Ia! Ia! Goliath Fhtagn! YA Rises Again!

January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

Please don’t say the title of these books three times.

Hastur, Hastur, Has...wait a minute, I mean Wester, Wester, Wester.

The Leviathan Series, by Scott Westerfeld.

Technically, for this week I only read Goliath, the third in the series. But should you read this book? Is the series excellent? Does fiction for young adults (YA) get any better than this?

I will resolve all your concerns by asking this: Does a genetically-engineered whale that breathes hydrogen and is flown around like an airship and fights the Imperial German armies in an alternate 1910s World War I time period float?

The answer, of course, is yes.

I adored these books on their own merits (Westerfeld does so much right), but also for what they do with the YA genre.By that, I mean that he follows all the conventions of YA writing, but on his own terms.

First, what he did right. Take note, YA authors, and read Westerfeld’s stuff!

  • He did enough research. His airships are based on enough research into period airships that the basics all make sense. This means that 1) everything sounds cool and professional when they’re talking about the ship, and 2) you forget that they’re flying in a gigantic airborne whale. 
  • There is romance without being choked by it, and further, it feels real. YA has a bad habit of “twue wuv” syndrome, wherein the main character lays eyes on the other main character and, well, you can figure out the rest. In this case, they actually have a decent basis for their relationship before they start snogging.
  • People die in horrible ways because it is war, and just because he’s writing for youth does not mean that that gets ignored. Again, this all adds to the feelings of realism, especially when they have demon-kappa beasts that capture an Austrian dreadnought. Yep. Realism. In another word: awesome. 

This is not to say that there are no criticisms that can be made. I have only one that I really want to mention because it’s a bit of a sore point for the historian in me. Because YA books really need a clear bad guy, lest you risk losing your younger audience in layers of subtlety, the Germans become the Designated Bad Guys. It stings a little (as a German historian, my monocle popped with an Ach der lieber!), but also because the morality of the War was not so simple. Lip service is paid to the cruelty of the Russian Empire and the racist nature of the British Empire, and I’m left wondering why the Germans get all the blame.

This isn’t some sort of attempt to say that “my country is better than your country” (seriously, though, suck it Finland), but the Germans come off as faceless robots who only want to fight a war. Though true, there is not one sympathetic German character. When an Imperial Russian Officer, who’s existence kind of led to soldier revolts and the oppression of millions of people, is more sympathetic than any German character is, you might be a little off-balance. Considering just how good Westerfeld is at balance, it’s a little jarring.

"How does anything we're doing in this make us look like the badguys? Yes Hans! 4 points for civilians!"

YA and Levithan, however, is what I actually want to talk about. I work in the Kids/Teen section of my bookstore (because it’s mine, my own, my precioussss), and that’s what I deal with every day. What I have seen is pretty astonishing, even in the past few months.

YA is big.

This article explains a little bit of the phenomenon. I couldn’t tell you in terms of gross numbers, but this article makes two very interesting points that I can verify with my own experiences.

1. Kids are buying YA books. This is more significant than it sounds. This means that, not only are kids spending their money, they aren’t putting the books on their phones or pads. They want physical books, even hardcovers. I had an adult woman seem surprised when I told her that a brand-spanking new book was only available in hardcover.

2. Adults are buying (or at least reading) YA books. This is harder to verify over who’s doing the purchasing, as I suspect that someone who buys the book for their kid can then read it themselves later. Regardless, plenty of parents are familiar with the titles I can recommend. They are, if not devoted readers, at least interested. Except for the men. They are not interested as the women.

YA is a tricky beast when it comes to writing. I called it a genre, not because paranormal has finally finished it’s inevitable domination of all things romantic, but because there are enough conventions that demand to be followed. This means, perversely, that if you do follow them, you suddenly have the freedom to write about whatever the hell you want. I’ll explain what I mean with examples from Leviathan.

Bear with me here.

First, the main characters have to be youth/teens. This is non-negotiable. Any younger and you’re in the 9-12 (i.e. what-is-this-kindergarten range), and any older and you risk dissociating yourself from the audience. Further, they have to matter to the story. It’s not enough that they just happen to be the main character. No-one wants to read a story about a kid who spends the story in the brig because no children are allowed on the bridge of the battleship.

Leviathan does make them young, but they function within society as people their age. They aren’t leading battle groups or dictating politics. They work with, against, and under adults. Second, the importance of the two main characters fluctuates. Sometimes, one is more relevant, sometimes the other, but they have their importance despite the fact they are young. I can’t say more without spoilers, but he makes it work.

Second, the parents are, 9 times out of ten, not involved in the life of the child. They don’t have to be dead, per se, but they do need to give them extraordinary freedom. I had to clean my room a bunch of times when I was younger, but I don’t remember any YA story where the young, handsome protagonist has to (with the exception of school drama, but then parents are usually just distant rather than dead).

Leviathan handles this by making them both orphans (technically one only lost a father, but roll with me), but the fact they are orphans is important to the plot. It’s not just swept under the rug. In fact, the fact that one is an orphan drives everything.

Click it. The full-size is glorious.

Third, the writing has to be clear, simple, and as fast as a peregrine falcon. Actually, books are often hilariously quick, so that children become experts in things like zombie-hunting within a week (not to bash Rot and Ruin, but come on. I was stupid when I was 14).

The writing in these books moves quickly, but there is plot downtime. This is something that YA writers forget. You can write in a line like “Weeks later, his training wasn’t so hard”. Don’t be scared. You can just do it. No-one will stop you! And your story won’t be as weird!

Finally, the romance question. Do you feature a relationship or not? The overwhelming dominating landslide that is that answer is: yes. But that means you need to play by more rules!

  • If the character is a girl, she needs to have the choice, usually between the hunky brooder or the hunky outgoing one (hunkiness is non-negotiable). Choice is the essential element.
  • If the character is a boy, he needs to have one girl that he must fight, strive for, or somehow overcome difficulties to be with. Proving worth is the important part.

As I said, Leviathan made the two people know each other and become friends for a decent bit of time before they got together in a relationship. Much like how it happens in real life, and without all that stupid “twue wuv” thing. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in love, but it’s hard. Not enough YA authors write it that way.

But if you follow these simple, sort-of rules, something weird happens. You can write about steam-punk Germans fighting bio-punk Englishmen and it will be put on the shelf right beside a story about a girl and a boy and math class. And apparently, they will both sell.

YA is weird. By the way, have you seen my new YA novel? Oh, you haven’t? Here, come with me and I’ll tell you about my paranormal, WW2 school harem idea.

Apparently, it’ll sell like hotcakes.

This week: The Sisters Brother. It won like, a lot of awards. A lot. And it’s “fiction section” fiction. This could be a big step for me.

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