Stranger Review

Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood SmithStranger (2014) Add to Goodreads or see more reviews
by Rachel Manija Brown & Sherwood Smith

Recommended for fans of:
* Post apocalyptic stories full of hope, not bleakness
* Old West adventures with action and frontier life
* Diverse stories! Racial and cultural diversity, LGBTQ

The area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, but its technological marvels have faded to legend. Las Anclas is now a Wild West frontier town where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the desert bristles with crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they kill.

The story begins as most Westerns do: with the arrival of a stranger in town – teen prospector Ross Juarez, with a bounty hunter on his tail and a precious artifact in his pack.
5 Stars - Recommended
My result: Highly Recommended

Post-apocalypse infused with the Old West

Old West flair makes Stranger feel completely different from most post-apocalyptic stories. The desert is beautiful and deadly, with mutated flora and fauna that form an intricate ecosystem. Squirrels teleport the sandwich out of your hand, and bunnies hide behind psychic projections of bushes so you don’t notice them munching on the garden. But there’s danger here too. Pitmouths dig traps under the ground and wait for an unlucky step. Crystalline seedpods explode into jagged shards, and take root in the body of their hosts.

But the western feel is apparent in more than just the desert landscape. Stranger gives you a vivid taste of frontier life. It’s a fun adventure, where kids chase chickens around the coop in between lessons, and dream of growing up to be a prospector or ranger. There are shootouts and bounty hunters, but the story always feels more fun than gritty.

Great characters in a diverse cast

One of the greatest strengths of Stranger is its diverse cast. The frontier town of Las Anclas is what remains of Los Angeles, and the same mix of cultures defines it. The town is a mix of Hispanic, African American, Asian and Native American influences, and both viewpoint and supporting characters reflect that. In addition, there are also several LGBTQ characters, including two viewpoint characters.

My favorite character is Mia, the town engineer. She’s always been more interested in her tinkering than in mooning over either boys or girls. And she knows it’s okay if she doesn’t care for romance, like her classmates do. But that’s just it. She does want to be in love, she just doesn’t feel the same urges.

To share why I love this book, I’m going to have to give away a few relationship spoilers. (NOT plot spoilers.) To read them, highlight the quote section. To go into the story with only the character setup, just don’t highlight.

As Mia becomes friends with Ross, the newcomer, she does start to feel something, even if she’s not sure what it means. So when her best friend Jennie confesses that she likes Ross, the two girls refuse to let it come between them. Instead, they ask him out together. Stranger completely obliterates the dreaded YA love triangle in favor of a working, caring threesome. I’ve never seen a threesome done this well (and in a PG-rated way, no less).

I absolutely adore Mia. Besides being intelligent and capable, I love having an asexual but not aromantic character brought to life in such a layered way.

Female friendship plays an important role in Stranger. Jennie and Mia are the best kind of friends: close and absolutely supportive even when their daily lives pull them in different ways. They respect each other. They make time for each other in busy lives, and leave room for the other person to grow. It’s the perfect portrayal of a friendship in transition. Both girls mature into new roles and responsibilities, but refuse to outgrow the treasured friend of their childhood.

Jennie is the school teacher and the town’s newest ranger. She’s passionate about both jobs, and finds fulfillment in each. It’s wonderful to see two such different roles given equal weight in the storyline. She doesn’t have to choose.

All ages are well represented in Stranger. Teens work alongside the adults as equals, as might be expected in a YA novel. But the adults are just as complex and interesting. Younger kids help with the town’s defense in regular drills. Even the moms and grannies kick butt, as the Change can be triggered by pregnancy or menopause too. Every citizen in Las Anclas matters, no matter their age, race, sexual orientation, or role within the community.

Multiple Viewpoints

If there’s a flaw to be had in Stranger, it’s the excess of viewpoint characters. There are five POV characters, and it’s hard to get a handle on who everyone is at first. Three of the story lines stay closely connected, so it’s easier to follow as their stories intertwine.

A fourth viewpoint, Felicity, exists mostly as necessary contrast. The antagonist feels overdone at first, but their viewpoint adds layers of complexity that wouldn’t have come through otherwise. In the end, they ended up being much more interesting than I thought, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of their story in sequels.

Lastly, we have Yuki. He’s the last arrival before Ross, and the only survivor of a Japanese shipwreck. I liked him as a character, but his story felt unrelated. There’s still plenty of room for him to be important in future volumes though. For now, his chapters are interesting, but unconnected, parallel views of what life is like in Las Anclas.

Final Verdict

Strong characters and a story that’s just plain fun make this a refreshingly different kind of post-apocalyptic tale. It’s hopeful, not bleak. Characters can give each other the benefit of the doubt and not have it be their fatal mistake.

Las Anclas is a community working together against a common goal. There are still tensions within the community, but this is a community that has embraced its differences and used them to stand together. Stranger presents a vision of the future that dares to hope we can learn from our mistakes, and not just keep repeating them.

If you like Stranger

If you like Stranger try these western inspired books
You might also enjoy these Western-inspired genre stories:

  • Blood Red Road – Saba sets out across the wasteland to save her twin brother, and joins up with a girl gang of revolutionaries on the journey.
  • Killer of Enemies – Post-apocalyptic YA based on an Apache legend, with a heroine who draws on the strengths of her family and her tribal heritage.
  • Alloy of Law – Steampunk western, from one of my favorite fantasy authors. This is in the same world as Mistborn, but makes a fine starting point on its own.
  • Karen Memory – Karen is an orphan, who protects her makeshift family at the bordello in this steampunk western. With gay, lesbian, and trans characters.
  • Gunslinger – Stephen King starts out his fantasy series with a classic Western trope: the lone gunslinger, pursuing his target across the desert.
  • Six Gun Tarot – Weird west fantasy, with a dark story and a touch of horror.
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