Nope. Walk on Earth a Stranger is exactly what I needed to confirm this is not the case. Like Terry Pratchett and Catherynne Valente's great series' Walk on Earth a Stranger proves that good young adult fantasy doesn't have to be watered down and simplified. It especially doesn't have to be patronizing. It just has to change the point a view a bit to the younger side and then tell the story it needs to tell.
Now maybe Rae Carson is a genius. She set her fantasy in a pre-built world; the United States during the California gold rush. This makes it harder to poke holes in the world building, doesn't it? But she doesn't just borrow our world, she makes her characters fit into it like a glove. Characters I like. Characters I root for. In a realistic world. With smart dialogue and prose that never goes purple but also doesn't insult in simplicity. Yes, Walk on Earth a Stranger is exactly what all young adult fantasy should aim to be.
So what is it? A fantasy about a young girl with a gift (so far, nothing new). But Leah's secret is not your typical fantasy power; she is not about to become the chosen one who saves the world. No she has the ability to witch gold; sensing it from afar and honing in on it with ease. On her families' Georgia claim her father earned the nickname Lucky with no one knowing the real reason of his success. But Leah's dad is ill and the claim is mostly worked when news of gold out West hits. And the fairly happy life Leah leads comes to a shocking end very early in the book and suddenly the gift becomes more curse.
Due to said shocking events (no I won't give them away) Leah goes West hoping to catch up with her best friend. Knowing that at least one person has knowledge of her gift and will do anything to make use of it she chops her hair and heads west as the young man Lee. What follows is one of the most unexpected fantasy books I have seen; a period drama about life on the Oregon Trail. Yes, occasionally Lee's gift comes up. But for the most part life is hard enough without magic or evil men. The trail is hard and Lee's fears (some justified, others perhaps not) make trust extremely hard.
This is a story about friendships and relationships. It is a travelogue that actually goes somewhere. There is backstabbing and bad people but there is also hope and redemption. It is harsh at times, showing an unforgiving look at the Oregon Trail (though I'm not sure anyone died of dysentery so there goes my childhood knowledge). It is a simple, but wonderful, book.
The only real downside is that it is an obvious first book. Lee's gift is obviously going to be both blessing and curse and obviously going to be a catalyst going forward but was only occasionally put to use here. And there will have to be a change in style going forward because (spoiler alert for those who still don't understand how trilogies work) the trip to California is only the first step.
(For those keeping track this is only the second time I have given 5 stars to a YA book, with Pantomime by Laura Lam being the other).