EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. This February, we’re discussing a delectable murder mystery from a debut author, Angie Thomas’ anticipated follow-up to The Hate U Give, and more titles from the past month. Check out our roundup below, and in case you missed our column from January, we’ve got you covered.
February’s Top Pick: On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas
In a YA landscape littered with dystopian hunger games, boy wizards, and disease-of-the-week tragedies, Angie Thomas’ 2017 breakout The Hate U Give offered something else: an honest, intimate portrait of young black womanhood rooted in an everyday realness readers could reach out and touch. Hate became a literary phenomenon and then a critically acclaimed movie so quickly, most authors would still be slow-jogging their victory laps. Instead, Thomas has already turned out a nearly 500-page follow-up — set in the same fictional community of Garden Heights and featuring an equally memorable female narrator.
At 16, Brianna has fixations and frustrations just like any other teenager: ACT prep, unrequited crushes, a Darth Vader hoodie she loves more than life. But she’s also enrolled at a magnet high school that can’t seem to stop treating its black and brown students like suspects, and there are too many weeks her single mom has to choose between paying the gas bill and buying groceries. In the face of that, Bri’s dream of following her late father — a legendary underground MC gunned down when she was hardly old enough to know him — isn’t just about stardom, it’s a means of survival.
Winning a local rap battle proves she has the talent, but it also makes her vulnerable — to predatory managers, to local gangbangers still holding on to past history with her dad, and maybe most of all, to the snap judgments of a wider world that sees her skin and her circumstances and assumes it knows who she is. On the Come Up offers an antidote to all that: a complicated, imperfect heroine who lives and breathes her truth on every page. —Leah Greenblatt
The Beast’s Heart, by Leife Shallcross
With The Beast’s Heart, Leife Shallcross offers a fresh take on Beauty and the Beast, told entirely from the Beast’s point of view. (Rest assured, this is a far cry from Beastly.) Its story is one we know well, with a few tweaks: Here, the Beast’s servants are invisible forces of magic who answer his unspoken needs, rather than whimsical singing houseware.
He spends more than a century roaming the forest surrounding his chateau before gradually regaining a sense of his humanity and returning to his grounds. When an ill traveler happens upon his castle and takes refuge there, the Beast sees the man’s beautiful daughter in his dreams and orchestrates a plot to bring her to his castle. It works, and the young woman, here called Isabeau, assents to spending a year in his company.
Shallcross nicely homes in on the domestic life of Isabeau’s father and sisters (absent from the Disney film, but present in the original fairy tale). The Beast regularly watches the family and their lives without Isabeau in his magic mirror, and she keeps tabs on her family through letters her sister writes. We watch them learn to find their own way forward, discovering their own happily-ever-afters in the wake of Isabeau’s absence. Though satisfying, this glimpse into her family can feel frustratingly passive, since we only hear of it through the Beast’s observations. Indeed, the entire novel can feel a bit voyeuristic, lingering too long on the Beast watching others, forcing the reader to glean information from his narrow, unreliable perspective.
On the one hand, it’s a resonant experience to feel so immersed in the Beast’s loneliness. Shallcross beautifully paints his isolation, his brooding turning Heathcliff-esque. This provides startling insight into a man cursed not for his cruelty, but his own fear of affection. Overall, the core message of the tale’s moral plea to not love based on appearances is subsumed by a more modern insistence that if you don’t open up your heart to make room for the possibility of love, you might as well be dead (or an unfeeling beast).
Yet staying in the Beast’s headspace renders some of the source material’s more problematic aspects especially glaring. His persistent refusal to accept her rejections verges on romanticizing unhealthy behaviors, particularly when we have no sense of knowing if the Beast’s insistence that she loves him and won’t admit it is truly how she feels. It’s meant to feel lush and romantic, but in today’s cultural climate, it feels a bit like he’s repeatedly ignoring her boundaries.
The Beast’s Heart is a vividly written, emotional text, giving readers an unprecedented understanding of the titular heart in question. Still, the limited point of view makes all the other action feel dismayingly passive, which is a shame given that it’s the most original and engaging piece of the story. Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time, but the big shortcoming of The Beast’s Heart is that it fails to offer up anything new. —Maureen Lee Lenker
Death Prefers Blondes, by Caleb Roehrig
All the buzzwords that describe Caleb Roehrig’s third YA novel are ones that, IMO, are bound to sell books: ”teenage socialite,” “cat burglaries,” “kickboxing drag queens.” Death Prefers Blondes is an action-packed romp that follows Margo Manning, a teen socialite who’s known for her party-girl behavior by day but moonlights as a brilliant cat burglar — cunning and more than physically capable. She’s flanked by her made family, a group of primarily gay men who are her best friends and partners in crime — and they’re all in drag while doing it.
Roehrig creates a vibrant Los Angeles setting, where Manning and her friends are able to flawlessly (for the most part) pull off clever heists, go to fabulous drag shows, and explore their sexualities fully and without much worry or judgment. He’s a great, fun writer who delivers with excellent pop culture references, a biting sense of humor, and a feel for emotional resonance. But what throws a wrench into Death Prefers Blondes is that there’s just too much happening. The novel satisfies as lively thriller, but when it gets too deep into the nitty-gritty of the capers themselves, the characters fall by the wayside. And that’s a shame because Margo, Axel, Joaquin, Davon, and Leif are all dynamic in their own ways; you really want to get to know so much more than the base introduction Roehrig provides.
Death Prefers Blondes uses teen thieves and their crimes to set up a juicy twist that propels the second half of the book, but the plot turn oversaturates everything: On top of a teen drag queen robbery ring, there’s a whole white-collar crime storyline dragging behind. It’s a lot to keep track of, and Roehrig’s wonderful characters get lost in the intricately connected plots.
Fortunately, the second half goes in a direction that’s a hell of a lot more intriguing, and provides some really interesting growth for Margo especially. Death Prefers Blondes may not perfectly execute its promising premise, but it has enough strong characters and great world-building that, hopefully, Roehrig will revisit Margo and her fabulous gang of queens — albeit in a more streamlined manner. —Kerensa Cadenas
Four Dead Queens, by Astrid Scholte
Scholte’s breakneck debut offers, above all else, a satisfyingly full meal — something that’s become a bit hard to find in the YA fantasy market of late. Here’s a standalone novel that manages to build and immerse its reader in a completely new world, and tell its engrossing story, beginning to end, in around 400 pages. Sequels are nice, don’t get me wrong! But there’s a real pleasure in diving into a world knowing the stay will be short and sweet.
Four Dead Queens centers on a crafty teen thief named Keralie, who inadvertently stumbles upon a major conspiracy when she nabs a case of comm chips — a technology which transfers one person’s memories into another’s mind — that depict the murders of the four queens of Quadara, a kingdom separated into quadrants. Motivated as much by self-interest — in a word: profit — as by the potential danger of what she’s inadvertently come into possession of, Keralie teams up with her theft victim, Varin, to solve the mystery. The pair develop a sweet connection, as their vastly different personalities — Varin’s honest-to-a-fault nature is milked for good doses of humor — drive them closer to the truth, as well as each other.
Scholte, who’s worked on the visual effects team for films including Avatar and District 9, reveals a talent for imagery, painting vivid pictures that enhance characterizations. (“There was blood smeared across my stolen dress,” Keralie narrates at one point.) And the author proves deft both at compiling a complicated narrative — the book moves between timelines and different points of view but consistently gains momentum — and at establishing Quadara, and the vast differences in lifestyle between its four areas. The flaws here are familiar for a debut; Scholte simply takes on too much at times. (The sci-fi concepts, particularly, never feel as fleshed out as the fantasy elements.) Further, the decision to give each queen their own point of view yields mixed results: Written in the third person (unlike Keralie’s), their sections allow Scholte to play around, and prove her skill and versatility as a writer. But it’s hard to lock into any single character with so much jumping around, and the unique characterizations of the quartet can feel more like points of separation than actual human qualities.
But Four Dead Queens is still a fresh, fun introduction to Scholte as an author — a good, devious mix of some of the best fantasy and murder mystery that YA has had to offer recently. —David Canfield