Judged by Hallie • find her on Goodreads
The pairing I got for my match both surprised me and made me very happy, for several reasons. One of these is Beth’s choice to focus on underappreciated books, and my belief that the two books I have were the underdogs in their respective matches. Both are for younger readers than YA (I’m going to adopt the US term “MG”, as we don’t have an equivalent abbreviation this side of the Atlantic), and both the YA competitors are powerful stories of tragic loss; On the Jellicoe Road even won a Printz award. Beyond the pleasure of seeing an underdog advance, though, and more relevant to the embracing of subjectivity in the Battle, these are the books I have the most fun talking about because I’m not saying “I love this book but…” Or even its more unengaged cousin: “Some things are very well done but…” Of course, in the grand tradition of the drawbacks of getting what you’ve wished for, that means I have to eliminate one of the books when I really don’t want to. It’s especially hard as I think these two share some strengths, and so I’m going to talk a little bit about those strengths, and how they relate to my reading of YA and MG books as an adult, before discussing the books individually.
I’m no longer reading YA or MG books in order to share them with my kids, nor am I a librarian, author or teacher, and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why I read these books and what it is that particularly works for me in my favourites. One thing I’ve realised is that I don’t consider YA as “coming of age” stories. It’s a sensible way to think of YA, but it just doesn’t fit with the way I believe we learn (or don’t), and grow (or don’t), and cope with loss and gain and try to outgrow or outmanoeuvre (or deny) the things that are between us and who we want to be. For me, that’s lifelong or nothing, and while there are obvious and major differences between, for example, coping with the death of a parent when you’re young, and coping with marital breakup when you’re responsible for young children (I chose this pair as both utterly obvious and as experiences I’ve had myself), there are also complicated overlaps, interweavings and cyclings through learning and growth in two such events for which age isn’t relevant. The YA I love most manages to show this kind of age-fluid learning, without letting the adults hijack the protagonists’ stories, and it’s sometimes easy to spot – the depiction of the protagonist’s mother in Sara Zarr’s Once Was Lost is a perfect example. In fantasy it can be harder to see, as YA fantasy not infrequently relates growing up with coming into your magical abilities and that usually is a one-off lesson that leaves you an adult. However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of other, more complex chronologies of growth also being shown. I don’t read as much MG, and the younger age of the protagonists makes it harder again not to feel that there’s less relevance for the adult reader, but then, I’m not looking for a manual. I don’t want a how-to for coping with unresolved childhood bereavement in fictionalised form, let alone “The Berenstain Bears Clean up after Divorce”. Emotional wisdom embodied in story though – yes. And sometimes you find exactly that in a book (or two books) about 12-year-old girls. (One advantage of being a round two judge is not having to do book blurbs; I can just rely on everyone’s having read Cait and Andrée’s wonderful responses! As it happens, I’ve also reviewed A Face Like Glass for Strange Horizons, and you can read that too.)
From Cait’s response, I want to pick up and elaborate on the fact that A Most Improper Magick (Kat, Incorrigible in the US) is “about Kat and her sisters”. Much of the sheer fun and delight comes from the Regency England setting, and the magic, and Kat’s incorrigibility, of course, but a lot of the depth comes from its being a story about family. On the surface level, it is Kat’s determination to save her eldest sister, Elissa, from sacrificing herself for the family that serves as the impetus setting all the chaos loose, and Kat has to negotiate her way around her sisters’ loving but not-always helpful care to try to set things right. Just below that surface, though, is my preferred kind of depiction of growth, and it’s centred on that lightly-depicted family tragedy in their past. Kat’s mother died right after Kat’s birth, and her sisters, Elissa and Angeline, had to take up the responsibility of parenting her just a few years later. Their father is loving and sweet, but an observant, involved parent he’s not, and their more recently-acquired stepmother is neither loving nor sweet. What are the chances that two children, bereaved and not being helped with it, will manage to parent a younger sibling without making many mistakes? Exactly. Kat has to learn that she has inherited their mother’s magical abilities, and start figuring out how to use them, while avoiding overbearing or downright villainous adults and her sisters’ often misguided beliefs about her place in the family. The question of the degree and type of responsibility you can take for others, and the need to understand where your own and others’ boundaries lie, underpins the charming fantasy adventure story, without ever overwhelming it or becoming messagey.
One of my favourite scenes (or at least, one of my favourite serious scenes; there are many possible favourite funny ones) comes near the end of the book. Elissa and Angeline have finally forgiven Kat for something she did accidentally, that hurt them both a great deal, and she knows she could leave it there, but chooses not to. Lovingly but firmly, she tells her sisters that they need to allow her to renegotiate the boundaries they have drawn for her as well as themselves. She does it without in any way denying their loss or experiences, and the quietness with which she tells them how they have to adjust their thinking is in lovely counterpart to the way she performs most of her magic, which is simply by bellowing “NO”. It’s the kind of loving assertiveness that is credible for this 12-year-old character, and is still difficult for at least one adult decades older.
Turning to A Face Like Glass, I’m going to pick up on one of the things I discussed in my Strange Horizons review, rather than anything Andrée said, although I agree wholeheartedly with everything in her response. That is the theme of seeing, which runs through the book in a variety of ways, from the obvious to the mind-bending. Of course Neverfell has to learn to see the wider world of Caverna, once she leaves the seclusion of Master Grandible’s tunnels, and that’s an extra-difficult task when everyone else wears Faces masking any true emotion. She has to learn to see friends who can be trusted – or at least friends she will trust, whether or not the trust is repaid – and has to discern the true nature of a Master Facesmith – the most adept of all liars in a society where everyone lies. She must learn whether she can use her own disadvantages as adroitly as others try to use them for their own gain. She has to see the deep injustice of Caverna’s society, and then, even harder, she has to see what she can do about it. That means, among other things, teaching those whom society has intentionally made faceless how to make themselves seen. And the culmination of this teaching is a climactic scene that is terribly poignant and quite hilarious at the same time. (The Face of Revolution is that of a deformed frog. Yes, you DO have to read just to find out what I’m talking about, if you haven’t grabbed the book already.) Then there’s Caverna itself, and the way attempts to see it truly drive you mad (and contagiously mad), and the fact that the narrative doesn’t just tell us about this, but winds the prose around so that you start to feel you just might be able to see Caverna truly too, with one more sentence, one more line…
Learning to see clearly, in both the personal and wider (even political) senses, is the type of emotional task that I feel is of huge importance to both children and adults, and it’s not sugarcoated here as an easy thing to learn, or as something that can be learned once and then you’re finished. And yet, after we’ve been given an original and fully-developed world in Caverna, and had a fabulous character let loose on it, there’s something very special still to come. The epilogue has to be read after the book, as its joyful resolution of sorrows and injustices would lose much of its power otherwise, and so I’ll try to convey what it does in general terms. In a few short sentences, the reader is allowed a glimpse of the story just read, from outside, from another perspective, and sees that same, wonderful story, framed to give a completely different view.
As I said at the beginning, I’m not limited to “I love this book but…” but rather can write “I love it and…” So here are my “and”s. I love A Most Improper Magick for its delightful, and often very funny, fantasy Regency England. I love its heart, and its serious side, with the loving and – despite the many squabbles and misunderstandings – united family. If you enjoy any of these things in your books, you should read it, and then you should read the sequel, which is just as much fun and even tighter in structure. Kat goes to Bath! And it is everything Regency Bath with magic could be! There’s a third wonderful MG Kat and a YA novella is apparently in the works, which I am eagerly anticipating. I also love A Face Like Glass, and for the reasons given above and because I think it does all the many things it does quite perfectly, I’m advancing it to the next round.
Congratulations to A Face Like Glass, which moves on to Round 3!