In my upcoming new YA fantasy, In the Ravenous Dark (out today!), one of the main characters—one of the love interests, in fact—is dead. This bit of information always seems to pique people’s interest, because, well, how is he dead and still walking, talking, and falling in love?
In Ivrilos’s case, he’s a guardian spirit bound to our protagonist, Rovan, in order to control her, particularly her powerful blood magic, but then the two of them become reluctant allies and eventually something more through their shared interest in toppling the underworld authority. It’s through the duality of blood and death magic in the book that these two characters, living and dead, are able to interact and even touch. But this got me thinking about the other types of dead characters I’ve read in (mostly) recent (mostly) YA books, what makes them tick, and more importantly, what makes them compelling. Below are a few of my favorite reads. Expect diversity, queerness, and above all, amazing dead characters!
The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco
While a few years older than the other more recent titles on this list, this book has left its stamp on me since the year I debuted as an author, so it’s only fitting I start off with it. Not only is it spine-chilling YA horror, but it’s also one of the rare books whose protagonist is dead, and she plays a major role in the horror! I love Okiku—her ruthlessness, her detached but poignant voice, and her particular brand of morality. She made me relate to a long-dead, murderous, vengeful spirit more than I thought possible. Her coldness, distance, and even frightening actions soon become understandable, and I love that you start to feel for her just like the characters in the book do, even as she scares you. Because she also cares—it’s why she does what she does. As for what she does … think Dexter, but make that serial killer a dead Japanese girl who crawled herself out of the well she was murdered in and cursed to haunt hundreds of years ago, who then went on to kill the killers of children like her across the world. I have to say, I didn’t feel bad for anyone she does that horrible thing to (if you’ve read it, you know the thing), even as I was cringing away from the book. It’s truly scary horror, but you root for Okiku as much as you want to run screaming from her. Read this if you like justice served by creepy girls with a side of grim satisfaction and stomach-churning bloated faces.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
This recent contemporary YA novel-in-verse really proves the breadth of dead-character stories out there. I have to admit, as someone who reads mostly SFF, I didn’t even realize this had dead characters in it until I accidentally stumbled across that information online. That, and the fact that this book has earned so many honors made me curious. What I found was a story that is heart-wrenching, surprisingly funny, and above all, immensely impactful. I think I just stared for a long while after finishing, gut punched. The dead characters—who are most of the characters in the book, other than our main character, fifteen-year-old Will—fit so perfectly in this story, despite my initial surprise. Who better to teach a boy with a gun, heading down an elevator to get revenge, about cycles of violence and the perils of toxic masculinity than those who have gone (and died) before him, most of them having walked the exact steps Will is taking now? My favorite thing, other than the powerful message—never too spelled out—was the fact that the dead characters who join Will in the elevator are never too spelled out, either. Will sees them, he can touch them, talk to them … but it’s not a dream. And yet there’s no good explanation for them. Will even thinks he’s going insane! That’s all the reader gets, too. Just like its ghosts, this book is succinct, unsettling, heartbreaking, and beautiful.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
I don’t feel like anyone can talk about dead love interests now without mentioning this book, which is especially impressive since this is such a recent debut. But what a debut! This contemporary YA fantasy is groundbreaking with its Latinx, gay, trans protagonist, Yadriel, who summons a ghost to prove he’s a brujo—only it’s the wrong ghost, resident bad boy Julian, and Yadriel can’t get rid of him. And yet, after a while, will Yadriel even want to let him go? While the book also touches on important, heavier topics like cultural appropriation, racism, and deportation with deftness, at its heart it’s an achingly romantic love story. Julien might be a ghost, but he burns with life, practically popping off the page to laugh or yell in your face. The magic that binds him to Yadriel is so rich and well thought out, drawing the reader in and leaving you at the edge of your seat to see if the serendipitous romance will survive the constraints of both life and death. I cried for just about the last quarter of the book, both anguished and happy tears. It means so much to me, and I can only imagine to so many other people, to have such unapologetically queer characters on the page and to watch their love story play out so beautifully. This magical book is a must-read.
The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman
This exciting new SFF mashup also stars a dead protagonist, but with a twist like I’ve never read before. Eighteen-year-old Nami Miyamoto dies in a gas station robbery after jumping in front of a bullet meant for an innocent bystander. But that’s only the beginning. She wakes up in Infinity, an afterlife built by human consciousness that is massive in scope, spanning all types of environments, at turns dreamily beautiful and frighteningly gruesome. Here’s where it gets really trippy. AI programs have managed to invade Infinity with their own intangible consciousnesses, have taken over all of it, and are now enslaving and torturing humans at the direction of their tyrannical queen, Ophelia, the Siri-like virtual assistant. The worldbuilding is vivid and immensely creative, and somehow all the fantasy and sci-fi elements work seamlessly. Being dead in this book doesn’t involve ghosts or haunting; it involves molding the world around you, even your body, to make it reflect whatever you might want or need with your mind. Nami doesn’t just turn into a badass in the afterlife (though she does indeed do that); she constantly grapples with questions that are as huge as Infinity: What does it mean to be conscious? Who deserves forgiveness and mercy and who doesn’t, and where do you draw that line? When choosing between lesser evils, can you ever truly win? It has a stunning ending that leaves you desperate for more. Good thing this is a trilogy and we have more books coming!
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
While I’ve mostly focused on YA books, my own upcoming book has a protagonist who is 19 years old and straddles the line between YA and adult. If new adult had ever truly taken off as an age category in fantasy, it would fall in there. So would this next contemporary dark fantasy starring 20-year-old Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a young woman who can see ghosts, or “grays.” Just to be clear! This book is most definitely not YA, it deals with incredibly dark subject matter, and its grays can be nightmarish—downright traumatizing, especially for its protagonist. Shaped by her rocky upbringing and past trauma, Alex herself is rough around the edges, but tenacious and determined, clinging to a lucky second chance at life: In exchange for a spot at Yale, she helps one of its nine secret societies, Lethe, monitor the ghostly activity on campus. Soon, her determination to outpace her past is surpassed only by her resolve to do what’s right by a local girl who has been murdered on campus and whose death leads back to the very secret societies Alex is now involved with. Alex is one of the most admirable and wonderfully prickly heroines I’ve read in a long time. She fights tooth and claw toward her goals, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and yet has an unshakable sense of justice in an unfair world. You might call her “unlikable,” except that you sympathize with her every step of the way, even when she makes some dubious decisions—such as when she goes against everything she knows about how not to interact with grays and forms a pact with a supposed murderer—a dead murderer—to find the girl’s killer on campus. I don’t want to give much more of this dark, twisty, excellent book away, except that the grays make some amazing characters, especially Alex’s ghostly investigative partner, North, a.k.a. the Bridegroom, and a gray in such a clever disguise you have no idea they’re actually dead.
Honorable mention because it’s a sequel: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
There’s, uh, a lot of death in this absolutely wild adult SFF mashup. Half of the plot’s dual timeline is packed full of ghosts, but I don’t want to say more for spoiler reasons, especially since this is a sequel. Suffice to say this book has more dead characters in it than almost any book I know, and they’re all fabulous. The series itself is one of the wackiest things I’ve ever read, and also one of my absolute favorites. Basically, I can’t not recommend this series on a daily basis, no matter the topic of conversation, but especially when talking about dead characters. So here you go!
If you haven’t read these great books with amazing dead characters, please do. Enjoy!
A.M. Strickland was a bibliophile who wanted to be an author before she knew what either of those words meant. She shares a home base in Alaska with her spouse, her pugs, and her piles and piles of books. She loves traveling, dancing, tattoos, and every shade of teal in existence, but especially the darker ones. Her books include Beyond the Black Door and Shadow Run. She uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, and you can find her on Twitter.