Review: Burnt Snow by Van Badham

burnt snow van badham Review: Burnt Snow by Van Badham

Having read quite a bit of young adult fiction this year, Ive become rather disconcerted by the ways in which females, both young and older, are often depicted within this genre. While in many cases authors work to give us well-rounded and positive characters with whom to identify, Ive come across more than my fair share of depictions that feel either quiveringly parochial or sneeringly cruel. The former is often seen in the fact that so many characters seem desperate to utterly lose themselves within the safety of a (generally unhealthy) romance, thus ceding agency and that scary notion of individuality and responsibility. 'The latter seems to arise in the problematic intersection that occurs when strength is conflated with outright bitchiness. While of course young adulthood is a challenging, tumultuous time, and 'such situations and scenarios do arise in the real world, its the fact these problematic issues tend to go unchallenged in YA literature that bothers me. Theres certainly been a shift towards an eerie romantic conservatism that condones all-enveloping approaches to love, that highlights selflessness, subservience and, frankly, an astonishing acceptance of the most terrifyingly stalkerish behaviours. But in those cases where this is challenged, it seems, its done via the literary equivalent of raunch culture, resulting in heated exchanges of snark somehow designed to gloss over the worrying power imbalances that still remain all too obvious.

Van Badhams Burnt Snow, then, is an antidote of sorts, a narrative catharsis that quietly (and sometimes raucously) takes these issues in hand, and that intelligently toys with them, and then subverts them utterly. Badhams approach is clever enough that its difficult not to feel as though there is a subtle undercurrent of satire lurking beneath this novels glossy, teen-friendly plot. I cant help, too, but acknowledge the palpable feminist exhortations implicit in so many of the elements of this classy debut. While its not a feminist work per se, there are themes, situations, and characters that certainly invite relevant discussion.


When' Sophie moves from Sydney to the sleepy coastal town of Yarrindi, shes prepared for a largely uneventful year. But as with all small communities, Yarrinidis quaint and cautious exterior belies a much more troublesome underbelly, one that begins to creepingly manifest with the slow inexorability of a gathering storm. Secrets abound, both within the town, and deep within Sophie herself, and Sophie finds herself negotiating not only the querulous boundaries of teen friendship (and in this book these boundaries are roughly as neatly drawn and stable as those found in a country in the midst of civil war), but facing a crisis of self that emerges as she learns more about he familys magic-drenched background. And if this isnt enough, Sophie finds herself unreasonably drawn to the intractable Brody Meine, whose inscrutable nature is about as permeable as a genius-level Sudoku, and is equally as frustrating. But sparks flyliterallywhen the two are together, and despite the warnings of all of those around her, Sophie finds herself desperate to tease out the elements of the Escheresque puzzle of which she has suddenly become part. But doing so brings horrific and inescapable consequences, 'and Sophie finds herself both the subject of a startling transformation, and the object of a truly terrifying witch hunt.

My thoughts

Its difficult not to draw parallels between Burnt Snow and a certain best-selling YA novel, for Burnt Snow, while in some ways following a similar trajectory, takes such a vastly different approach. (A notable wink, perhaps, is the fact that Sophie, rather than arriving in a sodden, rain-drenched down, something that must be simply accepted as-is, instead appears to bring with her a seriously aggressive storm that threatens the whole town.) Despite the fact that Sophie has lived within a fairly protective household and has avoided seeking out situations that would challenge her fairly limited world-view, theres a sense of agency here, and one that becomes more and more assertive as the book progresses. Indeed, almost immediately upon Sophies arrival in Yarrindi, theres a very clear shift in her personality: Sophie becomes someone who is always questioning, always seeking the truth, always challenging norms. This isnt to say that Sophies behaviour is epiphanous or motivated by some sort of savant-esque brilliance, of course. Sophie, more often that not, makes a right mess of things, finding herself in all manner of awkward, painful, and occasionally downright dangerous situations. But its the fact that shes always analysing her actions and her motivations that makes for such interesting reading. Rather than mindlessly going along for the ride, Sophie is constantly engaged in increasingly sophisticated self-reflection. And while this doesnt necessarily mean that she makes the right decisions for herself, or for those around her, shes at least aware of what shes doing, and why.

One fascinating component of the book is Sophies social ambivalence as she tries to make sense of Yarrindis immensely complex schoolyard politics. Sophie sees her move to Yarrindi as an opportunity to explore and develop her adult self, and does so by attempting to ingratiate herself into the schools in-crowd. There are, of course, complex motivations for doing so: the protection that comes with being part of such a group, the sense of adulthood and maturity she feels at being able to transform herself in a sphere thats beyond her parents influence are two key factors. Participation in Sophies new group, however, requires the sort of diplomatic skills typically 'honed over years of employment in the UN, and Sophie finds herself conflicted over the new self she has developed and the yearning she has to recreate the quiet and supportive social standing she maintained in Sydney. Badham does an excellent job of teasing out the seeming arbitrariness of these friendships, as well as Sophies constant sense of ambivalence over her new role, and Im impressed by the way she manages to work with such a large supporting cast in a way that presents each character as a well-defined individual rather than relying too heavily on archetypes. The cast is largely female, and generally strong and progressive in nature: beneath those caked-on layers of make-up are some savvy and complex individuals who are quick to condemn wrongdoing and unfairness, and I must say that I enjoyed the fact that sexism when it crops up is immediately pounced upon and problematised rather than being treated as a simple status quo (although there is one scene with Sophies mother that may invite some questioning from the reader). While these characters do at first seem a little superficial and hastily sketched, Badham slowly takes us deep within them, being careful to show that theres always more to a person than meets the eye. Badhams approach to sexuality, sensuality, and maturity is equally as rewarding, and while there are one or two scenes that feel a little too longingly altruistic, or a little too be careful what you wish for, she takes a sensitive approach to sex, virginity, and sexual preferences, and I appreciate the space that this is given in the book.

In addition to the above, perhaps one of the strongest things about Burnt Snow is its assured approach to setting, which is something that Australian young adult authors often struggle with. Theres a tendency for Australian YA literature to be set in geographically ambiguous areas: unnamed towns and made-up suburbs are usually par for the course, and our school system is often given the American treatment to make it more palatable for the US market. Moreover, our ethnic composition (which is substantially different from that of the US) and certain social norms are often skimmed over or made generic for the same reason. But Badhams Yarrindi bursts off the page, and her Sydney is also well-drawn. The high school, where much of the drama takes place, is almost unfailingly believable, although there are a few elements, such as the private time-out room given to love interest Brody, that feel a little stretched.

To me, the areas where Burnt Snow suffers a little is in the relatively slow-going introductionthe novel is, if youll pardon the pun, a slow burner, and does take some time for the high octane stuff to get goingand in the introduction of the magical elements, which can be occasionally awkward and out-of-place. I do feel that they could have been more carefully and subtly integrated into the narrative in order to fit more neatly with the otherwise cautious and steady flow of the book. As it is, nose-bleeds, seizures, thunderstorms, shattered glass, and demonic possession abound, and their treatment is a little uneven, with some taking on an almost comic, Buffy-esque feel that doesnt quite fit the tone of the rest of the book. Some of these plot points I feel stretch unnecessarily, such as the closing of the circle scene, where Sophies friends are bespelled (moreover, despite these characters massively strange actions, few others even seem to even notice the whole ordeal, which I felt rather odd), while others seem a touch hasty or unmotivated. Of these, Sophies new-found magical knowledge is probably the most rushed, and required a re-read; a scene involving a confession on the part of Sophies mother also sits a little awkwardly on some rickety narrative scaffolding.


Burnt Snow offers a welcome respite from some of the teen lit cropping up at the moment, providing a cast of well-drawn characters, a strong setting, and an exotic mythos that will titillate and entice, all of which will no doubt result in fans clamouring at their local bookshop for the sequel. Were given a fascinatingly multi-faceted main character whose constant ambivalence is all-too believable (as is the fact that she unerringly focuses on her love interest despite the world potentially coming to an end), and who seems to have vast potential for growth. My only major gripes are the pacing issues and the slightly awkward introduction of the magical elements, which push it just slightly below the excellent mark for me. In all, though, this is a very good read, and no doubt were to see some impressive work from Badham in the future.

Rating: ????? (very good)

Purchase Burnt Snow (Book Depository)

With thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia for the review copy

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