropes which are so popular in young adult literature. I say unfortunate, but I recognize that these tropes have value and are the meat and potatoes of many readers. I say unfortunate because, as I previously mentioned, this book seemed passionately interested in hedging people like me out of the conversation about class. There is, simply put, no room for LGBTQIA+ representation in this book, and while the book hints at the intersection of race and class, it likewise steers clear of interrogating that most interesting of nexuses. That this book fails to be intersectional is a disappointment, but it is in abundant company. That this book is interested in examining the role of class in revolutions is admirable, however, and it seems well-positioned to tackle any number of further issues in future installments.

That, in the end, is the saving grace of young adult literature, isn’t it? Almost everything lives in series, and as such there’s always the possibility of questions answered, intersections navigated, and diversity represented in the future. I’ll be watching Rowenna Miller closely and picking up the next book in the series with great interest.

(Torn is published by Orbit, and was released on March 20, 2018.)

*****

Ah yes, the book quite literally everyone has an opinion about! I first realized I would be reading this book when the video of Adeyemi opening her first finished copies (and sobbing with joy) went viral. The hype marked this book as an important book, no matter what its style or content would end up embracing. And, well, I’m in the business of brushing up on important books, so I promptly put myself on the hold list at the library. And waited. And waited. Damn but this book had a gazillion people in line for it! Ultimately I went out and bought a copy for our library and read it while it was being catalogued. Call me mercenary.

Yes. Children of Blood and Bone is an important book. It’s not the first major publication of a diverse fantasy work by an #OwnVoices author, but it is still early days in that movement and it was the first to come out in the immediate aftermath of Marvel’s Black Panther film. You know a subgenre has well and truly arrived when even somewhat less-than-lifechanging texts end up making a huge splash, as this one did. Because, yes. Yes, Children of Blood and Bone is as imperfect as it is important. It may be exactly what we need right now, and I’m 100% here for the Afrofuturist movement, but it would be doing a disservice to both readers and Adeyemi herself to misrepresent this text or shame readers who found it lacking the complexity and sharp-eyed edit it might have benefited from. It will make one hell of a good movie, so long as we keep M. Night Shyamalan and the others involved in making The Last Airbender 2010) on a different continent throughout production.

Perhaps the greatest thing Children of Blood and Bone has done is start conversations or render existing conversations mainstream that otherwise never would have been heard by the average young adult literature reader. Conversations about diversity, yes, but also conversations about the publishing industry, about how we police each others’ tastes and preferences in literature, and about how it’s in all of our best interests to support an industry which is supportive of all of its authors, no matter whether we like them or not. I’m definitely one of those people who used to judge others for reading and liking Twilight, but I hope I’m a better person than I was back then.

Should you read Children of Blood and Bone? In my mind, it’s not a book which renders itself absolutely necessary. It may not change your life, even though it has certainly marked a point of departure from the way things used to be in an industry that needed to change. Then again, it might indeed change your life, if you’ve never had the benefit of seeing yourself represented in young adult literature. This book is a lot of fun, and if you have a spare couple of afternoons in a row, there are few things better than to spend them than running through the wilds of Orïsha with the winds and waves of Tomi Adeyemi’s imagination.

(Children of Blood and Bone is published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and was released on March 6, 2018.)

*****

So, are there any takeaways from this lineup of splendid springtime fantasies? Of course there are! Young adult literature has always been more rich and complicated than its critics wanted to admit, and it provides an excellent experimental canvas for authors looking to explore issues of such importance as systemic sexism, classism, and racism. It’s also an important proving ground for debut authors (such as Miller and Adeyemi) as they work out what they want their voices to be and how they want to come at these issues. Then there’s the whole “YA lit is where the women writers go” thing, which … sure, young adult literature has proven more welcoming (or at least, less violently alienating) to women writers than other genres have traditionally been. And the genre has suffered from stigma as a result, as certain folks turn up their noses at its supposedly low-brow material while consuming equally unsubtle material from other genres. But as the #MeToo movement has proven, even in the young adult literary community, sexism (and classism, and racism, and homophobia too) abounds. That three such unique voices have emerged as Hartman, Miller, and Adeyemi gives me great hope for the future, and it’s my hope too that we’ll see their names running in parallel to other marginalized voices as the year continues to roll inexorably by.

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