Jeffrey Ricker is like my "writing big brother." My first publication was in the same book as his second, and we've often been in the same anthologies. When I find one of his stories in a collection, I can't help but smile, and I know I'm in for something as different as it is good. He's chilled me to the bone with a horror story from Night Shadows: Queer Horror. He's left me sniffly with a bittersweet romance in Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction. He made me laugh out loud more than once with his novel, Detours, about a young man facing a road trip with his kinda-sorta ex and his mother's ghost (yes, you read that right). He's gotten smutty on Mars, even, in Riding the Rails: Locomotive Lust and Carnal Cabooses. Put simply, he always surprises me, and it's always a pleasant surprise.
One of the other incredibly awesome things about being with the same publisher is that I get to take an early peek at titles before they officially release, and when I saw his second novel - The Unwanted, a YA novel - on the list, I nabbed it and told myself I'd read a chapter or two a night before bed.
I lasted four days, and it only took that long because I had to go to work a couple of times.
I gobbled the last three-quarters of this book today, and I'm still leaning back and reeling a bit from what was yet another surprise from Jeffrey Ricker.
The set-up for this book is a solid one that made me grin from ear-to-ear: Jamie, the skinny, short, and only out gay kid in his high school, is having a craptacular day. His bully tormentor landed a solid blow, and he took off from school without permission to nurse the mashed nose and wounded pride at home. Unfortunately, waiting for him at home is his mother, which would be normal for most kids but Jamie's mother is dead.
She's not dead, it turns out. She's just an amazon. As in the mythological sense. As a boy-child, he was of course dropped off with his dad to raise, she explains, but it turns out there's this big problem and it might just be that Jamie is the only one who can fix it, and save all of amazon-kind.
Suddenly, a mashed nose doesn't seem like such a big deal.
While the tale has a real sense of fun to it, and there's more than a few great humor moments and Jamie's internal monolog is completely spot-on in the tone of a young teen, there's real depth to this story. The ties of family, friendship, and love are never as simple as they seem, and unlike many teen and YA books, there are some consequences to danger and violence in this book that I really appreciated, even as they served to jack up the tension to the point where I was curling over my e-reader and praying that everyone was going to make it out alive.
Jamie is such a strong character, and one so easy to identify with. Out and suffering the consequences, his only real goals seem to be escape and survival, and the last thing he needs is this sudden arrival of mythical issues. Worse, the more tangled things get, the more he realizes there's a very real weight on his shoulders as potentially the only one who might stand a chance to make everything all right. This "chosen one" character concept isn't new, but in Jamie, it's given a refresh. He's not perfectly capable, but he's not useless - that's a fine line to walk as well as Ricker does.
It should come as no shock that I adored this. When you put down a book and it's still echoing in your head and you're still feeling the impact hours later, you know the author has done their job well. YA just gained a fantastic new book with The Unwanted, and I can't wait to watch the readers discover it.
(Oh, and I should mention that the characters in this book appear in a short story, "The Trouble with Billy," in Speaking Out: LGBTQ Youth Stand Up. You don't need to have read it prior to reading this novel, but you know how I feel about short fiction.)