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February YA roundup: Spring into horror mode

Seven Million Sunflowers by Malcolm Duffy; Amy Goldsmith’s debut Those We Drown; On Silver Tides by Sylvia Bishop; The Bad Ones by Melissa Albert; and The Book of Love by Kelly Link

“Seems strange. Me, dressed up, going to a party, when over a thousand miles away, he’s sitting in a trench, fighting for his life. Our lives. Although I know this is what he’d want me to do, I can’t stop guilt gnawing away at my insides like rats in a grain tub.” Fifteen-year-old Kat (Kateryno) arrives in England from Ukraine, after months of queuing and waiting and fearing, along with her older brother and mother. Her father, a web designer newly turned soldier, stays behind.

One should rightly be sceptical of stories that draw on wartime horrors, particularly ongoing conflicts – the temptation to lecture or to sentimentalise is great, if incredibly well-intentioned, and can lead to mediocre art. But we are in safe hands here with British author Malcolm Duffy, whose previous novels have deftly tackled tough topics; his fourth YA title, Seven Million Sunflowers (Zephyr, £8.99), also draws on his family’s experience of hosting a Ukrainian family fleeing the conflict.

Kat is a well-realised character, both haunted by what she’s been through and capable of wondering about sparkly dresses, translating for her mother without complaint but resentful of her host family’s lack of understanding of what the family have suffered. Here’s where fictional stories about huge, impossible-to-grasp conflicts succeed, when they’re in skilful hands: their unflinching reminder that terms like “victim” or “survivor” may be accurate but can serve to flatten out the complex, messy humanity of another person trying to make it through the day. A memorable, moving, powerful book.

Now on to horrors of a more fantastical nature, beginning with Amy Goldsmith’s debut Those We Drown (Ink Road, £8.99). Protagonist Olivia is thrilled to have received a scholarship for SeaMester: “an entire term at sea, calling at ports I’d only ever dreamed of visiting, all in the name of cultural enrichment”. Not only is the experience itself of the once-in-a-lifetime variety, but it’s an impressive addition to her university application – and a chance to address the strange tension hovering between her and her best friend Will after some ill-advised kissing.


Things soon turn sinister, with Will quarantined for an alleged illness after a dalliance with one of the beautiful social media influencers (aptly named the Sirens) on board the cruise ship. Gothic horror meets corporate greed in this unsettling, chilling page-turner.

The lore of the sea also features in Sylvia Bishop’s On Silver Tides (Andersen Press, £8.99), the first novel for teens from the children’s author and a haunting, lyrical fable about family, community, outsiders, the power of myth and propaganda, and environmental destruction. (A more realist story would likely make that laundry list of “issues” feel tiresome; in this mode they are effortlessly woven into a compelling story.)

Seventeen-year-old Kelda, member of an amphibious human tribe that lives on the rivers of a loosely alternative Victorian Britain, has always protected her “different” younger sister Isla. But the sickness on the water is spreading, and others of their kind are keen to find a scapegoat. “They won’t just send her away – it’s too late for that now she’s come into her silver,” Kelda’s father cautions the family. “If she’s held responsible, she’ll be drowned.” Protecting Isla means depending on “landmen”, and questioning everything that Kelda’s been taught about how the world, with its different kinds of land and sea humans and monsters, operates. Beautiful and thought-provoking.

Melissa Albert (the Hazel Wood series) brings her dark, witchy, poetic energy to The Bad Ones (Penguin, £8.99), in which four people disappear from a small town one otherwise unremarkable night. Nora’s convinced that her best friend Becca, one of the missing, is responsible in some way; since the death of both her parents in quick succession she’s had one foot in that “shadow country” of grief. “I thought of girls out of fairy tales, who walked Death’s halls without precisely dying. Who breathed its black air and were changed by it. Their steps lighter, underworld shadows pressed like bruises into their skin.”

Flashbacks show us “those feral summer days” of their childhood, playing “the goddess game” – a local tradition that manifests as a skipping game in the school playgrounds and as a dangerous stunt for teenagers ready to play the “real” version. Nora rightly suspects that there may be some truth to the associated urban legend, and this pleasingly-knotty mystery unfurls slowly and elegantly. A delicious read.

And now to Kelly Link. Pedants may note that her debut novel, The Book of Love (Head of Zeus, £22), is pitched primarily as fantasy rather than YA, but arguably the whole point of Kelly Link is her inability to fit neatly into any one box. As a writer of the kind of short fiction that is literary enough to have earned her a shortlisting for the Pulitzer Prize alongside many fantasy awards (the Hugo and Nebula among them), not to mention a MacArthur Fellowship (colloquially known as a “genius grant”), she has effortlessly blended the mundane details of everyday life with speculative elements for nearly three decades. The dream-like logic may feel closer to magical realism than “pure” fantasy at times, but there’s also a tremendous love for the fantasy and horror – and in this latest work, romance – genres woven into her tales.

The Book of Love is not just a YA novel, or just a fantasy novel, or just anything; it’s one of those magical, dizzying books you want to press into the hands of most readers past the age of 15 or 16, a coming-of-age tale set in a Massachusetts town described by the villain as “charming though smallish. Full of charming and delightfully stupid, self-satisfied, reasonably attractive people of adequate nutritional value.” Its quirky touches provide a setting rather like Gilmore Girls if written by Stephen King.

Here, three teenagers return from the dead after almost a year, with memories rewritten to explain their absence. Laura, Daniel and Mo are set three tasks – so far, so fairy tale – to be allowed stay within the mortal realm, but the use of magic is more intuitive and irrational than any of them expect. Complicating the situation further is Laura’s sister (and Daniel’s on-off lover) Susannah, who has an inkling all is not quite right and has her own long-standing connection to the mystical forces at play.

One of the great strengths of this novel, and it does sound strange to say it of a book that includes people being turned into tigers and a giant temple being raised from the sea, is its completely believable teenage perspectives and voices. Laura’s take on the intimidating, dramatic villain, a few days into her strange new existence: “Why do supernatural beings have to be like this? Give any high school art teacher enough power, and they’d probably dress exactly like Malo Mogge. Make you go to their weird underwater art project opening.” Friendships, family and attraction continue to matter; the weirded-out protagonists still get on with everyday life.

It would be too simplistic to say that the otherworldly terrors serve as metaphors for adolescence here (if remiss not to note the Buffy vibes all the same), but they do resonate particularly with characters pressed up against the door into adulthood. Fabulous, in all senses of the word.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature