For me, characters are the gateway to a great story, pulling me into their headspace, compelling me to see the world through their eyes, empathize with their plight, and root for them to win. And while I fall in love with all sorts of characters, those that have an extra sweet spot are heroines fighting oppression. Be it taking on the system or battling a product of systemic oppression, I love that gut-wrenching angst when a character is up against impossible odds and burn with a fire to succeed anyway. From Katniss to Laia, to my own protagonist in Wings of Ebony: Rue, I’m going to ride or die with any hero or heroine who doesn’t back down, while learning a bit about themselves along the way.
If that’s you, too, you have to add these these five books to your TBR, now!
Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis (2021)
Favorite line: “I don’t have the luxury of being a good person.”
Bad Witch Burning is a YA contemporary about Katrell, a Black teen battling poverty, who can talk to the dead. She starts a side business to make money, allowing people to commune with her loved ones for a bit of change. But when she accidentally raises someone from the dead, she sees a shiny new way to upgrade her hustle (read: make a lot more money). But, the deeper she leans into her new gig the more she realizes all that costs—that to truly change her she might have to confront the darkness in herself.
This book is a game changing read. Katrell isn’t the typical sword wielding heroine taking on the system. And that’s my favorite part of this book. This is a keenly perceptive YA debut explores the adultification of teen Black girls, mental health, domestic abuse, all wrapped up in a thrilling page-turner about a Black teen in a fight for her life against a product of systemic oppression: poverty. Lewis seamlessly blends fantasy elements in a contemporary setting with a voice that makes you sit up in your seat. There are horror elements but accessible for non-horror readers. There’s necromancy, revenants. This book is haunting, but not just in the way you might think. Contemporary readers, fantasy lovers, horror and gothic STANs, this book is your next obsession. You will be up all night, compelled to devour it in one sitting.
The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (2020)
Favorite line: “They want us numb and hopeless; it’s easier to roll over us that way. They want us beaten and broken, too scared to rebel. But they don’t know that rebels are made in the worst of circumstances, and even death can’t stop them.”
The Sound of Stars is a dual POV YA sci-fi about Ellie, a book lover who keeps a secret library in a post-apocalyptic version of New York City, where Ilori, an alien species, are in control. Humans are under close watch and publicly executed at even the hint of rebellion. Ellie is trying to fly under the radar, but when a book goes missing, she’s worried her rule-breaking will be discovered. M0Rr1S is an Ilori, born in a lab, and part of the alien occupying force in NYC. But when he finds Ellie’s illegal library he’s enamored by the human music and emotional expression he’s never experienced. The two venture on a cross-country trip loaded up with books and music to save themselves, and maybe even save the world.
I’m picky about my science fiction and The Sound of Stars hit all the right notes. This ‘cross country road trip to save the world’ love story had me utterly absorbed. It’s chocked full of commentary and sharp truths, gut-wrenching stakes and swoony romance. Dow writes plot twists so covertly you won’t see them coming. Ellie, the main character, lives in an oppressive, almost post-apocalyptic version of the modern world. And she grapples with a brave, raw question: is the world even worth saving? There’s something so incredibly grating and yet necessary about sitting with the complexities of that quandary and I applaud Dow for tackling it with such searing poise. Calling all romance, sci-fi, and music lovers, fans of Veronica Roth alike, you’re going to rave about this book!
A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth (2021)
Favorite line: “…She was going to make them regret letting her discover just how satisfying it was to watch things burn.”
A Dark and Hollow Star is a multi POV epic YA fantasy about a four queer teens working together (in a rather prickly alliance) to solve a string of horrific murders plaguing the city of Toronto before the hidden Fae race is exposed to the human world. Holly Black fans will rave. Think the Cruel Prince meets City of Bones.
Fae stories have a special place in my heart and when I find one I love I never shut up about it. But it’s been a bit since I’ve seen once done in such a way that feels fresh and not just more of the same. A Dark And Hollow Star blows it out of the water. This is a robust, gender inclusive, epic multi-POV fantasy that fae fans will not stop raving about until Shuttleworth gives us another one. This story is rich with deeply immersive worldbuilding, layers of allegory around politics, systemic oppression, mixed race and dual identity–all wrapped up in a murdery plot. The Ironborn (those who are both human and magic blood) are being targeted by a killer, but the High King refuses to acknowledge it as their government’s problem. Together they come together to hold the Court accountable. And if that isn’t the setup for page-turning stakes, I don’t know what is. The power imbalance creates a desperation for justice that’ll have you on the edge of your seat, clenching the book tighter than you should and that’s a nod to Shuttleworth’s tension-building talent. Shuttleworth is a name to write down. They will be gifting us with worlds we want to get lost in for many many years to come.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (2020)
Favorite line: “I am not a monster because I live in a world that gives me impossible choices.”
A Song Below Water is a YA contemporary fantasy about two besties who are close as sisters living in Portland, Oregon. Tavia is desperate to keep her siren identity secret, and Effie is trying to suss out her own mysteries from her past and what they mean for her present. But when a siren murder trial sears makes headlines, the girls are thrust on a path of unraveling clues and self-discovery that leaves them both, and the world around them, forever changed. They learn the power of their voice, true friendship, and the magic of compassion.
If you love a book that doesn’t mince words, rich with commentary, exposing racism, bigotry and oppression, crack this gem open and prepare to be WOW’d. But let me say where this book really gave me the warm fuzzies is the beautiful depiction of sisterhood and friendship. ASBW presents a stunning blend of mythical creatures, mystery, and social commentary that’ll have you salivating for more when you finish the last page. Listen, “shorter” fantasy books are hard, and from a craft perspective, Morrow’s wordsmithing made me sit back in my seat in utter awe. It’s empowering and rich. Both intensely honest and beautiful. This is a book you read then hand to a friend urging them to read it too. (Then call them a month later to get your copy back because you want to make sure you have this on your shelf). This book is the epitome of Black Girl empowerment and nothing short of a masterpiece.
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (2019)
Favorite line: “If we are not all free, none of us are free.”
We Set The Dark On Fire is about Daniela, a Latinx teen, who enters Medio School for Girls where women are trained to either raise children or run a household. She’s destined for success as a promising graduate as long as no one learns her secret—that her identification papers are forged. With her marriage fast approaching she’s asked to spy on her new husband for a group of resistors to bring equality to Medio. She’s forced to choose between giving up her secure future and securing a future of freedom for all of Medio.
So I love dystopian YA. Like, LOVE. And I’ll be glad when it gets to come back in full force, particularly for POC creators who never really got the opportunity to do as much in the genre. So when I read about Mejia’s YA debut I was at the bookstore on release day wide-eyed and bushy tailed. And it did not disappoint. Daniela is a student at an elite institution who trains girls to be wives, and she intends to rip the system to shreds. From the first page, the voice and stakes, and the deftly woven commentary about immigration, equality, and discrimination gave me chills. The pacing of the book kept me immersed, hurriedly turning each page. Daniela is such a real character with wants, desires, dreams and Mejia masterfully paints this portrait of a girl who is learning to fight for both what is right and herself. This book is for fantasy-loving rebels, fans of Ember In The Ashes, glass shatterers, those who love seeing a heroine face obstacles that are seemingly too tall, but say “watch me.” Rue and Daniela would be good friends.
J.Elle is an author and advocate for marginalized voices in both publishing and her community. Born in Houston, Texas, Jess is a first-generation college student with a Bachelor of Journalism and Master of Arts in Educational Administration and Human Development. Her passion for empowering youth dates back before writing to her first career in education. She’s worked as a Preschool Director, Middle School Teacher, and High School Creative Writing Mentor. In her spare time you’ll find her volunteering at an alternative school, providing feedback for aspiring writers, loving on her three littles, or cooking up some dish true to her Texas and Louisiana roots. Wings of Ebony is her first novel.