Best Young Adult Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror of 2021

With more than 300 young adult speculative fiction novels and graphic novels traditionally published in 2021, putting together a Best Of list is a massive undertaking. After weeks of hemming and hawing, adding and subtracting, making decisions and changing my mind, here is a big batch of 35 titles. “Best” is, of course, a totally subjective concept, but these are the science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels that I think absolutely nailed how much young adult fiction can change, inspire, teach, and reflect its readers.

 

Science Fiction

Aetherbound by E. K. Johnston

Pendt Harland has spent her entire life as the despised child on her family’s long-haul space cruiser. Her ability to use aether (magic) to manipulate DNA makes her useless to the crew, so before she can be sold off she escapes to a space station. There, she meets two brothers, one dreaming of stability and the other of revolution.

Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders (Unstoppable #1)

Tina has always known she’s a clone of an alien hero. When the beacon in her chest is activated, she and her best friend Rachel wind up on a starship crewed by a motley group of aliens and teens. They’ll have to work together to defeat a powerful enemy.

We Light Up the Sky by Lilliam Rivera

Aliens land in post-COVID Los Angeles, and three teens are the only things that stand in the way of total invasion. Pedro, Rafa, and Luna know the alien scout is hiding in the body of Luna’s dead cousin Tasha, but no one else does. How do you save people who refuse to be saved?

 

Fantasy

The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros

It’s Chicago in 1893, and The World’s Columbian Exposition has the city abuzz. Jewish immigrant Alter saves every penny hoping to bring his family over from Europe. Everything changes when his best friend is killed and his dybbuk moves in. Someone is killing Jewish boys, and to free himself of the dybbuk he must bring the murderer to justice.

Fire With Fire by Destiny Soria

Dani and Eden are sisters, the youngest in a line of famous dragonslayers. When Dani ends up accidentally bonded to a dragon, Nox, Eden partners with a sorcerer, Calla, to break the spell. As Dani comes to understand dragons better, Eden plots behind her back.

The Midnight Girls by Alicia Jasinska

Set in a world reminiscent of 18th century Poland, three witches compete to steal the pure heart of Prince Józef. An intense attraction burns between two of those witches, Zosia and Marynka, but love may not be enough to save them if they fail at the task set out by their masters.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

Graciela and Lock’s lives become irrevocably bound after both are assaulted at a party. Lock tries to move forward, but Graciela holds her trauma close to her heart, so much so that her magical ability to know exactly what to serve customers at her family’s pastelería stops working.

 

Horror

The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass

Jake can see ghosts. They don’t interact with him, just relive their last awful moments over and over again. But when the ghost of a boy who died after killing several classmates in a school shooting takes an interest in Jake, Jake must risk his own life to stop him before he kills again.

White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson

After a drug-related incident, Mari’s family relocates from sunny California to a Midwestern town with dark, racist secrets. Strange things are happening in their new home, and the bloody history of the past threatens to uproot the future Mari longs for. Whether monsters or men, the fear is very real.

 

Debut

Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis

Until recently, Katrell has been using her power to communicate with the dead to make extra cash to support her deadbeat mother and her abusive boyfriend. Now that she can raise the dead, she has a chance to buy her way out of poverty. That is, until the undead start going after the living.

Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray

The Shetani has been killing people from Lkossa for years, and two teens, Koffi and Ekon, think they know how to stop it. Koffi is desperate to buy her and her family’s freedom while Ekon wants to earn his way back into the good graces of the elite warriors who defend the city. The two set off on a great quest full of blood and betrayal.

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell

Derry lives in the woods with her foster siblings and a strict guardian. Each sibling has magic, and hers is tied to plants. When her siblings start disappearing, the only way Derry can solve the mystery is to venture into the forbidden woods.

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride

Told in verse, this novel centers on Moth and Sani, two teens processing their grief through a road trip. Moth and Sani are pulled together in ways they don’t really understand. Their journey takes them to sites drenched in trauma not unlike their own.

 

Indie/Small Press

A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger

In the human world, Nina struggles to translate her great-great-grandmother’s story about a fish girl at the bottom of her well and find a way to protect her grandmother from an impending hurricane. In the Reflecting World, Oli, a cottonmouth boy, frets over the sudden illness of his toad friend. As Nina and Oli’s worlds collide, so too do their mysteries.

The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon (The Witch King #1)

Wyatt, a trans witch who left the fairy world in a fiery rage, is dragged back to marry a prince. He brings his best friend Briar with him, and the three soon find themselves in the middle of a battle between tradition, reform, and revolution.

What We Devour by Linsey Miller

With her dual powers of Noble and Vile, coursing through her veins, Lorena attracts the attention of a scheming prince and a tyrannical queen. For years, they have sacrificed people to the Door, a boundary separating their world from that of the gods they drove out. Lorena may be the key to either sealing the Door or ripping it open.

The Heartbreak Bakery by A.R. Capetta

In a fit of heartache, teenage baking obsessive, Syd, produces a batch of brownies that accidentally break up queer couples all over Austin, Texas. To fix things, Syd and cute delivery person Harley whip up treat after magically infused treat. Can Syd repair the damage—both literal and emotional—before it’s too late?

 

Series Openers

Wings of Ebony by J. Elle (Wings of Ebony #1)

After their mother’s sudden death, Rue and her younger sister Tasha are split up. Rue is sent to her father’s secret magic island off the coast of Madagascar where she learns about her powers. When her sister’s life is threatened, Rue will break all the rules to save her.

Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson (Vespertine #1)

Artemisia’s training as a Gray Sister, a nun who tends to the bodies of the dead, is interrupted by an attack on her convent. She hasitly bonds with a morally gray spirit that eager to possess her completely. They form a tenuous alliance to save the land of Loraille from an even greater evil.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (This Poison Heart #1)

Bri keeps her plant magic a secret from all but her moms. An unexpected inheritance takes them to a rundown mansion in rural New York. There Bri uncovers the secrets of her birth family, the ancient history of her gift, and the knowledge to defend herself against those who would take her power for their own.

 

Sequels

A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow (A Song Below Water #2)

Her popularity took a major hit after the events of the first book and now Naema, the beautiful Eloko, is left to pick up the pieces of her reputation. Needing a break, she heads to the Southwest to visit family. There she gains some valuable perspective, not just on Tavia and Effie’s experiences but her own as well.

On This Unworthy Scaffold by Heidi Heilig (Shadow Players #3)

Le Trépas is wreaking havoc on Chakrana and the only way to stop him is to journey across the sea to Aquitan and beg for help from the mad king. Jetta tries to balance her magic and her malheur, while her undead brother and a trans revolutionary fight to overthrow the colonial empire and the corrupt would-be dictators who are waiting in the wings.

We Free the Stars by Hafsah Faizal (Sands of Arawiya #2)

Altair has been captured, but Zafira, Nasir, and Kifah must continue on their quest to return the hearts of the Sisters of Old. Meanwhile, Nasir’s father is under the spell of the Lion of the Night and Zafira struggles to not let the Jawarat she’s bonded to overwhelm her. The Lion of the Night is coming, and they are the only things standing it its way.

 

Futuristic

Hunting by Stars by Cherie Dimaline (The Marrow Thieves #2)

After a series of disasters , everyone except Indigenous people stop dreaming. In Canada, residential schools reopen to harvest their bone marrow as a cure. French wakes up in one of these nightmarish facilities. As he battles to escape, his friends on the outside work to find and free him.

Journey to the Heart of the Abyss by London Shah (Light the Abyss #2)

A century in the future, the world has been flooded by catastrophic events. A scheming politician and a cruel general want to destroy all the genetically modified humans known as amphis, but submersible racer Leyla McQueen is determined to stop them. Ari, the amphi boy she has a crush on, and Leyla’s pasts are intertwined in ways they don’t anticipate, and it all comes back to the prime minister.

Rise of the Red Hand by Olivia Chadha (The Mechanists #1)

In a distant future version of Asia wracked by disease and war, wealthy uplander Kid Synch and rebellious street urchin Ashiva reluctantly team up to take on the all-powerful AI that runs the South Asian Province. To save the poorest citizens of the SAP, they will have to take down the most powerful.

 

Retellings

Little Thieves by Margaret Owen (Little Thieves #1)

Vanja, the goddaughter of the goddesses Death and Fortune, uses a string of enchanted pearls to steal the life of her mistress, Princess Gisele. While cat burglaring her way through the Richie Riches of Bóern, she’s cursed by an angry goddess. Staring down a painful death, Vanja sets out to pull off the con of a lifetime. Retells the German fairy tale “The Goose Girl.”

The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider (Emry Merlin #1)

Abandoned by their father, Emmett and Emry Merlin are barly scraping by. When summoned to King Uther’s court, Emry disguises herself as her brother and takes his place. There she gets into a heap of trouble including but not limited to flirting with the prince. A queer twist on the King Arthur/Merlin legends.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (Six Crimson Cranes #1)

After her stepmother discovers she can do forbidden magic, Shiori is cursed; she loses her voice and her brothers are turned into cranes. Shiori loses everything but nevertheless searches for a way to free herself and her brothers. Blends Asian and European folk stories, including the German fairy tale “The Six Swans.”

 

Under the Radar

No Beauties or Monsters by Tara Goedjen

Rylie returns to her California desert hometown to find that nothing is the same. Her old friend Lily is missing, a serial killer is attacking people, and Rylie herself is being tormented by memory loss and unsettling hallucinations. Everything comes back to her dead grandfather’s cabin.

The Lost Girls by Sonia Hartl

Holly has been 17 since 1987, thanks to vampire Elton. Alone but tethered to her ex, Holly can never find peace, not until his other ex girlfriends offer her a way out and revenge all in one. Complicating matters is Elton’s newest fling, human teenager Parker, who seems to have eyes for Holly.

The Valley and the Flood by Rebecca Mahoney

When Rose’s car breaks down in the Nevada desert, she somehow hears a radio broadcast of a voicemail left by her dead best friend, Gaby. Rose tracks the signal to the small town of Lotus Valley where she becomes the center of an old prophecy. Can she stop the flood from destroying the town?

Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier

Three years ago, Lord Cas was taken prisoner by enemy soldiers. A deadly plague gave him the chance to escape, but his return home is fraught with trauma, lies, and ghosts. With the help of the king’s sister Lena, he investigates who’s assassinating the royal retinue and what terrible secrets the new queen is keeping.

 

Graphic Novels

Nubia: Real One by L.L. McKinney and Robyn Smith

Nubia has Wonder Woman’s strength, but not her privilege. Black girls like her don’t get to be superheroes, or so everyone tells her. For her moms, showing off that kind of power makes her a target. To save her best friend, Quisha, she’ll have to become the hero she knows she is.

Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Lisa Sterle

Becca transfers to a high school in a wealthy San Francisco suburb and befriends three popular girls…who also happen to be werewolves. As they eat their way through the Bay’s Worst Bros, the quad squad’s relationships begin to fracture. Peer pressure has never been this bloody.

 

Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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