I was very excited when I first heard this current summer issue of Subterranean Magazine, mostly because it’s a YA special edited by Gwenda Bond, which already made me prick my ears up. But add to that fiction by the likes of Malinda Lo, Kelly Link, Alaya Dawn Johnson and my absolute favourite YA author, Sarah Rees Brennan, and I was bound to bounce about it.
The good news is that my excitement was justified and then some – this issue contains some of the best short fiction I’ve read all year, and it’s one of the most consistent collected works I’ve read in a very long time. I kept waiting for there to be at least one story which irritated, bored or disappointed me, and it never came. The range of stories is fantastic, and showcases the possibilities of YA speculative fiction for readers of all ages.
“The Fox,” by Malinda Lo, is a gentle interlude from the world of her novels Ash and Huntress, in which fairy tales are not confined to heterosexual patterns. This story of a King’s Huntress tells a quest-in-a-cave story straight from Arthurian or Frankish mythology, only with the seductive enchantress and the noble knight both female, and a lost love story hovering in the background. Quite lovely, though it did leave me wondering if it would mean more if I had read the copy of Huntress which is staring at me from my To Read shelf.
“Younger Women,” by Karen Joy Fowler is a wonderful story, and one which tackles a subject dear to my heart: the downright creepiness of eternal vampire men lusting after teenage girls. This deft three-hander conveys the awful awkwardness of the relationship between a teenage girl who knows everything about life and love, and a mother desperate not to lose her daughter to the mistakes she can see spiralling out in the road ahead of her. I very much liked that the vampire lover actually felt and sounded like the old man he was, rather than the youthful face he presented (kids these days…) and I loved the sharp, bittersweet voice of the mother who got the best lines, always, and felt completely authentic. This story hurt my heart, and I’ll never forget it.
“Queen of Atlantis,” by Sarah Rees Brennan uses a bunch of fairy tale tropes and mythological references to retell the story of Andromeda. I liked the way she explored the role of the princess and, through the protagonist and her absent sister as well as another legendary figure, demonstrated the importance to a princess’s life of patriotism and politics, far more than any notions of fairy tale romance. The world was also quite dark and complicated, as viewed through the lens of an innocent girl. And the ending… gave me chills!
“The Ghost Party,” by Richard Larson is a subtle story which captures the voice and internal panic of a teenage girl for whom the world is Totally Ending. The supernatural threat of the ghost party interweaves with the very real threats to the safety of a girl like Charlee, and the portrayal of her friendship with Amanda and what it could overcome was incredibly uplifting.
“Their Changing Bodies,” by Alaya Dawn Johnson tells one of the most unromanticised teen vampire stories I’ve ever read, undercutting the myth with some gross-out humour and a very subversive method of “slaying” said vampires. I love that she addresses the question of menstrual blood in the vampire mythology, and allows the girls in the story to conquer any sense of embarrassment about their bodies.
“Seek-No-Further,” by Tiffany Trent is a grim rural family story about a girl and her pregnant mother trying to cope on the farm once her drunken father disappears in a snowstorm. I haven’t read anything by this author before, and here she conveys a powerful sense of ‘domestic macabre’. I’ll be looking out for her future work!
“Mirror, Mirror,” by Tobias Buckell – an intriguing piece of science fiction which deals with themes of beauty and future fashion. The idea of everyone using lenses to filter the world, and a new standard of beauty revolving around ‘ordinary’ faces which take the tech better is a very clever one, and I like the way the tech and future culture is explored through a relationship which is kind of doomed because, when it gets right down to it, love at first sight is a stupid idea. Fans of Scott Westerfeld’s YA books, particularly the Uglies series and my own favourite of his works, So Yesterday (the one about a cool hunter) will enjoy the themes explored here.
Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” was a difficult story – the kind that forces you to assemble each puzzle piece and relies on the reader giving an awful lot of trust to the writer, to bring it all together later on. I felt that my diligence and my trust were absolutely rewarded, and all of the fascinating and scene fragments seeded early on made absolute sense. As soon as I had finished it, I went back to the top and read it again all the way through, and loved it in its entirety. Imagine a world where the rich and powerful ‘Olds’ have an opportunity to hide their maniac teenage children and their scandalous doings from the media… and how much more alienated might those kids become from their parents, if they’re not even expected to behave well in public? This is an epic story of pyramids, conspicuous consumption, and Gossip Girl society, told by one of the best short story writers we have in our field. There are some stories which really are worth the time it takes to read them twice.
“Demons, Your Body, And You,” by Genevieve Valentine is a powerful, down to earth story about teenage pregnancy, in a world where demons are taken for granted. I loved this, it had a clear, authentic voice and a healthy amount of cynical humour. This is exactly the kind of story that reminds me why I love YA fiction, and after the grim and gritty tone of many of the stories in this issue, it was so very nice to be left with something that tasted of hope, and friendship, and the triumph of sensible young women.