*Note: Winners of Dreaming Anastasia have been selected and contacted. Thanks for your comments!*
Over the past year I’ve started reading many more YA titles, and the more I read, the more I recognize that creativity in YA land is hard to find, particularly when it comes to novels with female main characters. There are so many stories about essentially the same kind of girl, facing the same sort of problem, with the same types of friends, family issues etc. etc. etc. Yawn. This summer especially I was getting more and more irked by the cookie-cutter nature of some of the teen titles I read. Enter Joy Preble.
Joy is a Class of 2k9 author whose debut YA novel, Dreaming Anastasia, will satisfy any reader’s craving for a story will serious creativity. As I got caught up in the world of Joy’s story, I kept stopping and thinking, “Wow, this is one of the more inventive plots I’ve read in a while.” So, here goes. I’ll try to capture it all in a short teaser.
Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, survived the attack on her family, but she is trapped. Something saved her and for years she has been a prisoner. Her only escape comes through writing to her dead family and dreaming of the past. In present day Chicago, Anne Michaelson’s life is turning upside down. She’s been having terrifying dreams where she witnesses horrific events and sometimes feels as if she is someone else. Anne doesn’t share her nightmares with anyone until she meets Ethan, a mysterious stranger who offers Anne an outrageous and frightening explanation for what she’s been experiencing. Anne discovers she has powers that seem impossible. She finds that she is linked to a place and a legendary family she never knew, and that it is her destiny to free the Russian princess.
There is real genre-bending (or genre-combining) going on in Dreaming Anastasia. It’s part historical fiction, with enough detail about the Romanovs to inspire readers’ curiosity and make fans of historical fiction feel at home. It’s also semi-fantastical, since Anne and Ethan and others have strong magical powers that they use for good and bad throughout the story. Preble works in the traditional Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch famous for eating up children with her iron teeth and for her strange hut that scrabbles around the forest on hen’s legs. Baba Yaga turns out to be one of the most unusual and captivating characters in the book, a witch with complex and unpredictable motivations. Finally, a lot of the story is entirely realistic, focusing on Anne’s day-to-day school and family life, standing in contrast to the fairy tale/fantasy/history elements interwoven throughout. I liked this combination very much because all of the different pieces really kept the pace of the narrative moving along rapidly. While I didn’t feel that any piece was significantly underdeveloped, as a historical fiction fan, I would have been happy to have more on Anastasia and her family’s past, but that’s really more of a personal preference than a flaw in the book.
You might not think it, given my description so far, but Preble’s book is often quite funny. Anne is a smart cookie, and her sometimes sarcastic humour cracked me up. Here’s an example, just after Ethan has tried to explain for the first time all of the strange things that have been happening to Anne:
Then the expression on Anne’s face shifts. “Understand what?” Her voice is pitched higher than I’d like it to be. And she’s glaring again. “Why I dreamed that you were some turn-of-the-century guy with really bad hair who was there praying or something while the whole Romanov clan was getting murdered in a basement in Russia in 1918? That was just a dream right? Or do you want me to believe that you were really there when a giant pair of really ugly hands reached out of the sky and took Anastasia away? The same hands which, let’s not forget, just tried to kill us back there? Or maybe you want me to understand what my role in all this is? What are we now, two little supernatural mark-on-the-arm buddies who are supposed to spring Anastasia from Baba Yaga’s hut?”
“Maybe,” I say, “the explanation won’t take so long after all.”
I liked that Joy really nailed teenage sarcasm, injecting a little humour into her often intense plot. (I’m guessing that her mastery of this might have something to do with her other life teaching high school English?) It impressed me the way that Preble had so many balls in the air with her plot, and quite a number of main characters to shape, and everything was managed with confidence and the attention needed to produce a satisfying and nuanced whole. Not easy. I can think of many debut authors who would choose something simpler to work with, and I think the fact that Preble produced something like this as a first novel should make us eager for whatever she is working on next.
Two small design-type quibbles – I received an ARC and my cover looks exactly as the one pictured above except there’s this kind of ghosty-looking guy with crazy ice blue eyes half fading in/out on the left hand side. Ethan? I hope not. Methinks freaky ghosty guy is not a good idea. He just adds an element of weird that doesn’t reflect the mystery of Ethan’s character. Fingers crossed that the final cover does not involve said ghosty fella, because otherwise, I think the cover works well and will appeal to teens with all of the atmospheric fog and the deep, rich blue tones. Some of the cover images out there seem to show blue-eye guy, and some don’t. Also, not sure about the subtitle. I don’t think it’s needed. The main title alone is suggestive enough without telling the reader that there will be love and magic and “the power of dreams” involved. It just feels forced. These two tiny things aside, I think that the design will attract readers for sure.
Here’s hoping Joy is writing something equally innovative right now. There’s lot of room for the unexpected in YA writing. If you’d like to snag a copy for yourself and a poster of Dreaming Anastasia, all you need to do is leave a comment below. I’ll draw a winner in about a week.
Dreaming Anastasia is published by Jabberwocky, and imprint of Sourcebooks.