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In Hollywood, Stories About People of Color Are Still Rare. These Y.A. Fantasy Novels Pick Up the Slack.


While writing this retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s famously dark “The Red Shoes,” McLemore, the author of four previous novels, including the National Book Award-longlisted “When the Moon Was Ours,” embraced a non-gender-conforming identity. In an author’s note, McLemore describes a research trip to Strasbourg with their transgender husband. “People of color existed in medieval Europe. As did the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community, though their conception of their own identities would likely have been far different from today …. Girls like me were here 500 years ago. So were the boys like the one alongside me now.”

Five hundred years separate the brown teenage girls in “Dark and Deepest Red,” and yet both instinctually seek protection from the popular white girls in town. “The brown of her skin has drawn the suspicion of a city,” Lavinia worries in ancient Strasbourg. “Maybe these girls, with their complexions that seem poured from spring cream, can veil her from it.” In a modern-day town called Briar Meadow, 16-year-old Rosella monitors her own appearance, straightening her hair and snacking on lemon slices to keep up with the Pipers and Sylvies in her high school.

McLemore is a writer of extreme lushness, and these characters see the world in magnificent color. Fabric is the “same blue-touched green as wet sage.” A mother has “eyes like juniper berries. Green and brown and purple all at once.” The young scientist Emil tries to flirt with Rosella from his garden shed chemistry lab, turning a flame “the bright yellow of a field daffodil.” To read this novel is to fall into a trance of language.

That sense of dreamy reverie is more successful in the old Strasbourg sections, where Lavinia battles an accusation of witchcraft, suspected of being the evil source of the dancing plague that has overtaken the city. She panics less for her own self than for the safety of her love, Alifair, who binds his chest and is prettier than any other boy in town. And one wishes too that this tale, the sexier and sweeter of these two love stories, were told less in moments of flashback and more in the urgent present tense that McLemore writes so well.

But the crescendo of the novel, with both romances spiraling to feverish conclusions, takes the breath away. McLemore offers what will be for many readers a kind of wish fulfillment — the joy of being able to simply say “Finally!” when same-sex crushes couple up.

The same matter-of-fact approach distinguishes the gay teenage hero in Adam Silvera’s INFINITY SON (Harper Teen, 368 pp., $18.99; ages 14 and up), the start of a promised series. Silvera’s world-building is elaborate — a gritty New York City in which power-wielding celestials battle abusive specters and share subway space with the rest of us — but the novel shows that sexual identity is unremarkable.

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