I’m addicted to YA fantasy books that tweak the tropes (or ignore them altogether), that mess with old tales till they’re utterly new, that commit themselves to a wild premise and ride it out all the way to its magnificent end. All of these magically weird books fit the bill, including riffs on Greek and Russian myth, dystopian underworlds, and a book that’s an addictive swirl of historical and portal fiction.
Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace
Archivist Wasp is one of the freshest, most original dystopian YAs on the shelf. In a barren future world marked by isolation and fear, heroine Wasp’s village and life are ruled by belief in the goddess Catchkeep, who marks her handmaidens with clawed scars while they’re still in the womb. These girls, known as upstarts, grow up to battle for the role of Archivist, a position filled each year by a combat to the death among challengers. Wasp has been archivist for three hard years, managing the population of ghosts that haunt her village. But when she meets a nearly corporeal ghost who asks for her assistance in exchange for a prize that might help her break free of servitude to Catchkeep’s brutal priest, Wasp sets off on a mind-bending journey through the land of the dead, a place made up of dangerous vistas, intense memories, and dark slices of the past.
Worlds of Ink and Shadow, by Lena Coakley
From a mix of historical record, the Brontë sisters’ great novels (and unpublished juvenilia), and the windswept moors, early feminism, and pagan folk beliefs of the Brontës’ upbringing on the Yorkshire moors, Coakley has created a gripping, layered work of portal fiction, complete with forbidden love and devil’s deals. Her page-turner explores the dark terrain of childhood fancies, the indignities of growing up, and the idea of a child as the ruler—benevolent or tyrannical—of their play worlds, imagining the Brontë siblings can travel at will into the fantasy realms they create on the page. But soon their creations start developing inner lives, questioning the world order, and rebelling against being used as as living props. Not only does Coakley evoke the Brontës’ home and invented lives with equal verve, but she maps it effortlessly onto their extraordinary fates, using fantasy to explain how Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and brother Branwell created fictional works including two of the greatest books in the English canon, before meeting their early ends (three of them within a year of each other).
Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter
This wonderfully weird YA is a dark tangle of urban angst, Russian folklore, and Porter’s own rich invention. Vassa lives in an eerie Brooklyn plagued by lengthening nights, in which endless hours seem to pass between dusk and dawn. At the center of this mystery is BY’s, a deadly chain of all-night convenience stores where shoplifters pay the ultimate price—beware the heads on spikes that surround each store, which dance atop chicken legs till sung down to earth by a prospective shopper. When Vassa is framed for shoplifting and marked for death by Babs, the nefarious owner of her local BY’s, she’s locked into a pact: survive three nights as a BY’s cashier, and she might walk away with her life. What follows is a three-day fugue in which Vassa explores the shadowy secrets of her past, meets strange characters including a severed hand with a conscience and a pair of uncanny lawyers, and uncovers the secret behind the unending nights.
Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente
This astonishingly beautiful book isn’t exactly YA, but it follows its heroine from childhood to adulthood, and folds elements and characters of Russian folklore into a story unlike any I’ve read. As a young girl Marya Morevna watches the arrival, one by one, of three birds who transform into princes, and take her sisters away as their brides. Then a groom comes for her: Koschei the Deathless, whose far-off hidden soul renders him immortal. He carries her away to his Country of Life, where old Baba Yaga sets Marya to tasks to prove her worthiness. The book’s fairy-tale heart continues to beat even as the story moves back to the real world, where Marya takes a human husband and struggles to survive life in Soviet Russia. Every page is underlain with magic; in its most luminous passages, Valente makes you feel as if you’re moving through a waking dream. (Speaking of waking dreams, read her book Radiance next.)
The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Technically The Summer Prince is high-tech dystopia, but it’s so lushly imagined it reads like fantasy. Far in the future, in the sexually fluid, matriarchal civilization that arose from the ashes of Brazil after a series of cataclysms, a beautiful boy named Enki is being chosen as his city’s Summer Prince. Every 10 years, a boy rules bright and brief beside the queen of the vertical city of Palmares Três—before he’s sacrificed at summer’s end. June, the stepdaughter of one of the city’s most powerful women, longs to create great art that’ll make all of Palmares Três take notice, but she’ll need Enki’s help. Enki, who her best friend, Gil, is falling in love with. Enki, who June might love herself. Johnson’s world is full of glittering invention, rebellious art, and gorgeous imagery that sings.
A Song for Ella Grey, by David Almond
This take on the Orpheus tale is told from the perspective of an outsider: Claire, the girl Orpheus didn’t pick, who watches from the sidelines as he falls into an all-consuming love affair with her best friend, Ella Grey. Claire introduces Ella to Orpheus, letting him play her his mesmerizing music over the phone, and soon she’s helping Ella plan their elopement. But anyone familiar with the myth knows tragedy will inevitably follow. Set in (and below) the Tynedale, England, of Almond’s youth, this otherworldly story is told in a mashup of hypnotic prose and working-class dialect.
Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis
Nolan is a teen and partial amputee in contemporary Arizona, dogged by “hallucinations” that turn out to be something far stranger: when he closes his eyes, he joins Amara, a mute servant in the otherworldly Dunelands, inside her head. But doing so leaves his own body dangerously vulnerable, and his increasingly concrete connection to Amara is perceived as a neurological disorder. His and Amara’s traumatic, wondrous bond is just one piece of Duyvis’s tale, featuring a gorgeously realized fantasy world and system of magic, diverse characters across the board, and a sensitive exploration of the issues raised by Nolan’s at first unwilling—and then increasingly directed—tenancy in Amara’s body and brain.