YA lit is a changeable beast, and storytelling trends come and go like tides. You’ve got your magic schools, your dystopias, your paranormal romances, just to name a few. Furthermore, even when the settings vary wildly, similar themes or plot devices may crop up. For example, I’ve read two different speculative fiction books in which the characters who have magic powers received them as a result of disease. At first I was a little wary of this concept, as pandemic stories that are poorly researched, badly thought out, or not well-written can be a fresh new hell. But both of the books presented stories with interesting conceptions of disease and the limits of magical power.
The first book, Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones, is set in a near-future America that was threatened by a deadly virus. A vaccine was developed and administered to the world’s population, but it had adverse effects on a minute percentage of people. These select few developed one of a variety of superpower-esque abilities ranging from incredible strength to eidetic memory to the ability to basically Imperius anyone they feel like controlling. Out of fear of these powers, anyone who displays them has to register with the government or be branded a traitor. Our protagonist Ciere is one of the many who’ve gone for option C: the life of crime. She has the power to create illusions, and uses them as a way to facilitate bank robberies and other heists.
Marie Lu’s newest novel, The Young Elites, also focuses on a world in the aftermath of a disease like nothing they’ve seen before—but this story is set in a Renaissance Italy-esque fantasy world, and so they’re less equipped to deal with things like public health disasters. (It also has an illusion-creating protagonist, interestingly enough.) Adelina Amouteru is one of the many people who survived the crippling ordeal of this disease, called the blood fever, as a child, but it left her scarred; she lost an eye to infection, and the disease changed the color of her hair to an unnatural silver. The survivors of the fever are all marked in some such way with strange scarring or discolorations, and society curses them as malfetti, believing them to be magnets for bad luck and misfortune. There are, however, a few malfetti who are whispered about with grudging respect—the secret team known as the Young Elites.
These malfetti received strange abilities along with their markings—pyrokinesis, the ability to communicate with animals, and weather manipulation, just to name a few—and use their powers to rebel against the malfetti-hating status quo. When Adelina discovers that she has the power to conjure illusions, she is accepted into their fold, and has to learn how to call her powers on command.
The idea of magic power being transferred via a disease or a vaccine is a fascinating writing choice. We’ve talked before about how important it is for magic powers to have limits, because the easier it is for a protagonist to get what they want, the more boring the story becomes. In these situations, because having a magic power is (unlike other diseases’ adverse effects) an enviable trait, the writer first has to set up a situation in which the characters can’t control whether they get said powers or not. In Illusive’s case, this is done by making the powers a side effect of the vaccine that only occurs in a fraction of a percentage of the population. Everyone can get the vaccine, but only a few will get the abilities. There’s no way to modify your genetic makeup to ensure that you’ll wake up the day after your vaccination and start moving things with your mind.
The same is true of The Young Elites: the blood fever rips through the population, and while the children who survive are all marked, only some of them can perform any sort of magic. The fever itself is dangerous and painful, and those who survive are almost inevitably disfigured in some way. Even if you had some anachronistic knowledge of how disease was transferred and you exposed yourself to the disease on purpose, the chance of you gaining Young Elite-esque powers is minimal, and the suffering from both the fever itself and the societal prejudice toward malfetti are not worth the gamble.
On one hand, I certainly don’t hope that this concept gains the traction of, say, the dystopian YA novel. In the wrong author’s hands, it could unnecessarily misrepresent the way diseases or vaccines work. For example, although I found the Maze Runner series a fun read, the medical justification for the plot was so far-fetched that I could barely suspend my disbelief. Furthermore, a badly written story could do one worse thing: it could romanticize disease. It’s a common response after having read a fantasy story to wish against all odds that you, too, are a part of that magical world. There’s a reason that bookstores sell fake Hogwarts letters, after all—we all hoped that ours was just lost in the mail. But any story that leaves the reader wishing that they could be infected with a disease just so they can have magic powers leaves me very uncomfortable. It could have the potential to foster very unhealthy (literally, unhealthy) attitudes about sickness in the real world. As long as they’re well-written, though, I would still love to see more books in this vein, as the checks and balances necessary to balance the the magical powers against their source are a truly interesting limit on the spread of magic in a given universe.