Split by Swati Avasthi
Jace has just punched his father and driven nineteen hours to his brother Christian’s doorstep. Christian left home and their physically abusive father when Jace was eleven. Christian was always their mother’s son – dark, introverted, sensitive – and Jace was always daddy’s boy – blond, big and strong, charming with a stormy temper. Their father never hit Jace, not until Christian left. And Jace and Christian, together again, make for an explosive combination.
I thought the author got the feel of a family, badly in trouble, very right, and asked some very tough questions. Is it all right not to look back, when you’re getting out of hell? When do you have to look back, no matter how scared you are? Some family situations are so toxic, you have to get out, but that involves terrible sacrifices. It isn’t a question of what you sacrifice, with family – it’s a question of who you sacrifice, and the answer is someone you love.
I loved Jace. We’re so in his head I felt a little distant from the other characters, but that was okay, because I wouldn’t have missed being so into Jace’s head. (On a silly level, I’ve always liked the name Jace. As a foolish European, I thought Cassandra Clare made it up as a demonhunter’s name for her hero, and only realised it was a real name due to country music singer Jace Everett. More proof country music is the answer to everything!) Christian planned his way out: Jace took a swing at his father and was thrown out with extreme force. Jace cannot close off the way Christian can. Jace is a bruiser - and in the context, I do not use this term lightly. He is very, very aware that he has the temperament and the upbringing to potentially become an abuser. But we can see, though Jace can’t, the other side to that temperament: one part of the book I particularly liked was the description of Jace as a child, trying to beat back Halloween monsters from his brother.
This was a story about emotions rather than actions, and the details made it real: like Jace and Christian’s attractions to strong women. Christian and his girlfriend Mirriam’s fights are among the most illuminating scenes in the book. And I was very impressed by the sympathetic and (to me) psychologically convincing description of Jace and Christian’s mother, who cannot leave their father, at one point. (You’ll know the part I mean when you hit it.)
Fire by Kristin Cashore
I read this one the longest ago, actually, but since I just met the lovely author in Italy and told her how much I liked it – ‘Feminism!’ I said, with a dramatic sweep of my glass. ‘I love feminism!’ I am very eloquent – I thought it was time to tell you guys.
In another world, there are subsets of other creatures known generally as ‘monsters’ – brighter coloured, magical and deadly versions of natural things. Purple leopards you can’t look away from, until they rip your throat out. Poisonous birds. They’re like poisonous plants, the kind that are all glistening and beautiful and not-quite-real-looking, designed to draw you in.
Fire is a monster in the shape of a girl: the kind of girl that people who hate women make up, a woman so beautiful she literally has to cover her hair to prevent people hurling themselves at her intent on loving her, hurting her or both. What if that woman really did exist? the author asks, and then: wouldn’t she still be a person? And what if she didn’t want to be a monster? Fire’s story starts out with her in an isolated stronghold and shows her journeying into the heart of her country, trying to save it, and making difficult choices and family and friends on the way.
I wasn’t totally convinced by the villains of the story, but I adored Fire and several of the people around her, and I loved all the thoughtful stuff about beauty, about family, about love. Two people in the book are sort-of-adopted (not their fathers’ children, in very different but very difficult circumstances) and both are loved and necessary in their adopted families. Fire herself was raised by two very different fathers – her glamorous biological father, who threw himself gleefully into the role of a monster and who nevertheless loved Fire very much, and the exiled lord of a keep near her stronghold, who is only human, and disabled.
A relatively minor detail I particularly enjoyed was the portrayal of a minor character who initially threw himself at Fire and begged her to marry him, who overcame that feeling because of familial love, and came to love Fire as a sister. I thought it was a great little example of the difference between fascination and love, and the importance of family born and created.
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
Ellie has a crush on a guy in her class. Mark is beautiful, inscrutable and full of Secret Pain. Mark is also related to monsters and madmen, full of dark impulses, and so stressed out about it all he doesn’t wash his hair enough. Ellie is big (both tall and overweight) and strong (a black belt), and could basically break Mark in half like the emo twig he is.
Which is said with great affection: I love Mark, a romantic soul who sabotages himself at every turn and seriously considers smothering his father. (Who is a blameless victim of monsters. But being a victim isn’t romanticised in any of these books – it’s difficult, and terrible, and being both victim and monster is so easy.) Though I do not love Mark quite as much as I love Ellie, who is (and you can read it on the book jacket, so it must be true) one of my favourite heroines: difficult, acutely self-conscious, loyal and prickly and yet able to rely on her own strength, both physical and moral.
And this isn’t the story of how Ellie the nice normal girl saves Mark the troubled mysterious bad boy. Ellie has her own power and temptations: at one point she acquires a mask that will make anyone obey her, out of sheer blind love for its wearer. (And thus a mask that turns its owner into a monster.) Saving’s tricky in this book in any case, because it never quite works. Hence the part near the end that made me cry like a baby and the outcome of which I am still a little ambivalent about…
There’s a lot of saving involved – Mark and Ellie have to save each other, and both are intent on saving Ellie’s friend Kevin, who is an awesome character in many ways, one of which is that his sexuality is one I don’t often seen in fiction, and that it was nice to see portrayed positively. (Kevin’s asexual.) It was also nice to see New Zealand, since ‘urban fantasy’ too often means Small Town In America, and Maori mythology felt fresh and new, and necessarily involved race in a way I thought was interesting and well-handled: whose land is this, and whose magic? Who is Mark, on a whole extra level? New Zealand is where possibly my favourite urban fantasy romance of them all is set, The Changeover, so I admit I may be prejudiced in its favour, but I am pretty comfy with that.
One realistic fiction, one high fantasy and one urban fantasy set in New Zealand, but I loved them because they were all about two things of Great Interest to me – family, and monsters. (Of the Greatest Interest to me - monsters in the family.)
I don’t really see why anyone would write young adult fiction without writing about family, since as a teen you are usually still living with them, inextricably tangled up with them, and also discovering yourself as someone separate and potentially very different from your family. Sometimes more scarily, potentially very like them.
What alchemy takes place in the ingredients for a monster, to make you something else instead?
Other people can help you, so much you think you could never have done it without them. But you’re the alchemist. You have to want to change.