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Book Review: Fear what prowls the woods in “A Three Letter Name”

It’s 2022, and I’m tired of YA novels not defying the expectations of the genre. No more poor representations of diverse characters, thinly veiled misogyny, or offensive stereotypes. Debut author Annie Lisenby smashes these past expectations with her YA novel “A Three Letter Name.”

Set in worlds similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid's Tale,” we follow Els–a partially deaf teenager forced to marry a stranger or be exiled from her village. All Els wants to do is protect her village from the catamounts (AKA mountain lions) that prowl the woods surrounding her home, but fate has other plans.

Samuel, her soon-to-be husband, fled from his village across the island to escape his father’s judgment after a horrific accident left him with a mangled foot. Before the newly married couple can adjust to their new life together, a catamount kills Els’s friend and sends villagers into a panic. Their only option for survival people is to hunt the big cats and put an end to their terror.

For a YA novel, the writing is deeply immersive and suspenseful–akin to some of the great novels of the genre like “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent.” Lisenby’s writing style made it difficult to put “A Three Letter Name” down and rarely dragged through Els and Samuel’s journey. Although this novel is YA fiction, Lisenby hints at the misogynistic, patriarchal society the book is set in but doesn’t fully confront these issues. Despite this minor gripe, the novel is a perfect entry point for young readers to discuss and challenge the fictional world’s sexist society.

Unlike many YA protagonists, Els and Samuel were complex characters that defied the usual expectations of the genre. Navigating their misogynistic and ableist society, our protagonists illuminated these issues with clarity. Although I cannot, and will not, speak for the disability representation as an able-bodied person, Lisenby not using the “overcoming a disability” trope in her debut was a refreshing detail. Too often have the “overcome a disability” or “magical cure” tropes been used to push ableist commentary. Seeing this not used in a YA novel is a welcome change. Els and Samuel’s love story is also a slow burn–heaped in yearning glances, earned kindness, and heart-warming moments.

A thrilling and intriguing take on the man versus nature trope, “A Three Letter Name” is a thought-provoking take on an over-used trope with feminist musings on the patriarchy and ableism.

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