First of all, I love tropes. Trope is supposed to be a bad word because everything is supposed to be new and innovative and original.
Ugh. Why can’t they come up with something new? No one has any good ideas anymore! Oh my god, not THAT again! Sound familiar? Look. I get where those people are coming from. Bad tropes are bad and bad tropes done badly are the worst.
I was skeptical when I saw Three Sides of a Heart: Stories About Love Triangles. Like I said, I love tropes and I can read my favorite tropes over and over again. A good trope, in my opinion, does not get old. Meet cutes, coffee shop AUs, two people in love and everyone knows it but them? Yes. All the yes. But love triangles? Ugh. The Love Triangle is one of the oldest literary tropes. The oldest example of one I can think of off the top of my head is The Iliad. Love triangles (The Iliad has two) sparked a 10-year war between humans and gods, and thousands died. Awesome.
Love triangles tend to be hated because they are usually so predictable, formulaic and cis het normative. I live in that world already, though, so I don't want to read a thousand fictional stories like that. Especially ones that reinforce a very narrow idea of love and relationships (I get the feeling that love triangles are not as common in the real world as romances would have us believe). Not to mention there are usually non-dramatic solutions that apparently no one in a love triangle story is capable of thinking of, which is frustrating. Super radical solutions like polyamory, open relationships, and not feeling inexplicably torn between The Nice Guy and A Jackass in a Leather Jacket Whom You Just Met. Your life does not have to be a 1980s John Hughes movie, ladies. Aesthetically? Yes. Wear that awesome Molly Ringwald outfit from The Breakfast Club and then put it on Pinterest. But romantically? No.
Let's not even start on why love triangles are seen as so necessary to women's and girl's stories. To the point where movies will often add in totally made up or exaggerated triangles to adapted books that do not have them. This was a consistent complaint about The Hunger Games movies. Like, isn't it dramatic enough that the characters are fighting for their lives while also trying to spark a revolution? There also has to be a love triangle? Dang.
The names on the cover of Three Sides of a Heart caught my eye. I'll read anything with Garth Nix’s name on it, and he's never one for gratuitous romance or clichés. In most of his books, there's no time for that sort of thing. There are kingdoms to run, literal death to defeat, the universe to save, the shock of learning how one’s society and world really work, and characters desperately trying to stay alive. With all that in mind, I was pretty curious to see what he would do with a love triangle.
Beyond Nix, I haven't read many of the other contributors, but I recognized most of the names as well-known YA writers (because I have a lot of books on my Want To Read Goodreads list). I was also intrigued by the obvious diversity: Nix is only one of two male authors (though not surprising given that YA romance is generally seen as the sole domain of female or gay male YA authors) of 16 contributors and six of the contributors are people of color. Determining the sexual orientation of authors is a lot harder if they haven't publicly declared themselves, but I'm considering the writers of the queer stories in the anthology as good maybes.
The collection as a whole does a really good job of re-imaging and playing with titular trope. A lot of the stories were really surprising. Some were surprising in structure, some in story, and some both. Several stories I read twice because they were so intricate and complicated. Despite this being an anthology of short fiction, I feel like the space limitation gave the authors a sense of freedom. I was impressed with how much narrative these authors put into only 20–30 pages. The incredible world-building is a testament to the individual skill of each contributor.
If nothing else, this collection put a lot of new YA authors on my radar, and I'm definitely going to seek out their work now. So here are some thoughts about each story.
Riddles in Mathematics by Katie Cotugno
A sweet story about a girl with a longtime crush on her brother's female best friend. Everyone is convinced that Steven and his best friend Taylor are in love and are going to get married someday (isn’t that how male-female best friend pairs always work out?), but what is really going on between them and does Rowena, the sister, have a chance with the girl of her dreams whom she thinks sees her as nothing more than her brother's little sister?
Dread South by Justina Ireland
What if there was a zombie uprising during the Civil War? And what if this resorted in a "Great Concession" that ended slavery and the Confederacy in exchange for federal help with the zombie situation? And now Black teenage girls are trained as skilled zombie hunters and hired out to protect the rich (and white) from the undead? Alternate history, zombies, gay interracial romance? You have my attention.
The love triangle? Louisa, a wealthy white teenage Southern Belle who is on track to marry Everett, the most handsome and rich eligible bachelor in the Antebellum South and fulfill the highest goal a woman of her stature in that time and place is supposed to achieve, is forced by her mother to accept a protection detail in the form of a personal body guard called an Attendant. Her Attendant, Juliet, is quiet, competent, and deadly, and she challenges Louisa’s internalized sexist and racist views of the world. The life she assumed she wanted (and was the only real option) as a rich man’s wife, might have more options than she realized. Also: A giant zombie horde might be headed their way.
This story was expanded to a full length novel of the same name. The book Dread Nation drops April 3, 2018.
Omega Ship by Rae Carson
A ship full of teenagers in hibernation. They are headed to a new planet to colonize and restart human civilization. Something goes wrong and the ship is crashing. Only three people able to wake up out of stasis and get to an escape pod in time. Two boys and a girl (a white Australian boy, a Japanese American boy, and a Mexican girl). Their mission is clear: restart the world.
"Within me is enough genetic diversity to restart the human race. My ovaries contain several hundred thousand oocytes, transplanted from women all over the world. I signed a contract saying I would bear at least two children on the new planet. All of us girls who won the New Hope Lottery did, whether we wanted children or not. But now that I’m the only human woman left in the universe, my two contracted children won’t be enough. I'll have to get pregnant and stay pregnant until I die."
The ethical dilemma presented in this story stayed with me long after I finished it. I actually stopped reading the book and took an entire day to just ponder and process. This is a great story to use as a discussion starter about duty, bodily autonomy, free choice, reproductive choice issues, and the greater good. I still have complicated feelings about this story and the impossible choice an 18 year old girl has to make and I think that's a good thing.
La Revancha Del Tango by Renée Ahdieh
This story didn't leave a great impression on me. A tango-loving Indian American girl staying in a hostel in Argentina is both intrigued and repelled by two boys staying in her hostel: an American boy she finds handsome and nice but not very assertive and a brash English boy who might be too assertive. There is banter and tango dancing.
Cass, An, and Dra by Natalie C. Parker
Cass, can instantly see the consequences of decisions she makes in her mind. Family trait.
"There are only ever two possible futures. They appear before me like a question: this or that? This has been true since the snakelike voices first whispered in my ear. Choose, Cass, choose. They do not care which way I choose, only that I do."
One day she sees herself kissing a girl named Dra and changing her entire life. Problem is, she already has a girlfriend (An) with whom she has already mapped out her entire life with and spent an entire life with.
"When we part, I'll know she's seen us. An. I'll know that even while that kiss was creating something new, it was destroying something old, and I'll feel—I don't need to imagine this—like I have jumped off a bridge and there is no river beneath to catch me."
Choose, Cass, choose.
Lessons for Beginners by Julie Murphy
Ruby and her gay best friend Paul run a very down low business at their high school where Ruby gives desperate people and couples kissing lessons. She found out she was an exceptionally good kisser during a Seven Minutes in Heaven game in middle school (playing this same game, with Ruby, Paul found out he was an exceptionally bad kisser—and gay). Everything is going fine until two new clients seek out her services: her former best friend, Annie, and her former best friend’s boyfriend. It’s fine. Totally fine. Or at least it would be if Ruby weren’t secretly in love with Annie. And if Annie didn't maybe like her back. Or have a perfect, socially acceptable boyfriend she can actually introduce to her Korean family.
I really liked this story as it dealt with body image, sexuality, toxic masculinity, homophobia, religion, and being a queer person of color.
Triangle Solo by Garth Nix
Despite Nix’s contribution being the one that caught my attention on name recognition alone, I found this story to be not particularly interesting. It's set in the future on a colonized Mars, so that part is cool, but the story itself isn't very deep or particularly innovative in terms of the trope. Though he does take a literal approach to it in a way that I find amusing.
There are three childhood friends (two boys and a girl) and one of them (the girl) moves back to earth and now, four years later, she's back. She's also grown up and hot. Both guys want to ask her out. Who will she say yes to? Anwar, who is practically perfect in all ways, or sweet and modest Connor?
Vim and Vigor by Veronica Roth
A sweet story about fandom and how the fandoms we love can be the great loves of our lives. Also how great friendships are brought into our lives through fandom. Especially friendships with other girls and women. I smiled through the reading of this story because as someone who has been actively involved in fandom for about 20 years now, I recognized a lot of myself and my friendships in it. We all have those friends we met through fandom and even if Harry Potter or Pokémon or Wonder Woman is the only thing we have in common, it's enough.
Work in Progress by E.K. Johnston
This is a hard one to explain. I read it several times. With shifting perspectives and stories within the story, it’s hard to pinpoint what this story is, other than a story about stories. It is both frustrating and intriguing. At the end of the story I was not actually sure which one is the “real” story and I think that is the point. I can live with that.
Hurdles by Brandy Colbert
I had such mixed feelings for how teenage the protagonist of this story is. A girl with a very bright future from a loving and stable family is in love with her best friend's alcoholic brother. What would you give up for love? Maybe everything? I appreciated this story on several levels. On one level, it was really nice to see a Black girl as a successful all-American teenager with no Social Issues and a stable family. On another level, I enjoyed the reminder that a teenage brain is not the same as an adult brain. And by that I mean I was literally chanting in my head as I read this "girl, don't do it" because I am reading this with an adult perspective teens don't have. I recognized teens I knew in Mavis. High school friends and younger family members I wish had made different life choices. We don't know what choice Mavis will make, but she becomes your sister, cousin, friend, and mentee that you pray will make the right choice.
The Historian, the Garrison, and the Cantankerous Cat Woman by Lamar Giles
This story is like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a delicious twist I didn't see coming. Imagine a love triangle between a Watcher, a werewolf and a vampire. All's fair in love and demon fighting, right?
Waiting by Sabaa Tahir
This one is sort of an inverted version of Hurdles. Another girl of color with a bright future torn between that future and two boys: The Good Boy and the Bad Boy. The difference is, maybe the bad boy is actually the right one. As cliché as I just made that sound, it isn't. The boys have enough nuance to them that they are not the stereotypes they seem. Unlike in Hurdles, the girl in Waiting has much more to base her undying loyalty to the Bad Boy on. You feel like her love actually could save this boy—and he would let her.
Vega by Brenna Yovanoff
A triangle between a boy, a girl, and a city. This one is dark and gritty and lonely like the city of Vegas itself. If this sounds like an inaccurate description of Las Vegas, you’ve probably only been to the strip. But right off the strip, in rundown apartments, houses, and trailers are the people living on the margins who often work in the casinos. Right underneath the glitter and lights. This story is about two kids who grew up there. Elle loves it because it’s sharp, and dirty and rough (like her) and that’s why Alex hates it. They both have decisions to make.
A Hundred Thousand Threads by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I loved this one. Mexico City 60 years from now. A corrupt government dealing in human trafficking and murder. Technology and celebrity and fashion. Revolutionaries and a Zorro-like hero to the people. These teenagers have to decide what they are willing to fight and die for. There’s a nice exploration here of privilege, disability, power, and identity. It's beautifully written (especially the poetry interspersed throughout) and kept me guessing.
Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton
Beautiful world building in this story. I want to read the entire book this story should be. This is possibly the most overtly sensual and sexual of the stories in this collection. It's also one of the darkest. If you like your princesses ruthless, cunning, powerful, and not at all sweet or sentimental, then this is the story and princess for you.
Unus, Duo, Tres by Bethany Hagen
This is the only story in the collection with two boys in a romantic relationship. Two vampire boys, deeply and passionately in love, attend a boarding school in the Deep South. What happens when a beautiful girl—a beautiful girl who's dying—comes into their life?
This story manages to surprise and avoid common vampire tropes. This is the first time I've seen race explored through vampirism (one of the boys is Black and the other is white). This sold me:
"Boys like me are supposed to be afraid even when we’re innocent, but I’m not innocent or afraid. Instead, I get to move with power, with freedom, with the bone-deep knowledge that I cannot be hurt or killed in the ways that they might try to hurt or kill me. I am all the thing this city doesn’t want me to be when I hunt—black and male and unafraid."
Yes. I want so much more of this story.