Some of the best young adult books of the year so far I saw coming from months away, like the final installments in irresistible series from Maggie Stiefvater and Marie Rutkoski. Some were heralded by early buzz, both the internet kind and the “people putting it in your hands and whispering read this” kind. And some were a lovely surprise, Trojan horsing their way into my TBR under unassuming covers. Here are 14 moving, funny, ambitious, astonishing, gorgeous, and darkly magical YA books released over the past six months that deserve a place atop your to-read list.
And I Darken, by Kiersten White
White’s meticulously researched, gorgeously transporting historical fiction, the first (hallelujah!) in a series, starts to answer a question the author put to herself: what if Vlad the Impaler had been female? Her answer is a book that convinces you, inch by inch, that a vicious girl, abandoned by her father as an Ottoman hostage, doomed to forfeit her life for her father’s follies or to be married off at the sultan’s convenience, could instead rise to be a ruler whose name would be remembered generations after she’s dead. It runs on its heroine’s white-hot rage, complicated but never quenched by her love for her gentle younger brother and for Mehmed, the sultan’s heir. Lada must balance her political aspirations, hunger for vengeance, and desires of her heart to thrive in a brutal, high-intrigue world she has spent her whole life learning to navigate.
The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
To an outside observer, intrepid Victorian heroine Faith may seem boring and subservient, but beneath her dull exterior lies a mind bursting with curiosity, intelligence, and passion. When her scientist father moves their family from London to a clannish island following a scandal, Faith is desperate to get to the bottom of things…especially once he turns up dead. Certain he was murdered, Faith ransacks his possessions, and discovers a tree that bears fruit only upon hearing lies. The plot thickens as Faith uses the tree to spread falsehoods throughout the town in a desperate quest for the truth, wielding others’ perceptions of her against them.
The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner
In this soul-tugging southern-set debut, Dill Early is the son of a zealous Pentecostal preacher and snake handler, who is unrepentant despite his imprisonment for a sickening crime. Dill’s best friend and secret crush, Lydia, is a proud outsider in their small town, a fashion blogger who plans to ride her self-created fame the hell out of Dodge after graduation. The third member of their tiny tribe is Travis, a gentle giant with an abusive father, who escapes into an internet relationship and the world of his beloved fantasy series every chance he gets. Over the course of their senior year, the three grapple with impending separation, and the struggle to define and declare themselves in the face of other people’s expectations.
The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig
Heilig’s intricately plotted, lushly sensory debut filled the “time traveling pirate ship” hole in my heart and bookshelf I didn’t even know was there. With her gifted, addicted captain father at the helm of the Temptation, and a motley crew of fellow ship hands onboard, teenaged Nix travels through time and space, between fantasy and reality, by way of hand-drawn maps. So long as the map is original, signed by its creator, and has never been used before, the ship can navigate to whatever realm the map has frozen in time, whether it be real or purely mythical. Then the Temptation docks in Hawaii in the waning years of the Hawaiian monarchy, with a mission in mind that threaten’s Nix’s very existence. Lush writing, a plot that effortlessly weaves together past and present, a high-stakes heist, and a completely earned love triangle round out a fantastic fantasy I wish was a series. (Take heart—it is a duology!)
The Raven King, by Maggie Stiefvater
Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle started with a dark prophecy: that Blue Sargent, the unmagical daughter of a houseful of female psychics, would kill her true love if she kissed him. Over the course of the first three books, she fell in with the raven boys—doomed Gansey, angry dream thief Ronan, proud, self-sacrificing Adam, and barely-there Noah—helping them on a dangerous quest. Spearheaded by Gansey, the most likely recipient of Blue’s deadly kiss, they sought the resting place of the Welsh king Glendower, believing he’ll grant whoever wakes him a wish. Stiefvater’s storytelling is lyrical and layered, full of sucker-punch twists, creepy darkness, sly humor, and pagan magic. The story concludes with this year’s The Raven King, in which, yes, first kisses are had, lives are lost, and we learn that one of our favorite ships will very much sail. The book is spooky, funny, and enchanting, doing justice to its massive cast and all your unanswered questions.
The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi
Reviled because of the dark stars she was born under, Maya lives like a leper among the vicious-tongued women of her raja father’s harem. On what is supposed to be her wedding day, she’s saved from politically motivated self-sacrifice by a mysterious stranger, who takes her away to his lonely palace. But who, exactly, is her new husband, and what darkness lies behind the chilly beauty of her new home? As Maya harnesses the power that lies within her and learns the truth about her past, she must decide what’s real and what’s illusion. Chokshi weaves a mystical fantasy that drips with lush enchantments, pushing past the tropes and older tales it nods toward to walk a fresher, more perilous path.
American Girls, by Alison Umminger
Fleeing a childish mother, a stalled life, and a guilty conscience, 15-year-old Anna runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. She spends her days chasing down donuts, trailing her sister around town, and hanging out on the set of the universally despised kids’ show where her sister’s boyfriend is a writer. Her outsider’s view of Hollywood’s has-beens and never-weres winds together with her background research on the Manson girls, at the behest of her sister’s creepy director ex. Like Manson’s followers, Anna is hungry, lost, and stuck on the fringes, watching her sister’s life crash while she avoids the wreckage of her own. And her voice is perfect: forthright and earthy, equal parts wistful beauty and teen truculence.
The Winner’s Kiss, by Marie Rutkoski (March 29)
Rutkoski’s gorgeous, sharply intelligent, meltingly romantic trilogy concluded last March with The Winner’s Kiss, the final chapter in the star-crossed love story between Kestrel, the disgraced daughter of a conquering Valorian general, and Arin, a Herrani slave-turned-rebel leader. At the book’s start, Kestrel is in miserable exile for treason against her people, and Arin is far away and unaware of all she has sacrificed for him. In her precise and lovely prose, Rutkoski brings them back into each other’s orbit, and carries the war that’s keeping them apart to a deeply satisfying conclusion. (Also there’s kissing.)
The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
In a vividly evoked 1970s Alaska, Hitchcock sets hardscrabble poverty and domestic violence against a backdrop of transcendent natural beauty. Her characters are fighting to build good lives amid harsh circumstances—Ruth is an almost-orphan grappling with a terrible secret, Dora is terrified she’ll be forced back under her violent father’s roof, Hank and his brothers have no choice but to escape, and Alyce doesn’t know how to claim her future without losing her past. All take a circuitous path toward finally making the connections they need to survive.
Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse
In five linked novellas hopscotching forward through time, Peevyhouse imagines the effect on humanity of the discovery of a parallel world lying just beyond our own. As earth’s atmosphere sickens, and social media sharing advances to the point that privacy is a relic and transient online stardom the best way to make a buck, her characters dream of the Other Place, intersect with its people, and grapple with the mystery of its existence. Facing the challenge of making readers care afresh for each new narrator and their increasingly desperate plights, Peevyhouse grips you every time.
Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
Lee brilliantly spins a historical tale in which Chinese American teen Mercy Wong finagles herself entrance to a genteel, all-white girls’ school, a nearly impossible feat in early 20th-century San Francisco. But her journey is a rocky one, and Mercy is on the brink of being thrown out when a historic earthquake strikes the city, killing rich and poor and shaking people of all stripes out of their houses. In the park where refugees gather, Lee evokes a place out of time, a tiny, hard-won idyll in the midst of a broken city. There, led by Mercy, the remaining girls of St. Clare’s School reject panic and base survivalism in favor of compassion and collaboration. Mercy’s first-person narration is colored by her fortune-teller mother’s practice, full of lovely insights on Chinese folk beliefs, myth, and medicine. She’s a timeless heroine who bends but doesn’t break.
The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter
Cassie’s rage at and longing for the mother who first emotionally abandoned her, then responded to her rebellion by institutionalizing her, are braided together like a rope. Fresh out of an institution and embarking on the college career her mother, confusingly, has paid for, Cassie struggles with the cruel tenets she was raised to believe: that she’s unloved. That she’s unwanted. That anyone who sees her true self will hate her. And when her mother starts pushing her way back into Cassie’s life, nobody—not a new friend, a school therapist, or the boy who just might like the real her—can decide for Cassie that it’s time to push away the woman who both made and destroyed her.
The Mystery of Hollow Places, by Rebecca Podos
Imogene, a mystery writer’s mystery novel–obsessed daughter, finds herself embroiled in a case of her own when her father goes missing, vanishing as completely as her mother did more than a decade ago. Burying her hurt beneath a hardboiled pose, Imogene draws on everything she has read to find the parents who’ve abandoned her. More than just a mystery, Hollow Places explores what it is to have and to miss a mother, in a wry, self-aware voice I couldn’t resist.
If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo
Amanda is a new girl in a small town, testing a tentative reconciliation with her estranged father and trying to fit in with new friends and an intriguing crush. But Amanda used to be Andrew, before recognizing, after a hate-fueled attack and suicide attempt, that transitioning was the only way to make her life worth living. Flashbacks to her disorienting years living as Andrew punctuate the book, but primarily the story belongs to Amanda, a gentle beauty whose sense of self-preservation in a normative small town might be outweighed by her desire to share all of herself with the boy she’s falling in love with. An arresting, compassionate reminder of how far some have to go to claim the lives they need to live, written by a transgender author who kicks off with a generous and enlightening foreword.