Queering SFF

Alternative Relationships in YA: Inheritance by Malinda Lo

The sequel to last year’s Adaptation (reviewed here), Malinda Lo’s newest near-future science fiction novel for young adults—Inheritance—continues and completes the story of Reese Holloway, her friends, and the Imria. This duet of novels is firmly rooted in issues of politics, identity, and conspiracy; as I said last time around, it’s quite the X-Files homage, except with queer teenagers. Inheritance takes the reader deeper into the conspiracy behind the June Disaster, Reese and David’s adaptation, and the society of aliens that have made contact with humanity. Where Adaptation left off quite suddenly with a cliffhanger ending, Inheritance picks the threads right back up.

However, as a book Inheritance is less concerned with mystery-solving and more concerned with the developing and complicated relationships between Reese, David, and Amber—as well as their relationship to the world at large. Adaptation answered the question of what had happened to Reese and David; Inheritance works out the greater significance of that answer. But, it’s still got heaps of conspiracy, from ancient aliens theorizing to a legitimate series of government cover-ups.

The first thing that I’d like to say about Inheritance has more to do with the larger framework of YA publishing and queer issues, but: I’ll be damned, it’s a queer poly YA novel! That’s the best “twist” I’ve been surprised with in a long while. You see, I was initially a little concerned about the back-and-forth between Amber, Reese, and David. It’s a complicated situation, particularly with Reese’s own uncertainty about her sexuality, and I was afraid of the choose-one-partner narrative. Those are disturbingly popular in young adult books—the infamous love triangle—and I kind of hate them at this point.

But no choosing here. Early in the story, Amber introduces Reese to the idea of fluid genders and just less rigid genders; then later she makes a note of the fact that, due to their telepathic connection, Imrians don’t find it odd to have multiple relationships since the truth about feelings is right there on the surface. Reese doesn’t come around to it first, though, and neither does David. It takes a lot of thought and struggle first. That’s possibly the most believable part, and the part that I loved the most, about their relationship-narrative: it takes work, and compromise, and the shifting of beliefs to accommodate greater possibilities. Amber isn’t magically great at it, either—they all have to make an effort to be together as a group.

So, on a purely personal level, I’m pleased that this book exists. There are so few stories that deal with alternative relationship structures, particularly in YA—though plenty of teens are likely to be working out some stuff on their own. I appreciated watching the development of Reese’s understanding of her needs, her wants, and her problems; I also appreciated her solutions. Pleasant to see in a genre all too full of heterosexual love triangles, where the possibility of queerness often derails the possibility of a threesome. (Inheritance’s threesome is a triad where Reese dates both David and Amber, who are only friends, which makes it plenty queer.)

On that same personal level, I appreciated the working in of the aforementioned conversation about gender between Reese and Amber, explaining the fluidity between sex and gender and the possibility of nonbinary identities. It’s a 101-level conversation that simplifies quite a lot, but that’s because Reese needs a simple explanation: this is all new to her. In the same way, Lo writes about Reese’s perceptions of race—particularly of David’s Chinese-American identity—from a simple but clear position. Reese is a young white girl from a well-enough-to-do family. As such, I expect that her explorations of gender, sexuality and race will resonate meaningfully with many teens who are coming from a similar background. Intersectional stuff can be hard to wrap a mind around when it’s a new concept; I like that Lo has tried, here, to offer her younger readers many opportunities to broaden their horizons along with Reese.

Though, I will also say that this pleasant exploration is a double-edged sword: it occasionally comes across as somewhat exposition-tastic in dialogues between the characters. Perhaps this is because I’m familiar with the issues—but, sometimes, it begins to feel as though the reader is receiving a gentle lecture along with Reese (not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but this is certainly a didactic book).

As for the actual plot of the book—the aliens, the adaptation, and the future of human/Imria relations—it does tie off the story Lo began in Adaptation. The majority of the book is concerned with Reese and David trying to find allies, double-cross shadowy organizations, and get their lives back together. The problem is that, despite the book’s length, the various connected subplots often feel over-simplified. The stakes seem predictable until the sudden escalation of Reese and David’s abduction and the soldiers’ attempted rape of Amber (yes, that happens). Then, the solution to that situation also seems a little out of true—perhaps too easy.

The ending as a whole read as conclusive but not entirely satisfying to me on a narrative level—not uncommon with these sorts of grand conspiracy stories. It’s hard to keep all the balls in the air and solve all of the problems without the sense that things are kind of pat by the end. I do appreciate the sense that Bin42 and Julian’s work have been essential in outing the government for what they’ve done, but I also find it a little jarring to move from active conflict into two “news” articles and then into a final expository section explaining the past year’s events as the teens prepare to leave Earth as ambassadors. That’s a lot fluctuation in tension and the manipulation of reader expectations.

Overall, I did like the book, though it’s not perfect. The relationship arc is the most balanced, well-structured part of the novel, and those who want to read a fun poly YA novel (that’s science fiction) will enjoy it quite a lot. The plot keeps things moving, and it’s often fun, but it’s not got the sustained tension and structure of the Adaptation. I still enjoyed binge-reading it—and moreso, I enjoyed its explorations of identity and self, which will speak to much of the intended audience. The openness to gender and sexuality in this book are neat, and I’m glad to see the duet end in such a positive, pleasant way. Hopefully, readers receive the alternative relationship that drives the second novel just as well as I have.


Inheritance is available now from Little, Brown Books

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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