Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
HarperTeen, HarperCollins Publishers, August 2019
340 pages, paperback, $17.99 CAD, 978-0-06-256084-1
Ages 16+, Grades 10-12
Young Adult/New Adult, Contemporary Realism
“You’re making a difference. That’s what I want. For the world to be better. For Cody to be better. For us all to be better.”
“Me too.” Legs bumps his shoulder lightly against mine as we talk. “Though can’t we avoid making people feel worse about themselves in order to get there? Can’t we build people up instead?”
I swallow back a lump in my throat as I nod noncommittally. I really want to agree with Legs on something. And yeah, I do want to build people up.
But sometimes you have to burn them down first. Sometimes you have to burn whole villages they’ve built to the ground before you can build something better in its place.
Seventeen-year-old Lainey is dragged along to a videogame convention with her brother Cody, aka, famous YouTuber Codemeister, to be his roadie. She crosses paths with SamTheBrave, who’s an up-and-coming gamer and YouTuber, and a lonely, bullied, fat kid with a mental illness who finds his safe space online. Sam’s goal at the convention is to get Cody to give him a shout-out so his channel will grow further. Meanwhile, ShadowWillow—a successful female YouTuber in her own right—becomes infamous when fans start “shipping” her with Cody, urging the two of them to become a couple. When Lainey decides to record a video of her bigoted brother making sexist/racist comments and post it to expose him to his fans, both Sam and Shadow are in danger of becoming collateral damage in Lainey’s quest to correct her brother’s bad behavior.
Author Anna Priemaza does not shy away from asking the hard questions: How do you correct bad behavior and how far should you go to do this? Where Lainey is willing to burn down her brother’s whole world to correct his behavior, Shadow wants to make use of his fame to achieve her own goals. In this way, Priemaza presents her readers with the difficulty of being an angry feminist in the real world—action is painful and perhaps even wrong, but inaction becomes even worse, because nothing changes for the better. Priemaza is unapologetic in the way she presents female anger, turning it into a productive force for change. Both Lainey and Shadow are angry, and both are willing to act to fix the world that makes them angry—but neither of the women are demonized for their need to do so.
If Lainey and Shadow are contrasting examples of young-adult femininity, Cody and Sam are presented as contrasting examples of young-adult masculinity. Cody, of course, is the definition of toxic geek masculinity, but Priemaza subverts it by offering her readers Sam, who is just as much a geek as Cody, but forms positive male friendships that don’t depend on the dehumanizing of women or shallow performances of toxic masculinity.
Despite taking on such heavy themes, the book is not heavy-handed. Priemaza is strict with her readers’ attention: Lainey, Sam and Shadow all get their own chapters from their personal POVs, but all three are such a delight to read that I never once struggled with flipping between them. What struck me the most was the way the book incorporates technology. There are tweets at the beginning of each chapter (which are excellent establishing moments for the side-characters), and the writer does not shy away from dating her novel by mentioning specific digital platforms like Twitch and YouTube. While many would argue that it’s a risky move, it works well within the context of the book, incorporating the digital lifestyle of the teens of today without criticizing it. Indeed, the digital aspects are tools to showcase the teens’ political and social engagement, while still keeping the story fun and snarky.
The book does feels like it crosses over the line between Young Adult and New Adult. While Sam is fifteen and has the YA vibe of experiencing things for the first time (first friendships, first heartbreak albeit non-romantic in finding out his hero is a jerk, first time standing up to his bullies, etc), Lainey and Shadow are older and more settled in their skin. Both know what they want to do and even how to do it. If there is any clash with authority, it is more through a sense of institutionalized sexism than a single figure of conflict. Even Cody is humanized – he loves dogs, is protective of his sister, and checks in on her when he can without making himself out to be an authoritative patriarchal figure. As a result, the book feels rather ageless in the way New Adult tends to be.
Fast-paced and well-characterized, Fan the Flame is unapologetic about its love of geekdom, fan cultures and safe spaces. It’s a must-read for all nerdy teenagers who are hungry to see themselves and their political ideologies reflected in a book that doesn’t ask whether teens have the right to be involved in politics.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.