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YA fiction round-up: From dragon ladies to teen mental health

Kelly Barnhill balances fantasy and the everyday; Helena Close reveals modern Ireland

"On April 25, 1955, between the hours of 11.45am and 2.30pm central time, 642,987 American women – wives and mothers, all – became dragons." This "mass dragoning" includes homes and workplaces set alight, and "no fewer than 1,246 confirmed cases of philandering husbands extracted from the embrace of their mistresses and devoured on the spot". At this early stage in Kelly Barnhill's When Women Were Dragons (Hot Key, £14.99), we may suspect we're getting a pleasing feminist revenge fantasy – dragons as metaphor for when suppressed female rage finally explodes; what's not to love? – but it gets a little more complicated than that.

Barnhill, whose The Girl Who Drank the Moon won a Newbery Medal in 2017, excels at balancing the “big picture” of her various fantastical works with the smaller, quieter details of everyday life in these worlds. In her latest novel, the focus is not on the dragons but what it means to be left behind after these transformations have occurred. Alex is eight when the “dragoning” occurs, and once it becomes clear that it’s not a sinister communist plot, the topic becomes off-limits due to a presumed association with female biology: “Adults turned red in the face when children raised their hands and asked questions about it.”

As an aspiring scientist, Alex nevertheless has questions as she grows up: why did her aunt transform when her mother did not? Could becoming a dragon have saved her mother from the illness that killed her? Will her younger cousin, the girl she must pretend is her sister in this new post-dragon family unit, succumb to this strange fate? Her quest to understand her own family, and herself, unfolds alongside briefer accounts of those who research dragons being hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It is an immensely believable portrayal of an alternate 20th century, with a shrewd exploration of how people adapt to situations where the truth is unspeakable.

Fascinating brains

Helena Close from Limerick delves into the truths that are not quite unspeakable but often unpalatable in her latest novel, Things I Know (Little Island, £8.99). Saoirse is about to head off to college; she's also dealing with the repercussions of trauma and the kind of psychological suffering that is not solved by bland slogans. Waiting for her regular counselling session with Malcolm, fond of "quick fixes and two-euro solutions", she notes the inspirational posters: "… it's OK not to be OK. I hate that one the most ... Anybody who's not OK knows this as the biggest lie ... People have no tolerance for sad. You can be Insta sad – sad because you saw pictures of dying refugees or abandoned puppies. You can't be ongoing sad."

Close has a great ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the often-stifling dynamics of small-town life

Saoirse’s curiosity and intelligence – she considers brains to be “fascinating yokes” – are assets but not bulletproof shields against mental illness, or the grief of losing her ex-boyfriend to suicide at the beginning of a turbulent summer. Close has a great ear for dialogue and a keen eye for the often-stifling dynamics of small-town life; this is a compelling and compassionate account of growing up in contemporary Ireland, where despite all the lip service paid to mental health, many young people are still “having tiny breakdowns all the time”. (The adults haven’t quite got it sorted either; there’s a gem of a scene where Saoirse’s boss casually calls her love of surfing an “addiction” and then references Timber, the local alcoholic who comes in daily for lunch, without any sense of irony whatsoever.) Read it – and buy a second copy to thrust into the hands of the next platitude-utterer you encounter.

Feel-good friendships

For another YA title that explores a health issue with a particular eye on regional differences – very welcome in a field that, for all its fondness for "diversity", struggles with the idea that experiences beyond those of the United States exist – it's worth looking at Lucas Rocha's Where We Go From Here (David Fickling, £7.99), translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Larissa Helena. Eighteen-year-old Ian has just tested positive for HIV, and while he is aware that treatment options have improved, the specific contours are alien to him. The balance between acknowledging the medical advances and making space for the fear and uncertainty that come with any kind of chronic condition, especially one that still has stigma attached to it, is handled well here, and there's a hopeful, feel-good quality to the friendships and romances that lets a reader forgive a little too much exposition in the dialogue.

Fans of witty rom-coms will be delighted that romance writer Casey McQuiston has turned to teen fiction with I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Macmillan, £12.99). The prom queen of the title disappears shortly before graduation, leaving behind clues for three different classmates – including her arch-nemesis Chloe – who must team up to find her. The implausibility of the premise threatens to derail the novel for a moment, but it's saved by Chloe's irritation at the whole thing: "Of course Shara cast herself as the main character of her own personal John Green novel."

Chloe is determined to “beat Shara at her own game” and then “destroy her”, but as the treasure hunt progresses, and slivers of her past experiences with Shara are revealed, it becomes clearer that this is less about rivalry and more about kissing. Charming, funny and heart-warming.

Seeing a ghost

E Lockhart revisits the wealthy Sinclair family (We Were Liars) and their private island in the 1980s-set Family of Liars (Hot Key, £12.99). My initial scepticism about this book, as feels appropriate for any prequel to a bestselling title, rapidly gave way to admiration. This is a stylish prequel that echoes the mood of the original – with menace and pain lurking beneath the polished, privileged surface, often coded into fairytale retellings – while luring us into a new satisfying, twisty mystery. Carrie and her sisters, who we know only as adults in the original, have secrets of their own, and several relate to the summer when "the boys all came to stay ... and the year I first saw a ghost." This is one to devour – and then revisit.

Finally, Rebel Skies (Walker, £7.99) by debut author Ann Sei Lin is the first in a trilogy inspired by Japanese history and myth, set in a world where a few Crafters have the ability to create creatures – shikigami – from paper and bring them to life. Protagonist Kurara, a servant on a skyship, is unaware that her "party trick" is a much-valued skill until disaster strikes. Her new life as a shikigami hunter offers more freedom and opportunity than ever before, but her main priority is to rescue her best friend, Haru, even though the secret he's kept from her haunts her.

This is a pacy, immersive adventure with many deft twists and turns, allowing for an occasional nod to metaphor (Kurara resents that Haru doesn’t “have to fold himself up like origami, smaller and smaller, for someone else’s sake”, while the overall concept of paper as magic is one that will resonate with book lovers) and some addressing of big themes (human rights, slavery) without ever weighing down the action.

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