Best Young Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror of 2019

This was an awesome year for young adult speculative fiction. It feels like a metric ton of YA was published this year, and most of it hovered somewhere between “so good” and “I’m dying from the greatness.” We were blessed with so much awesome young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror this year that it took me a week to pair down my best ofs to the best of the best, and it’s still super long. So here you have it, my list of some of the best YA speculative fiction of 2019.

 

Retellings

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer
Using the old Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” as a base, Joanna Ruth Meyer builds out a stunning story about a girl who trades her life for her father’s. Trapped in a white wolf’s castle with its rapidly disappearing rooms, Echo searches for answers – to the wolf’s curse and herself.

His Hideous Heart edited by Dahlia Adler
You had me at “YA anthology of Edgar Allen Poe retellings.” An exquisite collection of stories by a diverse set of authors. Mysterious, macabre, and downright chilling.

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake
Shakespeare is always in need of a good update, and Julia Drake’s spin on Twelfth Night is 2019’s. Dumped at her uncle’s house in a small town in coastal Maine after a year of misbehavior, Violet is in desperate need of companionship and adventure. She gets more than she bargained for as she searches for answers to her family’s murky history.

Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy
A queer retelling of the King Arthur myth but set in space and with sparkly magic? YES PLEASE. This thrilling retelling by married writing team Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy is everything I’ve ever wanted out of a YA space opera.

 

Queer Delights

Last Bus to Everland by Sophie Cameron
Closeted sixteen-year-old Brody Fair is misunderstood by his only friend, often forgotten by his family, and bullied by his classmates. So when the enticing Nico introduces him to a Narnia-esque world where nothing bad can happen, Brody’s whole life changes. Sophie Cameron never shies away from personal pain or emotional growth.

Not Your Backup by C.B. Lee
The third book in the hella fun Sidekick Squad series continues exploring the queer spectrum with Emma. As her superpowered friends go after the corrupt leaders of the government, human Emma refuses to be left behind. C.B. Lee lets Emma sort through her asexuality in an honest and complex way.

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
Hal Schrieve’s story about a genderqueer zombie, Z, and their lesbian werewolf bestie, Aysel, is grounded in hard truths. In a magically-enhanced alternate history version of the dark ages known as the late 1990s, Z and Aysel hide from dangerous authority figures and band together to resist oppressive forces.

Reverie by Ryan La Sala
Kane regains his missing memories and stumbles back into a dangerous game that nearly cost him his life the first go-round. Reverie is a stormy, colorful story about a gay boy and imaginary worlds made real. Under the silly, flighty surface is a fist ready to throw a punch and a broken heart ready to fall in love again.

 

The Future Sucks

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer
A cat-picture loving sentient AI befriends a lonely girl in this heartfelt near-future techno thriller. Naomi Kritzer grounds the wilder and sillier aspects of the plot with keen awareness, meaningful conversations, and a diverse cast.

Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Set several generations after a great disaster befell the world, Lilliam Rivera’s dystopia takes on a Latinx twist. Chief Rocka, a tough as nails teenage girl, wades through generational trauma as she’s driven out of the only world she knows and into a reality she isn’t ready to face.

Internment by Samira Ahmed
Concentration camps take center stage in this timely near-future dystopian story. Layla watches as the racist leader of the supposedly greatest country in the world passes anti-Muslim law after anti-Muslim law until suddenly her family is locked away in not far from a former World War II-era Japanese internment camp. Trapped and isolated, Layla must resist in whatever ways she can.

Rogue Heart by Axie Oh
Former supersoldier and current barista (and telepathic) Ama just wants to lay low in Neo Seoul, but she’s forced to flee after barely surviving an assassination attempt. Axie Oh plays in the wild sandbox she created in 2017’s Rebel Seoul. It’s frantic and fun, with a splash of melodramatic romance.

 

Love Is In the Air

A Constellation of Roses by Miranda Asebedo
Trix hits rock bottom when the cops ship her off to live with the female relatives she’s never met. However, her plans to runaway keep getting delayed, especially by a very attractive pie delivery boy. Family and love, trust and honesty, Miranda Asebedo diligently teaches Trix about the softer things in life.

Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan
Lei and Wren are on the run after a botched attempt at assassinating the Demon King. Can their fledgling relationship withstand Wren’s seemingly bottomless well of dangerous secrets? A suspenseful, visceral world.

Monster of the Week by F.T. Lukens
Graduation is right around the corner, yet the chaos never stops for Bridger Whitt and his boss, mythical creature liaison Pavel Chudnov. Bridger and Leo are an adorable couple, but F.T. Lukens doesn’t forget to bring in emotional depth to their romance. I smiled through this entire book.

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho
When Jihoon is attacked by a monster, he’s rescued by Gu Miyoung the cute girl from school who also happens to be a gumiho. They spar and flirt and spar some more as they take on the creatures that haunt Seoul’s shadows. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer but with less iffy feminism and more Korean mythology.

 

Emotional Devastation

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller
After a terrible event in a treehouse, Ash deals with her subsequent depression while Solomon retreats to a fantasy world. Each narrate from their wildly different perspectives in this heartbreaking story. When bad things happen, friendship can be a light in the darkness.

The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta
How to describe The Lost Coast? Let’s go with moody, atmospheric, and gloriously queer. Amy Rose Capetta makes their second appearance on this list, and for good reason. This story about a gaggle of inexperienced witches trying to find their missing friend is as sad as it is earnest.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
Pet isn’t simple to categorize, nor easy to forget. The plot is straightforward – Jam and Redemption team up with a magical creature to hunt an evil person – but the structure is decidedly not. Akwaeke Emezi blends genres and plays with narrative techniques in this compelling story about broken trust, abuse, and growing up.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
Frankie and her siblings are abandoned at an orphanage by her father as he runs off with his new family. Everywhere she turns, all she finds are challenges and hardships. But that doesn’t stop Frankie from dreaming. A ghost narrates this beautiful story set just as the US enters World War II.

 

War and Revolution

A House of Rage and Sorrow by Sangu Mandanna
Betrayed by her family, manipulated by the gods, and devastated by the death of her best friend, Esmae uses her newfound power to wage an interstellar war. Adapting the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata into a young adult space opera seems impossible, but Sangu Mandanna continues to impress with this sequel.

War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi
A century and a half in the future, Nigeria is ravaged by warfare and climate change. Two sisters stand on opposing sides of a brutal civil war. Tochi Onyebuchi touches on unchecked technological advancement and the long-reaching consequences of colonialism and the results are spectacular.

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Looking for the next Handmaid’s Tale? Tehlor Kay Mejia has just the thing. To keep her past a secret, Daniela spies on the upper crust of Medio – including the man she’s just been married to and his other wife – for a gang of scrappy rebels. But Daniela can’t stop thinking about her co-wife, the beautiful and daring Carmen…

 

Epic Adventure

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
A gang of misfits being forced to work together to take down an evil conspiracy is one of my favorite tropes. Here, Roshani Chokshi ups the ante by folding in scathing critiques on anti-colonialism, racism, classism, and ableism.

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owens
Fie dreams of taking over as Chief of the Crows, but instead she’s on the lam with a fugitive prince and his bodyguard as a power-hungry queen hunts them down. This nuanced, diverse debut is dense with worldbuilding delights.

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
Elisabeth Scrivener, apprentice warden training to defend a Great Library from wicked sorcerers, learns the truth behind her profession when she meets the rakish Magister Nathaniel Thorn. Using a unique magical system and charming characters, Margaret Rogerson’s standalone YA fantasy will hook you from word one.

There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool
A prince, a murderer, a knight, a gambler, and a girl with a terminal illness: five teens who find themselves at the center of a centuries-old prophecy. Juggling five main characters is no mean feat, but Katy Rose Pool somehow pulls it off in this taught, intriguing trilogy opener.

 

Court Intrigue

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
In this fierce YA fantasy novel set in a city reminiscent of historical Southeast Asia, a young woman gains immense power and uses it to protect those without. And in the palace, women of varying ranks find ways to take control back from the patriarchy. Brimming with Islamic mythology and sparkling with fascinating details.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
After her father’s suspicious death, Hesina is named reagent over the empire of Yan. But what should be a relatively easy transition becomes fraught with conspiracies, betrayals, and deception. This is a densely layered novel that never lets the reader – or Hesina – off the hook.

King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo
Fans rejoiced when Leigh Bardugo made her triumphant return to the Grishaverse with the first in the Nikolai Duology. Nikolai Lantsov has been a pirate, soldier, and monster. Now he’s a king with a darkness threatening his soul…and his kingdom. If you love Bardugo’s other novels set in this magical world, then you’ll love this one too.

 

Sequels

A Kingdom for a Stage by Heidi Heilig
I waited with bated breath for nearly a year to find out what was going to happen next to Jetta, and Heidi Heilig did not disappoint. Jetta is exploited by her colonial captors and in turn exploits their bigotry and arrogance to save her people. However, her heartless necromancer biological father has other plans for her.

Red Skies Falling by Alex London
War is coming in this intense follow-up to last year’s Black Wings Beating. Kylee and Brysen are separated now, journeying down divergent paths toward the same destination. Action-packed and thoroughly queer, this novel should leave you ready for book 3.

Song of the Abyss by Makiia Lucier
King Ulises, Lady Mercedes, and Lord Elias make appearances, but this is really Reyna’s tale of swashbuckling adventure, magical derring-do, and swoon-worthy romance. Makiia Lucier simultaneously expands this engrossing fantasy world and brings her characters’ arcs to a satisfying conclusion.

The Wicked King and The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black
In 2019 Holly Black gifted us with both a sequel and a finale to her Folk of the Air series. Jude gains all she ever wanted then loses it, and the chaos left in her wake leads to consequences she couldn’t foresee. Not a moment of this series is wasted – every plot, every character, every loose thread is pulled back in for the heartstopping conclusion.

The Toll by Neal Shusterman
As the Arc of a Scythe series comes to a close, Scythes Citra and Rowan are on the run, the Thunderhead only communicates through the Toll, and the Overblade calls for unsanctioned executions. Neal Shusterman is one of the best YA dystopian authors out there, and The Toll shows why. Heart-pounding and exhilarating, revelatory and expansive.

 

Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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