EW talks YA: Reviews of The Darkest Legacy, I Am Still Alive, and more summer titles
We've got mind-bending dystopias and survival sagas to unpack this month — join us!
Beginning this month, EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations of the biggest new YA titles. To kick off August, we’re launching by discussing the latest from Darkest Minds best-seller Alexandra Bracken, an atmospheric debut survival novel, and more.
July’s Top Pick: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, by Lauren James
The better the thriller, the harder it is to review. I can’t think of a book I’ve read this year that this statement applies to more than The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, Lauren James’ impressively unsettling new novel. It’s an innovative, at times cruelly twisty little book, one that reveals itself gradually as something far, far different from how it’s introduced. And it’s all the better for it.
Loneliest Girl is sci-fi in nature. Its protagonist is Romy Silvers, a teenage girl commandeering a spaceship, the Infinity, in the wake of her astronaut parents’ tragic deaths. She’s hurtling away from Earth, searching for the planet her family was headed toward. But she’s completely on her own. The beginnings of the novel offer insight into experiences of isolation, with Romy veering between conversations with her therapist and immersions into mushy romance novels; the writing here is sensitive and occasionally sappy, but never patronizing. The sheer reality of her predicament — left in boundless space alone, reeling from grief and heartbreak — is emotionally transfixing. (At times it recalls, among other titles, the misfire of a movie that was Passengers.)
James’ writing is alternately voicey and spare, maintaining mystery and intrigue even as she plays with some fluffy tonal breaks to draw her reader in. (There’s also, in a bit of a change for this genre, very little dialogue.) It evolves into something of a romantic comedy when Romy is informed by NASA that there’s a second ship — helmed by a 22-year-old who goes by J — set to join her.
But James pushes past merely meeting expectations; a straightforward love story this is not. Her setting of outer space becomes less a metaphor for loneliness — even as that element remains core throughout — and more one of frightening unpredictability. There are some extremely sharp plot turns here, shifts that drop the book in entirely new genres and allow it to keep building momentum as a surprisingly engrossing psychological thriller. Its ending, especially, offers a harrowing surprise. At times Loneliest Girl reads like a very deliberate mashup of contemporary YA, combining tropes and familiar themes, with the product emerging wholly singular.
Through it all — and yes, the plot’s developments must go unmentioned here — there remains Romy. In her, James has crafted a memorable hero whose trauma and resilience aren’t glossed over or taken for granted. This is a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water.—David Canfield
The Darkest Legacy, by Alexandra Bracken
Alexandra Bracken has long demonstrated a unique ability to craft dark, compelling YA with a crackling political charge, and her latest, The Darkest Legacy, is no exception. The novel, which serves as a standalone sequel to her popular Darkest Minds trilogy — set in a not-so-distant future where teens have developed psychic powers, causing a fearful government to detain them in brutal internment camps — is another fast-paced and fleet-footed page-turner. (And an eerily well-timed one at that.)
The Darkest Legacy picks up five years after the events of original trilogy capper In the Afterlight, which found the “Psi kids” bringing down the camps and those responsible for their construction. Bracken’s new entry centers on fan favorite Suzume “Zu” Kimura, an electricity-manipulating Psi whose traumatic experiences previously rendered her mute.
Perhaps in part to assuage readers who took umbrage with the character’s original depiction and how it (however unintentionally) enforced stereotypes of Asians being quiet and passive, Legacy finds Zu, now 17, not only speaking but outspoken, a pivotal emissary for the interim government, devoted to upholding Psi rights amid backlash from more prejudicial civilians. But when framed for a shocking crime by unknown adversaries, Zu goes on the lam. Her flight — assisted by two potentially treacherous new Psi, Roman and Priyanka — entangles all three in a web of lies, murder, and illegal experimentation lurking just beneath the surface of her ostensibly healing nation.
For both Bracken loyalists and newcomers discovering the Darkest Minds franchise due to Fox’s upcoming film take, there’s much to admire in Legacy: richly drawn characters, a pace brisk enough to soften the book’s excessive 569 pages, and twists more disquieting than many of Bracken’s genre peers would dare commit to. Most successful, however, is Bracken’s decision to revisit Zu, a supporting player in past entries whose vivid perspective has never been offered the showcase it gets here. In this more matured and conflicted Zu, Bracken has found the perfect protagonist to deliver full-throated follow-through on her series’ most overarching and timely conceit: the power we come to possess in finding our voices.—Isaac Feldberg
I Am Still Alive, by Kate Alice Marshall
“My name is Jess Cooper, and I am still alive.”
This statement is at the core of Kate Alice Marshall’s young-adult survival novel I Am Still Alive. After losing her mother to a deadly car crash and enduring a brief stint in foster care, 16-year-old Jess travels reluctantly to a remote forest island in the Canadian wilderness to live with her absentee father, whom she hasn’t seen since she was young. There, the two of them — along with their wolf-dog, Bo — live off the land, until the day Jess watches as her father is shot and killed, and their cabin is burned to ash. Jess spends the next few months fighting for survival against the harsh winter and plotting her revenge as she waits for the men who killed her father to return to the island.
Pitched as “Wild meets The Revenant,” I Am Still Alive marks an assured debut from Marshall. But while the novel makes good on the potential of its socially relevant subject matter, allowing a young woman to be her own hero, it’s limited at times by repetitive language that quickly grows stale and description that relies too heavily on telling rather than showing. Turn to any chapter of the book and you’ll find some variation of “I am alive,” “I am alone,” or “neither of them will ever come back” (in reference to her parents).
These quibbles, however, don’t detract from the thematic and representational power of the book. With no love interest or male authority figure coming to save the day, Still Alive is a refreshing feminist survival story with a distinctly cinematic feel. —Aja Hoggatt
#MurderTrending, by Gretchen McNeil
#MurderTrending, the latest horror-suspense read from Gretchen McNeil (Don’t Get Mad), is the buzzy new YA dystopia of the summer. It’s set in a near-future America where the judicial system has been outsourced to an anonymous television mogul referred to as the Postman, for a reality show called Alcatraz 2.0, in which convicted murderers are hunted by state-sanctioned serial killers on the eponymous San Francisco island. And things only get darker from there.
The novel centers on 17-year-old Dee Guerrera, who’s not among the 100 million Americans tuning into Alcatraz 2.0, nor is she a member of the online fan forums dedicated to in-depth discussions of the serial killers and their unique killing styles. A harrowing childhood kidnapping experience rendered the footage too triggering for her, but she’s forced to learn the rules of the show after being framed for her step-sister’s murder and sent to the island. Dee soon goes viral after surviving what few others on the island have, and lots of graphic violence ensues.
Over the course of #MurderTrending, the ever-elaborate kidnapping story line increasingly relies on contrivances, which is a shame because they undercut what works best about the novel: how closely the bloodthirsty, reality-TV-obsessed culture and the corrupt government sponsoring the show mirror our own world. The provocative message still translates, powerfully, and centering Dee and her fellow inmates in this twisty, gory story ultimately serves as a sharp indictment of our flawed judicial system. —Esme Douglas