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March 08, 2006

Midnight Magic

Last night Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld, husband-and-wifeness, did a little reading/signing at Borderlands. Poor Justine was sick as a dog (and once again, I ask you, what is sick about dogs? Woof!) but managed to say quite a lot, if not with her usual effervescence. And Scott, doing her reading for her, managed a few lines of Australian accent (oh yes), which offended no one. Then a (small) bunch o' us went to Ti Couz afterwards for crepes and, in my case, a really good seafood salad and chardonnay (yes) and white bread (double yes).

They were on world tour specifically promoting their latest books, Justine's second in her Magic or Madness trilogy, Magic Lessons, and Scott's third (and final?) in his Midnighters trilogy Blue Noon. (In Scott's case, though, since he has several series going at once, "latest book" is a matter of which month you're talking about.) I was thrilled to finally get my hands on Magic Lessons, which I've been waiting for ever since I picked up Magic or Madness at Wiscon last year, and read the whole thing in my hotel room right then and there.

MorM, though Justine's first novel, suffered from no lack of confidence or authority in voice. I was particularly impressed to see how much coldness Justine allowed into the telling. The lollipop-voiced warmth -- the one that quickly creates a comfortable world of easily-accessed rules -- which narrates most YA fantasy novels, is missing here. I understand the need for lollipop-voice and accessible world-building, especially in YA. The readers want to feel part of the world, like they understand it and belong to it (this applies to adults and children alike.) A writer who creates this sort of welcoming, cocooning world builds in a permanent audience for herself.

Real danger, real coldness outside, real darkness and confusion and despair and bewilderment risks alienating a readership that already experiences too much of these, and is turning to books for escape and comfort. And yet real human complexity -- even within the highly structured and artificial confines of YA fantasy -- is impossible without a visceral sense of jeopardy.

The first book, Magic or Madness, tells the story of Reason, a young witch who inherits magic from both grandfather and grandmother. (The beginning of book two hints that her father may have contributed something, too, but I'm not yet far enough into it to know.) Her young single mother, Serafina, has raised her to fear her grandmother, yet Serafina herself is descending into madness. Over the course of the book, Reason discovers that the possessor of magic must either use it and die young when the magic runs out, or not use it and go mad. A nice, cold, hard choice. Plus, there's a really evil bad guy who's genuinely scary and not a little seductive. (Actually, he's very much like a pimp, and we all know it's hard out here for a pimp.) Busy as I am (not!) I'm going to have to schedule in a ML date so I can get into it properly. None of this eking out little chapters each night for me!

Scott's trilogy Midnighters comes to a close with Blue Noon. The first Midnighters book, The Secret Hour, did actually have a great deal of the warmth and cocooning of a typical YA fantasy. (Let me just state here for the record that I'm as susceptible to this as anyone.) It's the story of five high schoolers in a small town in Oklahoma who, by virtue of being born at exactly midnight, have the ability to enter the secret 25th hour of the day, when the rest of the world is frozen and scary monsters come out. It's a trick handling five points of view (or really, four, one of the teens doesn't really get his own pov), not to mention coordinating five different talents (each of the teens has his/her own "talent" in the secret hour, which they have to learn how to use collaboratively.)

As I said, book one invites you into a private world where the ground rules are fairly straightforward (for a fantasy), and where you get to identify with each protagonist in turn and feel part of the ... well, clique. The cocoon effect is (probably) necessary for something that has the potential to become this complicated. At the transition between first and second book, however, is where YA writers frequently fail. Having created a warm, welcoming world, and having already once defeated their designated evil in the first book, it's difficult to break open that world again and up the scale of evil. Once the evil has been defeated, or at least, postponed, it's hard to recreate the urgency, the sense of jeopardy. Too often, the enemy becomes slightly laughable.

This is where Scott really shows his mettle as a writer. In Midnighters two, Touching Darkness, Scott doesn't really try to make the monsters bigger and badder. Instead, he turns the jeopardy inward, inserting a dangerous ally as well as an intermediate human enemy, that renders the black and white morality of the first book much more ambiguous. Book two ends *MILD SPOILER* with one protagonist betraying another in an utterly ethically compromised situation, and yet another protagonist joining the dark side.

Book three, Blue Noon, which I just finished a couple of days ago, therefore doesn't need to up the ante again. Although *MILD SPOILER* the dark side protagonist has been rescued and rejoins the clique, he brings some of the beast with him. It's sexy, which is a sudden change for these books, which were romantic and intense, but not hot before this. It's also central to the plot. On the jeopardy front, Scott manages to up the ethical compromise even more, by introducing the intermediate human enemy's perspective (which is, let's face it, the purpose of an IHE.) Worse, the IHE has a point. The book ends with *MILD SPOILER* a major sacrifice (again, GOOD, because who wants the trilogy resolution to be easy?) and a sort of trailing off in the direction of the tv series that Scott's blog hints will be made of the books.

All in all, with these two, award-winning (yes!) writers, you're getting more than just good solid YA. You're getting people who really understand the form and can layer it, make the form effective. YA, if you're like me, is the apotheosis of reading, if not of writing. My reading addiction/obsession really started around second grade when I got into my first YA and found out that not only could I get great stories that way, but I could also get a lot of information about the world with major spoonsful of sugar. (check out Scott's novels Peeps and So Yesterday for examples of such.) Hie ye to a bookstore and get your read on!

(Plus, check out their blogs -- links up top with their names -- for info on where they'll be on their tour, which they are on now. Touring. World tour. Yes.)


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