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.
Publisher: Wednesday Books Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age Pages: 448 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.
In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.
However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.
It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.
Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.
Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.
Summer is just around the corner and, for me, there is nothing better than lying in a hammock with a good book. While it is arguable that most any book will work in this scenario, some books just scream “summer” more than others. After some thought, I have compiled a list of books that I think are perfect for diving into summer.
The Summer I Turned Pretty—Jenny Han. Starting off the list is a novel from the author of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series. It follows the story of Belly, who looks forward to the summer all year. Each year, her family spends the season in the small town of Cousins where they join the Fishers, whose sons Jeremiah and Conrad have grown up with Belly. It’s a story of first love, heartbreak, and the summer sun. I used to read this book every year—it’s the perfect YA summer love story. If you’re looking to get into the summer mood, then I highly recommend giving this novel a chance. If you like it, it’s part of a three book series!
Red White & Royal Blue—Casey McQuiston. It wouldn’t be a summer reads list without this fan favorite. This novel tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, whose mom is the President of the United States. When the tabloids get a hold of a physical altercation between him and the Prince of Wales, a variety of problems arise. In the efforts between the two countries to mend the relationship comes a heart-warming and unlikely love story. There’s a reason this novel is so popular, and as summer rolls around I find myself gravitating towards it again.
It Had to Be You—Georgia Clark. This is a newer release—it came out about two weeks ago—but I have a feeling it is going to be the novel of the summer. Told in a style similar to Love Actually, this novel tells the story of Liv Goldenhorn, who is not only dealing with the death of her husband, but also the fact that he left half of their business to his mistress, Savannah. For obvious reasons, Liv isn’t happy about this, and when Savannah comes to work with her, they don’t exactly mesh right away. However, long nights and deep conversations have a way of revealing hidden depths about people, and both Savannah and Liv find that not everything is what meets the eye. It’s a witty, heartwarming story that perfectly captures that summer feeling.
The Girl from Widow Hills—Megan Miranda. I read this novel at the beginning of last summer and as I was thinking of novels for this post that were less romance-y but still summer-y, and this one immediately popped into my head. This novel follows Arden Maynor, who now goes by Olivia Meyer, 20 years after she was found in a storm drain in the small town of Widow Hills. She has spent her life trying to distance herself from her past, but it always has a way of catching up. This novel is shocking and thrilling while still maintaining that summer feeling. If summer romances aren’t as much your thing, I highly recommend checking this novel out.