2016 was a pretty darn good year for YA fiction. In contemporary YA, mental illness (The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati, Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner), trans characters (Beast by Brie Spangler, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo), harrowing experiences (This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp), and romance (Girls Like Me by Lola StVil) reigned.
But science fiction and fantasy fans were especially spoiled. The list of must-read young adult SF/F from this year alone is massive—and super diverse!—so let’s start with the best of the best. In no particular order, here are my top ten best YA SF/F of 2016. Did I skip your fave? Stop by the comments with your recs.
Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen
Alright, I lied. This list is in a particular order as far as this entry goes because Conspiracy of Ravens is hands down my favorite YA book of the year. I loved, loved, loved this book. If you follow me on Tor.com, you probably already know how much I adore Lila Bowen (aka Delilah S. Dawson), so it should be no surprise that her second book in the Shadow series takes the top spot on my best of. Bowen writes like a hurricane: full of sound and fury, percussive action, and quiet moments of impending doom. Conspiracy of Ravens is fire and ice; it’s a love story full of loss and heartache; an adventure tale with death-defying feats; and a Weird West bildungsroman with a queer shapeshifting cowboy coming to terms with who he is, who he wants to be, and what fate has in store for him. Out of everything on this list, this is the book/series I recommend the most.
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
I haven’t heard much chatter about Labyrinth Lost, the first book in the Brooklyn Brujas series, and that’s a shame because it’s freaking great. This was one of those books I binged over a weekend because I simply couldn’t put it down. Alex is fiery and bold yet also shy and withholding. She took one look at her destiny—to become one of the most powerful brujas in the world—and noped right out of there. All the more reason to fall in love with her. High fantasy tropes blend seamlessly with dense cultural trappings, and an unexpected love triangle keeps the reader on their toes. Córdova crafted a fascinating, exciting world I can’t wait to keep exploring peopled with characters I’m dying to get to know even better.
Ghost Girl in the Corner by Daniel José Older
Speaking of magical Brooklyn, Shadowshaper! Yeah, I know Older’s awesomely awesome YA fantasy came out last year, but Ghost Girl in the Corner just dropped a few weeks ago and holy moly is it good. The novella is set after the events of Shadowshaper and follows the adorable queer Latinx couple Tee and Izzy as they sort out a haunting and a track down a missing person. As per usual, Older writes captivating characters racing through a heart-pounding story that’s permeated with lush cultural immersion and fiery social commentary.
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
If you haven’t guessed yet, diversity is a running theme on this list, and The Girl From Everywhere continues that trend. Nix, the protagonist and daughter of a time-traveling pirate, is Hapa, and her bestie, Kashmir, is Persian; not to mention the queer and racial/ethnic diversity within the ship’s crew. Some of the plotty bits are unnecessarily complicated, but YMMV on whether that just comes with the time travel territory or it’s utterly frustrating. What really hooked me, however, were the engaging characters and the rich worldbuilding. Nix is both independent and dependent, a spunky kid whose derring-do attitude is often undone by her emotionally distant father’s obsessions. I guess she reminded me a lot of myself at that age.
Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Dystopian fiction is rife with Hunger Games-esque competitions, but Shusterman is one of the few to elevate the well-worn trope into fresh creativity. Scythe, the first in his new Arc of the Scythe series, sets the stage for a dystopic utopia where disease, poverty, age, and political unrest have been quashed by an omnipotent AI, and death comes only from Scythes, basically professional killers. Our heroes, Citra and Rowan, soon learn that being killers comes with great responsibility, but neither are truly prepared for what that really means. Under Shusterman’s careful watch, what should be an eye-rolling cliché becomes a cracking story of electrifying dialogue, violent acts, and emotional heart. That emotional core is what really makes Scythe soar, as Citra and Rowan find their place in a near-perfect system that demands blood as payment.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
I’m a firm believer in challenging teenagers to go beyond the base level, to take on material they might not necessarily think they’re ready for or to explore ideas they may feel unprepared to grapple with. Pushing ourselves past our comfort zone is how we grow and mature. As sugary sweet as they are, we can’t just read cozies all the time. Which is a fancy way of saying there’s a lot of books on this list that are just shy of grown-up, and Crooked Kingdom is no exception. The second book in the Six of Crows series is full of violence, crime, and betrayal, but none of it is gratuitous or unnecessary. Bardugo takes a rather extensive cast and manages to individualize each character and show how they all experience their society of high crime and high commerce differently. It’s an action-packed, fast-paced ride that feels much shorter than its 560 pages.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
There aren’t a lot of YA SF/F books published with a sole male protagonist, even fewer where that teenage boy is gay. We Are the Ants has larger concerns than who wants to kiss whom. Henry is deeply lonely, isolated his trauma both physical and psychological. The science fictional trappings—aliens give him the ability to save the world from total annihilation with the literal press of a button—are secondary to the story of a bullied, nihilistic young man in an emotionally abusive relationship going through the hell that is adolescence. “It gets better” feels like a million miles away to Henry, but relief may be closer than he thinks. This is a powerful, heartbreaking alien abduction story.
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
How could I not include the final entry in The Raven Cycle? The characters and their increasingly passionate interpersonal relationships are realistic and fully realized, the action jam-packed, and the writing dramatic. The rushed and overly complicated ending is probably the only real detraction. But Stiefvater has crafted a unique, creative arc with characters I enjoy spending time with and a magical world I long to explore. The Raven King was a crackling, thrilling read and an excellent way to end a gripping series. Frankly, I’m surprised the series hasn’t made it to Harry Potter-level fandom. It’s that good—and addicting. And to be totally honest, that gorgeous cover alone was enough to bump the book onto my top ten.
The Rose and the Dagger by Renée Ahdieh
Ahdieh’s vivid, vicious retelling of One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) is a book perfect for getting lost in. The second and final act of The Wrath and the Dawn series concludes with all the emotional bombast of a great love story. Yes, the story is derivative and the characters often veer a little too far into caricature, but the sweeping emotion makes the series well worth reading. If you dig epic romances between two cis-het characters who couldn’t be more different, The Rose and the Dagger will leave you a weeping pile of pajamas and chocolate.
Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard
The second book in the Red Queen series is the first one where Mare finally comes into her own. Themes of betrayal, loyalty, family, and classicism run deep as we get a better view of Mare’s world and her place within it. Glass Sword suffers a bit from second book syndrome—i.e., a ton of worldbuilding, an angsty love triangle (or square in this case?), and a lot of moving pieces around the board to set up the finale—but Aveyard’s writing skills mollify the book’s shortcomings. You could fill a whole bookstore with just YA fantasy trilogies about female Chosen Ones resisting the social hierarchy while being loved by boys representing opposing factions. Fortunately, Glass Sword overcomes its tropes with compelling characters, settings, and style.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen: Originally published in 1992 but reprinted in 2016. Yolen updates the Sleeping Beauty fairytale with the Holocaust, a gay prince, and two young women struggling to find their place in a world that doesn’t appreciate them. I devoured this book.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore: One of the most delightfully unusual YA fantasy novels of the past year. There’s dark magic, deep friendship, and queer romance bound together by a lovely, well-written narrative.
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro: A fun, funny teenage murder mystery closer to Elementary than Arthur Conan Doyle. Not everything has to be grimdark and heady romance. Sometimes a little lightness goes a long way. While there are some more adult elements in the story, overall it’s the kind of book perfect for reading under a blanket with a cuppa on a rainy day.
The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman: I will read just about anything set in the Regency period. Mostly that means a lot of disappointed hopes, which made The Dark Days Club stand out all the more. It’s a quiet book that unfolds gradually and delightfully, with hints of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series.
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir: While it didn’t break my top ten, a lot of people really dug the second entry in the Ember in the Ashes series. I found it a little too much like every other YA high fantasy book with not enough originality, but the writing was crisp and evocative and the action intense and violent.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.