EW talks YA: Heart-racing thrillers and mysteries keep us on the edge of our seats
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations of the biggest new YA titles. To kick off 2019, we’re discussing anticipated sequels, Paris-set historical epics, and a few more hyped reads from the past month. Check out our new roundup below, and in case you missed our last one from 2018, we’ve got you covered.
January’s top pick: Two Can Keep a Secret, by Karen M. McManus
When it comes to YA suspense, Karen M. McManus is in a league of her own. Fresh off her best-selling breakout One of Us Is Lying — a classroom murder-mystery EW dubbed “Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club” — the author has returned with a juicy second novel. It’s even better than what came before: more exciting, with richer characters and a stronger final-act twist.
McManus is one of those writers who just knows how to put her hooks in you; she’s a restless plotter in the best sense, with a keen understanding of her reader. Two Can Keep a Secret opens on twins Ellery and Ezra headed to the small, haunted town of Echo Ridge, Vt., where they’re to live with their grandmother while their mom completes her court-appointed stint in rehab for opioid addiction. As they drive into the town, rain pelting down and the night’s darkness enveloping them, they come across a dead body, splayed out in the middle of the road. And we’re off!
Echo Ridge, we learn, is a community infamous for terrible things happening — specifically, women going missing. And Ellery and Ezra have a personal stake in it as well: one who disappeared is their mother’s sister, who vanished 23 years ago at the time of high school homecoming. Another teenager, Lacey, the homecoming queen of merely five years ago, was also found dead. These mysteries have gone unsolved. But Ellery — a true-crime buff — decides to look into it as she settles into the town, and as another potentially deadly homecoming dance approaches. People will go missing. Fingers will be pointed. Fun, for the reader at least, will be had.
As a broad category, YA thrillers are a tough balance, often ranging from too predictable and gentle to glib and outrageous. McManus builds off of the genre’s titans, particularly Liars’ Sara Shepard, but even her riveting debut suffered from a morally divisive ending. McManus has smartly taken her second page-turner in a more character-driven direction, even as the whodunit narrative is still expertly executed. Ezra, a gay teen who rides backseat to his plucky sister, doesn’t feel underused so much as intriguingly placed on the story’s margins, fleshed out enough that there might be a whole separate book in him. The book’s second POV actually belongs to Malcolm, a shy, brooding love interest tangentially related to Lacey’s murder, and while McManus is a bit less revealing with him — for, ahem, obvious reasons — he emerges well-rounded too. But who am I kidding? This is a murder-mystery, and a damn good one, the town of Echo Ridge steeped in an irresistible menace, the questions at the heart of the novel turning darker and deeper with each new revelation. That’s what should rightly make this another smash best-seller. —David Canfield
The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi
With The Gilded Wolves, Roshani Chokshi launches a new fantasy-historical series set during the intoxicating Belle Epoque era in Paris. It’s 1889 and Paris is on the cusp of opening the Exposition Universelle, most famous for the debut of the Eiffel Tower. Cast against this backdrop is a tale of magic and mystery as Séverin Montagnet-Alarie joins his motley found family in a quest to claim his true inheritance.
Chokshi builds herself an intricate world, weaving together threads of historical reality with the fantastical history of a shadowy, powerful Order of Babel, who pulls the strings of world power from behind the scenes. With her lush setting and magical touch, Chokshi should have an engrossing read on her hands — but she gets bogged down in excessive exposition that dedicates too much time to the particulars of the Order of Babel, while leaving vast, frustrating questions about nearly every character unanswered.
The book suffers from its whiplash-inducing point of view, bouncing between six characters in a fashion that hinders the reader’s ability to form deep, meaningful connections to any of the characters. It’s difficult to care about the well-being of a character when you only spend a handful of pages with them before moving on to the next. The book effectively trades in themes of colonialism and the grotesque, never shying away from the horrors and the exploitation lurking under the sparkling sheen of the nostalgic romanticism of the Belle Epoque. Though here, again, because Chokshi spends so little time with the characters most affected by the implications of such themes, it’s hard for them to resonate in lasting ways. They’re merely glimmers of what she’s reaching for in this large, unknowable world.
Chokshi’s writing is vivid and lovely, and she shows flashes of brilliance in the world she’s concocted in its vast intricacy. This suggests that further books in the trilogy might offer a more engrossing or streamlined tale, offering more definitive answers and a true conclusion. It makes sense that the novel would end on a cliffhanger, leading us into the next book in the series, but it still adds to the frustrating sense that reading this book is akin to walking around in a fog, only grasping at meaningful tidbits by chance. Chokshi is a gifted writer, but The Gilded Wolves delivers on the gilt of its title without any of a wolf’s bite. —Maureen Lee Lenker
Slayer, by Kiersten White
Set in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer world, Kiersten White’s new book series will get Buffy fans up in their feels.
To write successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-offs, you must know your stuff. (Unless you want fans of the cult ’90s TV show to come after you with wooden stakes.) White’s Slayer sketches the closing events of the TV series — and explains Buffyverse history for neophytes — before introducing her own original tale about twins Nina and Artemis, raised to become the next generation of Watchers, à la Giles. Littered with references to Buffy, Angel, Hellmouths, and even Kennedy, this is a tale solidly set in the world Buffy stans love — and filled with all the demons, vampires, and shady folks they love to hate.
While the series focuses mostly on the Watchers, there is still a titular Slayer. Nina, the quieter twin, ends up as the last Slayer ever (!) after some magical tampering by the one and only Buffy Summers. Their connection? Nina’s father died while protecting Buffy.
One of Buffy’s best attributes was just how easy it was to ship Buffy and Angel, or Buffy and Spike, or Willow and Tara. And Slayer has just as many pairings — Nina and her Watcher (eye emoji) Leo; her twin Artemis and Honora Wyndam-Pryce; and Nina’s BFF Rhys and his BF Cillian. It takes the Buffy romance blueprint and queers it up even more!
The gray area where Buffy‘s characters have always existed is part of what makes them so damn memorable. Who didn’t both love and hate Buffy while she went on her post-death season 6 path of self-destruction? White’s characters are similarly complex — it’s easy to root for Nina as she gains her Slayer powers but also question her bad judgment. Case in point: She hates Buffy. Girl, that ain’t a battle you’re going to win. —Kerensa Cadenas
The Vanishing Stair, by Maureen Johnson
I am terrible at reading detective novels. I just don’t have the proper temperament. I fundamentally lack whatever faith in the pleasures of delayed gratification might let a reader glide through the pages in the order the writer intended, gradually gathering clues like breadcrumbs along a path. So every time I start a new mystery book (because I’m always enthralled by their promise. Their lurid premises! The mystery box waiting to be opened, the Rube Goldberg plot machinations ready to snap into place!), the same thing happens to me: I read just far enough to understand the context and what makes the mystery interesting, and then I skip ahead to the point, about 80 percent of the way through the book, where the detective monologues the entire recap of what happened and why. Sometimes I go back and read through the rest of the story, but I usually don’t, presumably because I’m too busy doing what we people with no patience do in our free time (jaywalking and sending double texts, mostly).
But the beauty of The Vanishing Stair, the second in a series by Maureen Johnson, is that it’s not a detective novel. It’s a young adult novel about a detective trying to solve a mystery, but the pleasures of the story are not limited to the one-two trick of the set-up and reveal. This pleasantly holistic approach to a mystery novel was evident when the series’ first installment, Truly Devious, ended without answering either of its central mysteries: Who was “Truly Devious,” the shadowy figure who kidnapped the family of wealthy industrialist Albert Ellingham in 1936? How — and why — exactly did Hayes, a student at the boarding school Ellingham founded, die in one of the school’s mysterious tunnels?
In The Vanishing Stair, one of those questions is answered, thanks to the intrepid detective work of Stevie Bell, true-crime aficionado and student at Ellingham Academy. The Truly Devious series will be a trilogy, and it’s structured like one single, long mystery novel.
At the end of the first book, the dead body of a student and Stevie’s proximity to it worried Stevie’s parents enough to summon her home from school. But, of course, our detective can’t stay stranded in the suburbs for long. A double-edged sword of a benefactor interferes and, before long, Stevie is back in Vermont among her friends Janelle, Nate, and the oh-so-intriguing (and sexy) David. Stevie’s present-day detective work is punctuated by sections that take place in 1936, a slow reveal for the reader of the history Stevie is attempting to understand. Like any sequel worth its salt, The Vanishing Stair also introduces a new possible love interest, a sweet townie wholesome as a glass of milk. And like any installment in a series, it answers some questions and leaves you with new ones.
Take it from the world’s most impatient reader: If the Truly Devious series is basically one long mystery book, The Vanishing Stair is a middle part so enjoyable you won’t even want to skip to the end. —Dana Schwartz