Subterranean Online’s summer issue is devoted to young adult fiction, but the authors seem to have taken that directive as license to be subversive. It’s been true for a while now that the only thing “young adult” about most “young adult” science fiction, fantasy and horror is that the protagonist is not an adult. The stories just as entertaining for 50-year-olds as for 15-year-olds, and the themes are by no means limited to the worries of teens. This issue makes it clear why so many genre readers pay no attention to the labels slapped on books these days, but browse around the entire bookstore for the best stuff. But it’s more than that: many of the stories in this issue are exceptional.
“Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan is one of those stories that makes you wonder why anyone thinks fairy tales are only for children. Mede is a princess who has lived all her life in the shadow of her elder sister. But her elder sister is now a queen to a faraway king, and Mede has become the princess who is the cynosure of all eyes, and she must act the part. When the day comes on which she must be sacrificed to relieve her city of the poison tides, she is eager – for the “sacrifice” is symbolic only, though it actually works to save the city from the tides. She quickly learns what her sister never told her about this duty, and must make a choice she never anticipated. It is a tale that feels as genuine and classic as “Snow White” or “Sleeping Beauty,” except here the woman acts rather than is acted upon. I’m looking forward to reading more from this author’s pen.
Genevieve Valentine’s story, “Demons, Your Body and You” is a wonderful takedown of decades of young adult fiction. It’s about a high school girl, Katie, who becomes pregnant by a demon over the summer, and how she deals with that, told through the eyes of her “proximity friend” (that is, a girl who is a friend because she lives three doors away and not because of any actual affinity between them). Apparently the demon was really hot – not in the sense of body heat per se, but in the sexy sense – and Katie really loved him and is feeling very betrayed that he didn’t stick around. It is funny yet poignant, as good an exploration of many of the issues surrounding teenaged pregnancy as the movie “Juno.”
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what happens when every beholder sees computer-enhanced images? Does real beauty even exist if the face on which it is built by a machine is essentially no more than a canvas? Tobias S. Buckell addresses this sort of question in “Mirror, Mirror,” portraying a world not far in our future where true beauty can go completely unrecognized by the vast majority. The use of mirrorshades as the mover of the tale brings cyberpunk and Bruce Sterling to mind, but this story is even more reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See,” about a technology that makes the mind unable to see either beauty or ugliness. When everyone’s beautiful, what does beauty even mean anymore?
Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women” is really for older women, not a young adult story at all. How does a mother react when she finds that the handsome boy who is dating her daughter is a vampire? Well, for one thing, she asks him the questions you feel should be directed toward those sparkly vampires of page and screen: what the heck is a hundred-plus-year-old doing hanging out with high school kids? What’s the attraction? But there’s a lot more to this story than that satisfying line, about loss and love and raising a daughter all on your own. Fowler has a way of writing about relationships that gets right to the heart of a matter without spelling things out so completely that the magic is leached out of her stories. And despite the fact that this is a story for moms, not kids, she has teenage lingo down cold.
Science fictional extrapolation makes Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” shine darkly. It’s about a world in which rich people buy “Faces” for their children, and render their children literally invisible to cameras and kidnappers, substituting these stand-ins. If no one can see or hear you, why not behave as badly as possible? It’s a tale of pure invention with heavy emotional weight.
Tiffany Trent’s “Seek-No-Further” is a fantasy from the time just after the Depression. Ilsa is a farmgirl whose parents are out helping the family’s cows give birth on a night when the snow is falling hard and cold. Ilsa’s father disappears that night, but he leaves behind a wife who has gone through eight pregnancies and has only one living child to show for it, Ilsa’s mother. The two women manage to keep the farm going, but with great difficulty. Ilsa finds her comfort in the apple orchard, and in one strange fruit that seems to sing to her. The story gives a vivid picture of a time and a place, but the plot doesn’t work well and ending resolves almost nothing.
That endings are hard to write well is also clear in Malinda Lo’s otherwise beautifully told tale, “The Fox.” This story, another fairy tale, is about a broken heart, and how difficult it is to heal one. Lo chooses her words with great care, lending a poetic cadence to her story, as delicate as a valentine.
Richard Larson’s “The Ghost Party” is yet another example of endings that just aren’t right. Larson builds up to what should be a fascinating climax, but everything fizzles. Once you’ve invoked the Elder Gods, you have to find a way to deal with them apart from, “But it was all a dream,” which is the functional equivalent of Larson’s ending.
Finally, Alaya Dawn Johnson has written a gross but funny story in “Their Changing Bodies.” Kids who still find bodily functions hilarious will get a kick out of this one.