This book has been on my radar for ages. It’s also my first foray into the writings of Francesca Lia Block, but it certainly won’t be my last.
Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait. In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.
What you need to understand before you venture into this story is that this is less science fiction and more magical realism. While Block does attempt to provide some sciency answers to what’s happening in this post-apocalyptic world, most of what’s going on is decidedly trippy and surreal. If you start trying to make sense of what’s happening in terms of science and technology, you will not enjoy this book. Rather, suspend your disbelief, and embrace the bizarre yet beautiful landscape Block effortlessly crafts with elegant prose.
This is the first YA magical realism book I’ve ever read and I absolutely loved it. At first, I was wondering how on earth the author would justify what was happening, but I quickly ceased to care about the details as I became utterly engrossed in the story and emotionally invested in the characters. There isn’t an awful lot of plot in this book. It’s really just a roadtrip adventure through a surrealist landscape with some obvious goals to keep the story moving forward, but the plot isn’t what’s important here, it’s the characters. I should mention that this story is quite openly inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, with some overt references to the classic. If you’re not au fait with Greek mythology, however, fret not as these references are fairly well explained given that the target audience is teens.
In the world of YA we talk a lot about diversity and the need for intersectionality – where minority meets minority – and this book delivers that in spades. While the story revolves around Pen – a teen girl coming to grips with her bisexuality – all four of the main cast members are queer teens. How refreshing to read about an entirely queer main cast! We have Hex, Ash, and Ez – each with their own gender identity, sexuality, racial identity, and socio-economic background. These traits are masterfully handled by Block so that at no time does the story seem preachy or like a lesson in privilege. Instead, the author weaves the back-stories of each character into the narrative in a way that helps the four friends understand each other and better come to terms with their situation.
In order to fully explain why I loved this book so much I need to give a few details about Hex and Pen which may seem spoilery, so skip the next paragraph if you’d prefer to avoid spoilers…
Hex is a trans boy with whom Pen falls in love. Their relationship brings to mind the unfurling of a flower as they get to know each other and their own hearts. I have never before read open-door sex featuring a trans character in YA fiction. Block handles the love scenes between Pen and Hex as she does everything else in this book, with an easy elegance that results in scenes of true beauty, scenes that are honest and open without becoming crass. I think it’s important to show trans teens having normal relationships and exploring those relationships physically without the usual genital fixation that comes from the cisgendered. This book shows that love is love, subtly giving the reader insight into Hex’s identity while also developing Pen’s character and burgeoning sexuality. Kudos to the author for going there in this book and doing it so well!
Spoilers are over!
This book has a dreamlike quality to it with refined prose referencing art and music in a way that made my nerd hurt extremely happy. References to Goya and Bosch abound – two of my favourite artists – so this was a personal win for me! For anyone who enjoys magical realism and is looking for something a little different, or is looking for a diverse read, I strongly recommend Love in the Time of Global Warming. I’m now going to hunt down the sequel and then make my way through the rest of Block’s works. 5/5 splats for this book!