Tangent Online

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Subterranean Online, Summer 2011

E-mail Print

Subterranean Online, Summer 2011, Special YA issue

“The Fox” by Malinda Lo
“Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler
“Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan
“The Ghost Party” by Richard Larson
“Their Changing Bodies” by Alaya Dawn Johnson
“Seek-No-Further” by Tiffany Trent
“Mirror, Mirror” by Tobias Buckell
“Valley of the Girls” by Kelly Link
“Demons, Your Body, and You” by Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

Guest edited by Gwenda Bond, this special YA issue of Subterranean Online contains nine stories. Four of them are in the horror genre, but only because they contain ghosts, vampires, or demons—they are all actually comedies. Three of the other stories are fantasy, and science fiction is the least represented, with two.

The themes of these stories are typical of the YA genre—most of them feature young female protagonists, and all of them focus on challenges of youth and coming of age: teen love angst, peer pressure, sexual identity, parental relationships. The range of stories feels very balanced, and there is a surprising amount of thematic depth offered by the selections here.

This issue begins with “The Fox,” which is Malinda Lo’s first short story publication. It features characters from her novel The Huntress. Kaede is a King’s Huntress doing a survey of the borders, and she takes shelter from the rain in a cave with strange animal paintings on the walls. The seeming movements of the paintings foreshadow a foxlike shapeshifter that appears in Kaede’s dream and takes the shape of a woman she loves and left. Kaede wakes to struggle with both the shapeshifter, a fey creature that seduces its victims and drinks their souls, and her own questions about how much she would give up to be with the one she loves again.

It’s a bit of a slow read, with the dramatic conflict a ways into the story, but the prose is lyrical and lovely. The world introduced here, with fey creatures and divided loyalties between a King and a Fairy Queen, is intriguing enough that I would probably read the novel with the same characters. As a stand-alone piece, however, I was a bit lukewarm—I think it might do better as a chapter in the novel. The heroine seems strong and resourceful, but I had problems identifying with her—I couldn’t help experiencing an annoyance that Kaede just saw this woman 48 days ago and will see her again in a couple of months, yet there’s a part of her tempted to give up her life to make love to a simulacrum of this absent love. There is probably a deeper reason why Kaede is so wound up over this woman, but since it’s a short story and I’m not privy to those reasons, all I’m left with is a desire to slap her until she sees some sense and gets a little perspective.

I suppose young love is like that—so consuming that we’d throw away our lives for the pleasure of a moment. I can see how this might appeal to a younger audience full of longings and hormones, but for crusty, unromantic me it wasn’t enough.

In Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women,” the overly nosy Jude discovers that her 15-year-old daughter Chloe has a boyfriend named Eli. Jude tells Chloe to bring Eli to dinner, and with some adroit questioning and a dollop of intuition, she discovers he’s a vampire. To Chloe’s mortification, Jude questions Eli about the life of a vampire—namely, why he prefers high school girls, and why he can’t do something socially useful with his immortality instead of just going to high school over and over. After Chloe goes to her room in a huff, Eli and Jude’s conversation treads on more dangerous philosophical and personal grounds.

The writing is fast-paced and funny, and the story hits on all sorts of topical subject matter—Facebook spying, teen love, and vampires a la Twilight. Through its lightheartedness runs a more sober vein that de-romanticizes the fantasy about eternal life as a vampire. The story has lots of mainstream appeal and I think most people (at least, most women) would enjoy it.

The next story is a high fantasy called “Queen of Atlantis,” by Sarah Rees Brennan. When poisoned water washes upon the shores each summer, it’s time to sacrifice the princess in a ceremony in which she is sent out in a boat and drifts back to shore later, unharmed. Our heroine, Princess Mede, is undergoing her first sacrifice, as her older, more beautiful, more princess-like sister Genia got married and left the kingdom. After Mede is sent out on her boat, she is beached upon a land where everything is dead, from zombie rats to the rank, stinking ruins of a palace. Mede meets a dead resident of the city and soon learns a terrible secret about her own kingdom.

While I was reading this story, I absolutely loved it. It drew me in with eloquent prose, evocative images, a flawed but lovable heroine, and a truly princely young man. And then, the same way Mede is cast on poisoned shores, I felt that I too was cast on a poisoned shore when the story ended. It just made me so upset! I think this is the type of story that causes readers to bombard the author with requests to rewrite the ending. If I reveal more it’ll be a spoiler, so I’ll just say that it’s a great story, possibly the best of this collection…but I don’t want to read it again.

Richard Larson’s “The Ghost Party” begins with a drunk and miserable teenaged girl named Charlee, mortified at having kissed her best friend Amanda, being taken to a ghost party by her friend Taco. The ghost parties are gatherings on the edge of town where ghosts come out of a bonfire and turn the living into ghosts as well. As Charlee stumbles drunkenly through the night, amidst overheard conversations about a “Dark Lord” and a “sacred ritual,” she agonizes about her crush on Amanda, how much she misses her dead father, and her thoughts about deadbeat guys like Taco. 

Why would anyone be so silly as to go to a party where you’ll possibly get turned into a ghost? Well, teenage behavior is pretty irrational, and with that in mind the story is quite plausible within its own world. Larson’s deadpan approach to ghosts comes across quite funny, and not at all scary. The story is well-written enough that I think it would appeal to adults as well as teens—males too.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Their Changing Bodies” stars Judy, who is at summer camp hanging out with her sister Alice and a bunkmate named Sonia. Judy is a high school junior-to-be whose crush from the summer before, Brandon, has somehow gone from plump and approachable to gorgeous, hot-bodied, and popular. Although they shared a first kiss the year before, he’s changed so much that she can’t muster the courage to talk to him. Meanwhile, Tom and Pablo, the hottest boys at camp, invite the girls to the pine maze at night for flashlight tag. When Tom, Pablo, and their buddies turn out to be vampires with serrated metal pop-in fangs, the girls run for their lives in the woods.

This story has a very unique take on vampirism and how it’s spread. It’s one of my favorites of the issue, full of feel-good teenage girl empowerment and hilarious dialogue. Recommended.

Tiffany Trent’s “Seek-No-Further” is the coming-of-age story of Ilsa, whose father disappears on a night of heavy snow when she saves one calf and her mother buries another under the Seek-No-Further tree, the oldest and most climbable tree in the orchard. As the days go on and her father remains missing, Ilsa discovers that her mother, who had seven other babies who didn’t survive, is pregnant again. As the pregnancy advances, we see Ilsa dealing with growing up while she struggles to help her mother amidst poverty, lack, and missing her father. She sees her mother slowly healing from deep emotional wounds of a marriage that Ilsa suspected wasn’t ideal. Then she finds that the Seek-No-Further tree is producing a lone apple that hums in her father’s voice and is the source of an uncomfortable truth.

The tone of this story is bittersweet—Ilsa is forced to mature through hardship and difficulty—but the sadness is tempered by hope. I found the story authentic and moving, a well-constructed and satisfying read.

Tobias S. Buckell’s “Mirror, Mirror” takes place in a future in which almost everyone wears glasses or contact lens with datachips and inline projectors that provide an “augmented reality” to their wearers. People see a world enhanced with tailored advertisements, pop-up information, and, if you’d paid for it, you can have virtual cosmetics automatically airbrushing you to become more attractive in everyone else’s eyes.

Aden is a “face hunter,” who, because he’s one of the few who isn’t able to use the augmenting glasses, studies naked faces to find the new models for visually-tattooed brand sponsorships—people who will stand out under augmented vision and attract the gaze. Ironically, the faces that best take augmentation are the plain, average faces, the ones falling “within standard deviation.” Aden meets Kiri (or Riki—oddly enough, the glaring error of her name switching letters wasn’t caught by the editor), a cashier in a café who is beautiful but wants to become plain so she can look beautiful in augmented reality—she wants to be as “amazing in the false world as she is amazing in the real.”

It seems to me difficult to do a good young adult science fiction story, as in a relatively small space the author has to give the reader enough of a context of a strange and different world to understand what’s going on. This story succeeds in doing so, providing a concise and enjoyable read with enough depth that it got me thinking about it for a while after I read it. I’m not sure of the accuracy of the premise that average faces are “plain,” as I thought it’s the faces deviating least from the average that tend to be considered the most beautiful—but there are so many levels of beauty, and perhaps here the one best expressed is that beauty = truth. Anyhow, the story is topical, interesting, and well-written, and I think it would appeal to both YA and audiences beyond.

Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” explores a strange future world in which the rich all hire contracted “Faces” to be the public personages for their children. It seems that when rich children come of age, they also get pyramids built for them as private burial chambers, in which they can put things they want to use in the afterlife.

The narrator is a young male who is popular and attractive, but rather cruel and jaded; his sole goals seem to be to have sex with as many girls as possible, either his peers or their Faces, and to cause disruptions to the adults—called the “Olds.” His twin sister Hero is so bothered by his behavior and possible plans to kill a lot of people that she wants to kill herself; she takes him into her pyramid, to which only she knows the combination to get out, and intentionally allows a snake to bite and poison her. It’s at this point that the story actually begins. As Hero lies dying, the narrator flashes back to things he’s done, things reflecting the emptiness of his life, and what led up to his being entombed alive.

If I weren’t reviewing this story, I would have stopped reading within the first few paragraphs. As a reader, I felt dumped into a completely unfamiliar world, with events shared in tantalizing but frustratingly vague and non-chronological scenes. Nothing is spoon-fed to the reader; only hints are given as to certain premises of this world and certain major happenings. Various Egyptian death themes are woven throughout the story and I never understood why.

That said, I read the story a second time, slowly, and it became much richer and clearer for me (although still not that clear). It really is quite an amazing story—through a lens that’s disturbing and very unique, it speaks to issues of youth identity and search for purpose, and alienation from parents and society. I suspect this story might not appeal to the average YA reader—it seems more like something I’d have read in my AP English class in high school, in which someone else would analyze it for me before I could appreciate it—but if you want to give the story a shot, the payoff for patience and focus might be worth it.

Genevieve Valentine’s “Demons, Your Body, and You” follows a similar tone as “Ghost Party” and “Younger Women,” treating a supernatural-type creature as normal within a high-school-aged reality, with light, funny prose. Here, the creatures we deal with are demons, although we simply hear a lot about them and don’t actually encounter one as a character. The narrator’s neighbor and high school colleague, Katie, has been impregnated by a demon, and this is the story of the growth of a friendship between the two girls as the narrator witnesses Katie’s strength in facing gossip, condemnation, and persecution by classmates, teachers, and church members.

There are some really funny parts to this light piece about teenage pregnancy—I particularly enjoyed the visuals of the abortion protesters who aren’t sure what their stance is on aborting demon babies. It’s a quick, fun read.