2018 was a pretty remarkable year for diverse young adult fiction, particularly for YA by authors of color. Now, that’s not to say the publishing industry has finally balanced out on race—far from it, in fact—but what did manage to squeak through was by and large fan-frakking-tastic. This was such a quality year that it deciding on “best” was way more difficult than usual. But here it is, the full list of the best and brightest YA SFF of 2018.
What books made your list?
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Years ago, King Saran had every maji in Orïsha executed in a violent drive to eradicate magic. Now, teenage Zélie is a divîner without powers … until she, her brother Tzain, and Princess Amari discover a scroll that can reestablish the bond between latent maji and the lost gods. Prince Inan and his father’s cruel policies stand in their way in this heart pounding trilogy opener.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
When the dead rise during the Civil War, a hasty truce is established. Black and Native children are forced into combat schools as the main army standing between the undead and the living. Jane, frenemy Katherine, and friend-with-benefits Red Jack, get entangled in a dangerous scheme out west. The first book in this duology shows how racism and sexism are even worse than the dead wanting to eat your brains.
For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig
Jetta lives in a conquered land, but as much as she resents her Aquitan rulers, she needs their resources to treat her bipolar disorder. When Jetta stumbled into a rebel plot against the invaders, she and her family go on the run with the enigmatic Leo. Heilig writes propulsive action and enchanting dialogue, and I can’t wait for the rest of this sure-to-be-awesome trilogy.
Family Is All
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Leigh’s mother is dead, but not gone, or so Leigh thinks. A large red bird that Leigh believes to be her late mother appears and compells her to travel to Taiwan to get to know the grandparents she’s never met. There she tries to understand her mother’s past life, get to know her grandparents, and come to terms with her mother’s passing. A moving, meaningful novel about grief and loss and learning to forgive.
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
Blanca is beautiful and graceful. Her sister Roja is rough and calculating. Both del Cisne girls are cursed—one will live a normal life and the other will be transformed into a swan and lost forever. Two others, an angry boy named Yearling and a frightened boy named Page, and pulled into the girls’ orbit. As this heart wrenching magical realism novel unfolds, McLemore’s lyrical prose reveals a story about becoming who you are instead of settling for who others want you to be.
The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Alice’s mother is kidnapped, and the only way to get her back is to visit the Hazel Wood, the hidden estate of her reclusive grandmother. With the help of her new friend Ellery Finch, Alice enters the Hinterlands, a world where characters from her grandmother’s grim fairytales walk free. Alice is a complex, unstable, angry young woman, and Albert never lets her off the hook.
Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno
The annual arrival of Annabella’s Woodpecker lures birders to the island of By-the-Sea, home of the Fernweh family and sisters Georgina and Mary. When the bird is found dead, Georgina searches for the culprit, although many suspect Mary and her magic. Beautifully written with a strong message about the power of women, female friendship, and familial love.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Black couldn’t have picked a better way to start her new Folk of the Air series than this novel. As a child, Jude watched General Madoc slaughter her parents and force her and her sisters to live as his adopted children in Faerieland. As a teenager, all Jude wants is to be in the High Court—and the power that comes with rank—but Prince Cardan stands in her way. Jude is an angry young woman, ferocious and determined, but will her humanity be her downfall?
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
Camellia and her five sisters are Belles, meaning they have magic that can turn the gray people of Orléans into technicolor beauties. She is selected as the personal Belle to the royals, then learns of the dark origins of her abilities. Fresh and tantalizing, innovative and exhilarating, this is a wholly enjoyable duology opener.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
The description on the back cover really doesn’t do this novel justice. Lei, a Paper girl, the lowest caste in her world, is selected to be one of the latest batch of concubines to the demon king. Being a human whose life is dedicated to servicing an evil ruler isn’t something Lei wants, but resisting his will could cost her all she holds dear. She also can’t stop looking at her fellow courtesan-in-training, Wren…
Here Be Dragons
Isle of Blood and Stone by Makiia Lucier
When a map is uncovered that appears to have been created by Elias’ supposedly dead father, he, King Ulises, and spy extraordinaire Lady Mercedes set off on a quest across their island to solve the mystery. They find far more than they bargained for, from kidnappings to ghost children to conspiracies to sea serpents. Lucier’s first entry in the Tower of Winds series is light but meaningful, an engaging story all around.
The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Felicity gets her own book in the Montague Siblings series. Desperate to get into medical school, Felicity travels to Germany with a mysterious Algerian pirate girl named Sim. There she hopes to convince the fiance of Johanna, her former bestie, to be her patron. When the girls get pulled into a dangerous hunt for sea dragons, they’ll learn there’s more to being a strong woman than what the patriarchy tells them.
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Hartman returns to the world of the Seraphina series with her younger sister Tess. After unintentionally nearly ruins her half-dragon sister’s wedding, Tess escapes her family’s attempt to ship her off to a nunnery by going on the road disguised as a boy. Tess isn’t an easy character to like—troublesome, bitter, and knife-sharp—but she’s well worth the effort. As is Hartman’s vivid and thrilling world.
Warriors and War
The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke
Loosely inspired by Beowulf, this book centers on four teen girls known as the Boneless Mercies, warrior women who wander through Vorseland performing mercy killings. Frey, their leader, also wants glory and fame and will do anything to attain legendary status. Poetic prose and enticing characters make this a powerful read.
The Storyteller by Traci Chee
To keep Archer away from the Guard and prevent the land of Kelanna from being engulfed in a brutal war, Sefia will be pushed to the brink. She loves Archer and will risk everything to protect him. But the prophecy recorded in the Book has other ideas. The final installment in the excellent Sea of Ink and Gold trilogy contemplates destiny and free will in a series brimming with detailed worldbuilding.
The Future Sucks
Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie
Alternating between the two protagonists, this space opera takes on classism with a racially and queer diverse cast. Aisha Un-Haad agrees to become a Scela—a mechanically enhanced supersoldier dedicated to defending the Fleet—to earn money to pay for her brother’s medical treatment, while sharp-tongued Key Tanaka’s memory of her past was erased when she became a Scela. Both will risk their lives to protect the Fleet from its own worst impulses.
Wildcard by Marie Lu
In the conclusion of the Warcross duology, Emika Chen suffers a betrayal of epic proportions. With a bounty on her head and the determination to stop Hideo from enacting his heinous plan, she’ll have to work with Zero and the Blackcoats, even though she doesn’t agree with their extreme methods. Lu pits brother against brother, and Emika is caught in between, trying to do what’s right in the face of moral ambiguity.
The Disasters by M.K. England
OK, so technically I haven’t read this yet because it doesn’t release until December 18, but the reviews are so good that I just had to include it. Failed pilot Nax Hall is nursing his wounded ego when he and three others who didn’t make the cut for the prestigious Academy are blamed for a terrorist attack on Ellis Station. It’s up to them to save the space colonies from future attacks.
Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace
A few years after the first book in the Archivist Wasp series, Isabel and the former acolytes are building up the struggling community of Sweetwater, but they’re forced underground by raiders from the Wastes. In the tunnels Isabel, once again encounters ghosts of the supersoldiers created by the Latchkey Project in the time Before. Part dystopia, part science fiction, and part fantasy adventure quest, Kornher-Stace mixes genres together for a memorable story.
Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Fifteen years after the citizens of Weep executed the gods and godspawn, Sarai has become a ghost (the titular Muse) and Lazlo is discovering his godly powers. Wicked Minya threatens to erase Sarai’s spirit unless Lazlo leads her army in an attack against Weep. Taylor expertly blends the past and present, magic and science, romance and tragedy. The sequel to Strange the Dreamer more than lives up to the high reputation of its predecessor.
Short Story Collections
Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton
These six science fiction short stories weave together to explore what makes us human and how the pursuit of perfection may change the very definition of humanity. Is genetic enhancement or abusive exploitation? Is it life-saving technology or organ harvesting? As each story moves further into the future, the influence, both positive and negative, of Reverend Tadd’s anti-genetic manipulation message effects the protagonists in new and disconcerting ways.
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
Collecting fifteen fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary stories from a wide range of Asian authors, this anthology reimagines East and South Asian mythology and folktales. Each story also includes an afterword about the original tale. This anthology is impressive in breadth and depth.
Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Marieke Nijkamp
These thirteen #ownvoices stories span the contemporary, fantasy, and science fiction genres and feature mental illnesses and a variety of disabilities. Here, the disabilities aren’t treated like inspiration porn or problems to be fixed or pitied. The characters are disabled or mentally ill, but that isn’t the sum total of their personality; their issues inform but don’t dominate their lives. That every story respects their character’s disabilities shows you exactly how good this anthology is.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.