LA as a Not-So-Urban Jungle: Undergrowth by Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim

the cover of undergrowth

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Seventeen-year-old Mariam finds herself surviving a Los Angeles that has been overrun by a magic jungle of horror. Along the way, she meets a group of other survivors, and together they become a family. But Mariam has her secrets. She magically heals and cannot die thanks to a deal with the devil her father made on her behalf. And the jungle they find themselves in has been caused by her father as well. She must learn to put her faith in others and earn their trust in return to undo the mess he made.

There’s a strong sense of setting here that feels a lot like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. The lush descriptions of an LA gone to hell under a horrific jungle and the introduction of Mariam as a tough-as-nails type make it an intriguing story and give it a strong start. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold.

Mariam tries to keep herself emotionally distant to avoid the pain of loss but ends up getting attached to a rag-tag found family. But she still tries to hold her secrets, and that ends up hurting them. At every turn in the story when Mariam is given a chance to be honest, she chooses to lie and continues to create a rift between herself and her new family. She never seems to learn that taking this route causes more pain and danger, and so it doesn’t feel like she undergoes a major character arc.

Additionally, the pacing happens too fast to feel like her attachments are believable. Her crush on Camila quickly evolves into a deep connection between the two girls, but it doesn’t seem organic. Despite this, the relationship that starts to blossom between them is sweet, and it adds a sense of levity to the apocalyptic situation.

Throughout the novel, the author sprinkles details about Mariam’s cultural heritage, with tidbits like talking about her Ramadan dinners and the names she calls her family by. Readers can appreciate the subtle way Mariam’s background comes to light, giving her some depth without overexplaining everything.

There is also a transgender character, Hana, whose identity is revealed in a moment when her hair has to be cut because of lice. It adds another interesting layer to the story without turning into a teaching moment. The author writes many of these character revelations well, showing representations of body dysmorphia and disability in the middle of the end of the world.

As the novel ends, it all happens rather fast and feels like it gets tied up in a neat bow, considering the situation. There is a lack of satisfaction with so many unanswered questions about the world itself. It’s never discussed exactly how long the jungle apocalypse occurred until the very end. The story never shows how the world outside of LA coped or reacted to the events outside of a few glimmers of a military scene at the beginning.

Overall, none of the characters have much development, especially not Mariam or her dad, the villain. But it does get a happily ever after for her and Camila, and it was a fun adventure.

A Quiet & Queer YA Horror Story: A Guide to the Dark by Meriam Metoui

the cover of A Guide to the Dark

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Mira and Layla are trying to make their way to Chicago for the last leg of their college tour road trip when they’re stranded in a small town and forced to stay at the Wildwood Motel. To Layla, this is a minor setback while she’s more focused on figuring out her confusing feelings for Mira. But though Layla doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, Mira senses something dark and wrong about their room and increasingly can’t seem to escape visions of her dead brother. With several days left until their car is fixed, Mira and Layla need to figure out what exactly is happening in Room 9 and how they can survive until the final night.

Parts of this book worked so well. I loved the diverse cast of characters and liked how well-rounded they felt for a book that takes place over just a handful of days. The slow escalation of suffocation from being trapped in a small room in a small town felt tangible. Part of this dread came from the inclusion of real photographs taken by the author interspersed throughout—fitting, since one of the characters is a photographer. I thought it was a wonderful way to convey how things were just a little off even as they weren’t yet noticed by the characters. I think the atmospheric set-up and the use of the haunting of the room as a metaphor for grief are the strongest parts of the book and deeply engrossing.

That said, for a YA horror this book moved a lot slower than I expected. It alternates between three perspectives: Layla, Mira, and the room itself. The result is that the four days spent with these characters takes its sweet time. I found it difficult to keep switching between the Mira and Layla perspectives because tonally they sounded so alike. It also meant that sometimes the same event is described twice over in a way that became a little repetitive. I was caught by surprise when the ending picked up so quickly considering how much it lingered in the set-up and was left a bit unsatisfied by the resolution. I think that if readers go in knowing that this is not going to be an action-packed horror, they’ll have a better time. For those looking to linger for a bit in an atmospheric creepy book exploring grief, I think it’s worth a read.

Trigger warnings: violence, suicidal ideation, drowning, grief, child death, fire, car accident, homophobia