“Young Adult Fantasy” is a niche that’s pretty much exploded in the last decade. More faceted than paranormal romance and more approachable than high fantasy, this genre of books has dominated bookshelves of people between the ages of 15 and 25. Although I do believe that YA Fantasy has its merits and is indeed, for all ages, I’ve recently become wary of the slew of YA and urban fantasy books that litter local bookstores and Goodreads, regardless of the stellar reviews. There is a thing such as too much YA, and I’ve been known to cross that line every now and then. Amongst the many YA fantasy books, these are the ones that won me over despite my apprehension. So for all my fellow YA and fantasy enthusiasts out there, here’s a list of recent (sort of) releases in the genre that will abate your craving for immersive, magical worlds and some young adult angst.
1. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
You are an ember in the ashes, Elias Veturius. You will spark and burn, ravage and destroy. You cannot change it. You cannot stop it.”
An Ember in the Ashes follows the dual perspectives of Laia and Elias and their survival in the brutality of the dystopian Martial Empire. Now I know how overdone dystopia in YA is, believe me, but Sabaa Tahir’s treatment of this complex world is mesmerizing. I went into this book with little to no expectations and came out thoroughly impressed. It is very well-written and has that kind of on-the-edge-of-your-seat action — that so many YA books these days lack — amalgamated effortlessly with beautiful character & world building.
Recommended for: Ages 15 and above. If you like the idea of badass, killing machine-esque protagonists with a soft spot for underestimated rebels, political upheavals/foreshadowing of revolutions, and fleshed out cultural backstories, then you must give this a go.
2. A Court of Mist & Fury by Sarah J. Maas
When you spend so long trapped in darkness, you find that the darkness begins to stare back.”
A Court of Mist & Fury is the sequel of A Court of Thorns & Roses, and in my opinion, a far superior novel. Unfortunately, you need to read the first book for the second one to make any sense, but it’s worth it. The series began as a retelling of the fable Beauty & the Beast but shifted focus in the second book in a way that broadened the spectrum of the series a lot more. It follows Feyre, a mortal who is captured and taken away to Fey (faerie) lands as retribution for killing a wolf of faerie blood by Tamlin, her to-be love interest aka Beast aka totally vanilla main character. Despite the sub-par debut, it’s one of the most well-rounded fantasy series — YA and otherwise — in recent years. My favourite fantasy novels are the ones that incorporate real issues amidst all the magic and ACOMAF does that brilliantly. It addresses hard-hitting themes such as mental health and ingrained misogyny, bringing them to light in an impactful manner.
Recommended for: Ages 17 and above (sexual content & adult themes). If you like strong female protagonists that go through massive character growth and have a soft spot for faerie folklore and fairytale retellings, you’ll love this one. Also, the next book comes out soon, so hop on the bandwagon before it does!
3. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
It was impossible, of course. But when did that ever stop any dreamer from dreaming.”
From the author of the popular Daughter of Smoke & Bone series comes this enchanting, otherworldly, and charmingly strange book. The protagonist is Lazlo Strange, a 20-year-old librarian and dreamer who has always wanted to visit the mythical and lost city of Weep. Laini Taylor’s lyrical style of writing is almost too beautiful. It has all of the wonders and etherealism of dreams weaved in with the brutal grotesquerie of nightmares.
Recommended for: Ages 15 and above. If you enjoy tastefully lyrical writing, blue-skinned god-children, and impossible dreams that come true, then buy this book immediately.
4. The Bear & the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
The Bear & the Nightingale is an authentic and incredible tale of bravery and magic. It has all the enchantments and horrors fit for a fairytale, coupled with the rich backdrop of medieval Russia. Katherine Arden blends Russian folklore in with themes of the gender binary in medieval times, religion, and bravery so eloquently, it’s a wonder this book isn’t more popular. The protagonist is Vasilisa, a feisty girl who lives with her family at the edge of Russian wilderness. Throughout the book, her affinity for magic and adventure and freedom is dampened by the almost everyone around her as she struggles to save her land and people.
Recommended for: Ages 14 and above. If you dig fierce redheads, mythical creatures visible to select few, YA fantasy treated like adult fantasy, complex religious undertones intermingled with magical elements, or the Disney movies Brave and Mulan, you will enjoy this immensely.
5. The Wrath & the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
She was a dangerous, dangerous girl. A plague. A Mountain of Adamant who tore the iron from ships, sinking them to their watery graves without a second thought. With a mere smile and a wrinkle of her nose.”
This one came out about two years ago, but gained immense popularity only recently. The Wrath & the Dawn is a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle-Eastern and South-Asian folktales, including the original tales of Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. The book follows Shahrzad, a beautiful and resourceful protagonist, who volunteers to become her tyrant boy-king’s new bride, despite the well-known fact that he never lets his brides live past the dawn after their wedding. The book is fast-paced and the romance is heartwarming, to say the least.
Recommended for: Ages 17 and above (sexual content and adult themes). If you like Middle-Eastern lore, atmospheric world-building, and mention of Caliphs and Rajputs, you should definitely grab this one. PS: If you’re a fellow Indian, try to get past the grammatical errors in the small amount of Hindi that’s in there; I know, it irked me, too.
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