Book Review: Inheritance, by Malinda Lo

Note: This is a review of a bound, uncorrected proof provided courtesy of the author.

This is perhaps one of my meanest book reviews ever (not for the author, but for the reader), because Inheritance isn’t due out until 24 September, but the thing is, I can’t not talk about it, because this book is amazing. I mean this in a top five of 2013 list kind of way, even though the year is far from over. Given that the book’s not out yet, this review doesn’t contain discussions of specific plot points, beyond those touched upon in the cover copy, so feel free to read on ahead if you want to be tormented with tantalising comments about a book you can’t read yet. (And you know you do.)

(Yes, I am totally standing on a stool waving this book in the air above you, just out of reach. Don’t worry, taunters become the taunted eventually.)

Inheritance is a followup to last year’s Adaptation, in which we saw teenagers Reese and David nearly dying in a car accident near Area 51. The two were saved through some quick-thinking and somewhat mysterious surgery and it plunged them into a world of conspiracies, government agencies, kidnapping, and eventual confrontation with the Imria, an alien race who have been secretly in contact with Earth. In Inheritance, we’re going to find out a lot more about what happened to Reese and David, how they’ve changed, and the Imria themselves.

These two titles are well-chosen references to the overall framing of the books and the plots within them, but they’re also about the characters themselves. Reese and David go through a lot together, and Lo really captures that with a very realistic assessment of what it would be like to be at the center of breaking news this huge. Imagine a world where aliens are revealed as real, and people have had intimate contact with them: those people would be instant celebrities, but also figures of controversy, and their lives would be completely upended by their sudden appearance in the national spotlight.

It would be terrifying, especially if you were dealing with a whirl of personal emotions on top of that, which you probably would be, given the fact that you’d, you know, just found out that aliens exist. Inheritance, on the surface, has a fantastic adventure plot that takes us through what happens next, how society reacts to the appearance of the Imria, and how Reese and David deal with the power put in their hands, politically, socially, and personally, but it’s about a lot more than that.

I love that Lo manages to maintain a really elegant balance in this text of science fiction and realistic depiction of teen lives. Reese and David’s parents don’t mysteriously disappear into the ether, for example, instead playing a very active and assertive role, something which appears absent in a lot of YA; usually it seems like teens develop magical/super/alien powers and suddenly, poof, they’re miniature adults, and if they ever had parents in the first place, they’re thrust out of the picture. In the case, we see parents reacting, parents involved, and parents dealing with their own internal stuff as their children become international topics of conversation and concern.

And while I can’t talk about this too lengthily without spoilers, I also want to note that while Inheritance is emphatically not an issue book, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t tackle issues. Some very interesting themes about gender and sexuality come up as Reese interacts with the Imria and learns more about the structure of their society and how the Imria live their lives. I love that while the Imria look like humans (something which is explored in detail in Inheritance), that doesn’t mean they have a humanoid culture, and in fact there are many things about human existence which puzzle them deeply, including how humans deal with sex and gender.

Relationships, too, are a key part of Inheritance. As you may recall from Adaptation, Reese is bisexual, and I guess one would also say bispecial (biterrestrial?) since Amber is a member of the Imria, not a fellow human being. These issues are explored a lot more as Reese struggles with her sexuality and her blooming relationships, and Lo did something amazingly cool and mind-blowing here. (I want to talk about it. So much. Once Inheritance has published, I’ll be revisiting the topic. That’s how cool it is. Trust me, you are going to love it.)

Lo’s work on Inheritance and other YA illustrates that you can explore very complicated, mature subjects of gender, sexuality, and relationships without turning a book into a parade of Special Learning Experiences and Serious Moments. This isn’t an issue book, a gay and lesbian book, a queer book. It’s a book about people living their lives in the face of something truly extraordinary and amazing, it’s science fiction, and, oh yeah, it happens to include diverse characters. This is the way I love seeing diversity in YA done; not as an afterthought, not as a mission of the text, but as something thoroughly integrated into who the characters are and how the story is told, without pounding readers over the head with it.

When I finished Inheritance I was nearly giddy with delight over all the possibilities this book represented, and I can’t wait to see how people react to it on publication day. Lo represents a new generation of authors who are doing amazing things craftwise and diversitywise, and she’s really paved the way for other authors eager to follow in her footsteps. Now it’s time for this lady to win some serious awards for the work she’s doneā€”and I can’t wait to see her adult fiction.