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Young Adult Fantasy Novels That Sweep Readers Away

Category: Art & Culture,Books

There’s no mystery to Neal Shusterman and his son Jarrod Shusterman’s DRY (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up): It’s a propulsive action thriller about our failure to grapple with climate change. Suffused with zombie-movie dread, it’s told in the present tense, adding to the feeling of immediacy. In four alternating points of view and quick “snapshots” of strangers in crisis, “Dry” tells the story of the Tap-Out: a time in the possibly near future when all the faucets in Southern California run dry. The Central Valley is desiccated — the media have dubbed it “the Pacific Dust Bowl” — and the price of produce has skyrocketed. Arizona and Nevada back out of a “reservoir relief deal,” shutting the floodgates on their dams to preserve water for their own populations.

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And society breaks down. Four very different teenagers — Alyssa, Kelton, Jacqui and Henry — join forces in a desperate search for Kelton’s doomsday-prepper family’s hidden shelter and bottled water supply. The kids drive through dried-out riverbeds (“really just the memory of a river,” Kelton notes); through woods smelling of ever-growing wildfires and littered with vicious survivalists. Alyssa is repeatedly threatened with rape or sexual abuse. The book’s only humor comes from Henry, a manipulative little future titan of industry who spouts bizdev jargon yet observes, like the kid he is, “If we don’t adhere to the convention of calling shotgun, what rule of law is left to us?” The writing can be clunky (“My God! It happened in the blink of an eye!” and “It may be his turn to go down with the ship” appear on the same page) and character development isn’t this novel’s strong suit. But the depiction of our collective blindness to the environmental devastation we’re wreaking — as well as the irresponsible way mass media cover it — is gripping.

Nothing feels familiar about the setting of Alex London’s BLACK WINGS BEATING (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $17.99; ages 12 to 18). London, author of the underappreciated “Proxy,” gives us a brilliantly crafted high fantasy about a society in which survival depends on falconry; even bird haters will be spellbound. There’s a lot of world-building right up front, which means it can take a little while for readers to find their wings. It’s worth it, though, as we meet Brysen, a young man smitten with his handsome hawk master, and his twin sister, Kylee, who has all the falcon-whispering skills Brysen lacks and desperately craves. Kylee hates her secret ability to speak the ancient language of birds — the Hollow Tongue — and wants only to escape.

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London conjures up a vivid world in which even the metaphors are bird-focused. Brysen’s moods are “like hummingbirds, fleeting and fast”; Kylee’s memory of their father’s abuse “pinned her in its talons, mantled its wings over her mind.” We meet anti-bird-taming religious fanatics who crawl in the dirt, refusing to look at the sky, and “battle boys” who fight for coins (“bronze”) in deep pits, wearing feathers and bone bracelets, covered in brilliantly colored tattoos (“they looked like a flock of bloodthirsty parrots”). There are warriors on kites, ice snakes, a blood-birch forest. The vivid story has flashes of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Max” (the woman-powered remake, not the Mel Gibson original), but “Black Wings Beating” is its own wondrous thing. London has a gift for depicting physicality — brutal fights, delicious food, muscled bodies. The heroes of his epic — there will clearly be a sequel — are a gay boy and a strong girl who needs to accept her own power. “A falcon could mount to the stars and still count the hairs on a goat’s head,” Kylee muses. “So could a good imagination.” Indeed.


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