Another year, another huge pile of books stacked up around my bookcases (I ran out of shelving room years ago). This has been a pretty stellar year for young adult fiction, particularly in the realms of science fiction and fantasy. So great, in fact, that it took me three days to whittle this down to the ones you see here. My first pass had nearly three dozen entries! As hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t get it down to my top ten, so instead here’s a list of fantastic YA SFF released this year broken down into various categories.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pillage my local library to make my To Read stack even taller.
Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, um, stars Noemi, a teenage soldier from the planet Genesis. She finds Abel, an AI mech, aboard an abandoned spaceship from Earth. Their fledgling love for each other is the only thing standing in the way of interstellar war. But trust me, it’s a lot deeper than the tropes it’s playing to.
A group of teens are abandoned in the Alberta wilderness as aliens invade Earth in Zero Repeat Forever by Gabrielle Prendergast. When one of those human girls, Raven, is saved by the enemy, Eighth, a Nahx who has second thoughts about indiscriminate slaughter. The two must learn to trust each other if they want to survive.
In the second book in Traci Chee’s Sea of Ink and Gold series, The Speaker, Sefia and Archer use the Book to hunt down and kill impressors and free their captives. Their old enemy is also tracking them, seeking to use the Book to consolidate her power. Vivid worldbuilding and compelling characters add to an exciting tale.
It’s impossible to explain the plot of Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor in just a few sentences. Suffice it to say, it’s a deeply moving exploration of the terrible things we do to one another, told in part through dreams. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Both entries here have run the Regency/Georgian era through the dark fantasy grinder, but with very different end results. In Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman, the second book in the Lady Helen series, Helen’s training as a demon hunter in the traditionally male-only Dark Days Club is going a little too well. She attracts the unwanted attention from several nasty men, and only her feminist persistence will save her.
My personal fave on this whole list, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee features a bisexual white male lead, a queer biracial disabled male love interest, and an awesome girl genius who is probably asexual but definitely wickedly clever. I loved loved LOVED this book.
V.E. Schwab closes out the Monsters of Verity duology with Our Dark Duet, a devastating, gorgeous novel. Monster killer Kate Harker reunites August Flynn, a Sunai monster to destroy their mutual enemy and save their hometown. Schwab tells a stunning story about the pain we inflict on others and ourselves.
In the fun and funny The Epic Crush Of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, Genie learns she’s the reincarnation of the Ruyi Jingu Bang, the Monkey King’s magical staff. All she wants to do is get into an Ivy League school, but in the meantime she teams up with Quentin Sun, the reincarnation of the Monkey King himself, to recapture all the yaoguai who have escaped from Diyu, the Chinese version of hell.
Dee Moreno is desperate to escape her abusive home life, so she sells her heart to a demon in Emily Lloyd-Jones’ The Hearts We Sold. A demon sends her and other teens who have entered similar bargains off to do his very dangerous bidding. All the while, she begins to fall in love with one of her teammates, James, but without a heart to call her own what will she do with these powerful new feelings?
Anna-Marie McLemore’s latest novel, the enchanting Wild Beauty, introduces the Nomeolvides women. They never leave their garden La Pradera, which they have tended for generations. If they leave, they die; if they fall in love, their paramour will disappear. The five cousins, Estrella, Azalea, Calla, Dalia, and Gloria, soon realize they are all in love with the beautiful Bay, but when a boy named Fel appears out of nowhere, he upends everything they believe to be true.
Prince Vikram, Princess Gauri, and vishakanya Aasha compete for the ultimate prize in A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi. Guari is more than the exiled royal that Vikram believes her to be, while Vikram seeks validation for his newly acquired power. This stand alone companion piece to The Star Touched Queen weaves a tale of action, adventure, and romance set in an India-inspired fantasy land.
Julie C. Dao’s dark fantasy novel Forest of a Thousand Lanterns adds East Asian inspiration to the fairytale of Snow White. Xifeng is destined to become the Empress of Feng Lu, but first she takes a job as the lady-in-waiting to the current empress. Once in the palace, Xifeng learns how to survive in the cutthroat court. As she gains power, she loses more and more of her humanity.
Girls Made of Snow And Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is a remarkably feminist debut novel. Lynet, cursed with a heart made of glass, marries King Nicholas and becomes the stepmother to Mina, a girl magically created from snow. Like Dao, Bashardoust reimagines Snow White, but here there’s an added layer of f/f romance.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Featuring Indigenous characters and set in a dystopian future Canada where climate change has ravaged the world, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves is a definite Must Read. Miigwans (Anishnaabe) saves Frenchie (Métis) from Recruiters, government officials from the Department of Oneirology who kidnap First Nations people to harvest their bone marrow. Miigwans brings Frenchie into their makeshift family as they struggle to survive against all odds.
Tool of War is the third book in Paolo Bacigalupi’s visceral and relentlessly intense Ship Breaker series. Tool is an Augment, a genetically enhanced human built to be the ultimate weapon. After traversing the Drowned Cities, he finally comes face to face with his brutal creator.
In Want by Cindy Pon, Jason Zhou scrounges for scraps in a dystopian future Taiwan. With the help of his friends, he infiltrates the powerful Jin Corp to expose them for murdering rebels fighting for clean air. His mission gets messy when he falls for Daiyu, the fiery daughter of the head of the megacorp. Want has it all: kick-ass characters, intriguing setting, delicious worldbuilding, and evocative language.
That April Daniels’ Dreadnought and Sovereign even exist fills me with glee, so imagine how thrilled I am that they’re also fantastic books. The first two books in the Nemesis series feature Danny, a trans superhero who battles transphobia, a TERF gender essentialist, and the evils of capitalism and classicism. I’m making it sound more soap box-y than it really is. Daniels has crafted a fun-filled superhero tale that was a delight to behold.
In the second book in the Sidekick Squad series, Not Your Villain by C. B. Lee, shapeshifting trans superhero Bells Broussard joins the Resistance when he learns about the Heroes’ League of Heroes sinister conspiracy. But for me personally it’s the inclusion of characters on the asexual and aromantic spectrum that make me the happiest. It’s not often I see characters with my particular brand of queerness represented in SFF, so I’m basically freaking out right now.
As Charlie Jane Anders noted in her review, Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo “not only synthesizes a coherent origin and mission statement for Diana, but also makes the Amazon princess feel so fresh that she could have been created yesterday. Bardugo crafts a coming-of-age story for Diana of Themyscira that turns her into a fascinating character who has to earn her heroic mantle.” High praise, indeed.
Magic and Mayhem
Sunny is back and stronger than ever in Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor, the sequel in the Akata Witch series. Romance is in the air, magic on the wind, and chaos in the water. She’ll have to find her place amongst the Leopard People, but only if she survives her encounters with a host of West African deities.
The Dire King by William Ritter is the last installment of the Jackaby series, and what a way to end. Supernatural investigator R. F. Jackaby and his assistant Abigail Rook must save all of existence from total destruction. Not to mention untangle their romantic feelings, Abigail for shapeshifting cop and Jackaby for Jenny the ghost.
Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older is the second full length novel (there’s the first book plus two novellas) in the Shadowshaper series. The first book, Shadowshaper, is a cracking good story, and the sequel is even better. Sierra is everything a YA hero should be: brave but not proud, powerful but not overconfident, thoughtful but not pensive, and curious but not gullible. Buffy ain’t got nothing on Sierra.
Sailing the High Seas
The Edge of the Abyss by Emily Skrutskie is the rare sequel that doesn’t suffer from the sophomore slump. Book 2 of the Abyss That Surrounds Us series keeps the rollicking adventures of Cas Leung going. Cas takes on poachers, pirates, and sea monsters, all while falling for Swift, a young woman aboard her ship.
My second personal fave here has to be The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig. The final entry in The Girl From Everywhere duology features a diverse cast of time-travelling pirates getting into all kinds of trouble. Nix is one of my favorite female characters in many years, one tough cookie with a lot to learn about the world.
Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current isn’t as loud or brash as the other entries here. Tolcser’s novel is lush with worldbuilding details and emotional depth. Caro’s journey to rescue her imprisoned father leads her not only to a new love but to discover her destiny.
I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
Of course Release by Patrick Ness and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera are on here. No “Best of YA” list would be complete without them. Both novels focus on one harrowing day in the lives of queer boys, and both are heartbreakingly lovely.
In Release, Adam Thorn feels like his whole world is falling apart; meanwhile the ghost of a murdered teen girl haunts the town. They Both Die at the End is what it says on the tin: two boys find out they’ll be dead by midnight and spend their last day together.
Told entirely in rhyming verse, Bull by David Elliott updates the Greek labyrinth myth for the modern age. King Minos, Queen Pasiphae, their daughter Ariadne, the queen’s minotaur son Asterion, Daedalus, and Theseus narrate through internal monologues, and, being the nosy god he is, Poseidon eavesdrops and adds his own color commentary.
In The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens, teenage Bridger takes a job working for the Dirk-Gently-esque Pavel Chudinov and discovers the magical underbelly of our world. Complicating matters is his growing attraction to his Puerto Rican neighbor Leo. I’d never heard of Lukens before, but with a book this charming, funny, and earnest, she’s an author I’ll be on the lookout for from now on.
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.