Vacation-blissed visitors and Kool-Aid-swilling locals tend to think of Austin as Texas’ own little slice of heaven, but others who’ve suffered the stifling traffic or braved the hipster invasion known as SXSW might be more likely to think of the ATX as a gateway to hell. P.J. Hoover’s inventive new young-adult novel Solstice takes the latter premise to literal extremes.
Hoover—an Austin-based electrical engineer turned writer—has merged the very real Texas capital with all things mythological, including a Hades-ruled underworld that’s located directly beneath the Barton Creek Greenbelt and a heavily tattooed Zeus who can be found drinking beer at a local barbecue joint. And don’t forget the blind hippie chick who hangs out on the Drag. (She’s one of the Fates, naturally, foretelling lots of gloom and doom.)
Joining the ranks of recent dystopian lit, Solstice is set in a not-too-distant future, and seems at first glance to be more about the ravages of global warming than the doings on Mount Olympus. As the story opens, climate change has repositioned the Texas coastline just 80 miles from Austin, and temperatures regularly top 110 degrees year-round. Government-installed machines spray cooling gel on residents to keep them alive, and car-driving privileges are reserved for VIPs in an attempt to rein in the city’s carbon footprint. That solves the traffic problem, at least.
Piper, our protagonist, has just turned 18, and like most teenagers she’s waiting for something to happen to her—global climate crisis be damned. Bridling under the watchful eye of an overprotective mom, Piper gets her wish for excitement when she meets two dreamy boys: intelligent, sensitive Shayne and seductive, risk-loving Reese. Of course it doesn’t take long for Piper to realize that her two new beaus are no mere mortals, and that they’ve been locked in a feud for quite a long time. Like, since the pantheon opened for business, if you get what I’m saying.
Fans of young-adult lit might read Solstice as a combination of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy and Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief series. Hoover has created two stories that merge with impressive ease: a frighteningly realistic portrait of a dying metropolis, and an updated mythology populated by a whiny Sisyphus and a surprisingly friendly Cerberus. (In Hoover’s telling, the hound of hell is more likely to lick a face than to tear it off.) While classicist Edith Hamilton likely would not have recognized these contemporary takes, the novel still serves as an accessible point of entry for teenagers with little knowledge of the Greek origin stories, and older readers familiar with the originals will have fun spotting the allusions and anticipating how ancient heroes and villains will appear in modern mortal form.
But the book is not all plot. Hoover crafts evocative sentences that capture the city’s suffocating heat; others convey the equally all-consuming thrill of first love: “I feel something move through me, staring at the hand he’s holding,” Piper narrates. “The sensation is moving up my arm and into my torso, and when it settles in the center of my soul, I have to work to make sure he doesn’t hear
The pace slows a bit during the novel’s final third, especially when Hoover drags out the “Which cute boy should Piper choose?” question. And Piper’s character could be more fully fleshed out; while we see flashes of rebellion against her hovering mother, there are moments when she seems almost passive in the face of chaos. But that’s a minor quibble. Hoover has carefully woven two tales that superficially seem to have little in common. In less adept hands, the result could have been a convoluted mess. Here the result is a fresh take on some old stories, including the oldest story of all: Boy meets girl.