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Review Round-up: Half Bad, The Rest of Us and Princess Decomposia

Three recent and upcoming books - all Young Adult (I suppose?) and all recommended (definitely). 

The Rest of UsI'm not going to 'review' Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) - for reasons that will become immediately clear to anyone reading it. So feel free to add however many grains of salt to this that you want. But... as well as being the typically Nessian magnificence about coming of age and learning to grow comfortable with yourself, The Rest of Us is also a continuation of his crafty conversation about the lessons of genre fiction. 

A Monster Calls described the power of stories to heal; The Crane Wife showed their darker side, arguably a book about the dangers of living a fantasy (literally and figurative). More Than This was, amongst many other things, a beautiful reflection on the role of science fiction, imagination, aspiration and escape. And now The Rest of Us Just Live Here turns to fantasy. By following a group of 'normal' kids in a hilariously stereotypical contemporary fantasy (one where the high school burns down regularly and all the oddly-named 'indie kids' are off saving the universe everyone), Ness nails the point: you are the hero of your own life.

This is a theme that's not only critical to convey to a young adult audience but also a philosophy that's in direct conflict with the subtly objectivist foundation of virtually every fantasy. In real life, there are no sidekicks, no extras, no un-Chosen. We're all special and (unlike the weirdly Randian message of The Incredibles), everyone being special means everyone is. Rather than a book that glamourises accidents of birth and the glory of predestination, The Rest of Us emphasises the unheralded heroism of being 'ordinary' and having, well, agency.

The Rest of Us has an air of, uh, empowering melancholy that is less forlorn than quietly romantic. It is about little-h-heroes and is, frankly, glorious. Again, you should read it and form your own (glowing) opinion, as this is all delivered with an almighty (pun) caveat that I am too close to this book to be objective. But irregardless of my opinion of its quality, I think its message is phenomenally important.

Half BadSally Green's Half Bad (2014) shouldn't work half as well as it does. Our world, but there are witches. Good ones, bad ones. There was a big, witchy war, and the Voldemort-equivalent is still out there, being a big, evil, witchy terrorist. No one knows where. His son, however, is right here - in a cage.

And that's one hell of a way to start a book: with the protagonist imprisoned and tortured.

This is seductively grim YA with the special protagonist who is Born Between Worlds and Heir To A Unique Power and, of course, Grievously Misunderstood. He is even in love with The Cool Girl Who Loves Him Inexplicably and constantly oppressed by A Dystopian Authority That Has Singled Him Out. Without being snarky, Half Bad is YA mad-libs - alternatively, Harry Potter and the Bourne Identity.

But, you know what? I can understand every single ounce of its appeal. This book is pressed crack, and should come with addiction warnings. I'm not sure what to credit for its ludicrous readability - the shamelessly self-indulgent protagonist, the cliff-hanger laden structure or the super-pacy writing style.

The familiarity makes it even more fast-moving. Half Bad doesn't subvert tropes. Instead the book puts the tropes in a heap in the middle of the floor and dances around them protectively. We're getting all the twists we love (and expect), but from slightly new, and very emphatic angles. No character has ever felt, suffered, failed or succeeded like the characters do in Half Bad. And that intensity of passion - captured with the author's indisputable talent - is utterly infectious.

The best comparison is probably Pierce Brown's Red Rising - flat-out more-ishness. Don't stop to think, just ride the wave. Love the wave. The wave is all.

Princess DecomposiaAndi Watson's Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula (2015) is, speaking of love, a charmingly ghoulish little romance. Princess Decomposia is the heir to a kingdom of creepy critters. No explanation given, but everyone seems to be a monster or creature of some delightful sort. Her father is an insufferable hypochondriac. The poor Princess is devoted to him and his persnickety needs, while still working around the clock to sort out the bureaucratic nonsense of the monarchy. Amongst the King's many ... issues... is a devotion to dietary fads, invariably leading to the dismissal of one cook after another. 

Count Spatula, a warm-hearted vampire with a taste for sweets, is the latest palace chef, and - in-between creating increasingly fantastical desserts, he gives the Princess the courage she needs to re-assess her life. The two become fast friends, and possibly more... but will the King stand for it?

Andi Watson's comics include several quietly inspiring contemporary romances, including Slow News Day and Paris ;(the latter illustrated by Simon Gane).Certainly Princess Decomposia has the most bizarre setting, but it proves that a good story of friendship, family and love really is universal. And, if anything, the goofily Burton-esque background monsters allow the story to be more overtly sweet without ever coming across as saccharine and sentimental. Highly recommended for readers of all ages - kids will love the escapades and monsters, adults will love the story of agency and empowerment, and everyone will love the connection between the two title characters.