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Literature / Stranger

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"In a town under pressure, it takes only one person to change everything..."

A 2014 novel by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. The book centres around a futuristic Weird West town and five young adults who inhabit it as they carve out their own lives amidst grown-up politics and the ever-present threat of a self-proclaimed king who's taking over the western USA.

Each of the five viewpoint characters brings a different perspective and something new into the town and it's not uncommon for them all to end up at odds, developing the story. It opens with Ross, the titular stranger outside the walled city, who makes a daring escape from one of King Voske's bounty hunters after running away with a mysterious book written entirely in Japanese, even though he can't even read English. He's brought into the city and taken in by Mia, the youngest mechanic in the town's history, a certified genius but questioning who she really is. Rounding out the five are Yuki, a prince from far away who wants to return or at least adventure away from Las Anclas, Jennie, a young teacher and apprentice Ranger who balances work worries with relationship problems, and Felicité, the ambitious daughter of two of the most powerful people in the town.


The early struggle in the book is over whether Ross should be allowed to stay in the town and whether he even wants to, and halfway through the book, Voske's hunters show up and threaten his new life and how the whole town had dealt with life up until then...

This book contains examples of:

  • Ambiguously Brown: Ross, considering that his whole background is mysterious. Other characters' ethnicities are stated or implied. It turns out that he's Native American, though he barely remembers his own heritage because he was taken away so young.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Felicité is by far the least sympathetic viewpoint character. Her ambition to repeat her parents' success encompasses her whole life and just about everything she does is a calculated move to make everybody love her and believe what she has to say.
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  • Amicable Exes: Jack Lowell and Elizabeth Crow were once engaged, and while their friendship is shaky at first and no one will reveal why they broke up, they do care for each other and even show signs of rekindling interest in one another romantically.
  • Animal Motifs: Most Changed are animal-like in their appearance and/or abilities, and even people who don't have animal powers tend to be named after animals (Wolfe, Crow). The ship Yuki came from was called the Taka, which means "hawk". Real animals are all over the story as well.
  • Asexuality: Mia struggles with thinking she's broken because she doesn't feel sexual attraction and wonders if she will, or can, fall in love. She finds that she can only feel love and sexual attraction alike when she forms a strong emotional bond, though the word "demisexuality" is never outright mentioned in the book.
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  • Badass Gay: Yuki may be a prince and he may have a naive failure hanging over his head that others will point out at the first opportunity, but he's a skilled, adventurous fighter who wants to see the world, and it's because of him and his rat Kogatana that the kids aren't sucked into the pit early on in the book. Jennie regrets that he won't join the Rangers.
  • Bad Powers, Bad People: Colourism itself is gone from the setting, but "monstrous" or "dangerous" Changed people are treated worse than those with invisible and/or minor Changes.
  • Blood Knight: Henry Callahan ends up this way when he finally sees combat, finding it "exciting" and using his kill count to impress people.
  • Bloody Murder: The tarantulas in this world have evolved toxic blood like eels'.
  • Body Horror: Sheriff Crow has a skull for a face.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: It's mentioned early on that Grandma Wolfe was hidden away from society due to her uncontrollable Change power. She appears out of nowhere in the battle with Voske's army to assist when the Rangers and patrols are tired out.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: Dr. Lee can and will make kimchi recipes for every possible ingredient mix.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Mia learned CPR from her father and has to use it on Ross when he faints after controlling the singing trees.
  • Dead Guy on Display: If there's one thing Voske is known for, it's putting his enemies' heads on pikes.
  • Disappeared Dad: Paco's mother, Sera, came from outside the gates and his father is unknown. Some people in town believe he may be the illegitimate son of Tom Preston, who came into town along with Sera long ago. He's actually the son of Voske.
  • Entitled to Have You: Felicité aims to steal Indra from Jennie because she thinks a Norm from a powerful family ought to be with her.
  • Evil Counterpart: Voske's daughter, Deirdre, is one to Felicité; the daughters of important people who used to work together, very powerful themselves within their societies, but willing to push themselves and do anything to prove themselves. They're also the only two characters who call their fathers "Daddy" despite being significantly over elementary school age and Deirdre's Change has the power to expose Felicité's.
  • Fantastic Racism: Norms, people who haven't mutated and gained powers and/or appearance changes, versus Changed, those who have.
  • Fantastic Slur: "Mutant" and "monster" are used that way towards Changed people.
  • Fish People: Felicité's Change turns her into something reminiscent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Princess Cloud, the Ugly Cute slug-looking fluffball, is a living pit mouth.
  • Foreign Queasine: Some people aren't fans of Dr. Lee's kimchi. Mia and Ross love the stuff, though... well, Mia loves it when it's normal, anyway.
  • Future Imperfect: Not much information about the past remains, as much of it was either destroyed or was recorded digitally. Tablets and e-readers are called "book-machines" and, being bricked, are treated as Worthless Yellow Rocks.
  • Gay Cowboy: A number of them, since it's a Western (in a manner of speaking).
  • Get Back in the Closet: Publishers and agents tried to make the authors straight-iron Yuki, or at least make him "closeted until a sequel, if there ever is one". Similarly, others tried censoring the book's consensual polyamory, "but it would be okay if (the person dating two people) was cheating and lying".
  • Get Out!: Felicité falls into shock when the normally kindly Dr. Lee screams this at her in the aftermath of the first round against Voske's army at the walls.
  • Go Back to the Source: When Ross lets on just how tormented he is by his tree, he and Mia return to it so he can try and stop it from hurting him.
  • Happily Adopted: Yuki, though he still goes by his original surname and wants to get out and see the world.
  • Has Two Mommies: Sheriff Crow is briefly shown with her two aging mothers.
  • Healing Factor: Dr. Lee's Change is to accelerate other people's healing processes.
  • I Have No Son!: The Riley family is known to take in children whose Norm parents cast them out when they Changed.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Dee, Jennie's sister, wants to Change because the rest of her family is Changed. When she does Change, she's heartbroken because her power is kind of pathetic.
  • Instant Messenger Pigeon: The trained rats in Las Anclas are directed to, among other things, carry messages. The speed is justified as the setting is a small walled town and they rarely go outside for anything, much less carrying letters.
  • Interface Screw: Every viewpoint character has a different font in which their chapters are presented.
  • It's All My Fault: Ross blames himself for his parents' death because he was too young to take and the family splitting up slowed them down, and he later also blames himself for putting the city in danger as they were protecting him. Jennie blames herself when Sera dies and Indra is gravely wounded. Felicité also blames Jennie, not helping the matter.
  • Little Bit Beastly: Some Changed people only have a few animal features.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: The town rats, like Yuki's Kogatana and Felicité's Wu Zetian.
  • Magnetic Hero: The bounty hunter after Ross tells the council that Ross has this as an actual superpower, in order to throw doubt into the minds of anyone who's grown to like him.
  • Malicious Slander: The bounty hunter after Ross tells the council that Ross stole his claim and that he's Changed to manipulate people's emotions, and rumours evolve from there — everything from "he stole Voske's crown" to "he's hiding a map to El Dorado".
  • Man-Eating Plant: The vines on the city's outside walls and, of course, the singing trees.
  • Marry Them All: The second the Love Triangle comes to light, the participants elect to share.
  • Meaningful Name: Yuki Nakamura's last name means "inside the village". All he wants to do is leave. Similarly, Los Angeles was renamed Las Anclas — "anchors" — and everyone is stuck inside the walls because the outside is far too dangerous.
  • Mistaken for Dog: Jennie suspects Princess Cloud is a kitten, not having actually seen the rat in question.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: Ross has to try very hard not to stare at Jennie in a tight, newly altered dress.
  • Never Learned to Read: Ross has been wandering since he was very little and never got to go to school. Jennie teaches him to read.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: The most important part of a Ranger's duty and one Jennie repeats over and over on patrol and in the battle with Voske's army.
  • Not So Different: Yuki spends much of the book at odds with Ross, but realizes that maybe they're the same because they've had trouble in their past and been forced to run away from it and they're not used to having to justify themselves when everyone else wants them to.
  • One Bullet Left: Averted. Characters run out of ammo all the time; even Voske wastes his last bullet when Mia throws off his aim with her flamethrower and he has to go back and get more, abandoning the tense confrontation.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Averted. When Ross gets shot by a bounty hunter and is subsequently grazed in the arm by a singing tree, he loses the use of his arm.
  • Parents Walk In at the Worst Time: Paco's mom walks in on him and Yuki, who were thankfully not doing much more than snuggling on a couch.
  • The Perfectionist: Embarrassed and outraged at his own mistakes from years ago, Yuki expects no mistakes and certainly no slacking from anybody else.
  • Psychic Link: Ross's dreams about the tree that grew from his blood result from a mental link with it. The tree calls to him and sometimes he hears or feels its ringing. Once he embraces their connection, he gains the power to see what the trees see and control them.
  • Rich Bitch: Felicité is rich, powerful, and always plotting to stay that way, whether it be by making everybody like her, secretly tracking the Council's movements, or even just trying to steal someone's boyfriend.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Yuki, albeit in large part because he's a Stranger in a Strange Land. He renounced his princely title long ago when he gave up on returning to the Taka, but people still call him a prince anyway, to his annoyance.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying!: Felicité comes off like this sometimes to the townspeople, but like they're complaining. In truth, she throws parties whenever there's a good excuse in order to remind others of her own social standing.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Henry of all people, the immature bully, goes to ask Felicité to the dance and she almost gets a "no" out before realizing that he doesn't look nearly as ugly as he used to as a kid.
  • Shellshocked Veteran: The story deals a lot with PTSD, mainly regarding Ross's ordeal with the singing trees, his backstory with his parents' death, Yuki getting over being taken advantage of, Ross's seeing the memories of everyone who died in the singing tree forest, and also Jennie's guilt once Sera dies and Mia's fear when Ross almost dies himself.
  • Shown Their Work: One of the authors is a therapist specializing in PTSD treatment and the characters' trauma is realistically depicted.
  • Sleepwalking: Under the siren call of his own singing tree, Ross wanders out of the town through the tunnel he discovered in the town hall.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: What tips Jennie off that Paco is Voske's son.
  • Tagalong Kid: Dee, Nhi, and Z, the 12-13-year-old apprentice Rangers who hang around Jennie.
  • Token Minority: Jennie feels like this with the Rangers because she's Changed, but explicitly not because she's black.
  • Ugly Cute: The Terrible Three pick up a mutated rat that absolutely enchants them and name her Princess Cloud. Yuki thinks it's an abomination. He's right.
  • Weird West: It's a futuristic Western novel. Magnetic pole shifts bricked all the electronics in the world and society as it was degraded. Plants, animals, and people all began to mutate, from carnivorous roses to crystal trees to people with animal parts.
  • Wham Episode: When Mia overhears Mr. Preston talking to the bounty hunter and the audience learns that Preston used to work for Voske, when Ross sleepwalks out of the town and learns that he has some measure of control over his tree, when Felicité actually does something nice for someone else when the alternative would improve her own standing and throw Ross and Mia under the bus, and when it turns out that Felicité is Changed to turn into an amphibious creature when touched with water or even sweat.
  • White Male Lead: Averted. None of the viewpoint characters are white and the town is incredibly diverse.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Ross is traumatized after his encounter with the singing tree forest and freezes up when he sees his own tree.
  • Wrench Wench: Mia adores fixing, building, and blowing up everything she's allowed to.
  • You Are What You Hate: Felicité, afraid of the Changed and constantly judging them like her Fantastic Racist father, is Changed herself.

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