(The Change #1)
by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
Years ago, I read a book by Sherwood Smith called Wren to the Rescue. I fell in love with the characters and the world the author created. That book really stoked my love for fantasy literature. So when I saw this book at the library and read the synopsis, I thought I'd give it a try... because it really sounded like my sort of thing.
But, after less than a fifth of the way in, I was struggling. Stranger is just... clumsy. After a strong start with Ross being chased by a bounty hunter through a perilous desert, during which he 1) almost gets turned into a tree, and 2) almost gets eaten by another tree, I thought things would only get better. But things got boring and confusing really quickly.
Each of the first five chapters are from different points of view... and each of those points of view introduces multiple characters. My head was absolutely spinning. I couldn't keep anyone straight, and part of the reason was because of the weak characterization. So far, each character is just a name and a trait. Even the dialogue (which is weak and juvenile) doesn't really help the reader distinguish between characters.
This book also tries way too hard to be diverse... and it makes little sense. This is supposed to be many years in the future, and yet most people seem to have stayed within their own ethnic groups for mating purposes, leading to characters with certain physical and cultural traits that match perfectly with their surnames. The only exception appears to be the "mean girl", who seems to be a mixed-race character (she has ancestors with very Chinese-sounding names, laments that her hair is not a "true black" -- at least when she's not dyeing it blond, and has a blue-eyed father with an English surname). All of those point-of-view characters, and the only one who's even part white is a villain? It just seems subtly racist to me. (To be clear, I don't have a problem with a white person being the villain. But when the only white or part-white major characters in the book are portrayed as the bad guys, it's a little offensive -- just as it would be if it were any other race. Had one of the protagonists been white as well, I probably wouldn't even have noticed the race issue!) Aside from ethnic diversity, the authors have also thrown in sexual diversity. At 18%, I'd already encountered heterosexual characters, homosexual characters, and an asexual character. Again, it came across as clumsy, because those sexual preferences are some of the only defining characteristics of those characters (so far, anyway).
While the world is definitely interesting, some of the minor characters have amusing stories (like the grandmother who accidentally burned down the schoolhouse with a mutant menopausal hot flash), and I'm curious about what the cataclysm was that caused everything to start mutating, I'm too exhausted from trying to keep all the characters straight to want to continue. Reading this one already feels like a chore.
So, in the final analysis, the reasons why I didn't finish Stranger are as follows:
- way too many characters
- clumsy attempts at diversity
- subtle racism
- it's just not holding my interest