Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lost Voices Begs the Question: Are Mermaids the New Vampires in YA Fiction?

Fantasy fiction, whether it be supernatural or otherworldly, caters to escapist fiction readers. In the YA genre in particular, it feeds teen (and older) readers' deep-seated need to travel somewhere outside the adult-driven universe in which they reside. Sarah Porter's new YA novel Lost Voices works doubly in this scenario; not only can her readers use the novel as a means of escape, but so do her characters.

Lost Voices relates the tale of those often overlooked: the beaten down, the neglected, the abused. In Porter's alternate world, girls who experience such travesties at the hands of adults -- primarily their family members or guardians -- have a way out of the chaos. They can become mermaids, free of all human responsibilities and cares. And, of course, abuses. However, nothing is at simple or easy as it seems. The cliche "too good to be true" comes to mind.

While the characters in Porter's novel escape the human world in favor of a seemingly fantasy-like life, complications arise almost from the get-go. First of all, a tribe full of adolescent female mermaids is much like a boarding school dorm or summer camp cabin -- full of jealousies, rife with conflict, and one power struggle after another. Although these girls (now mermaid creatures) have escaped their abusive human lives, they remain in many ways still very much human. Anyone who has spent any length of time around teenage girls (or boys, for that matter) know that drama is never more than a split second away, given the right atmosphere and hurt feelings, imagined or otherwise.

During my first teaching assignment out of college, I had a boy literally hurl a desk across my classroom. I believe the entire incident stemmed from another boy's comment about his girlfriend. That quickly, teenage emotions can erupt in poor decisions with (sometimes) dire consequences. Of course, we all know teens are not the only individuals who lack restraint; our prisons are full of grown-ups whose emotional reactions also got the best of them.

The mermaid tribe, led by the beautiful Catarina, rules itself based on an oral constitution of sorts. Luce, the novel's main character, quickly discovers after landing in the sea off Alaska that the mermaids all claim to follow their rules to the letter, but in actuality use them as best befits their needs or wants. She finds herself swimming among them, but feeling out of place even here. The mermaids spend their days swimming, diving, eating mussels, avoiding predatory orcas, and enjoying other (sometimes much darker) mermaid pursuits.

Luce begins to have second thoughts about her new self-made family when she is forced into situations -- and to commit acts -- she regrets. The advent of new characters keep the book interesting, despite the limitations involved in setting a book in such a secluded location. The buzz is that Lost Voices is the first novel in a trilogy the author has planned. Although I felt there were some issues (lack of plot in some places, a bit too dark in others), I will definitely read the second book in this trilogy to find out where and what main character Luce is doing.

Despite the darker themes, the writing and characters makes this an appropriate title for my middle school classroom as a book for individual students to read on their own. I would hesitate to read it aloud or teach it as a class novel simply because it is so female-centered; I doubt the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys in my classes would appreciate it as much as the girls would. It is also a novel I would hesitate to recommend to readers outside the YA world. If you are a teen or a YA book lover, you will most likely enjoy Lost Voices. However, it doesn't have the far-reaching power of other recent YA books such as The Hunger Games or Twilight.

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