YA is one of the most versatile and interesting fields of publishing right now, full of a glittering spectrum of stories of all genres and protagonists from all walks of life and identities. And you know me, I love a good coming-of-age story, whatever shape it may take… and what better way to celebrate those many shapes than to review three wildly different, but all brilliant, YA novels together? Let’s dive in! This time round we have psychological thrillers, we have mythology retellings*, we have ruminations on fame and friendship and fandom.
*I’m not sure of Achilles was marketed strictly as YA everywhere, but it has enough crossover into the territory of coming-of-age story/story about young people that I’ve included it here. Also, it’s very good and I need to write about it somewhere.
I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 bass guitars
Rainbow representation: a gay trans main character, bi secondary characters
Premise: at the core of Angel’s being is her love of pop-rock band The Ark. When she travels to London to see them live in concert with her fandom bestie Juliet, it seems like everything in the universe is where it’s meant to be. But things start to go awry: something’s up with Juliet’s home life that she doesn’t want to talk about, a guy who doesn’t even seem to care that much about the band is encroaching on their quality time… and Angel’s beloved band boys are more than meets the eye. As she discovers firsthand when she finds her hero, frontman Jimmy, in a public bathroom having a panic attack.
The book switches between Angel’s perspective and Jimmy’s, and they are both wonderful, layered characters that it’s fun to spend time with and whose struggles feel three-dimensional. As in Radio Silence (but on a much bigger scale), both the life-affirming and the life-ruining power of fandom is explored, and the issues the characters deal with paints a poignant picture of the current media climate that rings very true and will serve as a perfect cultural time capsule.
Also as in Radio Silence the emotional focus is on friendship rather than romance, in the awkward but heartfelt bond that Angel and Jimmy slowly form, and in many other relationships throughout the story. I got thoroughly attached to all the characters and the dynamics between them, and was still thinking about them weeks after finishing the book. Especially Lister. Goddamn. A strong contender for “Oseman boy I most empathise with and want to protect” right next to Aled Last.
I keep bringing up Radio Silence so I must mention, no, this book didn’t quite punch me in the heart to the extent that Oseman’s previous novel did, but Radio Silence did hook my emotions in a very personal and particular way, so that is entirely fair. Boy band fandom speaks less to me, personally (and I actually learnt quite a bit about its machinations from reading this), but the themes were universal enough and the character journeys so good that I Was Born For This still resonated.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 (in a constellation shaped like a centaur)
Rainbow representation: two gay main characters in a romance; they both die at the end
Premise: you know how Achilles and Patroclus from The Iliad were just, like, really good friends? This novel swats that idea away. They are in love. Get off of it, homophobic classicists.
Honest to goodness, this is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in a while. Lush, evocative descriptive prose has always been my Achilles Heel. Somehow Miller has composed a book that’s both epic and down-to-earth, and I’m going to have to reread the darn thing a hundred times to figure out how she’s done it. She also got me to like Achilles, which is a feat of its own. Seeing this character through the eyes of a narrator who connects with and loves him so dearly, it’s sort of impossible not to.
The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles grows from childhood rivals to dearest friends to lovers with seamless, believable ease, and their affection and dedication to each other rings true to teenaged naïveté as well as feeling worthy of an epic love story. The Iliad retold through this framework turns up some interesting details and shines a different light on certain events, and, ultimately, feels even more personally tragic when it reaches its conclusion (and I would recommend you be at least a little familiar with the original story, just so you can pick up on little scenes where the novel plays on your expectations).
As I’ve talked about before, adapting any Greek mythology for a modern audience poses some problems, namely with the dissonance in values. Miller has done the best you could, I think, with keeping the setting intact while also subtly weaving a “hey, the rape culture in Ancient Greece and their stories was really messed up” thread through it for the reader to pick up on. Achilles no longer goes after women, which erases what some people consider an important bisexual figure from The Classics… but also, Achilles being gay rather than bi conveniently removes his own sexual crimes from the story. This could be considered erasure or glossing over by some, by its own merits. It’s complicated to say the least. But I do appreciate the quiet feminist tweaks Miller makes—sneaking agency and protection to female characters wherever she can—while keeping the overall narrative intact and, again, not overtly messing with the social structure that gave birth to this story in the first place.
Be forewarned, this is a beautiful love story with a tragic conclusion. It’s… exactly this knowledge that made it so hard for me to finish the book. I’ll be real with you, I reached a point where I had to put this down and not go near it for about nine months, because I realised how attached I had gotten to characters who I knew terrible things were unavoidably going to happen to. Normally me avoiding a book for months wouldn’t be a point of praise, but here it speaks to the power of Miller’s writing. I was a mess when I finished it (the ending is heart-wrenching, but with, again, juuust enough of a little tweak to be heart-warming too) but it was worth the ride.
A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 foreboding wintry forests
Rainbow representation: three lesbian main characters in a love triangle; it’s a murder mystery, but none of the queer characters die (!)
Premise: Jess is in love with her best friend Angie, but isn’t saying anything about it. This ‘Jenny’ scenario becomes a jealous love triangle when Angie starts dating a girl named Margot, and an already complicated situation becomes even more complicated when Jess catches Margot and her best friend maybe committing crimes in the woods. This tense emotional story twists into a murder mystery when said best friend is found dead at the midpoint of the book. If Jess knows anything about what transpired in the dead of that winter night, she’s not telling… and this goes for the investigators and the reader.
Malinda Lo is one versatile writer. She’s hopped happily from fantasy to sci-fi to psychological thriller all while keeping the beloved conventions of those genres intact and well, and while giving starring roles in these genre stories to queer characters. A Line in the Dark is (appropriately enough I suppose) her darkest book yet, with its foreboding wintry backdrop, psychological tension, messy relationships, moral ambiguity, and of course the murder, all of which keeps you guessing up until the final page.
At the midpoint the prose changes style, switching from Jess’ first-person perspective to a more observational, third-person point of view that takes the reader out of her head. Normally I loathe sudden perspective switches, but this definitely serves the narrative purpose of keeping the reader on their toes and wondering who exactly they can trust. I won’t spoil The Big Twist nor the answer to the murder mystery that becomes the novel’s heart, but I will say it’s a very interesting story to reread Knowing What You Know.
It is not my favourite of Lo’s books, but I’m willing to admit that’s because the crime/thriller genre isn’t usually my style—but if you like that sort of thing, and want to see its tropes mingled with YA and with queer protagonists, do give it a go. It is by no means a fluffy romance, but it is a representation of the tangled and intimate relationships that young women can get caught up in, both romantic, platonic, and that weird space between the two. Most notably, this is a story about murder where none of the queer characters die, which is something that stands out (and something that was likely a conscious decision on Lo’s part, deftly raising a middle finger to historical convention as well as telling a good story).
Have any YA recommendations to swap? I’m always looking for ’em, so please leave some in the comments!