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The Holders by Julianna Scott

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. Elle
    July 1, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to be honest, I was not overly fond of The Holders, though it did have good moments and I will continue to read the remainder of the series as I do believe it will get better. However, I would like to say that some of us ‘modern teens’ enjoy the escapism of a book that is light, easy to read, and familiar in a new way, without all the ‘edge’ that people seem to think YA must have these days. I happen to be a bright, educated young woman, as are most of my friends who also enjoy books of this kind, and if our choices in recreational reading truly make people like you want to ‘remake the world’, then I think it is in all of our best interests that you cannot. Try taking a book for what it is and not what you would have it be, and you might get more enjoyment out of them. And if you don’t like a book, not a problem, but implying that anyone who does like it represents the downfall of youth is ridiculous. But then, I am just a modern teen.

    • July 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Hi

      Thank you for taking the time to express your opinion. It seems we agree The Holders is not very good. Where we depart is your penultimate sentence, “And if you don’t like a book, not a problem, but implying that anyone who does like it represents the downfall of youth is ridiculous.” I suppose I am a victim of my age. When I was growing up surrounded by the destruction caused by WWII bombing, there was no such thing as “YA”. As soon as we tired of books thought suitable for children, we read books intended for the rest of the population. Why is this a good thing? Because we immediately began to see the world as seen by adults. We were laying the foundation of our adult sensibilities as soon as we rejected childhood. The decision to read books intended for older people was an acceptance of responsibility for our actions. It was the first step to independent decision-making. All we needed to become adults was financial independence. At that time, 6,000 young men were conscripted into the armed forces every two weeks. There was very little time to be young before being sent off to keep order in Germany and Austria, and to defend British interests in the declining Empire.

      We learn through narrative by comparing the fiction we read to the world we see. If characters act in ways we have seen adults act, we have interior monologues to explain why they made those decisions. We’re establishing our own criteria of credibility and honesty. In modern YA, most adults are shown as two-dimensional stereotypes, acting in absurdly stupid ways when it comes to their relationships to the young. People only see a need to expand their knowledge when they are forced to accept how little they know and how dangerous that lack of knowledge is. Indeed, the true test of incompetence is when the individual has no idea how incompetent he or she is. We only advance by comparing ourselves to others and deciding what we want to become. Deliberately insulating the reading experience of “young adults” to books that pander to their incompetence is a terrible trick played on the young by the next generation. It should stop!

      Frankly I find the idea of adolescence absurd. Most of the teens I know today hate being dependent on their parents. They want independence as soon as possible. Perhaps the sample of teens I know is not representative. Who knows? But if you are planning to become a responsible, independent person, the younger you begin reading books about such people, the better. You should reject the propaganda being fed your generation by adults and read what the adults themselves read. That’s how to become the best person you can be.

  2. Elle
    July 13, 2013 at 1:43 am

    See that’s the problem though. The next generation always wants teens to be the way they were they were kids, but that just isn’t possible–it never is. The world changes from generation to generation, so must the kids. Were you the same kind of teen that your parents were? Your grandparents? I doubt it. We as teenagers are expected to do more, accomplish more, be better, etc., almost every day. In the majority of schools across the country, high school students are doing harder work in their classes today than most of their parents and grand parents did in college. We need a break, and for some of us, books and movies are the escapism we crave. Some of us don’t want to read about real life because we live it every day. I understand and respect your living through the events of WWII, but September 11 was just as traumatic to the nation, and though most teens are too young to fully remember the day itself, we are all still living with the aftereffects and overall changes it spurred. Not to mention the peer violence that is constantly making news. Did your high school experience include the ever present knowledge that one of your classmates could one day bring a gun into school and start shooting? Depending on where you grew up maybe, but likely not. Every generation has and will have challenges and traumas, and no generation will be like the last. We’ll always try to find a better way. Often we will fail, but that is the only way we can grow.

    • July 13, 2013 at 2:35 am

      I was one of the countercultural generation that represented the second most successful peaceful revolution of the last two hundred years (Mahatma Gandhi led the most successful). Of course we were expected to do better than those who went before us. That’s why so many of us opted out and refused to do anything our parents wanted. As to fear of guns — Britain has gun-control laws undreamed of in American philosophy. And America is traumatised by this one symbolic terrorist outrage whereas Europe has had terrorist bombings every decade since Queen Victoria took the throne. Forgive me for thinking the American mainland has not experienced real hardship through terrorism or war since the Civil War.

      As a member of the latest generation, you face very different challenges. There are comparatively few jobs so, to distract you from the lack of opportunities to earn a reasonable salary, adults have convinced the young that you cannot get good jobs until you have the right credentials. This means staying in education for longer and longer periods of time as the price of gaining access to one of the few better jobs. Your version of the survival of the fittest through peer competition is new. In my day, there was no need to compete in school. Most people left as soon as they could get work which was plentiful. Now the alpha personalities look to eliminate the competition as soon as it appears. If this means bullying the clever ones so they opt out and never go on to college, the bullies have preserved their chances of getting one of the few jobs. It’s not a pretty sight so I don’t blame you for seeking escapist distractions. And this is before we get to the adults changing the climate and then refusing to die, thereby handing your generation a massive social security and medical bill for their care. I wish I had your optimism that there’s always a better way. It looks to me as if survival is going to get increasingly challenging during your lifetime.

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