My experience with Young Adult fiction is pretty limited, and I typically read only the cultural phenomenon books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter or works by authors I already enjoy, like Chuck Wendig or Dan Wells. However, I choose a few books from Angry Robot’s YA line, Strange Chemistry, as an experiment. Sean Cumming’s Student Bodies is the first of those.
The star of Cumming’s tale is Julie Richardson, high school student and a witch with a surprising amount of magical power. When Julie and her boyfriend, Marcus uncover a supernatural plot to murder students at their high school, they are quickly swept into battle with an ancient evil that could easily destroy their entire town. With a surprisingly diverse cast of allies, Julie and Marcus must uncover the source of the threat and eliminate it, before time runs out.
I was a little disappointed when I realized that Student Bodies was the second installment in a series, with Poltergeekspreceding it. Cummings does an excellent job of making the story work without too much knowledge of what came before. There are plenty of references to the previous volume, but they convey the relevant information in such a way that it doesn’t hinder the pacing or confuse readers who come to the series in the middle, like I did.
Julie Richardson is a fine choice of protagonist. She is a powerful witch but suffers from the same parental conflicts and concerns of the average high school student. She is capable, confident, and still surprisingly vulnerable and caring for someone of her age with such dread responsibilities. Her relationships with both her over protective mother and her devoted human boyfriend, Marcus, both ring true. I applaud the lack of the stereotypical love triangle here. It is nice to read about a protagonist who isn’t constantly waffling about where his/her affections lie. Julie’s relationship with her mother and Marcus lend the novel more depth than the loose world building and paint by numbers plot by half and the authenticity of Julie’s voice is the real selling point here.
The world building is not unexpected, though I was pleased to find native magic represented so well, with the inclusion of the Standing Ready family. Both Twyla and her grandfather are excellent supporting characters that deserve further inclusion in the books that are all but insured to follow. Cummings does a good job of working within the established tropes of urban fantasy, deciding to focus on his well crafted characters. While the stage dressing may not be anything ground breaking Julie and Company more than make up for it.
There is action a plenty in Student Bodies and Julie shows some inventive problem solving skills and unique uses for her mystical gifts, but I felt as if there could have been more tension. The stakes were high, but there wasn’t enough try-fail cycles to make me doubt for even a moment that our heroes would fail. While Cummings provides a credible threat, it never feels quite real. The consequences of the final battle however will have much more impact on Julie. And, I applaud the author for shaking up the status quo in this way.
Student Bodies is an excellent example of Young Adult fantasy done right. It is populated with believable layered characters, action, and just enough social issues to make it relevant but not preachy. Fans of YA as a genre would be mistaken to let this title pass by unread.