Science fiction and fantasy writer Alma Alexander comes up with some really great concepts. She wrote a pair of novels that took place in an alternate China which centered on a group of women friends who communicated with each other in a women's language. This was based on an actual Chinese tradition, but by setting it in an alternate universe she could ask herself some interesting "what if" questions dealing with Chinese history. I was also inspired to find out more about the real women's language that once existed in China. Eventually, Lisa See wrote a novel about it called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Since I'd already encountered the idea of a Chinese women's language in Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin Shei, I didn't find it as original as most of Lisa See's readers.
Recently Alma Alexander offered Random, her newest book, to all her fans on Goodreads as a free review copy. I'd been following what she had to say about the book on her blog and I was very interested. This is a shape shifter fantasy with a huge difference. What if a shifter changed into the last warm blooded being he or she saw when the full moon arrived? That's Alma Alexander's premise. This variant is called a Random in her fantasy universe. If the concept of a Random shifter intrigues you as much as it intrigued me, you'll want to read this review.
I should tell readers that this is a YA novel because some people reading this blog may be avoiders of YA fiction. I used to be one of those people, but then I discovered that some of the best authors who are currently writing were tackling some very provocative themes in YA novels.
One of the reasons why I didn't read YA is because it usually deals with high school. I admit that high school was an ambivalent experience for me. I also have a taste for the unusual, and intensely dislike the common stereotypes of teen behavior. Stereotypes in general are boring and predictable, but I find stereotypes of teens downright repellent.
One of these stereotypes is the "mean girl". This trope involves a popular girl who leads a clique of girls who are all so anxious to be popular themselves that they imitate her behavior. In so many YA novels, the authors never imagine that the influential popular girl is a good role model. No, she is usually vain, selfish and cruel. Her influence causes the culture of the entire school to become toxic. One of the things I really liked about the high school aspect of Random is that Jazz, the protagonist, finds that the most trustworthy and loyal friend she has in her own age group is a girl that is the popular leader of a clique who is empathic, insightful and generous. Of course it helped that the popular clique leader is a shape shifter like Jazz.
Unfortunately, Jazz had an older sister whose experience of high school was damaging and ultimately tragic. A major plot strand of Random was Jazz's struggle to discover and deal with the truth about her sister, Celia.
Another important theme of Random is immigration. Jazz's family had come from Russia. Although Jazz was born in the United States, her parents and older siblings had changed their names and abandoned their culture in the hopes that they would be more accepted by Americans. Due to this decision to hide their Russian identity, Jazz feels cut off from the rest of her family. Since the United States is a nation of immigrants, this theme will resonate with a great many readers. I personally feel that sacrificing a family's past impoverishes family life and American society as a whole.
I realize that prejudice is the main reason why minorities hide traits that can be kept secret. The most prominent difference between Jazz's family and the majority of Americans couldn't be hidden. Shape shifters must register. Some of the laws regulating shape shifters established by America's government in Random are reasonable ones that are based on a concern with public safety. Yet they were often enforced in a barbaric and discriminatory fashion. The foundation of bias is fear, and Randoms might make people especially fearful because they are unpredictable by nature.
One of the reasons why I read science fiction and fantasy is because I am a xenophile. A xenophile enjoys encountering strangeness. There is such a thing as too much predictability, too much blandness. The opposite attitude of xenophobia is a more common one. Some xenophobes do read science fiction and fantasy. They prefer shape shifter novels that portray the shifters as monsters who are hunted down and killed. These novels are always from the perspective of the hunters. Novels written from the perspective of "monsters" could make them seem too sympathetic. Alma Alexander's choice to focus on a shape shifter girl whose family faced persecution makes xenophobes seem like monsters.
From a thematic perspective, Random is a very eloquent defense of those who are different. Yet the choice to hide strangeness from the readers (along with the xenophobic characters) feels inadequate to a xenophile. Like Jazz, who feels a sense of loss over never having truly known her family members, I miss seeing characters named Svetlana and Goran instead of Celia and Malcolm. I miss seeing Russian vocabulary and customs. More importantly, I wanted to see behind the closed doors of Turning Rooms where some characters shifted into animals. As an animal lover, I wanted to peer inside the minds of these alien beings who share our planet with us. Some authors accomplish this very successfully. Faith Hunter's portrayal of Beast in her Jane Yellowrock series is particularly noteworthy.
I am also not fond of books that end abruptly leaving a very obvious narrative thread dangling due to the momentous revelation in the final scene. Authors seem to believe that this practice increases sales of the next volume in the series, but many readers find an unresolved ending unsatisfying. I am one of them. It's not that I regret reading Random. I thought it was original and very moving, but it did have shortcomings. The failure to provide what I consider to be a proper ending is one of them.