Things in Print Thursday :: 5 lesser-known YA fantasy series or books

29 Jan

This one is entirely my drift partner’s.  Enjoy, all.

Hello! I was asked for a list of 5 young adult fantasy books that are important and deserve more attention than they get. I…got a bit carried away.

5.  The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy by Kristin Cashore (Graceling; Fire; Bitterblue)
I debated about whether or not to put these on here, because they are fairly popular (easy to find at both new and used bookstores and I believe Graceling was optioned as a film several years ago, but I’d be shocked if anything ever came of that). I decided to talk about them, because I think they’re really important and should get more attention, but that’s why they’re so low on the list even though I love them a lot. The books are three connected but technically standalone novels set in a world with, well, seven Kingdoms with distinct peoples, and their mythology is built on two facts: 1) Some people, called Gracelings, possess one particular special talent (this can be anything from being an ace shot with a bow and arrow to being able to climb trees really well) and are the subject of both fear and fascination by the regular people. Gracelings can be easily spotted due to their bicolored eyes. 2) There are “monsters” in this world, both human and animal-shaped. The animal-shaped monsters are easily spotted because they are larger than regular animals and have brightly-colored fur; human monsters have brightly-colored hair. Their unnaturally beautiful appearances enable them to entrance humans and control their minds, making it easier to eat and/or control them.

If that seems like a lot for one book, it’s because the monsters don’t come into play until Fire. The first book, Graceling, focuses on the Graceling aspects of the mythology, in particular a girl named Katsa, who has a Grace for killing. Her uncle, a king, uses her as an attack dog to punish those who oppose or disobey him. Katsa hates this and does what she can to undermine him (including running an underground ring of spies and allies throughout the other Kingdoms), but can’t find a way to escape, since everyone knows about her and her distinctive eyes will give her away if she tries to create a new life for herself. Then she’s introduced to a visiting prince, Po, who’s looking for information about his missing grandfather, and is shocked to see that he is the same person as a skilled Graceling fighter she met during a secret mission one night. They become sparring partners, and then friends, and then are sent out on the trail of the people who kidnapped Po’s grandfather. If you think you see where this is going, yes, there is romance, but it’s a really interesting romance because Katsa is staunchly opposed to marriage or children. Also, she has frank discussions with Po about how little she cares for the idea of being a man’s property, and he respects this. The plot of the book is mostly about self-discovery and personal strength, anyway.

And in the interests of not derailing this entire post just to talk about these books, I’ll make the summaries of the other two shorter. Fire is about the last human monster, whose name is Fire, and her struggles to not become someone who uses and abuses people because of her monster gifts, like her father. This book is the most standalone of the three, since there’s one character that does appear in this book that’s a fairly central part of Graceling, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Finally, Bitterblue (I know, some of the names are stupid, just roll with it) brings a secondary character from Graceling into the spotlight, as the young queen Bitterblue comes into her rightful place on the throne, while trying to overcome the horrific shadow her father left behind. This one is the darkest of the three and it’s the only one I haven’t reread yet, partially because I don’t own it and partially because this book mentions some really fucked up stuff (child abuse and emotional manipulation are the least terrible things) and I’m going to have to psych myself for the reread. But it’s very good, and very important. It also has the most telegraphed, boring romance that I’ve ever read in a book I loved, but oh well. Can’t win ‘em all. These books are important because they are the stories of three very different but very interesting, compelling young women who refused to let their pasts or their circumstances of birth define them.

4.  The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This novel is set in futuristic Brazil and OH MY GOD LOOK AT THIS COVER. This is the first reason it deserves attention, because the publishers didn’t wimp out and get a model that was vaguely “ethnic-looking” or just plain white, they full on put a black girl on the cover. It’s sad that this is a big deal, but YA book covers in particular are notorious for whitewashing (Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which I love but is just this side of normal to put it on a list of fantasy books, was almost a victim of this). Anyway, I love that cover and even if a million people hadn’t recommended this book to me, I would’ve read it just based on the cover.

Basically, in this novel there’s a ritual that happens every five years not unlike, say, beauty pageants, where the citizens of Palmares Três vote on which of a selection of beautiful, charismatic young men will become the Summer King. Twist: the Summer King is sacrificed after choosing the city’s Queen for the next five years. Our protagonist, June Costa, is an aspiring artist who accidentally ends up falling in with this year’s Summer King, Enki, and by god does every internet summary of this book do its best to make it sound like a shitty teenage doomed love story, but it’s better than that. It’s really about love and class and personal expression and culture and tradition, and a lot of other things. Also, everyone (or at least a good chunk of the named characters) is bisexual. Why? Because.

3.  When We Wake and While We Run by Karen Healey
This is a duology, from an author I really like (Guardian of the Dead is my personal favorite but I think these two are more important). The first book opens in 2027, when our heroine Tegan is sixteen. She’s got a pretty normal, nice life – but then she dies. Then she wakes up. It’s 100 years later, and no one will give her a straight answer about what happened to her. (And no, this isn’t genderswapped Captain America, sorry to say.) So she decides she’s just going to have to find out for herself. Book 1 is mostly about the conspiracies related to Tegan’s resurrection and book 2 is…well, that’s a spoiler. But you’re probably going to want to read it anyway.

I put these on this list because, even though a lot of the twists aren’t great, this book does a lot of really great inclusive things. The central romance is interracial and the love interest is an African immigrant enrolled in an Australian school, so he has a lot to deal with. There are queer characters and one transgender character, and these aren’t their defining traits by any means. Also, the story is really gripping. I think I read both of these over the course of a day and a half (granted, they’re easy reads). The two main reasons that I like Karen Healey’s books are that I know they are going to be good stories and I know that they are going to be inclusive. Honestly, even if she weren’t such a good writer I would probably recommend her stuff based on that alone.

2. The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett (The Wee Free Men; A Hat Full of Sky; Wintersmith; and I Shall Wear Midnight)
This is a series of four (soon to be five) books that are young adult spinoffs from Pratchett’s adult fantasy parody series, Discworld. Honestly, you should read Discworld as well because there are something like 40 books about a wide variety of characters and you’re bound to like at least some of them, but Tiffany’s books are a good place to start if you want to start smaller. Tiffany’s story starts in The Wee Free Men, which introduces the reader to nine-year-old Tiffany, who lives in the Chalk (farm country) and encounters some strange tiny blue men who speak in exaggerated Scottish accents. They call themselves the Nac Mac Feegles and they’re sort of like pixies, only they have bushy red beards and they like beer and swear more than pixies traditionally do. She’s naturally curious about this, as she’s the only one who seems to be able to see them, so she cracks one over the head with a frying pan after luring it into the open and takes it to Miss Tick, a traveling witch. Miss Tick tells her that she must be a witch, too. Tiffany takes this all in stride, until she comes home to find her baby brother missing. It turns out that the Queen of the Fairies has kidnapped him, so she enlists the help of the Feegles to bring him back.

The second book, A Hat Full of Sky, involves Tiffany’s training to be a witch. Lest you think this is some sort of Harry Potter ripoff, be assured that the Discworld witches (and in fact a School of Wizardry) have existed since the 80s. Anyhow, this involves less formal training in spells and more traveling by broomstick to help people clean house and feed animals. The witches of the Disc are not necessarily the sort you’re used to. There is a plot about an evil spirit about halfway through the book, but honestly I like the mundane learning parts more. The third (Wintersmith) and fourth (I Shall Wear Midnight) have more traditional plots because by that point Tiffany is more established as a witch. Wintersmith is my personal favorite, and involves the titular spirit of winter falling in love with Tiffany, who is less than thrilled as she has important things to do that don’t involve twitterpated spirits. I Shall Wear Midnight is about the Chalk’s increasing suspicion of witches and how Tiffany and the others must convince them that their fears are unfounded before, well, we all know where witch hunts lead. (This one is fun because it features a character from one of the early Discworld books that hadn’t been previously mentioned, and who we all assumed Pratchett had just forgotten about. I guess he didn’t!) Book 5 has been announced and will hopefully come out before, er, it’s too late. The Feegles show up in every book, usually to assist Tiffany, although sometimes they get distracted by the urge to fight each other.

I love these books because, while they do feature magic, they mostly are just about a girl using her head to outsmart other people. Also it’s Terry Pratchett, who is hilarious and writes women well without needing romantic subplots to do it.

1.  Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan
This book was written because these two authors were IMing about Twilight and joking about how “if only Bella had had a close girl friend to convince her not to do all those dumb things for a guy!” And then they decided to write that book.

It is the story of Mel, who lives in a world where vampires are a known, accepted fact of life, although they are generally distrusted by the human population and keep to themselves. But people do voluntarily get turned; there are centers to ensure that it is done safely. Mel is fairly unconcerned with vampires, though, until one enrolls at her high school and her hopeless romantic best friend, Cathy, starts going out with him and announces she wants to be turned. This won’t do, says Mel, and does her best to convince Cathy how ridiculous she’s being. But in the meantime, she meets a human boy named Kit, who has been raised by vampires and is also planning to be turned. The idea that vampires would adopt a human baby rather than eat it is incomprehensible to Mel. Mel knows vampires are monsters, but how can she convince Cathy of that?

This book pokes fun at basically every terrible plot point of the first Twilight book and a few in the second one. But it also discusses some very interesting class and racial politics, as well as having a really good mystery subplot. The friendship between Mel and Cathy is really believable and sweet, and while Mel certainly thinks Cathy is an idiot, the narrative makes it clear that Mel’s opinions and judgments aren’t necessarily correct either. I really wish this book got more attention than it does, because while I like Brennan’s work and love Larbalestier’s, I think this is one of their best.

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