Not too long ago we were contacted by authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith about reviewing their new YA novel, Stranger, thanks to our previous interest in diverse post-apocalyptic fiction. I happily accepted the opportunity to read and review this book, but was admittedly nervous that I wouldn’t like it and then struggle with the review. My fears were utterly unfounded. What I found was an extremely exciting and well written book, with a diverse cast of characters.
Stranger is set in an apocalyptic future after a mysterious cataclysm hit the earth, causing all computers and electronics to stop working. After generations, very little is left of the earth we know and today’s culture is considered an ancient past by those who now live in this apocalyptic landscape. People scattered and new smaller societies, similar to something from the Old West, began to form. Los Angeles now lies in ruin, but the city of Las Anclas has sprung up in its place. It’s still just as culturally diverse as Los Angeles was, but with a new group of mutated humans as well. This mutation, called “the Change”, happened to some human beings, giving them awesome powers and abilities. Sometimes the Change would cause these people to physically change, gaining wings or cat claws, while others were granted super strength, or the ability to speed up time. Those who have Changed are often feared and discriminated against by the “Norms”—those who haven’t changed.
Humans were not the only ones to change in this new world: the animals and plants all began to adapt into more powerful and even monstrous creatures. There are rats the size of terriers, squirrels that can teleport, snakes that hunt in packs, and giant living pits similar to the sarlacc from Star Wars that gobble up anyone who comes near them. The plant life is no less troublesome, the most dangerous being the strange crystalline trees that take their beautiful jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Our story begins with Ross Juarez, a teenage prospector, who is being attacked by a bounty hunter hired by the ruthless King Voske after Ross obtained an ancient book during one of his last excavations. Ross nearly dies trying to escape the bounty hunter before he is rescued and brought to Las Anclas. He tries to adapt to life there, but the attack leaves him scarred and with a mysterious power he doesn’t understand.
Though Ross is our main protagonist, he shares the spotlight with several other characters. There’s Mia Lee, the awkward, loyal mechanic; Jennie Riley, the spunky, sexy school teacher and Ranger; Yuki Nakamura, the shy, clever boy with dreams of being a prospector like Ross; and Felicité Wolfe, the town scribe and daughter of one of the most powerful families in Las Anclas. Out of the five main characters, all are people of color, one has a disability, and one (potentially two) are queer.
I love apocalyptic fiction. I love reading about human beings surviving in impossible and terrifying circumstances, because honestly it gives me hope that no matter how awful things get that humanity will survive. But there is often an unsettling dark underbelly to apocalyptic fiction—something I have discussed before. Namely, the lack of diversity in an already horrifying apocalyptic world seems to imply that various minority groups were exterminated, which of course is just terrible. In the few books that do include minorities, those minorities tend to suffer much more in this apocalyptic future than the often straight white male main characters. Thankfully, many of the issues I have with apocalyptic fiction are not a problem in Stranger. Since my previous concerns all revolve around diversity, I will primarily focus on how diversity is portrayed in Stranger.
As I mentioned earlier all of our five main characters are people of color, but they are not the only people of color in the novel. The whole city of Las Anclas is populated with a diverse cast, and after reading so many books with nothing but white people in them, it was awesome to read about a place that actually realistically represents our world as it is today. On top of this, our cast is not entirely straight either, which is another rarity for fiction, especially YA fiction. In fact, Stranger was the cause of some controversy a couple years ago because of one of the book’s gay characters. Brown and Smith were told by one publishing house that, if they wanted their book to be published, they would have to make their gay character, Yuki, straight. Thankfully, when Penguin’s Viking Books imprint picked up the book, they made no such dramatic and offensive demands of the authors—to my great relief, because this book was amazing. Neither Yuki nor his boyfriend Paco are ever written as “gay characters” and by this I mean while their sexuality is an important part of who they are, they are not defined by their sexuality either. Paco’s primary interest is in music and Yuki wants to explore the world as a prospector; it’s these things that define them more than anything else. Their relationship is just as sweet and interesting as the other characters’. Yuki and Paco aren’t the only gay characters either. Two side characters, Becky and Brisa, are in a lesbian relationship, and while the two may be supporting characters, they are certainly not unimportant or barely seen in the story. There are also several background characters who are also queer, such as the lesbian couple who helps train the rats at Las Anclas.
There is another character who I greatly suspect is also queer, though I am not sure if this was the authors’ intent. Mia Lee comes off very strongly as an asexual or perhaps demisexual character. LGBTQ+ characters are rarely given the spotlight, especially queer characters who aren’t just gay or lesbian. I was so certain Mia was going to fall on the asexual spectrum and was excited for this to be confirmed, but it never was. And by never was, I mean no one specifically used the words asexual or demisexual. Mia mentions her lack of interest in relationships right from the beginning of the book. She mentions that she went on only one date before she was eighteen and that was only because she didn’t want to turn eighteen and never have gone on a date. Her father even explains to her that there are some people who just aren’t interested in relationships and that’s okay, but she still often feels, as she describes, like a freak for not feeling the same attraction as the other teens her age. As the story develops, however, it becomes clear Mia does have an interest in romantic relationships, and in the end there are even some implications that she could be interested in a physical relationship as well. Whether Mia is just a little bit of an awkward late bloomer or a character that falls on the asexual spectrum, I’m not sure, but I seriously hope that she will realize she is asexual, or grey-ace, or demisexual. It would be great to see some representation for lesser known sexualities.
Speaking of potential representation, another thing I loved about Stranger was that there is an honest-to-God shot at a canon polyamorous relationship. I don’t want to give too much away, but three of our main characters end up on something of a three-way date with everyone’s knowledge and consent. Two of our main female characters who are best friends realize they like the same guy, but instead of the story devolving into the tedious angsty love triangle that most YA novels do, the two girls decide that they should ask the guy if he would go to a dance with both of them. Our male main character agrees and three attend the dance together. During the story it is constantly reinforced that these three characters are perfect for each other, both as friends and romantically. However, at the end of this novel only two of the three share a kiss, so I’m not certain if that will end the potential polyamorous relationship or not. I certainly hope the potential is at least explored further.
None of these relationships are ever demonized or stereotyped. In the world of Stranger, homosexuality and polyamory seem not to be an issue for anyone. People’s attitude toward sex in general actually seems to be better than it is now. At one point Felicité and her mother discuss safe sex, but in no way is this seen as preachy. Felicité further explains that she would prefer to wait to have sex and she is never praised or made fun of for this decision. Jennie and her boyfriend Indra and are sleeping together and at no point is she slut-shamed for it or demeaned for having sex when she isn’t married.
Gender inequality also seems to be a thing of the past. Never once did I feel there was any pressure for the women of Las Anclas to confirm to gender norms nor were there any positions within the town that was for a particular gender only. The mayor of the city was female, as was the Sheriff, and several female character were Rangers, who are essentially the main fighters and warriors in the city. There was blessedly a lack of violence toward women in the book as well, which is a rarity for apocalyptic literature. Even the villain Voske had fighters of all genders, with his own daughter holding a high ranking position in his army, and of all the horrors mentioned in his city, violence towards women is never one of them. There is still some body-shaming, however; at one point Felicité thinks about how much “better” her body is than Jennie’s, whose body she describes as big and round; there are some more spoilerific reasons why this is, though, so I think it’s excusable and in character for Felicité. Plus, Felicité is not portrayed as a character whose decisions are lauded, so her body-shaming comes off as just as petty as any of the other annoying things she does.
So outside of the killer trees, wildlife, and bandit kings, Las Anclas almost seems like a paradise. However, some of the Las Anclas does seem to suffer from some ableism—though it’s very clear our authors don’t share the prejudice and are able to portray the struggles of those with disabilities in a realistic way. Ross injures his arm at the beginning of the book to the point where it is now almost unusable. He has to relearn how to live his life without the use of his left arm, all while also dealing with PTSD, because of the traumatic event that happened to him at the beginning of the novel. Some of the other teenagers don’t understand and even make fun of Ross for his physical and mental disability. Author Rachel Manija Brown is a therapist who primarily treats patients for PTSD, and it shows in the novel. Not only is Ross’s disability portrayed remarkably well, but the effect his disability has on those who try and help him is expertly shown. As someone with several close friends who struggled with PTSD, I was thoroughly impressed by the portrayal.
The main issue in Las Anclas has more to do with those who have Changed than anything else, and while it nice to see a world remarkably free of the much of the discrimination we experience today, Las Anclas is not a utopia. The discrimination that people who are Changed face is extremely well-written and done in such a way that it can work as an allegory for almost any type of prejudice we experience today. And unlike other fantasy novels, Stranger makes this allegory with actual diverse voices instead of just having everyone be white, straight, able-bodied, and male.
This book was exciting, funny, entertaining, and thankfully lacking in stereotypes and obvious tropes. There are three more books set to be a part of this series and I can’t wait to read more about these exciting and interesting characters. You should definitely order Stranger online or head to your local bookstore and buy it immediately. It is well worth your money.