Like all women, Princess Aislynn (pronounced ‘ASH-lynn’) possesses dangerous magic that must be controlled and subdued with the help of male Advisers in accordance with The Path to keep them from becoming ‘strays’—like the wicked and reclusive Queen Josetta. When Aislynn fails to control her magic, she’s punished: stripped of her title and ‘loving heart’ (aka all intense or ‘sinful’ emotions), and sent to become a Fairy Godmother (a combination of nuns and governesses who are permitted to use small magic in order to serve royalty). There she serves the Monarch Princess Linnea, who is on the verge of getting engaged, and meets a handsome gardener and kindhearted maid who offer her a new perspective on magic and society.
I wanted to like Stray. The concept is an interesting one. But sadly, the text doesn’t deliver on that.
This unnamed land and its politics are a bit thin on development: there are four (conveniently color-coded) levels of royalty—including two different levels of Kings—divided among four kingdoms. More importantly, this world is vehemently and almost comically anti-woman. All women have magic that must be suppressed (it’s unclear why: because magic means sex/vanity/independence or something). There’s a background legend about four sisters whose magic made them evil, but it’s vague; I found myself more interested in the four sisters and The Path’s origin story as the book went on.
It seems like Sussman is attempting to make some grand feminist statement using a fantasy allegory, but it just ends up feeling tremendously heavy-handed. Because of this, the first half feels a bit like reading a manifesto rather than a narrative.
There’s also the impression that Sussman consulted a list of Issues Facing Young Women Today (sexual harassment, race, gender inequality, self-harm, sexual identity) and stuffed them all into this narrative. Every one of those issues is worth writing about, but because they are all smushed in, none of them get the recognition and study they deserve. Although it is worth adding that Aislynn is one of too few nonwhite protagonists in this, or any, genre. That’s a great thing, and a point in the book’s favor.
Aislynn, unfortunately, is wallpaper, and suffers the YA curse of having everyone tell her how beautiful and brave and clever she is all the time, even if the text doesn’t support it. Her pre-godmother emotions are either lust or guilt, presumably to enforce that the church and society are stifling women’s sexual expression in our own world. Post-godmother, after her ‘loving heart’ is removed (a really awesome concept that I wish we could have spent more time with), Aislynn is detached and fumbling, simply watching the rest of the narrative’s events—particularly Linnea’s coming-of-age and engagement—unfold before her.
She never questions the society she lives in or the fact that it makes her constantly ashamed. I don’t take issue with a character who accepts the society she grew up in, but Aislynn—as the protagonist—is clearly meant to be an agent for change despite the fact that she doesn’t make any real progress in her arc. She doesn’t make things happen; things happen to her.
Even in the last quarter, when she apparently gains her agency and freedom, her decisions and accomplishments rely entirely on intuition and her magic, which is reflexive and barely under her control. For example, there is a moment where a hitherto-unheard little voice in her head whispers ‘Come home’, so all of a sudden Aislynn knows she has to go home. It’s not satisfying and it doesn’t feel considered or deliberate. Stray requires us to suspend our disbelief or make logical leaps in this vein quite often.
Moreover, Stray is the first in a series, and it shows. It’s hard to evaluate it on its own merits because it basically functions as a set-up for Book Two. We’re given only a taste of the antagonist and are left with far more questions than we should be. Questions like ‘what are they fighting for?’ and ‘Why should we care?’ And I want to care, but there is nothing to go on; every point introduced is left a mystery or at least ambiguous. This doesn’t inspire curiosity in me—only frustration. I’m hopeful that Sussman will craft more complete, standalone stories for her subsequent installments but, as of now, Stray is not a success.
Stray will be released on October 7, 2014.
Alyssa Jennette also reviewed Harry Melling’s debut play, Peddling.