Review: Stray

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Stray
by Elissa Sussman

★★★★½

2014 • 384 pages • Greenwillow Books

As we established in Friday’s interview with author Elissa Sussman, I’ve been following Stray’s journey as a book for a good long time. But in the context of this summer’s Maleficent, which managed to sneak an utterly radical feminist message by cunningly disguising itself as a hot mess of a movie, Stray feels both timely and desperately, gaspingly long-awaited.

Stray is the story of Princess Aislynn. Like all aristocratic girls in her culture, Aislynn is attending school in order to make her a graceful lady for her future husband and keep her firmly on the Path. The Path, a very thorough and strict set of teachings, accepted behaviors, and expectations for women, purports to protect women from their inherent magic, putting them under the protection of their male guardians. Aislynn, however, has trouble controlling her magic, and when her debut is ruined by a burst of magic, she is promptly Redirected: her “loving heart” is removed and she is sent off to become a fairy godmother, a ladies’ servant meant to serve as a living warning to aristocratic girls. Aislynn is assigned to the monarch princess, but the small freedoms she enjoys as a fairy godmother begin to make her realize that the Path may not be the only way to live.

One of the great frustrations of being a feminist reading lady-focused historical (or historically inflected fantasy) fiction is encountering a inexplicably exemplar and modern feminist protagonist in settings where her existence is highly illogical. I understand both the noble and base impulses to write such a character. Nobly, you don’t want to let the oppression of the time period or invented setting pass by without comment, especially in the (happily rapidly decaying) boys’ club of mainstream speculative fiction; basely, you don’t want to alienate modern readers by featuring a protagonist whose worldview is inherently problematic. But this approach excludes the slow burn that results in that click moment, ignores that very basic tenets of feminism were once incredibly revolutionary, and assumes that readers can only sympathize with characters exactly like them. It also, in my experience, tends to churn out androcentric, femmephobic Excepto-Girls who look down on other women instead of the system that oppresses them both. (I AM LOOKING DIRECTLY AT YOU, SCARLET. DO NOT AVOID MY GAZE.)

So when I say that Stray is an immense breath of fresh air, you have to understand: this is the first young adult novel I’ve read that explicitly deals with a character slowly realizing she lives under the patriarchy and decides to act against it while working alongside other like-minded men and women. That process is so important, especially for young readers of any gender. I’ve seen some reviews for Stray that, frustratingly, think that Aislynn’s vehemently misogynistic world and her failure to take it down means that it’s sexist. (One raised consciousness does not a patriarchy destroy, y’all! If that’s all it took, the American front would have been taken decades ago.) Watching Aislynn at first cling to the Path as her only hope and blame herself for her supposedly shameful inability to control her magic, slowly begin to see the cracks in the system, and then synthesize that into a new worldview is what the novel is entirely about. There’s business to set up sequels, although we never do really figure out what the villain’s plan is exactly, but Aislynn’s journey is the story here. Watching Aislynn come to this realization allows us to see all the microaggressions that comes with oppression. The revelation that many women self-harm as the only way to safely contain their magic and remain pure-hearted within the parameters of the Path; the distrust people treat fairy godmothers with; how it tries to (but mercifully fails to) poison Aislynn’s relationship with her father.

Of course, Stray is not a quiet literary novel or a treatise; it’s a young adult novel to its core, from its compulsively readable pace to its charming characters. Aislynn is fairly quiet and internal, struggling mostly with the incongruity of the Path with the lives of those around her. But she’s also kind, from delighting in the baking she inherited from her own fairy godmother to remembering the names of servants, who bring her into contact with her new group of friends. She tries to share her new worldview with Linnea, her assigned princess, but Linnea, despite having some very good reasons, finds it impossible to break away from the Path. The novel focuses very intently on interpersonal relationships, from Aislynn’s friendship to the servant Bridget to her prerequisite romance with Thackery, but even that is more about two characters coming together than hitting required milestones. If you’ve got a feminist revisionist fairy tale fan in your life, this is what they need.

I was given access to a digital ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Stray comes out tomorrow!

8 thoughts on “Review: Stray

  1. Feminist revisionist fairy tale sounds GREAT to me. Because you’re right — although some authors do a better job than others of explaining why their protagonist has avoided the crap in their societies, it’s very rare for a character to slowly realize that the water she’s been swimming in was poison all along. This sounds amazing.

  2. Gosh, this sounds good. I will definitely have to try it.
    I know what you mean about the incongruously feminist (or broad-minded) character in, for example, historical fiction, which annoys me, too. I will now go and read your review of ‘Scarlet’…

    • Right? I understand that it’s coming from a good impulse, but readers can empathize with and identify with characters who aren’t on the same page politically. (Also, we don’t simply continue going up and up in social awareness over the course of history; we go back and forth.)

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