by Elissa Sussman
2016 • 272 pages • Greenwillow Books
I am very weirdly proud of my local library for carrying both Elissa Sussman’s Stray and Burn. I may have mentioned that my local library has the lackadaisical policy of never really circulating books back to their libraries of origin when holds crisscross this fair island, which means that I get to see what my neighbors are reading. (This is how I know that I managed to get somebody else hooked on Ōoku, because they are way ahead of me!) While I’m not as familiar with their young adult selection as I was of the public library I volunteered for in my teens, I am nonetheless very happy to see some feminist-minded fantasy young adult novels mixed in with more traditional fare. The teenagers of Brooklyn deserve Elissa Sussman’s books!
Burn is a companion novel to Stray—it picks up where Stray left off, albeit from the perspective of a different character, a girl named Elanor. In a land where women’s innate magic is exploited by the patriarchal powers that be, the Wicked Queen Josetta has been conducting magical experiments on stolen children for years. (Noblewomen, Josetta believes, should be exempt from the same rules and regulations that poor women must suffer under. Exclusionary “feminism”, much?) The Orphans, largely composed of people who have escaped Josetta’s experiments, take refuge in the magically guarded Mountain and plot her downfall, especially as she moves to take neighboring kingdoms. Elanor, an Orphan with a terrible secret, struggles with her feelings as her adopted brother decides to leave the mountain and the Orphans take in three new recruits—Thackery, Aislynn, and the mysterious Matthias—that might hold the key to ending Josetta’s reign forever…
As a companion novel, Burn drops right back into the world of Stray—a little too fast for my tastes, to be honest. I adore Stray, but it’s been a while, so the learning curve feels particularly steep, both as an installment in a series and as a novel unto itself. It took me some time to get my bearings.
But once I did, Burn was delightful. It’s not, to be clear, like Stray, in either impact or politics, but that’s a very high bar to clear. Instead of tackling internalized misogyny, Burn is more of a straight forward action adventure story, deepened by the fact that all the Orphans have to negotiate the trauma that Josetta put them through. It ends up being a lot cozier than Stray, and I imagine the cast of dozens (along with Dagger the fox and Cinnamon the wolf) helps that impression. Elanor is surrounded by found family and brothers and sisters in arms and spends plenty of time attending to her hobbies (like smelting!) and to her duties as a Robin Hood-esque Orphan.
It’s also a casually diverse world! The Orphans and their allies are composed of people of all colors, ages, abilities, and orientations. Elanor herself is bisexual, revealed in a drinking scene meant to poke fun at how sheltered Aislynn is rather than yell “BISEXUAL WALKING!” (Although that is traditionally what we yell when we enter rooms.) And there’s tons of other things that should be bog standard in young adult fare—Elanor takes a moment to appreciate how strong and soft her body is, female desire being centered and normalized, and women being friends with each other.
I would loved to see more of Elanor and Aislynn together, but the heart of the novel is Elanor’s relationship with Josetta, the Wicked Queen. I really appreciated that Josetta, who could easily be a stock villainess, was much more complex in both her motives (classism motivates her horrific experiments) and her character (she is actually capable of love). And even she suffers under the same patriarchal exploitation that she thought she was exempt from, which is why we all need to heave together and not step on each other’s necks. See? You can apply speculative fiction to real life!
All in all, I do really prefer Stray, but Burn sets the boards for more adventures in the world of the Four Sisters while also appealing to readers who might prefer a little more action than Stray offered. Think of it as the Graceling to Stray’s Bitterblue.
I rented this book from the public library.