I have always felt rather sniffy about “Young Adult” (YA) novels, because I’ve not seen the need for a specific category of books aimed at young adults. If you’re a teenager, you’re old enough to tackle novels for adults, including the classics – perhaps especially the classics, as they are often more focused on telling a good story than modern prose. When I was a teenager myself, we were given a couple of examples of teen literature to read at school, and I wasn’t impressed – I especially remember a “realistic” teen romance which took place in just the kind of dreary school environment I wanted to escape from.
Since I was a teenager, though, a lot has happened, and YA literature has boomed. Also, nowadays authors of these books tend to recognise that their young readers may be more interested in exploring new worlds than being reminded of the most humdrum aspects of their own lives. On the other hand, why should this need only be acknowledged in young readers? Part of me still believes that if storytelling was promoted more and escapism less frowned on in modern novels for “grown-ups”, then there would be less call for YA fiction.
However, if writing novels in this category helps authors to release their inner storyteller and expand on flights of fancy which they wouldn’t have dared include in their work otherwise, then I must admit that YA fiction has a purpose. Here’s hoping, though, that we adults who are no longer young will also be able to find our way to the best of these books. We need magic too.
What has prompted these reflections was my finding and consuming Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and Legendary (I bought the latter as a hardback, which only goes to show how engrossed I became with this book series). They turned out to be absolute page turners, and reminded me of an aspect of fantasy fiction which has fascinated me from girlhood – the different “stages” of a journey in an imaginary land where the hero or heroine faces challenges which they overcome by calling on different aspects of their personality. Though I’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress (it sounds off-puttingly preachy), as a girl I loved how the concepts of places like Vanity Fair and Valley of Humiliation were woven into the story in Little Women. The moral lessons were and to a great extent are lost on me, but the places themselves fired the imagination. There was a similar feel when I watched the film The Neverending Story (no, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read the book) as a kid or read about the forest in Howard Pyle’s Arthurian stories which you couldn’t enter without experiencing an adventure.
Caraval taps into the sense of wonder that such fantastical tales convey, as it concerns a magical game, staged each year in the imaginary world where the novel takes place and overseen by the mysterious master of the game known as Legend. Scarlett, the novel’s heroine, is the daughter of a tyrannical governor of one of the outer islands of the empire and has longed to participate in the games of Caraval since childhood. When she finally obtains tickets for herself and her sister, though, it looks as if it’s too late, as Scarlett is about to marry in a week’s time and hopes her marriage will free both her and her sister from her father’s oppression (she has never met her husband-to-be, but he writes nice letters). It is up to her younger sister Donatella to engineer an escape from their island and make sure Scarlett is taken away against her will. By the time Scarlett reaches Legend’s island where the Caraval takes place, though, her sister is nowhere to be found.
Scarlett’s fears for herself and her sister are well-founded, but while one understands her risk-adversity it is a relief when she is finally within the confines of the place where Caraval plays out and ready to play the game (it turns out to be the only way to find her sister). I loved the magical treasure hunt aspect of the plot where Scarlett searches for clues in various wondrous places and meets mysterious characters who can either help or hinder her in her quest (or both). While there’s a Caraval game in Legendary as well – this time it’s the risk-taking Donatella who plays – the game itself didn’t feel as thrilling as in the first book as there are a lot of other things going on at the same time. But while Caraval was my personal favourite, Legendary was also very hard to put down, and it’s vexing to have to wait almost a year for the final part in the trilogy, Finale. But of course it has to be written first.
The YA aspect of the novels is most apparent when it comes to the romances: both girls are in their teens, and their love interests are a little on the teen-swoony side, though Donatella’s is better than Scarlett’s. In their defence, they aren’t clear-cut heroes. The novels are aware of the allure of villains: Donatella says at one point that the best kind of villain is one you secretly like, which shows a nice spirit. In Caraval, Legend himself seems to be a villain, though he could also be the girls’ ticket to freedom. In Legendary, it appears that Legend may not be as black as he’s painted, and in fact a mere baa-lamb compared to a great threat to the empire which he helps to contain. The new villain introduced in Legendary is fairly promising, though the predictable development of an age-old plot device connected with him is a disappointment, as is the anti-climactic revelation of Legend’s identity. Nevertheless, this book series takes its villains seriously. But ah, what shall I do for pretty boys…