It's difficult to think of two books that better encapsulate the current unsettled state of publishing than Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith's Stranger (2014) and Hostage (2015), the first half of their four-book The Change series. Stranger was published by Viking late last year, but the authors chose to self-publish the rest of the series, for a list of reasons they outlined publicly. Its sequel, Hostage, has therefore been issued by the Book View Cafe authors' collective. Just as the series and the authors defy easy categorization, so the books are a rich and engaging addition to the YA field that subvert just about every conceivable received rule of that genre. If these books represent what organizations like We Need Diverse Books are working towards for readers of all ages, then the literary future is very bright indeed—no matter how that literature is published.
Stranger and Hostage are set in and around the small, post-apocalyptic settlement of Las Anclas, many years into a future in which, we learn, a solar flare destroyed all digital technology and introduced huge mutations into the genomes of those plants and animals, including humans, that survived. Amidst horses with prehensile tales and people who can control the weather, see the future, or heal others, the young independent prospector Ross is gravely injured on the border of Las Anclas and is rescued by its Sheriff on her rounds. Inside the settlement's walls, he meets the book's other four protagonists: Felicité, the council secretary and the daughter of the mayor and the defense chief; Jennie, a Ranger candidate promising enough that the defense chief takes her on despite his prejudice against her Change powers; Mia, the town's young engineer who is far less awkward with machines than with people; and Yuki, who washed up in the settlement as a child and dreams of leaving it behind. To have two differing POV characters, much less five, is nothing if not unusual in today's YA market, but Smith and Brown not only make each character's perspective believably different, but also exploit the possibilities inherent in so many separate viewpoints marvelously, using them to ratchet up tension, reveal secrets, and keep things from the reader as necessary.
Stranger in particular is action-packed, as Ross's arrival in Las Anclas sets off a chain of circumstances which culminates with his being kidnapped, at the beginning of Hostage, and taken to the rival town of Gold Point on the orders of its King Voske (who has particular reasons of his own to have no love for Las Anclas). In Hostage, which is slower paced but more tense, Ross meets Voske's daughter Kerry, the heir to her father's throne, and is forced to wage a desperate, largely psychological battle of wills with Voske himself. Kerry's viewpoint replaces that of Felicité, and her perspective on Gold Point, Las Anclas, and her father's actions is unsettling but convincingly drawn.
Stranger got a lot of press several years ago, while still in manuscript, as the book that sparked the #YesGayYA hashtag, and it's certainly true that there are more queer characters in these books—not just amongst secondary and tertiary characters, but among the main cast—than in another half-dozen YA books I can think of combined. That there are so many characters who aren't straight removes the burden of any one character being put into the place of Token Queer Character, with the result that every character's story develops in different ways. Brown and Smith have talked about wanting to write a series in which the teenagers they volunteered with in L.A. could see themselves, with protagonists with whom they could identify, without those same queer characters' stories being all about Being Gay and Coming Out—all of which means that at times the teenagers in the books struggle with other aspects of life that have nothing to do with sexuality. Moreover, the books depict a diversity of relationships in general, not just queer or heterosexual couples—in particular, Mia and Jennie decide that rather than lose their long friendship by making Ross "choose" between them, they'll both date him instead. I can think of precisely one other YA book that chooses polyamory rather than a love triangle, which is precisely why the love triangle is a trope ripe for subversion, and yet the characters are so matter of fact about the whole thing that it's almost possible not to notice how radical this approach is in terms of the genre.
The Change series is aptly named, for it recounts not just a world that has changed drastically from the one we know, and not just the adaptations that those who are Changed find that they and their community must make to accommodate them, but also a more gradual process by which the main characters of each book, and of the series overall, find themselves changing in ways both expected—attaining maturity, gaining responsibility—and unexpected: coping with the death of a parent, breaking up or getting together with one's first serious significant other, parting ways with one's family, finding and making a place in a new community. The books are also quietly remarkable for their insistence on the fact that people can change: not just unconsciously, purely as a reaction to external circumstances, but deliberately and with full knowledge of the consequences, setting themselves on an entirely different path than heretofore. With the notable exception of Voske, the tyrant King of the much more prosperous Gold Peak settlement and the would-be emperor of the entire territory, there are very few villains in this world; everyone is shown to have their reasons for acting the way they do, and though some people choose to act in ways that range from less than community-minded to outright bigoted, that entire range of choices never feels less than believable. Even Voske is anything but a cartoon, and he's all the more terrible for it.
It's hard not to feel that you don't know the people of Las Anclas in some ways; maybe you haven't met them, exactly, but you've certainly met people very like them as you've made your way through life. To be totally honest, sometimes they annoyed the heck out of you, but that's the way it goes. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that Ross prospects for ancient artifacts like library books and solar panels, there's more than a little bit of a Wild West feel to the story—not so much the story of a lone gunslinger on a quest for vengeance as one of a small town in the midst of an indifferent desert, necessarily reliant on its own strength, and a little suspicious of outsiders. Any small town has its difficulties getting along —particularly when it's still grappling with lingering prejudice against people whose mutant genomes have given them Change powers.
If the books are set in a kind of Wild West, however, this is yet another trope flipped on its head, for the people of Las Anclas correspond in no way to the strict racial hierarchies of classic Western novels and films. Despite the fact that they're set in an explicitly post-apocalyptic world filled with vampiric trees, telekinetic squirrels, and illusion-casting rabbits, the books, especially Stranger, are some of the most Los Angeles-ish stories I've ever read—not the well-manicured, predominantly wealthy and white Hollywood that is carefully packaged and sold via entertainment media, but the whole city, with its mixture of peoples, languages, foods, and cultures. The same careful observation which paints a community that contains its fair share of thoughtless blowhards extends to the ethnic and racial heritages of people in Las Anclas, and so in some ways it's not terribly surprising that the vast majority of those people are characters of color: given the demographics of actual Los Angeles, it would be far more of a fantasy than telekinetic squirrels to present a Las Anclas where that diversity wasn't the case. The descriptions of the various kinds of food the characters eat with their families are similarly detailed, evocative, and redolent of L.A.; I routinely found myself craving tacos and/or Korean food (or better yet, Korean fusion tacos), particularly while reading Stranger. The larger society of Gold Peak also shares many of these characteristics, making it clear that Las Anclas isn't a fluke—but Gold Peak also lies under mass surveillance, with the result that even though it's bigger than Las Anclas, it feels much more claustrophobic, particularly to Ross, who is explicitly a prisoner there.
Another remarkable and welcome aspect of the books is their depiction of PTSD and disability. The series format gives the authors the time, in Hostage, to explore the consequences of the rousing action sequences that close Stranger, and over the course of both books different characters struggle in particular with PTSD. They don't share the same symptoms and they don't take the same steps to address their condition, but experiencing it isn't considered unusual by most of the people around them, and by and large it's treated as something that is treatable. Ross loses most of the function in his left hand at the beginning of Stranger, and continues to adjust to those changes over the course of the books in various ways, including adopting assistive technology (it helps to have the most brilliant engineer in town for a girlfriend, admittedly). Other characters develop, or are simply shown to have, Change powers that require that both they and their communities make various accommodations to these new limitations and capabilities. This accommodation is just part of the way things are.
I've seen a lot of talk in the internet genre-sphere lately about whether or not series such as The Change are viable propositions in the age of ebooks and lengthening publisher schedules, with predictions and reactions all over the map—some say that the internet has destroyed series forever, others that the internet has saved series in perpetuity, and still others say that series are one thing, but trilogies are a blight upon humanity. I suspect that the death of the series has been greatly exaggerated, not least because, as a form, it allows good writers to do some cool things that simply wouldn't be possible in one, two, or even three books. Although Stranger and Hostage constitute only half of The Change, they display many of the strengths that can make a good multi-volume work so rewarding—a varied cast of well-drawn characters with believably different personalities, an intriguing world which grows in complexity as the story progresses, and plotting and characterization that build upon previous instalments in interesting and organic ways. Indeed, reading the two books together, rather than treating Stranger as a standalone, suggests that some of the plot threads left dangling at the end of the first book have been given time to ripen on the vine, and will presumably be all the more devastating when revisited in the final two books. Watching skilful writers construct these sorts of plot devices is another pleasure that only a prolonged series can afford.
To be sure, there are a lot of balls in the air here, but Smith and Brown keep them all aloft with ease, and equally importantly, altogether they add up to books that are, above all, not just engaging, but enjoyable. There's a persistent line of criticism towards efforts at greater inclusion in genre fiction which implies that "diversity" by definition means "boring" or "pedantic"; these books demonstrate again that that notion is sheer bunkum. If I had to pick a post-apocalyptic YA society in which to live, I'd pick the community of Las Anclas hands down, warts and all: rather than a hierarchical dystopian society where something random is outlawed and the government controls something else crucial to society, Las Anclas represents a kinder, gentler post-apocalypse. It's not quite a utopia, except in the sense that everywhere in fiction is, but that's precisely what makes it a believable and desirable place to live: its busybodies and jerks are notable because they're not the only kind of people in the town, and dealing with them would be a small price to pay in order to live in such a supportive and inclusive place—which is precisely the conclusion that characters reach at the end of both books. So pass the fry bread and the eggplant-goat cheese kimchi: just keep an eye peeled for those pesky telekinetic squirrels.
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.