For whatever reason, historical fiction is hard to find in the young adult publishing space these days as boundary-pushing contemporary stories, lush fantasy tales, and grim dystopias seem to dominate shelf space. This is a big part of the reason why Adrienne Young’s books have felt like a breath of fresh air in recent years. Her “World of the Narrows” series, full of richly imagined tales of high seas adventures, smugglers, and pirates is the perfect escapist adventure, with the sort of thorough, lived-in world-building that will doubtless leave readers hoping for more stories in this universe for years to come.
Technically a prequel to her Fable duology, her latest novel Saint depicts the epic love story between Fable’s parents, a relationship that is referenced many times in those novels with varying degrees of reverence and mythologizing. Your mileage will likely vary on whether or not you think this depiction of their romance lives up to the hype—though the pair has lots of chemistry, the instant attraction that immediately springs up between them isn’t particularly well developed. But both are interesting enough as characters on their own that their love story is surprisingly one of the least important (or compelling) parts of the novel.
Saint does its best to humanize Fable’s father, a man who, by the time of his daughter’s adventures, is as much a myth or a cautionary tale as he is an actual person. (And, since he basically abandons Fable to life on a semi-deserted island, it’s not like the two of them are anything resembling close.) By filling in various elements of his backstory (the reason he’s so superstitious, why he’s so dedicated to life on the sea, his relationship ), the character certainly becomes more well-rounded and three-dimensional, if not always entirely likable, and his vision for a better future for the Narrows he loves so much is fascinating, even if we all sort of know in advance the ways in which it will both succeed and fail. Yet, there are moments where he feels more like a standard YA hero than a person that will grow up to be the Saint we met in the previous novels, and while I suspect we’re meant to assume it’s Isolde’s death that will ultimately make him a monster, the story isn’t exactly clear about how that change occurs.
Fable’s mother Isolde also gets a proper introduction, a privileged rich girl from the town of Bastian whose powerful gem dealer mother, Holland, casts a long shadow over this entire series. On the run to try and forget a different life for herself than one in which her only goal is helping her mother make money, Isolde is certainly brave and feisty enough to understand where he daughter will one day inherit those traits from. Her arc, in which she must figure out what a life free from Holland’s influence truly means, is the book’s most satisfying. And it certainly helps that we’ve only seen a sort of idealized view of her in Fable and Namesake up until this point, courtesy of Fable’s memories colored with the warm sheen of childhood. This allows Isolde to become what is essentially a new character here, as—unlike Saint-we have very few expectations about who or what she should be.
Saint also continues Young’s excellent work of fleshing out the world of the Narrows, a small impoverished chain of islands whose traders are constantly being exploited and looked down upon by the richer denizens of the Unnamed Sea. Here, Saint is only just establishing himself, both as a trader and smuggler of various illicit goods, as well as the threatening presence he’ll be seen as all his life. He even still goes by his real name (Elias) occasionally, has commissioned a ship of his own at last, and wants to help people at least as often as he wants to take advantage of them. Desperate to claim some sort of legitimacy, he’s working to earn (and afford) an official license from the newly formed Trader’s Guild and claim the respectability that goes along with it. He’s also determined to see the Narrows itself legitimized in a way that puts it on equal footing with cities of the Unnamed Sea, and has grand plans as to how this new trade license will help him do exactly that. There are appearances by several familiar characters—or at least characters with familiar names—that will delight fans of Young’s previous books, and everything about this story shows off the author’s growing confidence in this fictional landscape she’s been
Young smartly chooses to wrap up her story just as Saint and Isolde’s adventure on the Lark begins, meaning that the novel neatly avoids having to confront the ultimate downward spiral of its primary hero or reckon too heavily with the man he becomes. Sure, we see this version of Saint do some cruel and suspect things over the course of this story, but we’re also spared watching him become the outright villain we know from Fable. As a result, we’re allowed to remember him for the best things he’s done for once, rather than the worst. It’s up to you whether you think that’s an ending (or at least a stopping point) that this character deserves, but however you feel about Saint specifically as a character you won’t regret spending some more time in the Narrows.
Saint is available now from Wednesday Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.