“Best Of” lists are so hard to create! I lost count as to how many times I added and removed and added back in books, paring down an original list that was absolutely massive to just thirty. They cover the gamut, from pirates to princesses, dystopian hellscapes to alternate histories, magical realism to folklore retellings, spaceships to aliens, ghosts and gods to witches and werewolves. Compiled by extensive reading and extensively reading reviews, here is my list of best young adult science fiction and fantasy books published in 2020.
Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
In a version of America where magic is commonplace lives Ellie, a Lipan Apache teen with the ability to raise the spirits of dead animals. After the ghost of her cousin appears to her saying he was murdered, she sets off to investigate. Indigenous culture blends with Western supernatural tropes in a compelling story. Come for the vampires, ghosts, and ancient curses, stay for Ellie’s trusty ghost dog Kirby.
From Darkness by Kate Hazel Hall
When they were children Ari’s best friend Alex drowned in a tragic accident. Alex, now a Summoner for the Lord of the Underworld, returns and saves Ari’s life when she’s bitten by a snake. As the two girls grow closer together, Alex’s rash decision sends ripples through the Underworld, ripples that soon crest into a powerful, potentially deadly wave.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
On her first night at a high school program set on a college campus, Bree discovers the dangerous world of magic. Knights, demons, and root magic pair nicely with conversations about colonialism, slavery, racism, and misogynoir. Bonus points for a steamy queer love triangle! This reworking of King Arthur is one of my most rec’ed YA books of the year.
Never Look Back by Lilliam Rivera
Bachata-loving Pheus visits his father in the Bronx every summer, and this year he meets Eury, a young woman haunted by the terrible things she saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria (as well as by a literal, actual spirit). A clever, emotional Latinx retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
Sword in the Stars by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Once & Future #2)
This year we were blessed with two amazing retellings of the King Arthur myth, and this one is a wild and weird one. To stop Mercer, our merry band of heroes head back in time to ancient Camelot. But the mess that is Merlin’s past is a knot too big to untangle easily or quickly. If Ari is going to save the day, she’ll need to become the king she was destined to be.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
Romeo and Juliet head to 1926 Shanghai. The Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers are old enemies, but a mysterious plague forces rivals and ex-lovers Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai back together. Only they can stop the gruesome deaths spreading across the city.
It Came from Outer Space
Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland
Three years ago, Sia’s mother disappeared in the desert while trying to return to the US after being deported. Sia hopes she’ll return, but doesn’t expect her wish to come true through a crashed alien spaceship. Now a mysterious agency is after her mother, and Sia will have to untangle a massive conspiracy.
The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow
It’s been two years since aliens invaded and killed a third of Earth’s population. Ellie quietly resists Ilori domination by hoarding books. When M0Rr1S, a lab-born Ilori humanoid, discovers her, he should turn her in. Instead, they bond over music. Cue daring escape!
Gender Roles? I Don’t Know Her.
Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore
Anna-Marie McLemore delves once again into queerness and the gender spectrum with this story set during the 16th century dancing plague in Strasbourg and the present day US. In the past, a Roma girl and her trans boy crush confront systemic oppression. In the present, magical realism takes over the lives of that Roma girl’s descendant and the Latina granddaughter of a shoemaker.
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Florian, a gender-fluid pirate aboard a slave ship, meets Evelyn, the daughter of a merchant lord being married off to one of her father’s allies. When Evelyn and her shipmates are taken as slaves by Florian’s captain, the two teens escape across a sprawling colonial empire, encountering mermaids, witches, and a sea who sees more than they realize.
Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore
Why yes, Anna-Marie is one of two authors on this list twice, and for good reason. Their book, co-authored by the always great Tehlor Kay Mejia, tells the story of two teen girls – former besties Lita Perez and Chicky Quintanilla – pushing back against oppressive social “rules” by signing up for a beauty pageant. Trust me, it works.
The Storm of Life by A.R. Capetta (A Brilliant Death #2)
In the intense conclusion to A.R. Capetta’s Italian-influenced fantasy duology, Teo, a teen who can turn people into objects, and Cielo, her gender-fluid strega (a practitioner of magic) take on the Powers That Be to save the soul of their country.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
All Yadriel wanted was to show his family he was a real brujo. What he got was the ghost of a troublesome former classmate, Julian. Yadriel agrees to help Julian with his unfinished business so he can cross over, but things get complicated the more they get to know each other.
Lobizona by Romina Garber
The Latinx magic boarding school book you’ve been waiting for! Manu, with her strange eyes and undocumented status, has spent her life in hiding. When her mother is captured by ICE, she follows a strange boy into a magical world of Argentinian witches and werewolves. Her family history reveals the turmoil just beneath the school’s strictly ordered surface.
The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke
When Mean Girls Yates, Jing, and Daisy hire social outcast Sideways to do a spell for their Halloween party, they get more than they bargained for. As they fall deeper into the world of magic, the fierce trio becomes a powerful quartet. Bad boys, dangerous spells, and spectacular queerness abound.
When We Were Magic by Sarah Gailey
Look, we both knew that a book that opens with death by exploding penis was gonna end up on my Best Of. It just had to. Most of the story involves Alexis and her five besties getting rid of the dead boy’s parts and exploring their feelings and maybe even falling in love.
Black Girl Magic
A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell
Sixteen stories from across the speculative spectrum covering the strength and defiance of girls and gender nonconforming people from all over the Black diaspora. Best enjoyed while listening to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.”
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Raybearer #1)
Raised by a hard-hearted woman known only as The Lady, Tarisai longs for companionship. But she’s been trained (and magically compelled) to kill the Crown Prince. After securing a place in a competition to pick the Council of Eleven who will work for the Prince, Tarisai will have to choose: free will or fate?
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
Two best friends, Tavia and Effie, live in a version of Oregon filled with magical and mythical creatures. Effie struggles with a strange skin condition and too much anxiety while Tavia is desperate to keep everyone from finding out she’s a siren. Threads of police brutality, racism, misogynoir, and resistance push this contemporary fantasy from good to great.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Rosanne A. Brown (A Song of Wraiths and Ruin #1)
In this fantasy inspired by West African folklore, the lives of two very different teens collide. Malik is blackmailed into agreeing to enter a competition that put him in the social circle of Karina, the Crown Princess of Ziran, whom he then must kill. Meanwhile Karina plots to marry the winner of the competition so she can kill him and use his heart to fuel a spell to resurrect her mother. They both want each other dead…and then attraction gets in the way.
The Future Sucks
Each of Us a Desert by Mark Oshiro
In a post-apocalyptic desert, Xo wanders from village to village taking in people’s stories and preventing their nightmares from becoming real. She meets Emilia, the daughter of a dictatorial mayor, and the two set out on a journey to find themselves.
Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson
Andra wakes from a cryogenic sleep expecting to be at a new space colony, but instead finds herself almost a thousand years in the future on a ravaged desert planet being worshipped as a goddess. She’s supposed to save the world, but all she wants to do is get back to Earth.
Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher
Being an undocumented immigrant in 2032 means navigating a world where everyone is microchipped and watched by the government. So when Vali’s mother is captured by the Deportation Forces, she and her little brother head out on a cross-continent journey to safety. Can she make it to sanctuary in California?
Blast from the Past
Daughters of Jubilation by Kara Lee Corthron
It’s the summer of 1962 and Evvie Deschamps’ magic – her family calls it “Jubilation” – is becoming increasingly out of control. The arrival of a creepy white man tied to her family’s past pushes her to discover the extent of her powers.
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland (Dread Nation #2)
Zombie killing badass Jane McKeene and her reluctant companion Katherine Deveraux head West after escaping Summerland. But the Golden State doesn’t live up to the hype. Twisting real historical events into zombiefied alternate history pays off in this series ender.
The Faithless Hawk by Margaret Owen (The Merciful Crow #2)
Fie, now the chieftain of the Crows, is under threat from Queen Rhusana and her army of horrors. King Surimir is dead and Prince Jasimir may not be able to protect the Crows and defend his claim to the throne at the same time.
The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee (The Epic Crush of Genie Lo #2)
Genie Lo and her boyfriend Quentin, aka Sun Wukong the mythical Monkey King, are racing through senior year of high school when they get dragged into a heavenly quest. Genie doesn’t want to deal with petty gods, scheming demons, and college apps, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
Rebel Sisters by Tochi Onyebuchi (War Girls #2)
It’s been five years since the end of the Biafran War, and tension and trauma are ever-present. Uzo, a cybernetic humanoid, and Ify, a medical prodigy on her way to becoming a doctor, become unlikely allies in a fight to stop the spread of a terrible plague.
Shadowshaper Legacy by Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper Cypher #3)
Sierra may have unchecked power, but the threats are still coming. The other Houses are coming after the Shadowshapers and Sierra may not be strong enough to protect them. And then there are all those dark family secrets to deal with…
Vicious Spirits by Kat Cho (Gumiho #2)
Miyoung, a brooding teenage girl who is half-human and half-gumiho, and Jihoon, her confidante and companion, are reeling from the deaths in the previous book. But the worst is still to come when they learn that she might have unintentionally opened a portal between the real world and the supernatural one. An ecstatic mix of Korean folklore and K-dramas.