Various ebook formats, $3.99 (B&N, Amazon)
It's been a while since I read a YA novel. Not quite as long as it's been since I was YA myself, but close. (Don't even think about asking how long that is; I'll only plead the fifth.) But there's been some exciting writing going on in the YA world for some time now, and much of it is either science fiction or fantasy. Since my son will soon be moving into that age bracket, I'm going to be familiarizing myself with what's out there and passing on some of my recommendations to you.
The first of these recommendations is Feyland: The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp. Before I discuss the book's plot or its themes, I want to say something up front. I have no sisters, my wife has no sisters, we have no teenage daughters, nor have I ever been a teenage girl. Teenage girls are some of the hardest characters in fiction for me to relate to. I can usually relate to children or women, but teenage girls don't think like I do. At all. I taught high school for a couple of years, so I have spent time around them. They just weren't on the same planet I was much of the time. (You could argue I'm not on the same planet as most people most of the time, but that's the subject of another post.)
Why do I bring this up? Ms. Sharp has created two distinct characters, one male and one female, and not only made me care about them but made me see the world through their very different eyes. I had some reservations when I first agreed to review this book because I wasn't sure I would be able to relate to the teenage female character. I'm very glad to say those reservations turned out to be completely unfounded.
There are two viewpoint characters in this novel, Jennet, the daughter of an executive in a computer game company, and Tam, a lonely young man having to take care of his brother because his mother makes a habit of going off her meds and disappearing for long stretches of time.
This novel, the author's first YA novel, is a blend of fantasy and near future science fiction. The Feyland in question is an immersive, full sensory video game being developed by the company where Jennet's father works. It was created by Thomas, a friend of her father, who dies before the book opens. As a high ranking executive, Jennet's father has a setup at home. Jennet isn't supposed to play it, but of course she does. In doing so, she ends up losing her soul to the Dark Queen of the Unseelie Court. The Queen tells Jennet she might be able to regain her soul, but only if she returns with a champion.
Jennet soon discovers that there's more going on here than just playing a game and losing. The realms of faery exist, and they're beginning to impinge on the "real" world. Instead of merely losing a sophisticated computer game, Jennet really has lost her soul and needs a champion to help her get it back. That's where Tam comes into the picture. The company has relocated, and Jennet has to attend a new high school. Tam is the best gamer in the school. Naturally, he's her choice for a champion.
And naturally it's not going to be that easy. There are both real world and game world obstacles to overcome. Jennet is no blushing damsel in distress. She's a take charge kind of girl who doesn't shy from a fight. And Tam is a true hero, in the sense that he makes the hard choices, even when they require sacrifice. This is demonstrated in how he cares for his younger brother, who has his own set of problems, and in how he copes with his mother's frequent absences. Tam and Jennet make a great team. Together they defeat enemies and surmount obstacles that neither one could handle alone.
Their relationship, initially antagonistic, grows and changes. While a romantic element does develop between them, that's not the focus of the book. Ms. Sharp handles the changing relationship well, making it believable and natural. I may never have been a teenage girl, but I was once a teenage boy. Tam's character brought back memories, not all of them pleasant. I wasn't any more popular than he is.
I mentioned this book was a blend of fantasy and near future science fiction. The science fiction elements were more like window dressing because the storyline needed to be set in a future where full sensory gaming is a reality. The concept of a computer game affecting the real world has been around almost as long as there have been computer games. None of that is not really a problem. This is a YA book, and the basic premise, the game world mixing with the real world, will probably be new to most of the intended audience. The emphasis is on the fantasy elements of the game and how those elements are drawn from some of the old ballads and folktales. And this is where the author really shines.
The characters Tam and Jennet meet are well drawn, even if they only show up for one or two scenes. The descriptions gave me clear visual pictures of what was going on. I especially liked the scene where Puck shows up in the real world to give Tam a warning when he and his brother are hiding from social services. They can hear the Wild Hunt in the distance, searching for Jennet, providing an eerie backdrop to their conversation.
I think this book succeeds as a YA novel on many levels. The characters are ones most teens can relate to. They are also presented positively, in spite of their flaws because they grow, change, and try to do the right thing no matter what the cost. I'm a firm believer that the first job of fiction is to tell an entertaining story before it tries to change us or enlighten us. Good and great fiction not only entertains, but shows us what we can be. The story is fast paced and entertaining, but at the same time Ms. Sharp presents a picture of what it means to be heroic.
A quick word about production values. I recently recounted an experience I had with horrid formatting in an ebook from a major publisher. I think I encountered three breaks in the text where the text skipped to the next page. Everything else was flawless. The cover art is colorful, eye-catching, and a good fit to the story. (Are you paying attention, New York? Here's another indie author doing what you should do with ebooks, only doing it better.)
Feyland: The Dark Realm is the first of a series, with at least two more planned. The second should be out sometime in the spring. I'm looking forward to reading it.
Oh, and by the way: bonus points if you can figure out some of the characters' last names before Ms. Sharp reveals them.