Starscape, 1999, 213 pages, C$8.99 tpb, ISBN 0-765-34265-0
I know that I don’t read enough young adult fiction. The problem is that I have enough adult fiction in the queue that I practically would have to be given a YA novel before I’d consider reading it. That’s exactly what happened with David Lubar’s Hidden Talents, a young adult fantasy novel that had stayed hidden in my stack of unread books ever since the 2003 Worldcon, where it was handed over to all attendees. Why did it sit unread so long? Your guess is as good as mine –though there are books in that pile that have been languishing there since the mid-nineties.
In any case, I have no one to blame but myself for missing out so long on a perfectly enjoyable fantasy story that happens to star teenagers. Hidden Talents is an exceedingly clever book, and one that does much to raise my opinion of YA fiction.
It starts as narrator Martin Anderson is dropped off at Edgeview Alternative School, the “last chance school” for his area’s losers and misfits. Each of them has proved to be unteachable by conventional means: now Edgeview is where they’ve been placed in the hope that they will either get better or older enough to let them go away. Martin is smart, but he’s got a mouth big enough to get him kicked out of four schools in rapid succession. But if Martin’s got a talent for being a smart-alec, the other students he meets have other problems. One is a recreational pyromaniac; yet another is a compulsive cheater. Then there are the bullies and the teachers of dubious competence: Harry Potter never had it so bad.
In a few short chapters (and a variety of interstitial material such as letters, notes, drawings and transcripts), Lubar paints a vivid portrait of good kids stuck in a school gone wrong. There is, of course, more to their alleged problems than just attitude. Martin discovers, midway through, that the problems of his friends have rather… paranormal roots: The kid nicknamed “Cheater” isn’t one: he’s just a telepath who plucks answers out of his neighbours’s heads. “Torchie” is a pyrokinesic, “Flinch” is clairvoyant… and so on. None of them, of course, have ever recognized their abilities, leading them in all sorts of behavioural problems.
As a premise, that’s fantastic stuff for a YA novel, tapping directly in a few teenage anxieties about being exceptional and how to best use one’s abilities. As a dramatic driver, it’s nothing short of brilliant, especially the way it’s developed by Lubar. Martin is dubious about his findings, but that’s nothing compared to how his friends react to his suppositions: they can’t even bring themselves to consider the possibility of their powers and what it would mean to control them. It takes a pretty spiffy demonstration of scientific thinking for them to even begin to acknowledge the truth.
For a novel that can be read in less than ninety minutes, Hidden Talents seldom skips good characterization. Even filtered through Martin’s perception, most of the characters are sharply drawn and somewhat sympathetic: for misfits they’re just a lot of fun to read about. While Lubar’s plotting is hardly perfect (the first half of the book is a bit slow as Martin struggles to understand the situation, while the last act is marred by a predictable save-the-school subplot), it’s more than good enough to keep things hopping along.
Ultimately, it’s this charm and easygoing narration that keep Hidden Talents afloat for adult readers: It’s all too easy to use a book in order to tap onto one’s hidden teenager and wonder how unbelievably cool it would be to discover hidden powers. Lubar’s treatment of superpowers through doubt, demonstration and training is a believable real-world approach when such fantasy usually leaves little doubt as for the power of paranormal abilities. The narration is sharp and compelling. While Hidden Talent is unlikely to leave any lasting memory beyond its clever premise, it’s a lot of fun to read. Maybe I should make room in my stack of stuff to read for a few more YA novels…