Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Strange birds

Malinda Lo's latest novel is a science-fiction thriller for young adults

Adaptation features a bisexual love triangle, bizarre powers, government conspiracies . . . and no coming-out story.

Young-adult fiction is not all vampires and dystopian fighting games. And if you look hard enough, you can find fiction about queer teens that goes beyond coming-out stories.

Malinda Lo’s new novel, Adaptation, a contemporary science-fiction YA thriller, is one such book; it follows San Francisco teen Reese Holloway’s experiences with government conspiracies, strange new abilities and bisexual love triangles.

Lo, a former editor at the After Ellen website, first got the idea for the novel from a dream, she says, “in which I was stuck in an airport, and these birds started falling dead from the sky and planes were crashing.” An X-Files fan (she even researched the show in graduate school), Lo was intrigued by the notion of a conspiracy behind mass bird deaths.

Adaptation opens with 17-year-old Reese and her debate partner (and crush) David Li waiting in an Arizona airport for a flight back from a tournament. Plane crashes, supposedly caused by birds, have been happening across North America and flights have been suspended. Driving across the desert in an effort to get home, Reese and David crash their car just past Area 51, the notorious site of alien conspiracy theories. Reese wakes up in a top-secret government facility one month later, with no memory of the time in between.

While both Reese and David are released from the facility to their normal lives, it’s clear to Reese that everything is not business as usual. She heals unnaturally quickly, can sense some people’s emotions, is being followed by men in dark suits, and has strange dreams of a pulsing yellow room. She also meets, and is unexpectedly attracted to, pink-haired Amber.

But there’s something sinister going on behind the scenes. What was the government’s involvement with the crashes? And is there a connection between the crashes and what’s happening to Reese? With the help of her best friend Julian (a young gay man), Reese and David unravel the mystery behind their changes. And Reese begins to wonder whether Amber is all that she seems.

Adaptation is an enjoyable and fast-paced read. The only downside is that the book ends with the plot lines not fully resolved — we have to wait for the sequel for that. The love triangle between Reese, Amber and David is believable. Reese’s romantic decisions hinge not on whether she likes boys or girls or both, but on whether she can trust either of them, or even love itself.

Lo’s first novel, Ash, began as a straight retelling of the Cinderella story, but a friend pointed out that Cinderella and the Prince had very little chemistry. Once Lo came around to writing a lesbian Cinderella, she says, “it has been very easy for me to write about queer characters in a very matter-of-fact way.” She stresses the value of stories about young queer characters that are “not all about the horrible issues of coming out.”