It’s been a while since we reviewed Stranger, the first in a series set in a post-apocalyptic California desert. We really enjoyed the first book, both for its excellent story and worldbuilding, but also for its thorough and complex portrayal of a truly diverse cast. When I realized that the second book was available from my library, I jumped on the chance to learn more about the world of Las Anclas and its citizens.
Unfortunately, while Hostage delivers a compelling story with interesting new characters, I found myself disappointed by the lack of updates to the parts I found most compelling from the previous book.
Spoilers for both Stranger and Hostage below the jump!
Stranger ended with the town of Las Anclas successfully defending itself from an attack by the brutal and imperial-minded King Voske, with help from Ross’s Change powers. Hostage begins in the peace after the battle. With Ross in greater control of his powers over the deadly crystal trees, he, Yuki, and Mia set out to have a go at prospecting in the ruined city, which is flanked by the previously impassable trees. While they are outside the town, however, Ross is captured by a team of Voske’s spies and taken back to Gold Point. Voske prizes his ability to control the trees, and wants Ross to join forces with him. He encourages his daughter Princess Kerry to befriend Ross, and treats him as an honored guest, although Ross is hard-pressed to ignore the way he rules the rest of his people with a cruel iron fist. When the rescue party sent by Las Anclas encounters the princess alone on a ride, they take her hostage in return, hoping to push for an exchange with Voske.
While Ross lives under Voske’s thumb and tries to learn as much as he can about his powerful enemy, Kerry is taken back to Las Anclas, where she learns about fascinating new concepts like democracy and freedom of speech. Against her best intentions, Kerry finds herself making friends among her fellow teens in the town. When Voske refuses the hostage exchange, however, the town council votes that Kerry should be executed. Her new friends arrange for her to escape back to Las Anclas on the promise that she use her position as crown princess to free Ross and let him return as well.
Meanwhile, Ross has been forced to prospect in Gold Point’s own ruined city, Voske preying on Ross’s sense of kindness and threatening to murder his own citizens should Ross refuse. His tension with Voske comes to a head at the worst possible time: right before Kerry returns to Gold Point to free him. She enters the city to discover that Ross has attempted to kill Voske, and is slated for execution the next morning. She is forced to decide on the spot that it’s time for her to leave Gold Point as well, and orchestrates an escape. She frees Ross and together they blow up one of Gold Point’s dams, flooding the city (and, more importantly, Voske’s gunpowder stores) as they flee back to Las Anclas. Ross is reunited with Jennie and Mia, and Kerry abandons her father’s surname to become a private citizen of her new town.
It’s a gripping tale, all told, and an excellent addition to the canon that Stranger began. The insight into Voske’s tightly policed realm is a startling change from the rough-and-tumble democracy of Las Anclas, and leaving Voske wounded but not dead means that, whether or not he has a kingdom to help him, he’ll certainly be back for revenge before the series is over. The tension is high throughout; we’re not sure until the very end whether Kerry will follow through on her promise or return to the Machiavellian principles on which she was raised, and we are constantly concerned about Ross’s well-being as Voske’s demands weigh ever heavier on his psyche. All in all, the book really moves the world forward and sets the stage for new conflicts to appear in the third book.
It has been quite some time since I read the first book in this series, but the parts that stood out to me that I remembered and was looking forward to more of were mainly internal. While the plot and worldbuilding of the original were certainly fascinating, it was the characters’ relationships that really made it stand out to me. Unfortunately, while Kerry was a fascinating and morally ambiguous addition to the cast (and, as she’s half-Korean, the main cast remains entirely PoC) her pagetime detracted from the book’s ability to develop its other characters. Mia still gets a significant amount of space, but it is shared with Kerry, as she volunteers herself to be the princess’s bodyguard. Furthermore, Mia still struggles with the same issues from the first book: her lack of relationship experience and her inability to get the town to see her as anything but a clumsy kid who’s really good with machines but not so much with people.
Jennie does get some time; she is struggling with the death of her mentor Sera from the previous book, and Rachel Manija Brown’s familiarity with PTSD is clear in her chapters. She questions her own qualifications for battle and hates herself for the choices she is forced to make as a Ranger. Ross as well is suffering with PTSD from the lives he took during Stranger‘s battle for Las Anclas, as the semi-sentient crystal trees that grew from the people he killed haunt him with the memories of the people they once were.
The major problems I had with this book are… tricky to explain, because the way the plot worked, it would have been weirdly overpacked if it had included the parts I wanted to see. Firstly, as Ross was separated from Mia and Jennie for the majority of the book, there was not a lot of real progression to his poly relationship with the two girls. And as Jennie was dealing with her own psychological issues, there wasn’t a lot of interaction between her and Mia regarding it as well. I would have liked to see a genuine discussion between the three teens as they negotiated the boundaries of their relationship, especially because they are the first poly relationship I have ever seen in a YA book. On the flip side of this, because they were separated, it gave Ross time to learn to deal with his PTSD before he returned to the two girls.
Secondly, Yuki’s development and his relationship with Paco also took a backseat. The main point of conflict between them is that Paco discovers that his biological father is Voske. As his mother was killed during Voske’s attack in Stranger, Paco is coldly driven and wants nothing more than to hurt or kill Voske. When Yuki betrays Paco’s trust to help Kerry escape, Paco is livid and breaks up with him. They mend their relationship somewhat at the end of the book, but it’s no longer the comforting presence for Yuki that it once was. As he leaves Las Anclas shortly after their reconciliation to go on his first solo prospecting mission, I’m not sure what will happen with them in the future.
Finally, the entire conflict of Felicité being Changed versus her own internalized hatred of Changed people did not appear at all in this book. In fact, Felicité herself only appeared in ten or so pages, and then only to serve her typical role as troublesome spoiled girl. There is so much potential in this storyline, and I was disappointed to see that it was not developed further in this installment.
With Voske out of the picture for some time (Kerry and Ross’s destruction of the dam so weakened his power that his other towns rose up in revolt against him), I am not sure what the conflict of the next book is going to be. However, I do hope that the lack of external threat means that there will be more time to engage with the internal conflicts I so loved from the first book. All in all, Hostage is an exciting, if plot-heavy, addition to this series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.