Mana is not having a good day. Her crush turns out to be an acid-spitting alien, her mom goes missing, her house gets trashed, the Men in Black are after her, oh, and she discovers she can fly. One day she’s a down-to-earth cheerleader with a helicopter mom and two over-achieving best friends and the next she’s being debriefed by an alien and teaming up with China, her mother’s secret government agent partner, on a massive alien hunt. Everything she thought she knew about her life and the world is wrong and about to get worse. Soon she’s caught in the crosshairs between benevolent aliens, malevolent monsters, G-men, and rogue agents, but with the help of her potential new beau, Lyle, and her BFF, Seppie, she just might manage to save the world.
Carrie Jones’ Flying was a light, easy, and pleasant read. Personally I tend to prefer my YA with more meat on the bones, but there’s nothing wrong with a little candy. Think season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with the soapy teenage romance of Roswell. And, again, those aren’t cons. I loved the fun, flirty tone of early Buffy and was recently pining over Roswell so much that I started a Netflix rewatch binge. Actually, those retro comparisons are more apt than I initially thought. After spending a good half hour trying to think of contemporary shows, I realized that most teen series now are spicier, darker, and sexier. Even the upcoming Archie show on the CW has gotten on the grimdark wagon. Flying’s tone and style fit perfectly with late 90s/early aughts teen dramas, and that’s a very good thing.
If I could change anything about the novel, it would be to make Mana slightly more capable. Everyone says how smart Mana really is and that her grades are more reflective of personality than intelligence…but that brilliance never comes through. Instead of her sorting out the conspiracies on her own or with the help of her Scooby gang, she just takes everything the adults say at face value. She reacts rather than acts, and much of her reactions involve panicking and fretting. She doesn’t need to be a Strong Female Character—Hera knows we already have way too many of those—but your main character shouldn’t wait to be told what to do in nearly every situation. I get that her anxiety is supposed to make her relatable, but it doesn’t wholly work. That being said, Mana is at least interesting. She has a quirky, semi-nerdy personality sure to appeal to just about everyone.
Mana’s passivity ends up making one secondary character in partciular much more interesting than her. Frankly, I’d rather have a story with Seppie at the helm than Mana. Seppie is sparky, brave, and stands up for herself. If Mana had brought her into the loop in the beginning, she would’ve wrapped things up within a few chapters. Where Mana’s main concern (finding her mom) is constantly being derailed by her budding romance with Lyle, Seppie is wise enough to know when to temper her emotions to push through a strategy and when to ease tensions with playful humor. She isn’t perfect, but she has a depth Mana lacks. Hopefully further entries in the series will give her more to do.
Speaking of uninteresting characters, whoo boy does Lyle need some zhooshing up. For a love interest, he’s about as appealing as a wet rag. Lyle spends half his screentime bickering with China over what Mana should do and the other half spouting the kind of romantic nonsense only said by teenagers written by adults. Those are his only two modes—peevish and moon-y. Who the hell knows what Mana sees in him other than that apparently he’s the only boy she knows that isn’t an adult or an acid-tongued alien. Then again, I remember those dreary days of my youth when girls had crushes on their limited group of male friends simply because they were the only boys around, so maybe Mana will grow out of him. Or maybe he’ll develop a personality by the sequel.
As far as diversity goes, Mana is biracial—half-white, half-Native Hawaiian although for some inexplicable reason people keep calling her Asian—and Seppie is Black. Having the only two teenage girls in the book both be girls of color is a huge step forward…I just wish it meant something. Their ethnicities are only mentioned either as an offhanded description or to shame a white person for their racism. And while it’s great that there’s some color in the cast, at the end of the day their racial backgrounds carry no weight. In effect, Mana and Seppie’s non-whiteness is reduced to colorblindness at best, tokenism at worst. The story doesn’t have to be about their ethnicities, but it has to be more than a random descriptor like the color of her hair or her height. It also doesn’t help that the evil alien hybrid thing trying to kill Mana is called a Windigo after the creature from Algonquin mythology, especially since Jones’ monster bears literally no resemblance to its legendary namesake. After all the guff JK Rowling has taken with her increasingly egregious cultural appropriation, I’m surprised it made it through the editing cycle.
Despite a few structural missteps, Flying is a delightful summer beach reads for young teens. Some teens will probably roll their eyes at the cheesy phrases the kids use instead of just saying “sex,” and those looking for more action in their action sequences will be left hanging, but most readers will have a breezy few hours. The characters are bubbly and geeky, the world intriguing, and the story fun. The world built by Carrie Jones is refreshingly creative, with enough twists on tropes to keep things exciting. Her writing style is clear and straightforward without sacrificing flair and charm. While I’m not entirely sold on the cast, I can’t wait to explore the rest of the world they inhabit. We’ve had enough of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Time to put the spotlight on aliens once more.
Flying is available now from Tor Teen.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.