Book Review: Australia YA fiction flexes its muscles in new anthology Underdog

Underdog is a collection of short stories, collected from upcoming and unpublished Australian YA fiction writers. Edited by (and featuring contributions from) Tobias Madden and Sarah Taviana, Underdog celebrates a uniquely Australian genre, one as diverse and emotive as the country in which it is written.

Featuring twelve short stories, Underdog is the first #LoveOzYA anthology comprised exclusively of work by unpublished authors. The project was headed up by Madden himself, leading to the establishment of independent publishing house Underdog Books, and the ultimate goal of publishing full length novels by 2020.

Opening with a touchingly sweet, LGBT friendly meet-cute in Michael Earp’s “Meet & Greet”, Underdog moves swiftly through a variety of sub-genres, from the post-apocalyptic to the Bildungsroman, with stories of growing up, self-discovery, and acceptance. Genderqueer and LGBTQ teens dominate the stories, though there’s a consistent focus on this being just one aspect of their identity, and it is rarely the centre of their struggles. It’s refreshing to see non-hetero relationships playing out just as relationships, to see parents accept their children without question, and to do away with the angst and pain that so often drives these narratives.

There’s a real lyrical beauty to some of the stories to, with KM Staner-Squair’s “Remnants” and Sophie L. Macdonald’s gorgeously eerie “Breathe Me In” providing some of the richest visuals of the anthology. The post-apocalyptic survival tale “Remnants”, in particular, stood out for its finale, set in a location both desolate and beautiful, while the combined powers of grief, memory, tradition, and food help Vivian Wei’s protagonist navigate the death of their grandfather in “The Chinese Menu for the Afterlife”.

“The Swan” by Felicity Martin is another highlight, a frightening yet tender exploration of mental illness. Isolated by and increasingly dependent on the company of a vicious black swan that only she can see, Marlowe finds herself alternately fighting and embracing the creature, destroying it and sustaining it, throughout her life. But then Marlowe meets Alia, an old face from her past, and gradually the darkness dims – not altogether, of course, but enough that Marlowe can finally be sure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “The Swan” packs a punch, but, happily, it soothes the wound too, with a gentle love story filled with kindness, patience, and hope.

At its core, Underdog is celebration of just that – the underdog. With a foreword from award-winning YA novelist Fleur Ferris, Madden’s project is an exciting glimpse at the future of #LoveOzYA, and is packed with tales that will resonate with teens and young adults alike.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Underdog is available now. For more information, including stockists, check out the Underdog website.

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Jodie Sloan

Rogue academic, philosophical sloven, and earnest scribbler. Likes: Stiff drinks, good books, and the musical stylings of Frank Sinatra. Also likes: Pop culture, feminism, and excessive use of CAPSLOCK.