Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. ★★★1/2
Stranger is a YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where some people have gained what are essentially super powers. The story centers around the town of Las Anclas, where “Norms” and “Changed” live side by side, even if there’s often distrust and prejudice between the two groups. The balance in the town is shaken when a teenage prospector, Ross Juarez, shows up at the gates.
Stranger is told through five teenage POV characters. There’s Ross, Mia, Jennie, Yuki, and Felicite. Ross has been on his own his entire life and is only starting to learn how to trust. Mia’s the town’s mechanic, and Jennie’s her friend, a strong willed girl who’s both a ranger in training and an interim schoolteacher. Yuki’s a prince who washed up at Las Anclas years ago but wants to venture out to see the world. Felicite’s the mayor’s daughter, self serving and manipulating.
Going into Stranger, I was wary of the number of POV chapters. However, I think it worked. By switching between so many different characters, Stranger became more about the town itself and the community created there than any one person. I really liked this focus on community. Las Anclas might have its problems, but it is by and large a good place to live. This book isn’t about a group of teenagers fighting the evil government. It’s about a community trying to work together and what it means to be a part of that community.
Also note while is the remarkable diversity of characters. None of our POV characters are white, and racism (or sexism or homophobia) don’t seem to be major forces in Las Anclas. There’s also a number of characters who’d fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, such as Yuki, who has a male love interest. Stranger is also one of the only YA books I’ve seen that proposes polyamory as the solution to a love triangle. However, I do have some problems with the treatment of Mia’s sexual orientation.
At the beginning of the book, it really looks like Mia’s asexual and maybe aromantic. She doesn’t get sex, romance, or those passionate feelings everyone keeps talking about. She went on a date only once, because she didn’t want to have turned eighteen without ever having been on a date. She worried about the fact that she was different from everyone else and wondered if there was something wrong with her or if she was “broken.” Over the past year or so, I’ve realized that I was asexual and I could relate to a lot of what was going on with Mia. However, despite her depiction at the beginning of the book, Mia turns out not to be either asexual or aromantic. She starts having romantic feelings for a male character (but could still be asexual) when there’s this scene. It’s the middle of a thunderstorm and she sees her love interest in soaking wet clothes and “suddenly understands” that passion everyone else talks about. It’s possible that she’s demisexual, though the book never uses any sort of labels for its LGBTQ characters and I haven’t found any sort of statement from the authors about Mia’s sexual orientation. However, even if Mia is demisexual, I’m really disappointed and upset about how the book handled her, in a large part because of how her worries about “broken” are fixed by her experiencing sexual attraction. What does this say about people who are asexual? I doubt the authors meant to imply anything, but it’s still bothered me. I think it would have helped if the beginning “broken” narrative had been different, if it used the words, or if it had a character who was asexual among the supporting cast.
All that aside, my main problems with the book steam from lackluster pacing. It starts off fast, with Ross being chased through the desert. Then the action and tension abruptly fall off and the plot slows down. Things pick back up towards the end, but the climax didn’t really have enough build up. I think some of the book’s issues here are that it may be a primarily character focused novel in an action focused genre.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is the world building. There’s a sort of Western feel to the setting. There’s prospectors and sheriffs and many of the other familiar Western tropes, but there’s also squirrels with teleportation abilities and carnivorous trees made of glass. There’s so much imagination, and I loved the attention paid to little details.
I’m not sure if I’ll read the sequel to Stranger. Some of my uncertainty may be all the feelings I have surrounding the Mia situation, but the pacing problems also play a part. There are things that interested me about the book, but I haven’t decided yet if it’s worth expending time on the sequel.