Lately, the best young-adult novels have felt like perfect action-adventure stories, with characters who run from danger... into even greater danger. Case in point: Here's the first chapter of Stranger by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown, which hits the ground running, and just keeps getting more exciting.
We covered Stranger a couple years ago, when the authors were being encouraged to make one gay character in the book straight, and they successfully fought back. But now that the book is out, you can see plenty of other reasons to get excited about it, including a high-energy plot and a world full of danger and insanity.
Here's the official plot synopsis for Stranger, which is out today:
Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change," arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.
Teenage prospector Ross Juarez's best find ever – an ancient book he doesn't know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.
And here's your exclusive look at the opening chapter:
Ross Juarez ran down the gully. Walls of earth and stone sheered high on either side, close enough to touch.
Something flickered at the edge of sight. He jammed his heel into the dirt to stop himself, scanning warily. Stone. Dust. A hardy sprig of tarweed fluttering in the breeze. Maybe that had been it.
A black claw slashed at his eyes, its serrated edges glinting with oily poison. He threw himself backward. A segmented leg emerged from a shadowy fissure; then a large, black-furred tarantula squeezed out and landed with a thump, sending up a puff of dust. Its mandibles, as long as the blades of Ross's knives, clicked together at knee height as the spider lunged at him.
Ross snatched up a loose piece of granite. No point wasting one of his precious daggers. The throw hit the tarantula in its furry abdomen. It curled up, chittering angrily.
He edged past, then picked up speed until the gully curved ahead, out of sight. When he reached the rocky outcropping, gravel and dry weeds crunched under his feet.
Crystal chimes rang sweetly.
Now, that was scary.
The gully dead-ended about thirty feet ahead in a grove of singing trees. Razor-edged leaves, faceted branches, and translucent seedpods sparkled in the sun, turning the parched earth into a kaleidoscope of colored light. Exposed roots glistened like veins of jasper and smoky quartz. Behind the trees, an ancient concrete wall towered above the top of the gully.
His first impulse was to run. But he reminded himself that the trees' farthest range was twenty feet, so he was safe. Which way now? He could climb out of the gully, but then he'd be visible to pursuit from above.
Sweat trickled into his eyes. As long as he kept moving, he could forget how hot and thirsty and tired and scared he was, but once he stopped, all he could think of was water. He couldn't help reaching for his canteen and shaking it, though he knew he didn't have a drop left. He had to get out of this bone-dry arroyo.
He took a cautious step, listening for the chime that usually preceded a barrage of crystal shards from the exploding seedpods. There was no wind, but the glassy leaves struck together, ringing out a threat. He was still safely out of range, but not by much.
Another step past the outcropping revealed a rock fall that had shattered a brilliant purple tree. The others in the grove were colored by the fur of the animals they had killed and rooted in: yellow brown for coyotes, dark brown for raccoons, gray for javelinas, white for bighorn sheep. But those that grew from humans usually took their color from the dyes in clothing. He wondered who had died to create that purple tree.
One of the boulders lay beside a hole in the cement—an open pipe. It might be big enough to wriggle through, if he took off his backpack and was willing to risk it.
He wasn't willing. He hadn't seen the bounty hunter since the day before, when he'd taken refuge in the maze of arroyos. It ought to be safe to retrace his steps; if the tarantula went for him again, he'd use a knife.
The concrete wall stretched for miles in both directions. But once he got around it, extracted water from a fishhook cactus, and snared a rabbit or quail for dinner . . . then what? He'd lost most of his supplies, and you couldn't make a shotgun and prospector's tools out of tumbleweeds. The obvious answer: he had to hit the nearest town and sell something.
For once, he had a genuinely valuable find.
Ross adjusted his backpack. He wasn't sure he wanted to give up the prize before he'd figured out its secrets. And as precious as it was, what if the potential buyer decided to steal it instead?
A shadow fell across the weeds at the lip of the gully. Ross dropped to the ground as a shot rang out.
He rolled, reached for his boot knife, and threw it.
A hit. But not good enough to take the guy out, if he could yell like that. Ross scanned frantically. He had no cover, unless he risked venturing into the trees' range to reach the boulder or the pipe.
He took another knife from his belt. The hilt slipped in his hand—his palm was slick with blood. He glanced down. His shirt was soaked all along the right side. He hadn't felt the bullet, and it didn't hurt. Yet. He scrubbed his hand and the hilt against his jeans, then pressed his forearm tight against his side to try to stop the bleeding.
All Ross saw above the gully's edge was brilliant blue sky, but the man yelled, "Let's make a deal."
"Go to hell!" Ross's voice cracked. Now he felt the burning pain, and a stab every time he inhaled. He peeled his shirt from his side. The bullet had left a furrow along his ribs—not fatal, just bloody.
He hoped the bounty hunter was starting to feel whatever damage he'd managed to do with his knife. As he squinted up into the blinding light, the shadow of a hawk fell across his face and was gone.
The bounty hunter shouted, "Listen—"
"No!" Ross yelled. Then he reconsidered. Every minute they spent talking was a minute he could figure out how to escape. "What do you want?"
"I thought I could take you in less than a day."
"So?" If he ran back, the man would follow and shoot him from above. Ross's knives didn't have a twentieth of the range of the rifle.
"That was six days ago. I respect that."
I bet. Ross pressed his arm tighter against the wound, which just made it hurt more.
"I respect it enough to offer you a deal."
Stall. "What's the deal?" No way forward, no way back, the bounty hunter would shoot him if he tried to climb out. . . .
"You've given me enough trouble already. I don't much want to spend the next six days dragging you back to Voske. Give me the book, and I'll let you go."
With his free hand, Ross patted his backpack and found the reassuring jut of the book. "It's mine!"
"I don't care. Voske wants it and he wants you—"
"He wants to put my head on a pole," Ross muttered.
"—but he wants the book more."
I know he does, and I know what he'll do with it, Ross thought. He clutched the backpack tight.
"Turn it over and walk away free, or I sit here and wait for you to change your mind. How are you doing on water?"
Ross didn't believe for an instant that the bounty hunter was planning anything other than dragging him back to King Voske. Or killing him. That was what bounty hunters did.
A pebble rolled down from the gully's edge. Ross hurled a rock with his left hand and heard the man scrabble back out of range. He made sure his remaining knives were loose in their sheaths.
The bounty hunter kept silent. Ross knew it was to give him time to think about how hopeless his situation was: wounded, without water, trapped, and exposed in the sun. And it was working. The minutes passed, and Ross was painfully aware of his dry mouth, his burning side, and his throbbing head. Was he getting sunstroke already? The desert heat could kill him as surely as a bullet.
"I'm not going anywhere!" the man shouted.
The words stirred up first anger, then a sense of calm that washed through Ross's body like cooling water. He refused to surrender, and he refused to sit there and die.
You should have kept your mouth shut, Ross thought.
He might be able to cram his shoulders through the pipe in the concrete wall. But if he was wrong—he glanced down at his shirt and jeans—he'd become a white-and-blue tree.
He measured the distance, calculating how many steps he'd have to take while within the nearest tree's range before he could reach the cover of the boulder. Even one was too many. But it was a chance. And if he died, he and the book would become a singing tree, and the bounty hunter and Voske would never get either of them.
He sheathed his knife and rummaged through his backpack. The closest he had to a shield was his second pair of jeans. Holding his breath to ease the pain, he folded the jeans and slid them under his shirt to protect his back, then tucked his shirt into his belt to keep them in place.
Ross checked the distance once more. To his shock, he was closer than he'd thought. The trees against the wall shone like topaz and moonstone, but there were telltale shimmers in the air mere paces away. Some had shifted to transparent crystal in the hope of luring him in.
And it had worked.
He stood up slowly, using the backpack to shield his face and throat. The trees chimed as if they knew what he was thinking. Ross sucked in a breath. He'd move faster if he could relax his muscles, but his entire body was quivering like a stretched wire.
"You're crazy," the bounty hunter yelled. "Those things will kill you!"
"Better them than you!"
He ran. The ringing stopped, replaced by a sound like shattering glass. Ross passed the boulder and flung himself into the pipe. He pushed his backpack in front of him and wriggled on his elbows, squeezing his shoulders together to avoid getting stuck. The pain in his shoulders and side took his breath away, and he lay still in the chilly darkness.
He'd made it. He'd actually gotten past the singing trees. He'd heard a few shards hit his backpack, but unless they struck something living they quickly dissolved into sand.
There was no way the bounty hunter would be able to fit into the pipe, even if he managed to get past the trees. All Ross had to concentrate on now was getting through the pipe and finding water once he was free.
He began to inch forward. His left wrist stung as if he'd crawled over something sharp. He tried to lift his hand, but his whole arm felt heavy.
A needle of pain jabbed in his wrist, then shot into his forearm. Ross patted it. A hard sliver moved beneath his fingers.
A crystal shard was growing under his skin.
Terror flashed through him. He jerked his right arm backward, trying to reach the knife at his belt, but he couldn't get his hand past his chest. As he struggled to work his hand between his body and the pipe, the shard stabbed farther into his flesh. It was working its way toward his heart.
Ross wriggled as fast as he could, banging his knees and elbows and the back of his head against cold metal. He didn't know how much time he had to save himself, but it couldn't be a lot.
Light glinted ahead. He threw himself toward it, pushing off with his toes. Fresh air struck his face and hands like a new-lit fire, and he tumbled out of the pipe onto sun-warmed sand.
His left arm had gone numb, hanging from his shoulder like a dead thing. He dragged his jacket off. The brown skin was distorted by a lump that began at the base of his palm. The lump burrowed visibly toward the inside of his elbow.
Ross knelt down. Fumbling in haste at his belt, he yanked out a knife. If he wanted to live, he'd have to cut out the shard.
Bracing his forearm against his knee, he gritted his teeth and set the point of the knife against the thing in his wrist. He leaned in, intending to use his weight to make the cut, but his arm slid off his knee. As he stared in shock, the shard grew another half inch, jolting pain through his entire body.
He dropped to the sand and leaned all his weight on his elbow, pinning his forearm to the ground.
This time he put the knife point at the inside of his elbow. He'd cut off the thing's path to his heart. One deep jab got past the outer layer of his skin. The numbness blazed to white-hot agony. Holding his breath, he dragged the knife all the way to his wrist. From beneath its coating of blood, the exposed shard gleamed with its own ruby light.
Ross dug the knife point under the shard. He tried to flick it out, but it was attached by tiny rootlets. He flipped the knife around and slashed through the tendrils. They snapped like threads, and the shard dropped to the ground.
He flung himself away from it, rolled once or twice, then lay there, his arm on fire with pain. He'd have screamed, but he couldn't catch his breath.
In a daze, he watched blood pour from his arm and soak into the ground. At first the powdery dust swallowed the blood with barely a trace, but soon it began to darken the earth, and then to pool on it. Ross tried to sit up, but his body was too heavy, and the ground kept lurching under him. His backpack had a shirt he could use for bandages, but he couldn't reach it. Finally he rolled over, pinning his arm beneath his chest, and hoped the weight of his own body would stop the bleeding. The blazing sunlight dimmed to gray, then black.
Ross stumbled across the cracked earth. When he'd come to, he'd been burning up, but now he was cold again. With his right arm, he tugged his jacket tightly across his chest. His clumsily bandaged left arm hung at his side. The ache in his head and side throbbed in echo to the stabbing pain in his arm. Worse, he was leaving a blood trail that anything could track.
It fell like red rain, pattering down and sinking into the sand. The blood had still been wet when they'd found his father. Ross could feel it sticky on his hands, feel the cool skin that used to be so warm. He heard his grandmother whisper, He's dead, Ross. We have to run . . .
He forced himself back into the present. He had to find water, and then shelter. If he passed out again, he'd never get up. The backpack dragged against his shoulders, pulling him down. He swayed, then caught himself. Stand there and you'll die. He slung the pack over his shoulder and forced his feet to move.
Two steps, and he tripped over a rock and slammed into the ground. Sand scraped his cheek. A spindly thorn apple tree cast a shadow across Ross's face, a scrap of relief from the unrelenting sun. His eyes closed. Run. He jerked himself awake, his fingers clenching crisp weeds. There was something he had forgotten. Something important. He was in danger . . . He was in danger from the bounty hunter, because . . .
Ross pulled his pack toward him and scrabbled through it until he touched the worn cover of the book.
"Still there," he whispered, his tongue dry as leather.
He opened his eyes, squinting against the light. There was a cactus a few yards away, haloed in pulsing rings of purple and black. Maybe he could cut it open for water. He blinked hard, and the rings faded. The spines grew in hexagons: a hive cactus. There was no water inside, only more danger if he provoked its swarm.
But a barrel cactus grew a few paces beyond. He could get water from that, if it wasn't another mirage. Ross hauled himself upright, dragging his pack by the straps. The cactus didn't fade. He let go of the pack and reached for his boot knife. When he straightened up, black spots swam across his vision. He staggered, the knife slipping from his hand, and leaned against a nearby tree. He was so tired, but at least the pain had gone. He could sleep here, like he used to sleep leaning against his burro . . .
"Get away from that tree."
He opened his eyes and saw a woman. Long black hair, brown hand reaching out . . . Mom?
His mother was dead. He knew that. He tried to move, but his skin seemed stuck to the tree. His palms and hip and cheek stung as if he'd embraced a wasp's nest.
"Now. It's sucking your blood."
She was right. Leechlike mouth holes had opened in the bark and fastened to his skin. He yanked himself painfully away. With a popping sound, the vampire tree let him go.
He collapsed onto the hard earth. Hands gripped his shoulder and hip and rolled him over. He could feel the cool imprint of her palms. You couldn't ever touch a mirage. Ross squinted dizzily up at the woman, whose hair covered half of her face. A steel badge glinted on her leather vest.
"Who are you?" He could barely hear his own voice.
"Elizabeth Crow. Sheriff of Las Anclas. What happened to you?"
Had he lost the bounty hunter? Or was the man still on his trail? He could be aiming his rifle at Ross right now. Or at the woman who was trying to help him.
Ross couldn't let her die for his sake, after she'd saved him from the vampire tree.
"I'm being chased." He forced the words past his raw throat. "Run and get help. Armed help."
Sheriff Crow laid her hand on the pistol at her belt. "I'm armed."
Ross whispered, with the last of his strength, "So was I."
Her voice was cool, low, calm. "It was good of you to warn me."
With enormous effort, he kept his eyes open and watched her drop his knife inside his pack. As she reached for him, her hair swung back, revealing her entire face. On one side, he saw a warm brown eye and smooth brown skin, the strong-boned face of a striking woman in her thirties. On the other side, her eye was lashless and yellow, the pupil slitted like a snake's, and her skin seemed to have melted into her skull.
He sighed in relief. She was Changed. She might have some power she could use to protect herself, and him, too.
She lifted Ross with no more effort than she'd used to pick up his pack, then shifted him over her shoulders. Her steps gathered speed until she was running faster than a deer. He peered past the swinging curtain of her dark hair at the scrub oak flashing by.
The last thing he heard was her sharp order: "Lockdown!"