Wonder Women

There's an inherent danger in entertainment consumption when one of your friends is the creator. It can strike from either side. As the creator, you hope everyone likes it, but you worry that it will be met with a shrug or that compliments are insincere (even if the work up for discussion is, say, a fledgling food podcast). As the consumer, you worry that you won't entirely enjoy whatever work your friend has poured so much of themselves into, and don't know how you'll handle the inevitable "So, what did you think?" conversation. Fortunately, I can breathe a big sigh of relief, because I just finished Jeffrey Ricker's 2014 novel The Unwanted, and can say with complete honesty that I enjoyed it immensely.

One of the hardest things to write is believable gay characters. Their sexual orientation either completely defines their personality, the author inserts them into the story only to turn around and ignore them, or they come off as one-dimensional accessories to other characters. Madeline Miller has come closest to getting it right recently, but it always helps to have an author who truly understands what's going on in an adolescent gay kid's mind. In The Unwanted, that adolescent gay kid is Jamie Thomas, who has to deal with not only the usual teenaged pressures, but the pressures of being the only out student at his high school. He's tormented by a bully named Billy Stratton (who has his own issues), and his complicated situation does not improve when the mother he thinks has long since died reappears to tell him that she's an Amazon warrior and that she needs his help to save her tribe.

Melding a story about fighting mythological forces, a story about family bonds and reconciliation, and a story of young gay romance is akin to trying to graft wheels onto a dolphin, and yet somehow, Ricker manages to weave them together seamlessly. Jamie must navigate the dangers of both the American high school caste system and of angry gods hurling lightning bolts in his direction, and for that to read as completely natural and realistic is quite the feat.

You don't have to wait long for the action to get going, either. Perhaps I've been reading too many introspective books lately, but I liked that we didn't have to sit around watching Jamie (or any other character) agonize over their choices for page after page. These people find themselves in an extraordinary situation, but they all tackle it head-on, which I appreciated. In many ways, Jamie undergoes the usual Hero's Journey we've seen in countless stories before, but nothing in this book ever sinks into triteness; the ancient and modern components complement each other very well.

There is certainly no dearth out there of young adult novels that incorporate supernatural elements. Vampires and werewolves and witches abound. But what is unusual is a young adult novel that features a gay protagonist who must contend with war, parental resentment, and romance. The fact that he does it all without once ever becoming an insufferable snot is the most extraordinary thing of all.

The Unwanted: A


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