5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for YA Lovers

Of all genres, science fiction and fantasy most closely match the wild exuberance and sense of wonder that makes young adult fiction so enjoyable. But when new readers are introduced to these genres, they are often recommended the first 600 page tome in a series written by an old white guy with a beard. And while there’s nothing wrong with those epics (if that’s your thing), they are certainly not the only books these genres have to offer.

Here is a list of science fiction and fantasy titles that explore the themes of self-discovery and growing up YA readers will find comfortingly familiar, but feature styles, ideas, and worlds that YA readers will find enticingly novel.

These are some of my very favorites, and I hope you enjoy them!


Spinning Silver—Naomi Novik. The winters in Lithvas are getting longer, the harvests poorer. But Miryem Mandelstam, despite her youth, is keeping her family fed, clothed, and sheltered. She has taken over her father’s failing moneylending business and rebuilt it. But one day, proud of her success, she unwisely brags that she can “turn silver into gold.” Word of this brag reaches the Staryk—the strange and cruel winter fae who inhabit Lithvas’ woods. They take her brag literally, and show up at her doorstep with fairy silver, expecting gold in return. If she fails this impossible task, Miryem knows the Staryk will kill her, but even if she succeeds, the strange kindnesses of the fae may be more terrible than their wrath.

A new take on a classic fairy story, Spinning Silver is equal parts clever, romantic, and terrifying.

Trigger Warning(s): This book is written from a Jewish perspective and deals frankly with the history of antisemitism in Eastern Europe.


Parable of the Sower—Octavia E. Butler. In a future United States ravaged by climate change and capitalism (not too dissimilar from our current reality), teenaged Lauren Oya Olamina keeps a journal of her life. She had been blessed (cursed?) with the ability of hyper-empathy, which forces her to share the sensations of people around her. Hyper-empathy can be quite deadly to those who suffer from it in this violence-plagued world. Lauren must struggle to survive and grow, always seeking a place where she and her loved ones can be safe.

A decade before dystopian novels would become a trope of YA fiction, Parable of the Sower invented many of the conventions that would later become staples of the subgenre.

Trigger Warning(s): This book depicts a collapsing society. It contains depictions of violence, including racist and sexual violence.


Trail of Lightning—Rebecca Roanhorse. After a great flood, most of the world is underwater, but Dinétah—traditional homeland of the Diné (Navajo) bordered by four sacred mountains—has survived, becoming an independent nation in the post-apocalyptic world. The flood that obliterated most of the world brought back magic with it, and monsters. On Maggie Hoskie’s sixteenth birthday her grandmother is murdered and her home destroyed by a witch. This traumatic event activates her magic powers, inherited from her ancestral clans. Her magic attracts the attention of the demigod monster-slayer Neizghání, who agrees to train her in his craft. Filled with sorrow and a lust for vengeance, Maggie sets out on a quest to defend the people of Dinétah from monsters, by any means necessary.

A bold work of fantasy that blends tropes from the mythic and urban subgenres in a way I’ve ever seen before, Trail of Lightning is unputdownable.

Trigger Warning(s): This book deals frankly with violence and its aftereffects, including PTSD.


An Unkindness of Ghosts—Rivers Solomon. The survivors of Earth set out many years ago on the colossal spaceship Matilda towards a new planet. In the generations since its launch, society in the Matilda has stratified into a racial caste system reminiscent of an antebellum Southern plantation. Aster Gray is a healer born into a life of slavery on the lower decks. From her secret laboratory in a long abandoned part of the ship, she researches the journals her mother left behind before her death 25 years ago. Hidden in their pages may lie the secret to understanding her own history and how it entwines with the future of this broken ark. Or perhaps all she will find are ghosts.

A bleak, lyrical meditation on intergenerational trauma and claiming life amidst a system of racial oppression, An Unkindness of Ghosts is heavy and rewarding.

Trigger Warning(s): This book examines a system of slavery much like Southern chattel slavery of Black Americans. It contains depictions of the racial and sexual violence and the consequences of said violence.


Assassin’s Apprentice—Robin Hobb. FitzChivalry is a bastard. That’s what his name means: Prince Chivalry’s bastard. Royal bastards are considered dangerous in Buckkeep Castle—left unchecked they could become rivals to the true princes for the throne. Accordingly, royal bastards are never allowed independent lives, but are kept as servants and wards of the crown. They are trained as diplomats, magicians, and even assassins. Assassin’s Apprentice chronicles the childhood and young adulthood of a lonely boy caught up against his will in a political system much bigger than him. He is passed from faux father figure to tutor to liege lord, searching for an identity of his own and people who love him for more than the power he represents.

A tender, character-driven fantasy, Assassin’s Apprentice has the most memorable characters of any book I’ve ever read and a hero you can’t help but root for despite his flaws.

Trigger Warning(s): A dog dies in this book.

Book Review

All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Publisher: Tordotcom
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

What if you were a killer cyborg—built to be the perfect murdering machine—but all you wanted to do was watch soap operas?

Murderbot is a SecUnit owned by a company that provides resources for planetary exploration. It has secretly hacked its governor module (the part of its brain that forces it to obey its corporate masters). It uses this newfound freedom to watch the 35,000 hours of television it has downloaded to its personal hard drives—or it would, if its human masters weren’t constantly getting into danger. If anyone finds out it is free, it will be hunted down and killed (because everyone just assumes rogue SecUnits are rampaging Terminators bent on eradicating all human life). And so it goes on doing its job, hoping to keep its humans alive long enough for it to finish the next season of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

Thoughts

At their core, The Murderbot Diaries are sweet, funny, and intensely personal stories about building a life in the aftermath of trauma and despite a society that wants you dead.

I instantly fell in love with the character of Murderbot. Books, TV, and movies are saturated with misanthropic, hyper-competent characters: your Tony Starks, Sherlock Holmes, and Mavericks. I normally hate these characters—I don’t want to read about übermenschen who can treat everyone around them like objects because they’re the Heroes (with a Campbellian capital ‘H’). But Murderbot takes this trope and flips it on its head.

Yes, Murderbot is misanthropic and hyper-competent, but it is also deeply moral. Despite having every reason to seek vengeance for the terrible violations society has inflicted on it, Murderbot spends All Systems Red carefully preserving the lives of the humans under its care. Murderbot refers to itself with a name that represents how society perceives it, but in actuality spends all its time making sure people don’t get murdered despite their best efforts to the contrary.

All Systems Red is not Martha Well’s first book by a longshot, but it is her first book to receive widespread critical acclaim. It swept the holy trinity of science fiction awards, winning the 2018 Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for Best Novella. And Murderbot hasn’t stopped winning awards since. Network Effect—the fifth entry in the series—is poised to pull off the same feat; it’s won both the Nebula and Locus and is currently nominated for the Hugo. This is even more impressive considering that Network Effect is significantly longer than All Systems Red, forcing it to compete in the “novel” category which is (comparatively) more competitive than the shorter “novella.”

Never before have I wanted so badly for a character to make some friends and have a happy life. After all its been through, Murderbot deserves to be safe and cozy for a century or two. Fingers crossed that by the next book the humans will finally get their crap together and let Murderbot have some peace and quiet.

A Knight of No Honor: Adapting Gawain in David Lowery’s The Green Knight

“Gawain as good was acknowledged and as gold refinéd,
 devoid of every vice and with virtues adorned.”

– The Pearl Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (lines 33–34, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation)

Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for both the 14th century poem and the 21st century movie adaption of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

(700) Years of Chivalry

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Arthurian Romance in verse written by an anonymous author known as the Pearl Poet. It tells the story of Sir Gawain, the youngest knight of the Round Table and the strange game he begins one Christmas Day.

A mysterious knight, green of both skin and attire, enters King Arthur’s court and challenges any who dares to strike him one blow with his great axe if, in return, they will allow him to strike them in the same manner at his Green Chapel one year hence. Gawain takes up the challenge and in a single blow severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders.

Unfazed, the Green Knight picks up his head and turns to leave. “At my Chapel, one year hence!” the severed head calls out as it’s body carries it out the door. So begins a tale of honor and doom.

On July 30, 2021, David Lowery released The Green Knight, his adaption of the classic poem, starring Dev Patel as Gawain. As a massive fan of the poem and Arthurian literature in general, I was extremely excited for this adaption. Now, having seen it, I was struck both by how faithful and how remarkable different Lowery’s adaption is.

The Armor Makes the Knight

In the poem, before Sir Gawain departs on his quest to the Green Chapel, both he and his horse Gringolet are arrayed in finery. Among Gawain’s accoutrements are a damask doublet from Tharsia and golden spurs. Gringolet wears a crimson horse-breastplate (called a poitrel) studded with gold and a saddle fringed in golden tassels.

The Pearl Poet makes explicit that this finery is not merely fashion, but represents the inner fineness of Gawain’s soul. Gold in particular is a metaphor for moral purity.

This scene from the poem is lovingly rendered in Lowery’s Green Knight. Particularly beautiful is the prop design of Gawain’s shield. As in the poem, the shield has as its device a pentangle (five pointed star knot) representing the five knightly virtues, and on its interior a painting of the Virgin Mary that Gawain may look at for courage when he is sorely tested.

But there is one key difference in both this scene and the rest of Lowery’s adaption. While the Pearl Poet tells us from an omniscient perspective that the clothes represent Gawain’s true inner virtue, in the movie Queen Guinevere merely prays that the armor represent the truth of Gawain’s character, a prayer that will go unanswered. A scant handful of scenes later, the beautiful shield is sundered, splitting down the center of the Madonna’s face.

Gawain the Impetuous Fail-Son

Lowery’s Green Knight replaces the chivalric hero at the center of the poem with a rather self-centered character who Lowery describes as a “cad.” According to Lowery in an interview with SlashFilm, he cast Dev Patel to play his hero in part because Patel was so charismatic an actor that he could make the audience like his pathetic protagonist.

The Gawain of Lowery’s adaption is not even a knight at the film’s beginning, and spends most of the movie wandering aimlessly through a quest meant for a nobler, less human hero. Patel does a truly marvelous job of playing a living embodiment of imposter syndrome: an overgrown boy who should have been a knight but cannot even manage to be a man.

I couldn’t help wondering if this was how I would perform, if thrust suddenly onto a hero’s journey. Very few real people would walk a path towards certain death with the self-assured honor of the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain. To be a person, I think, is to be somewhat dishonorable, at least when compared with the hero of an Arthurian Romance.

Final Thoughts & Critiques

Lowery’s Green Knight is a more complicated and fraught retelling of an ancient Romance. I thoroughly enjoyed and was routinely surprised both by its detailed faithfulness to the original text and its stark deviations at key moments.

Perhaps my only criticism of the film was its choice not to explore the gay subtext of the poem. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a famous for its queer undertones: Gawain exchanges no less than six kisses of increasing intensity with one Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert as part of a strange game. In the film, this section of the story is much reduced in scope. And while this choice makes perfect sense in the context of Lowery’s overall shift in narrative focus, I hope to one day see another adaption which explores this fascinating element of the original work more fully.

Book Review

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba

Publisher: Haymarket Books
Genre: Political Science, Essays
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Educator, organizer, and curator Mariame Kaba collects seven years of essays and conversations on Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition into one volume.

Kaba has been a foundational organizer in multiple prison abolition projects, including Survived and Punished (which helps free “survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions”) and Project NIA (which aims “to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth violence”).

For those who were first introduced to PIC abolitionism last summer through #DefundThePolice, Kaba presents a holistic vision of the movement’s history, present, and future.

Thoughts

The modern theory and practice of PIC abolitionism grew out of the civil rights movement half a century ago. The movement’s roots, as the name implies, can be traced back to the slavery abolition movement that presaged the American Civil War. However, PIC abolition has been almost entirely excluded from mainstream conversations about the American justice system, until its ideas became central to the Ferguson uprising of 2014 and the George Floyd uprising of 2020. But as “Defund the Police”—the first demand of #8toAbolition—became a policy demand of a plurality of local Black Lives Matter organizations, the national news media were forced to suddenly contend with the work and vision of PIC abolitionists.

By the summer of 2020, Mariame Kaba had been writing about PIC abolition for a decade on her blog Prison Culture. I was introduced to PIC abolition through Kaba’s work, as were many other young abolitionists. She is a gateway for a new generation into the ongoing struggle for emancipation.

Kaba’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is the combination of her writing’s accessibility and her scrupulous care to cite the sources of her ideas. I often have trouble understanding works of political theory, but Kaba stubbornly refuses to deal in the abstract; every idea she presents is grounded in examples drawn from her work as an organizer. Likewise, each idea is attributed to the activists, organizers, and writers who provided her with its germ. ‘Til We Free Us thus functions as not only an introductory text, but an index of foundational PIC abolitionist writers (almost entirely Black women).

If you would like a taste of what this book offers, I’d recommend starting with Kaba’s June 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” which is also included in this anthology.

A Childhood in Books and the Importance of Local Libraries

“A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it.”

– Neil Gaiman, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Opening Pages

My first memories of reading come from when I was about four or so. My dad sat me on his lap and pulled out an illustrated edition of The Hobbit. I can still picture the wonder on the faces of the elves as little Bilbo (about the same size as I was) held up the Arkenstone for them to behold. When we’d finished I asked to start again.

But my first memories of reading by myself come from the library. We moved within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch Library shortly before my eighth birthday.

I remember walking into the building, the sweat from cycling up the long climb of Adobe Street in the summer sun cooling in the blast of the air conditioning. And just inside and off to the left of the entrance was a big archway of yellow, orange, and green blocks. The neon sign above it read “Children’s Library.” I took the sign literally: this was the part of the library that belonged to me.

The children’s library had its own desk and its own librarian. This meant I didn’t have to stand in line with a bunch of adults to ask my questions. And boy did I have a lot of questions.

They let me sign up for my own library card, highlighter yellow with my name scrawled across the back in illegible chicken scratch. The limit was 35 books at the time (a limit I knew because I regularly hit it). I checked out every book in the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, went home with a bulging backpack, and by the time they were due I was ready for a new series.

Middle Chapters

By the time I was thirteen, I was far too cool to be seen near the children’s section. I was a teenager, which to me meant getting a stool and grabbing something from the top shelves (though I’d often sneak back to children’s section when no one was watching to nab the latest installation in Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven series).

In 2013, Red Mountain Branch opened a new wing called THINKspot: a place full of sewing machines and 3D-printers and cameras and computers. Most important to me, it had a conference room anyone could sign out for a couple hours if they wanted to hold a meeting. This allowed me—a self-conscious teen who hated having people at his house—to host a writing group. I’m sure we were annoying, a bunch of loud fifteen year-olds who spent half the time watching YouTube videos on the conference room monitor. But no one ever told us we couldn’t be there.

That’s what meant the most to me about Red Mountain Branch. It was a place I could go without getting kicked out for being a kid or not having any money. Mesa has always suffered from a paucity of community-oriented spaces, which made the library that much more valuable. It was unique. It taught me what a community space could and should look like.

The Ending or New Beginnings

In 2019 it had been a couple of years since I’d last been to the library. But as fortune would have it, I moved back to Mesa and found myself living once again within biking distance of Red Mountain Branch.

In my absence, they’d opened a miniature bookstore where they sold off old books that were going out of circulation. Thumbing through the stacks, I found the exact (somewhat beat-up) copy of the first collection of Ray Bradbury stories I’d ever read. It cost two dollars. Holding it, I felt like my life had closed a circle.

On that same visit, I got a new library card. As I signed the back, I realized that when I got my last library card was the first time I ever signed my name.

Epilogue

On March 16, 2020, Red Mountain Branch temporarily closed its doors due to Covid-19. They would remain so for an entire year. During that year, librarians staffed the CARES call center—a City of Mesa initiative to inform residents how to petition the city government for funding for their small businesses, rent, or utilities if their ability to pay had been impacted by the pandemic.

As of April 2021, the branch has reopened for business. They had planned to debut a new monarch garden and reading sanctuary last year, but had been delayed (for obvious reasons). This sanctuary is now open, just in time for the Arizona’s monarch breeding season (March – June).

I encourage any readers who live in Mesa to go show the library your support as it reopens. A list of library events and updates can be found here. If you don’t feel comfortable going in-person, you can get books from the library online at phoenix.overdrive.com.

The author would like to express thanks to Joyce Abbott, the manager of Red Mountain Branch Library, for answering his questions regarding the library’s history and programming.

Book Review

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Publisher: Tor.com
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.

While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.

Thoughts

The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.

A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.

Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.

Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).

And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.