I prefer my fiction with a healthy dose of adventure, and a crew of memorable characters along for the ride. Whether by land, sea, or hurtling through the stars, give me a group of flawed humans, bickering, flirting, fighting and scheming their way to a worthy end, and I’ll happily climb aboard.
It was my love of such stories that drove the character creation in my YA fantasy, Winter, White and Wicked, and its sequel Rebel, Brave and Brutal. I wanted to truck fantastical ice roads with a group of brilliant misfits, so I wrote a story that made it possible.
In books that feature a crew, there’s usually a job that needs doing, and the task requires a collection of uniquely skilled people. This dynamic makes for palpable tension, relational sparks and, in the best incarnations, a story with pages that flip themselves. Magic, we call it.
As I think back on some of my favorite reads featuring memorable crews, the hard part is narrowing the list down to just five books. Though some of my favorite crews are featured in adult SFF novels (Leviathan Wakes, anyone?), I’ll limit this list to YA books, and I’ll give you a collection of both old and new faves.
Saint by Adrienne Young
As a prelude to her popular YA duology, Fable and Namesake, Adrienne Young presents Saint, a novel that follows the star-crossed paths of a sailor whose current scheme to own his own ship and run his own business, perches precariously on the edge of success, and a young runaway whose secret threatens everything he’s fought to accomplish.
With vibrant, resonant prose we’re invited aboard the Riven and we watch as a crew begins to form. The helmsman, Saint, is a man tortured by his past and driven by a future he can almost taste. The ship’s navigator, Clove, is the only person in the world Saint trusts.
The two men have an infamous reputation, but little else to guarantee their lofty plans succeed. A million mistakes could sink their rickety ship, but it’s the addition of Isolde, a young gem dredger whose very touch captivates Saint, that just might be the end of all their hopes.
Thrown into the mix is Nash, a shipbuilder’s apprentice who isn’t at all excited about joining the crew, but who turns out to be more useful than anyone could have guessed. Though we’re only treated to Isolde’s and Saint’s perspectives, it’s clear each member of this crew is a little broken, a lot desperate, and in need of more than they seek. It makes for an exciting and deeply-felt read.
Heist Society by Ally Carter
This book is a delight from the first word. Heist Society is Oceans 11 for the YA crowd, but that description doesn’t begin to do it justice. Not only does Ally Carter know how to set up a heist (and does she!), she also excels at those interpersonal dynamics that make crews so much fun to watch. And she does it with heart.
The leader of this crew is Katarina Bishop, the daughter of a thief currently wanted for the burglary of a mobster’s art collection. When her best friend, W.W. Hale the Fifth–blossoming thief, heir to a fortune, and all around dreamy guy–springs her from boarding school, she knows she has to steal the collection back, if only to clear her father’s name.
Luckily for Kat, her family has no shortage of criminals willing to help. Together with Hale and a pickpocket named Nick, Kat and her cousins–the Bagshaw brothers who are masters of disguise, and annoyingly beautiful Gabrielle possessing a gift for distraction–put all their skills to work, and it’s just a blast to read. And also a little high class, made me feel like I should steal some fancy artwork for my walls. If I had the skills, I’d steal the crown jewels to join this crew. Only, Kat’s uncle Eddie has already done that, so…
Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee
Under a Painted Sky is a historical set in Missouri in 1849, featuring a Chinese-American violin player named Samantha, and a former slave named Annamae—two characters with spunk, and the kind of internal fortitude that inspires.
When tragedy takes Samantha’s father, she breaks the law in self-defense. Now an outlaw, she teams up with Annamae, and the two go on the run, hoping to hide in the crowds of gold seekers heading to California. They disguise themselves as boys to protect themselves on the treacherous Oregon Trail, a decision that works well enough, but becomes difficult when they join forces with three cowboys, transforming their partnership of two, into a crew of five.
As Samantha grows closer to a cowboy named West, she learns that while it’s inconvenient to hide who you truly are when a crew needs to trust one another, it’s near impossible when the heart gets involved.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
When I grow up, I want to write like Maggie Stiefvater. Her prose is rich and layered, and everything she puts on the page is interesting. The Raven Boys is case in point.
The story follows Blue, a girl growing up in a house full of psychic women, as she becomes entangled with four boys from the rich prep school in town: Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah.
Since Blue was little, she’d been told that her true love would die if she kissed him. Talk about a miserable thing to hear! When she sees the spirit of Gansey lingering with the spirits of those who will die in the next twelve months, questions draw her closer to this group of boys who have set out on a quest to wake a ley line in order to find the body of the long-dead Welsh king, Glendower.
But waking a ley line is more dangerous than they know, and it takes pieces of every one of them–Blue’s strange ability to amplify energy fields, Gansey’s “uncanny knack for discovering oddities,” Adam’s desire to make his own choices, Ronan’s dreams, and the secret Noah’s been telling them for months–to see the job done.
Blue and all four of the Raven boys are provocative and intriguing characters, and their commitment to one another, though not perfect, is an inspiring thing to read. I will admit to researching ley lines after I read this one, and I like to imagine Gansey’s made me an honorary Raven boy.
All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace
When this book begins, it reads like a political fantasy, flush with a high-stakes demonstration of power that will prove the heroine, Princess Amora Montara, is fit to rule.
When that demonstration goes woefully wrong, Amora finds herself on the run with a dashing pirate named Bastien who breaks her out of prison and gives her passage on his magical ship, the Keel Haul, a ship that needs no crew.
But it’s not just the princess who’s coming aboard. Her soon-to-be fiance follows. Ferrick is not nearly the marriage partner Amora was hoping for, but he’s kind and nobly wishes to rescue her. Only Amora finds herself quite comfortable on the Keel Haul, and under Bastien’s watchful eye.
So, on a ship that needs no crew, a crew begins to form. And they’re going to need one another if they’re to defeat Kavan, a rebel ruler intent on mastering multiple magics. It is a goal that has destroyed the kingdom once, and is sure to do so again.
An imprisoned mermaid named Vataea joins the crew soon after She agrees to lend them the use of her magic so long as they free her once the quest is completed. Vataea is beautiful and murderous, and her addition to the crew brings both power and unpredictability. It’s a recipe that makes for fantastic reading, and an adventure you can’t help but enjoy.
Shannon Dittemore is an author, speaker, and contributor to the blog Go Teen Writers, which was one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers. When she’s not at her desk, she can be found in the wilds of Northern California, adventuring with her husband, their two children, and a husky named Leonidas.