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.
In Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith we follow the lives of 5 teens:
- Ross, the main character, a prospector who escaped a bounty hunter and is in possession of a valuable but indecipherable book;
- Yuki, the would-be prince of Japan before his parents were killed and he was forced to flee, who is interested in one day becoming a prospector like Ross;
- Mia, the youngest town mechanic in history who welcomes Ross into her home;
- Jenny, the first Changed member of the City Guard; and
- Felicite, the daughter of the Mayor and Sheriff, who spends every possible moment in preparation to become the next generation’s Mayor.
There’s quite a lot of variety between these characters, and in Stranger they go through such a variety of experiences that something can be found for anyone to relate to.
Within these five protagonists is Yuki: would-be prince, and hopeful adventurer. Though not the main character, Yuki is the one character you’ve probably heard of in the buzz around this novel. Several years ago Stranger was allegedly refused by an agent— unless the authors made Yuki straight. Thankfully, the authors stuck with their vision.
I went into this book expecting Yuki’s arc to be the only thing I read it for. I was worried that the rest of the book would fall flat, and would rely too heavily on having A Gay Character or that Yuki would be Gay-with-a-capital-G. Much to my delight Stranger was very engaging, and Yuki’s gayness affected him only in that his love interest was a guy—which, in a world where there is no queerphobia, should be the case.
While some people are suspicious and wary when Ross arrives half dead near the gates, many town members such as Mia and Jennie welcome him in. A solitary treasure-hunter, called a “prospector,” he learns what being part of a community can mean. He struggles with PTSD, and finds it hard to acclimate to this new way of living after being used to the open sky. He begins going to school, gaining especially the skill to read. As the story unfolds we get more and more tidbits from Ross’ past. Romance also unfolds, in an interesting way.
But that’s not all… a violent ruler, Voske, rules close by this frontier town of 1,000 people. He is always trying to expand his rule and stomp out those who refuse it. The combination of that threat, the natural dangers of this supernatural desert, and the need to figure out what’s in the book that Ross has that made Voske send a bounty hunter after him, keeps the story moving.
But there’s also a lot of interpersonal interaction, character growth, and sweet, quiet moments throughout the story. The portrayal of PTSD was so good, and so unlike anything I’ve read before that it made me cry just because of the accuracy of it, and the relief of having it represented.
Ross and Yuki have only a few interactions, and Yuki doesn’t have that many chapters. I found his romance resolved like way way too quickly, especially in contrast to the other romances in the book. I even admit that I can see where some of the editors were coming from, with their suggestions to cut his POV. Looking at his inclusion simply though a lens of making a cohesive story, it doesn’t make sense to have him in there. None of his chapters really further anything, and he’s not necessary to a lot of the action. That said, I think it was incredibly important to keep in, and I’m glad the authors stuck with their vision. As a queer teen, seeing myself represented in a world with no queerphobia like that, not just as a minor character, but one with an actual POV… that sort of meant everything. And if I’m guessing right, his story will become more central to the plot in future books.
One thing I found interesting about the book was how The Change functioned in society—though power systems or prejudices tied in with race, religion, and sexual orientation are no more, a new rift formed around the Changed vs. the Norms. It’s actually incredibly similar to X-Men. It stuck out to me a lot though, because even though most Dystopian novels have something similar to this, the characters are also white, cis, and straight. So it was interesting to see this thing that is typically seen as an allegory for oppressed peoples to be used in a context with people who were once oppressed themselves. Especially because there’s this added layer of the fact that many of them do have power greater than that of the Norms… and augh, *happy squeaking* I feel like I could have an hours long conversation about this.
In the first few chapters, Mia seemed to be describing herself somewhere on the ace and aro spectrums. I knew to keep my hopes low, however, because there’s so many cases of characters who are aro-ace-coded until the one comes along. Unfortunately, that happened once again. That said, the issues are still touched on, and while it’s clear that Mia has some internalized ace/arophobia, it seems the rest of the world is pretty chill with people who don’t experience sexual or romantic attraction. Also I can forgive it a little bit because 1) Mia can still be demisexual/romantic and SORTA SPOILERS
2) there is a really interesting exploration of polyamory. Unfortunately, neither of those things make up with a character feeling “broken” when she doesn’t experience the same things as her friends, and then “ohhh this is what it feels like!” when she does experience it. That doesn’t sit right.
(EDIT: I spoke to Rachel Manija Brown and she confirmed that Mia is indeed demisexual! I still would have liked the narrative to be handled a little differently, but that was pretty exciting to hear!)
Lastly, I would have loved to see representation of trans and intersex people– I have my fingers crossed that the authors will explore this in the future books in this series. There is a growing number of YA speculative books that look at how sexuality will be viewed in the future, but none so far (that I know of) that look at the spectrums of gender and sex.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed Stranger—definitely definitely pick this one up, especially those looking for intersectionally diverse speculative YA. The characters were lovable and had compelling stories, the action was fast and intense, and yet it slowed down enough to give the characters some tender personal moments. Sexuality, gender, race and religion are accepted in a completely refreshing way.
Stranger is the first book in The Change Series, I am very, very excited to read the next one when it comes out! I’ve been looking for a good new YA series that includes major queer characters, and this looks like it could be the one!
Vee Signorelli is a passionate feminist who spends their time writing, reading, hunting through queer book tags on tumblr, and keeping up with school. Huge fan of actual representation in books and TV shows, lover of theatre, cultural studies, mythology, and science. Vee is the admin and co-founder of GayYA.org. Find them on Twitter, Goodreads, or Tumblr.