EW talks YA: You need to read this stunning French fantasy novel
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations of the biggest new YA titles. To kick off October, we’re discussing Pride and Prejudice re-imaginings, decadent French fantasies, and a few more hyped reads from the past month. Check out our new roundup below, and in case you missed September’s, we’ve got you covered.
September’s top pick: A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos
Readers, I have my new favorite fantasy: A Winter’s Promise, the first book of the Mirror Visitor quartet, which is already a hit in France, birthplace of author Christelle Dabos. The novel follows Ophelia, native of Anima, one of the many arks formed on a planetary shard after Earth was shattered. Her life is uprooted when she’s placed into an arranged marriage and required to relocate to a mysterious, faraway place.
As we first meet her, Ophelia is quiet and bookish, perfectly content with running Anima’s ancestral museum, where she uses her powers as a “reader” — someone who can intuit an object’s history — to hone her archival skills. But having rejected several marriage arrangements from her own ark already, she’s soon forced to marry Thorn, an influential and sullen man from another ark, the Pole. She has two choices: relocate, or face banishment from her native ark.
Dabos deftly realizes the worlds in Winter’s Promise with lush descriptions. Ophelia goes from only knowing distant historical descriptions of the Pole to being faced with the culture shock of the harsh, icy realm. The Pole’s society, unlike Anima’s, has a strict hierarchy that does not allow women to occupy important roles.
Ophelia’s fiancé is cold and impenetrable, but even though Winter’s Promise features an intriguing marriage plot, centering Ophelia’s self-determination is more satisfying than any potential romance. As Ophelia uncovers more of the conditions that birthed her marriage arrangement — which is ultimately a larger diplomatic agreement between arks — she must protect herself. The significance of her marriage, she learns, doesn’t come without its dangers.
Perhaps the most salient example of Ophelia’s evolving autonomy is her special traveling power: She can teleport through mirrors. This requires, as her great uncle tells her, the ability to “see oneself as one really is.” Ophelia is continuously chastised for her inability to conform to what’s expected of her as a young woman and soon-to-be wife, but the novel generously lets her mine her own unique qualities rather than succumbing to societal pressures. As Ophelia faces increasingly dire threats, cultivating powers that require an exceptional self-knowledge along the way, the novel develops a fascinating, singular, and unexpectedly resilient protagonist. —Esme Douglas
Pride, by Ibi Zoboi
I really enjoyed Zoboi’s first novel, American Street, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, so it’s safe to say a Brooklyn-set re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice by the author had me excited.
Pride opens with a clever send-up: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.” This fresh, funny Austen wordplay sets the tone for a novel that takes its every cue from Pride and Prejudice, only with a very different setting and cast of characters. This Pride is set in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and the social changes occurring within it are linked to gentrification. Our “Elizabeth,” Zuri Benitez, is a young Haitian-Dominican woman and aspiring poet who feels a deep protectiveness for her culture; she’s unnerved by the transformation of her neighborhood. The sharpest indication yet of the changes? Her new neighbors, the Darcys, an upper-class black family.
Zoboi depicts Austen’s iconic love triangle with Mr. Darcy and Bingley as brothers, named Darius and Ainsley, respectively. And her novel takes off from there — Zuri’s relationship to her neighborhood changes, as she grapples with possibly needing to leave and sees some of the people she grew up with in a less flattering light. She’s a strong, smart character, shaded by Zoboi beautifully, and she anchors this hybrid novel. Things move fast, for sure, but for the most part I loved the choices its author made. A prime example: In this version, sparks begin flying between our romantic heroes at an open-mic night.
Re-imaginings shouldn’t ask us to compare an original author to their adapter; the best ones reveal the story’s timelessness, imbuing it with an exciting new aesthetic and set of themes. Pride, from its pointed use of language to its superbly nuanced ending, fits among that class. Zoboi doesn’t one-up Jane Austen — she does her proud. —David Canfield
People Kill People, by Ellen Hopkins
“People do kill people. A gun just makes it easier.”
These words propel Ellen Hopkins’ unsettling People Kill People. The polemical novel transports readers to the desert city of Tucson, Arizona, where the intersecting lives of six characters come to a dangerous head as they inch closer to the possibility of committing gun violence. Hopkins builds up to a deadly event, which takes place against the backdrop of an immigration rally, as she seamlessly shifts points-of-view between a white supremacist, a homeless teen, a teen mother, a victim of sexual assault, a girl struggling with her sexuality, and a traumatized young woman reeling from witnessing an unspeakable violent act.
We delve into the head-spaces of the characters over a few days, realizing how they each have the capacity for deadly violence. With every chapter, narrated in first person, Hopkins builds an increasingly compelling and complicated case for why any of the characters might fire a gun; these sections are broken up by passages of poetry that reveal the ensemble’s darkest, most frightening thoughts. As the motivations of each teenager are woven into the narrative, they turn difficult to sympathize with.
Hopkins’ structure illustrates how each character could potentially become a killer and the ways in which they may be unstable; the transformations occur, at times, too swiftly. The novel covers just a few days, and within that time frame, the mental sanity of the majority is put up for debate.
Hopkins incorporates the voice of violence not only in the narrative, but in the poems as well — a tactic the best-selling author (Love Lies Beneath) has become known for. While the form-bending is initially welcome, as the story goes on, the verses begin to fall flat, lacking the emotional weight that was clearly intended. The ending of People Kill People takes an unexpected, unsatisfying turn, failing to deliver the payoff the reader rightly expects and communicating a somewhat muddled message. Despite a disappointing conclusion, however, Hopkins makes a strong, innovative argument against the proliferation of guns — and for the laws to protect us from it. —Aja Hoggatt
Unclaimed Baggage, by Jen Doll
Jen Doll delivers a long-awaited novel with Unclaimed Baggage, her YA debut. The author of the hilariously frank memoir Save the Date, which traced her journey in singlehood as a perennial wedding guest, finally turns to the genre she’s written about so sharply for the likes of The Atlantic and Elle. And fortunately, it’s what those familiar with Doll’s work would hope she’d deliver.
Unclaimed Baggage takes place over one sweaty summer in small-town Alabama, and centers primarily on Doris, who refers to herself as the “Number One weirdo liberal agnostic in my minuscule Alabama town.” Her perspective alternates with those of the two teens she becomes colleagues with: Nell, a Chicago transplant missing her picture-perfect boyfriend, and Grant, a football superstar in free-fall due, at least at first glance, to a serious drinking problem. They meet, each with their own baggage. How fitting — and, okay, on the nose — that they spend their months out of school working together at a store in which they process lost luggage (literally unclaimed baggage) and sell the items found within. Abandoned suitcases won’t be the only thing they unload.
In her digital columns, Doll writes eloquently about the power of YA: the way it can transform readers and mix light, funny character dynamics with serious, important topics. Unclaimed Baggage reflects much of that commentary — at times too directly. The novel’s balance of quirky narration, fuzzy bonding moments, and heavy conversation starters — everything from football concussions to grief to sexual harassment to racial divisions — seems a smidge too calculated, and it can lack the easy flow of similarly realistic teen dramas that contain multitudes. Yet Doll’s main trio still go on an affecting, inspiring journey together; the friendship they develop feels earned. And when it comes to reaching young readers, there’s much to celebrate about Doll’s willingness to not only get political, but really present how politics affects us all. —David Canfield