"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
October 28, 2014
The Only Thing to Fear: Alternate History
by Erin Cowles

Although plenty of “What if Hitler won?” alternate histories populate bookshelves, they are less common in the YA genre. I'm not familiar with one that features a teenage girl as a protagonist (although admittedly, science fiction isn't my strongest genre), so I was delighted to discover Caroline Tung Richmond's The Only Thing to Fear.

Zara St. James lives in North America, but not the North America we know. In The Only Thing to Fear, Hitler succeeded at creating genetically engineered soldiers with superhuman powers and used them to win World War II. Decades later, the Nazi party controls the eastern territories of the United States and rules with an iron fist.

Zara's life is hard. America is impoverished and oppressed. She is half-Japanese, and therefore despised by both the Nazis as genetically impure and the Americans as part-enemy. She wants to join the rebellion, but her uncle forbids it, as Zara's mother died during a rebellion mission gone awry.

Complicating matters further, Zara has a big secret — she has superpowers of her own, and the Nazis use any non-Aryans with superpowers for terrible experiments.

Rebellion is brewing, and fate will not allow Zara to hide any longer. The Only Thing to Fear chronicles Zara's journey discover her own strength and power, and how to use that power to fight oppression.

I am most impressed with Richmond's strong sense of scope. It seems like most authors writing in the dystopia-ish genre spin out complicated worlds they can't manage, but Richmond never lets the world building trump the story she is telling. I cared about the characters she created, and I liked the way they developed.

I love the way Richmond created Zara — strong and powerful, yet still completely feminine and thoroughly teenaged. Even better, she did it without leaning on clichés to accomplish it. She didn't create a Rambo that also enjoys putting on fancy dresses at the mall, or a 16-year-old that thinks like a 30-year-old.

She struggles with very real teenaged frustration and insecurity, but her strong sense of empathy and friendship help her succeed.

As with any book featuring a cruel regime, there is violence and sexual harassment, but Richmond maintains the right tone for a young adult audience. Any profanity occurs in German.

The Only Thing to Fear is Richmond's debut novel. Although she's left the door cracked for a return to this world, she crafted the novel to be complete in itself, and her current work-in-progress is not a sequel. So, three cheers for a tightly-crafted, satisfying dystopia that I don't have to commit to a trilogy to enjoy.

Read this book if...

  • You enjoy the page-turning adventure and self-discovery of dystopias, but find it difficult to understand the cause of the regimes' soul-crushing cruelty. As an alternate history, every act of cruelty is based in the Nazi ideology, and are truthfully tamer than atrocities the Nazis have already committed.

  • You want to keep your science fiction light and relatable.

  • You've been following the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.

Target Audience: Ages 12+, skewing towards girls.

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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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