For a long time, I didn’t read much YA. I’m old enough that our modern, awesome version of the genre didn’t exist when I was a teen—I often joke that all we had to read were Newbery Award-winning books about dead dogs. I got into adult SFF at a fairly young age and made that my home for quite a while. Aside from Harry Potter and a few other mega-hits, I didn’t pay much attention to YA.
When I became a professional writer, I started reading a little bit more widely, and found that so much great SFF was happening in YA there was a pretty big gap in my knowledge. So I recruited a couple of friends to give me reading lists and went on a binge to find out what I’d been missing. These are a few of the books that I absolutely loved—but no means exhaustive, of course, because I still have a lot of catching up to do! So many books, so little time…
Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
I was a big fan of Leigh Bardugo’s original Grisha trilogy, with its Russian aesthetic and fascinating magic, but Six of Crows and The Crooked Kingdom really raised the bar. Six of Crows manages to pack in a fascinating cast, an amazing city that feels real, and a lot of wonderful character moments and still have room for a pulse-pounding magical heist. I loved every minute of both of these.
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, F. C. Yee
This one made me really happy. There’s so much wonderful mythology in the world, largely untapped in books for English-speaking readers, and Journey to the West is one of my favorites. And Genie is great—she has one of the best introduction-to-the-supernatural arcs I’ve read, appropriately skeptical but not pointlessly stupid, and willing to push back hard against things that don’t seem right. The relationship between her and Quentin develops just right, too. Overall, a brilliantly drawn character and a great story.
Steelheart, Brandon Sanderson
I was familiar with Sanderson’s work from the adult side of SFF, but for me his Reckoners trilogy, starting with Steelheart, is some of his absolute best. Superhero stories are a natural fit for the fast, explosive action he’s known for, and this investigation of a different kind of superhero world—in which the vast majority of them are evil, and they’ve taken over the country—is the kind of deconstruction I love. Another one with excellent characters—that’s a theme in my favorite YA, obviously—this series keeps up tension and interest in our main characters’ relationship without feeling manipulative.
Chime, Franny Billingsley
I read this one early on my YA binge, and it was probably the first that really made my eyes pop. Everything about it is wonderful and different—the creepy half-magic of the swamp and its tension with the modernizing world, the lives of the people and their quiet incorporation of folklore. Bryony’s voice is powerful, sometimes heart-breaking, and she drives the quiet, fascinating plot forward. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve read, and it’s spectacular.
Dread Nation, Justina Ireland
I am a really hard sell on zombies these days, so the fact that I loved this book tells you a lot about how great it is. The image of Civil War dead rising from their graves, needing to be put down again, is a haunting one, and the setting is well-conceived and nicely detailed. Jane is a powerful character, in several senses of the word, and her story is a great mix between zombie-slicing action and something deeper.
Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers. Ship of Smoke and Steel marks the start of a new YA fantasy trilogy from Tor Teen.