I read some great YA novels last year, but also a few less than impressive ones. In my reviews, I explained my reservations about the novels I didn’t like in some detail. At one point, I started to wonder whether I was being too hard on them, because, after all, those books are aimed at a younger audience. Is it fair to set the same expectations for YA as for books aimed at mature readers? Looking back, I even mentioned in some reviews that I clearly wasn’t the target demographic for these novels and that someone who is closer to the YA age range would probably enjoy them more.
So, thinking about those reviews now, I’m wondering: was I just making excuses for poor writing? Shouldn’t a novel feature interesting, complex characters and an original plot whether it’s YA or not? There are good books and bad books in any genre. Letting YA get away with predictability, poor characterization or sloppy plotting means lowered standards. It means confusing reading level with quality.
You only need to look at some great YA novels to see what’s possible. Karen Healey’s When We Wake is a wonderful example of such a novel.
Tegan Oglietti is a sixteen-year-old girl living in Australia in 2027. She loves her friends, playing the guitar, parkour, The Beatles. She’s falling in love. Everything’s good. Then, at a protest against global warming, a sniper’s bullet meant for someone else accidentally hits her.
When she wakes up, it’s almost exactly 100 years later. She’s the first success of an experimental new cryonics procedure. She’s literally been given a new lease on life, but she quickly discovers that that second chance comes with a number of consequences. She’s locked inside a government facility, for one, and the military seems to think it owns her. Tegan must fight for every inch of her freedom, while at the same time figuring out the vastly changed world she finds herself in.
So. What makes When We Wake so much better than most YA out there right now? First of all, Tegan is an interesting, complex, relatable character. We gradually learn more about her background and personality, but before that happens, Karen Healey uses the familiar technique of placing Tegan in a strange environment by herself, creating almost instant empathy between character and reader. We learn about Tegan while she learns about the new world she finds herself in. Having those two processes of discovery coincide is part of the reason why When We Wake is very hard to put down.
The other reason is the tension between Tegan’s beliefs and the odd situation she finds herself in. Tegan was a bit of an outlier in her first life’s social circle, and that’s partly because she’s pro-military. Even though she hates being controlled by the people running the cryonics program, she knows that it eventually will be used to revive soldiers killed in battle. She’s conflicted: “Bringing back soldiers was good work, and helping out was the right thing to do, even if I didn’t want to do it at the expense of my freedom.”
Tegan is also a deeply religious person, which creates another set of dilemmas and conflicts for her. What does it mean to be brought back from the dead? What are the implications? In the more extreme interpretations of the time, she is a soulless abomination, a result of mankind taking the power of life and death back from God. While she never really doubts that she has the right to live, she does find herself asking difficult questions about who is more deserving of a second chance.
Setting religion aside, the political reality of the future, especially Australia’s No Immigrant policy, also affects Tegan’s situation, because certain people feel that someone who has been brought back to life has no place in the country. It’s no wonder that the “Living Dead Girl” Tegan turns into a political football who can’t speak in public without having every word analyzed to bits.
One of the wonderful things about this novel is Tegan’s indomitable spirit. Her first reaction, after recovering from the initial disorientation, is fighting back. She takes charge. She demands concessions in a reasonable but unwavering manner. “I wanted to be myself, not a prop in someone else’s poetic, tragic story.” She starts from a passive position (being shot, being revived) but turns into someone who relentlessly fights for independence. She asserts and almost single-handedly creates her own “personhood”.
The cast of supporting characters around Tegan is fascinating in its own right. It’s also pleasingly diverse without making too big a deal of its diversity. This book is great at showing a broad spectrum of people in a natural way, without forcing them to be defined solely by their race or gender or sexuality.
That’s not to say the book doesn’t have a few issues, but fortunately they’re minor. I wasn’t crazy about some of the school scenes, for one. Their dynamics felt more than a bit old-hat, compared to the rest of the story: here’s the bully, without any redeeming qualities, and here’s the cute boy who, well, you’ll see it coming from a mile away. There are also a few instances of Tegan getting into places she probably shouldn’t be able to. Brushing this off by saying “Locks apparently hadn’t changed a great deal in a century” doesn’t really fix it. And finally, the book features one of my pet peeves: made-up SF slang. It’s used in a fun way here, as part of the getting-to-know-you process between Tegan and her friend Bethari, but still, an exclamation like “Ugh, those drongles!” will always make me cringe.
But again, those are all minor issues. When We Wake is a well-written, fast-paced YA SF novel with a wonderfully diverse cast. It’s thought-provoking without getting preachy, dealing directly or indirectly with several important issues: global warming, media censorship, religious fundamentalism, global income inequality, First World treatment of refugees. Best of all, this is a YA novel that doesn’t talk down to its audience or dumb itself down. It manages to be intelligent and complex while also remaining a fun, readable story. I could do with more YA like this.