Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith – Stranger

manijabrownsmith-strangerMany 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.

Stranger was one of the books I flagged in my anticipated books series six months ago and I did so solely on the basis of the above blurb. It sounded like an engaging post-apocalyptic adventure with a bit of a Weird West vibe, something that I’d enjoyed in several other books earlier in the year. And it was all of that, but it was even more than that. Because this book? This book could be the poster child for the We Need Diverse Books movement. The book features protagonists of colour, sexual orientations all over the spectrum, characters with disabilities, and none of these elements feel shoe-horned in to hit some sort of diversity quota. Instead, the story and its characters feel organic, set in a world that feels true and fully realised. 

The story is told through five different characters: Ross, Mia, Yuki, Jennie, and Felicité, and all of them have very distinct voices. As is often the case with stories told from multiple points of view, not all protagonists are equally compelling, though in Stranger’s case it’s a near thing. The one point of view I didn’t truly enjoy was that of Felicité, mostly because of the five, she is not only unlikeable, for most of the book she’s unsympathetic as well. She’s the character that directly articulates the anti-Changed sentiments of parts of the community and is generally duplicitous and hypocritical in her behaviour. In short, for me Felicité was generally a character I loved to hate, yet the authors did manage to make me feel empathy for her by the end of this first book in the series. I look forward to seeing how she’ll develop in the next book.

The other four viewpoint characters are the true heroes of the book, with Ross and Mia being the leads and Jennie and Yuki being their supporting characters. I loved Mia. She is such a sweet and earnest character, who tries to do right by people and is struggling with her own position in her community and the transition from adolescent to adult. Also she kicks ass by using her brains to create brawn as evidenced by her building of a flamethrower and a six-shooter crossbow. Ross is the titular Stranger and it’s interesting to see him claim his place in Las Anclas. His struggles with confirming to people’s expectations and just plain being around others all the time where well drawn and his experiences with the strange and frightening crystal trees. I love how he comes to care for Mia, Jennie, Dr Lee, and Sheriff Crow almost despite himself. While Jennie was lovely, my favourite of the other two was Yuki. I love his mysterious history that the reader gets to slowly discover and his longing for the sea and adventure, yet his conflicting desire to stay due to his relationship with Paco. I loved Yuki and Paco together, they were such a sweet couple and I couldn’t help but root for them to pull through.

Brown and Smith created an interesting world. I loved the mix of Western sensibilities with post-apocalyptic and fantasy elements. I hope we’ll learn even more about what happened to the world to shift it so dramatically and what caused the Changes in the future books, but the things that we learn in Stranger are fascinating on their own. The fact that the Change could be dormant in all people, but is brought on by hormonal changes was a cool idea and made the idea of adolescence even more scary than it already is. I also loved how differently people reacted to their Change, my favourite being Jennie’s family, where when the youngest finally gets her Change she disappointed that it’s not more ’spectacular’ than the one she gets. Especially as it is such a contrast to how Felicité and her family and numerous other townsfolk react to the Change and Changed people. But beyond the Change and its effects, there is also the way humanity has adapted the changes in nature to their new situation, for example flesh-eating thorn bushes as a creeper plant to cover their town walls for extra security or breeding and training rats to act as aides and messenger beasts.

Stranger wasn’t just a great adventure set in an interesting world, it also was just a really fun read. The writing is smooth, the dialogues flowed easily on the page, and the story features a wonderfully diverse and engaging cast. The story ends in a great resting place, but leaves some slack to be picked up in the next book and I can’t wait to go back to Ross, Mia, Jennie and the others, as the book went by far too fast for me. Stranger is a post-apocalyptic story with a twist and one I think fans of YA dystopias and post-apocalyptic tales and adventure will gobble up with delight.

This book was provided for review by the author.