Weird YA is my lifeblood. Books that boggle the mind, books bigger on the inside than they look on the outside, books that remind us that the boundaries between worlds are tissue-thin (and fun to punch through) and rules of narrative are bendy (and make a nice sound when they crack). Here are twelve 2018 titles that are feeding my weird readerly soul, on shelves now and coming soon.
The Boneless Mercies, by April Genevieve Tucholke
Frey is a boneless mercy, a death trader paid to end the suffering of the sick and the weary. Along with her companions—three other mercies and the boy they pulled out of a death-struck village—she seeks to abandon her bloody work and pursue another life. Their chance, and a shot at glory, comes with news of the Blue Vee Beast, a rampaging monster annihilating a distant jarldom. In a Norse-influenced fantasy land that pulses with history, magic, and mythology, Tucholke spins a haunting story of four girls seizing their fate, and living lives large enough to achieve the level of legend. The best part is the lived-in feel of the world: every page thrums with bits of lore, opening little windows onto tales we don’t get to fully see. You get the feeling Tucholke could set a whole series in this world, so thoroughly does she know its secrets.
The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan
“My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.” Pan’s debut is gorgeous and strange magical realism, with food writing that had me ready to fly across the world to hit a Taiwanese night market. Following her mother’s death by suicide, Leigh receives an impossible gift from the past, which prompts her to visit the Taiwanese maternal grandparents she has never met. By burning magic-infused incense sticks, Leigh is given windows into her mother’s past—rendered in hallucinogenic yet crisp prose—where she finds new understanding of her family history and her mother’s mental illness, a greater comprehension of what she has lost, and the tentative beginnings of healing.
The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, by David Arnold
Arnold’s third novel, centered on an observant high school swimmer with odd rabbithole fascinations, is weird and singular and brainy and fun, with an ending that devastates. Noah loves his BFFs, writes concise histories of the things that fascinate him, and keeps up the fiction that it’s an injury that has been keeping him out of the pool and endangering his chances at a swim scholarship. At a party he meets Circuit, the eccentric son of a dead inventor; after revealing more truths than he intended, he allows Circuit t0 hypnotize him. When he comes to, his world has changed in subtle, inexplicable ways: his DC-loving BFF has turned to Marvel. His mother has an inexplicable scar on her face. His ancient dog is suddenly unnervingly spry. All that has stayed the same are his strange fascinations, seemingly unlinked strangers he’s mysteriously compelled by. The book’s shattering payoff takes a primary rule of storytelling and busts through it like the Kool-Aid Man, and the results are electrifying.
Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl
Building off an exciting but seemingly familiar setup—Groundhog’s Day with a sci-fi twist—Pessl creates a cracked universe that quickly dispenses with the obvious, to get going on the business of creating something new. Following an accident, five former high school BFFs find themselves trapped in a splinter in the fabric of time, unable to move forward or even to die until they reach a consensus: only one can survive this “Neverworld Wake,” and they’ll have to vote unanimously on who that survivor will be. The eleven hours they’re trapped inside becomes a nihilistic pocket universe studded with details pulled from their own histories, where they sink into hedonism, despair, research, and other forms of escape. Finally they use the time to investigate the mysterious death of Jim, the former sixth member of their clique, and things only get weirder.
My Plain Jane, by Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows
The second installment of the Lady Janies series finds its trio of authors taking on the story of both Jane Eyre and her famous creator, the brilliant, short-lived Charlotte Brontë. In the Janie crew’s alt England, Jane is a teacher who can see ghosts, and Charlotte is a budding writer who can’t see anything without her spectacles on a stick. The two friends live at the same miserable boarding school, until the unwanted attentions of a ghost hunter (he’s recruiting) send Jane fleeing to a governess gig at Thornfield Hall, where she stumbles unwittingly into the arms of the dastardly Mr. Rochester (or is he?). Ashton, Hand, and Meadows gleefully mash together history, fiction, magic, and their own brand of weird in this delightful hybrid.
MEM, by Bethany Morrow
I’m cheating with this one, which isn’t technically YA, because 1) it’s wonderful and 2) YA readers are going to meet Morrow with 2020’s The Sound & the Stone, so you’ll want to read MEM to get ready. Dolores Extract #1 is a Mem, a memory removed from the mind of someone who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to live with its burden. Unlike all other Mems, this extract, who has named herself Elsie, has not only survived, but has built memories and a life of her own. When she’s recalled to the research facility where she was created, it’s the end of her relative autonomy, and the beginning of her firsthand witnessing of the hidden horrors of the extraction practice. The book is melancholy and brainy and haunting, and the exact right size for an autumn afternoon binge read.
A Room Away from the Wolves, by Nova Ren Suma (September 4)
Ostracized by her stepfamily and running from the shadowy events that went down at a high school party in the woods, deeply unreliable narrator Bina flees to the dubious shelter of an all-female New York City boarding house. Catherine House shielded her mother during her heady days as a struggling actress, and Bina has dreamed about it all her life. But the place is shrouded with mystery, from lodgers who can’t seem to leave, to a potent, long-vanished ring that turns up without warning, to Catherine herself, who watches over the house from within the confines of a picture frame. Bina falls into the orbit of fellow boarder and compulsive liar Monet, who may just be the key to breaking Catherine House’s spell. This spiky urban fable is a marvel of mood and magic.
Hole in the Middle, by Kendra Fortmeyer (September 4)
Morgan Stone is tired of being ashamed of the way she was born: with a literal hole in her center. Not an injury, not a metaphor, just a smooth blank circle in her stomach. But finally revealing her secret leads to viral infamy, which leads to estrangement from the people who know her best…and to the discovery of a boy, Howie, whose peculiar condition might just offer a cure for her own. Fortmeyer’s mashup of funny coming-of-age with magical realism sounds irresistible.
For a Muse of Fire, by Heidi Heilig (September 25)
In this intoxicating, wildly imaginative new trilogy starter from The Girl from Everywhere author Heilig, Jetta is the force behind her family’s renowned troupe of shadow players: her ability to manipulate the souls of dead things with her blood, using them to coax her handmade puppets to life, is both the secret of her success and her downfall if discovered. She and her parents move through a French- and South Asian–inspired fantasy world, seeking to use their theatrical talents to gain passage on a royal wedding ship, key to Jetta’s plan to access the Mad King’s healing spring and cure herself of her malheur. Instead, she draws the the dangerous attention of the general of her land’s colonizing army, and falls in with charming, damaged rebel Leo, who just might pull her into the rebellion after her world falls apart. Heilig creates a world plagued by displacement, colonization, and supernatural darkness, enlivened by gallows humor and glimpses of bright beauty, often found in the creative act.
Rabbit & Robot, by Andrew Smith (September 25)
Smith’s latest is typically description-resistant, but here goes: on a lunar cruise ship, floating above a war-decimated future Earth, in the company of a crew of increasingly insane robots, two wildly privileged teen boys and their caretaker ponder life and an uncertain future in what has essentially become an orbiting prison. Narrator Cager is detoxing from drug addiction, there are stowaway humans on board, and an infection leads the robots running the show to start eating each other. I can’t wait to read the newest book by the man behind the rallying cry, “keep YA weird.”
Damsel, by Elana K. Arnold (October 2)
There’s always a dragon, there’s always a prince, and there’s always a damsel. Generation after generation, the damsel is the prince’s reward for slaying the dragon, but Ama—so named by the prince who took her from the dragon’s lair, as she has no memories of her own—can’t make her new life fit. Arnold deconstructs one of our ur-myths, finding the darkness between the lines and the iron will within a meant-to-be-pliant princess. In the stifling rooms of a secretive palace in an eerie gray kingdom, Ama will uncover the true nature of her rescue and herself, in a book that interrogates and ultimately triumphs, exploring archetypes and tropes without ever flattening into allegory.
The Wren Hunt, by Mary Watson (November 6)
Every year on St. Stephen’s Day, Wren is pursued through her small village by boys enacting an ancient hunt—and every year their pursuit feels more violent and primal. What the head bully of the hunt, David, doesn’t realize, is that Wren is his natural rival in a far deeper sense: she comes from a family of Augurs, and he from a long line of Judges, each on opposite sides of an ancient magical battle. When his powerful aunt takes Wren on as an intern, it allows her to embed as a spy, seeking a source of magical power that will tip the scales in favor of the Augurs forever.