Just because Zeus and his pals are the loudest gods, pop culturally speaking, doesn’t mean you should let them be the only mythical figures on your bookshelf. I love books based on Greek mythology, but the bookstore is big and full of wonders, including whole mythological universes that are even more fun to explore through YA. Here are 7 diverse myth-inspired novels you shouldn’t miss.
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The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh
Ahdieh’s lush, immersive series opener starts with a familiar tale: a girl, Shahrzad, has married a ruthless king. He’s murdered a string of previous wives on their wedding nights, and Shahrzad’s only chance at staying alive is to weave stories so compelling he has to keep her around to hear the rest. But in this riff on the Thousand and One Nights, she just wants to stick around long enough to kill him, as vengeance for her best friend, one of his many brides he’s killed. Once Shahrzad is clear of the immediate danger of matricide, she begins to explore the palace—and fall reluctantly in love with her tortured spouse. The book unfurls like a flying carpet, to include a retelling of Aladdin, a deadly love triangle or two, and a magic system I’m dying to see more of.
The Lost Sun, by Tessa Gratton
Gratton’s The United States of Asgard series reimagines the U.S. as a place where Norse gods walk among us, where the days of the week start with Sunsday and end with Freysday, and Norse mythology infuses everything from sports (football becomes stoneball) to pop culture (seers are the new starlets) to politics (don’t be surprised to see Odin making an appearance before Congress). In series starter The Lost Sun, Soren, the son of a disgraced, now dead, berserker, pairs up with Astrid, daughter of a famous seer, to seek out missing god Baldur the Beautiful—and falls for her along the way. The setup allows Gratton to take readers on a winding tour of her altered America, in which the gods aren’t distant stories but omnipresent celebrities.
Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
Okorafor creates heady settings steeped in magic, drawn from African myth but spun out in utterly fresh directions. In Zahrah‘s opening pages, our heroine is born in the Northeastern Ooni Kingdom with “dadalocks,” green vines tangled in among her hair. They set her apart as being gifted with special powers—and years later, she discovers she has the disconcerting ability to float. With the help of a book and an older, similarly gifted woman, Zahrah learns she is a windseeker, but her efforts to hone for powers of flight in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle lead to great danger for her best friend. From the Dark Market to the deadly jungle to the green streets of the great city Ile-Ife, Okorafor takes readers on a synesthetic journey through layered worlds.
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. And 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 her 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.
Wildefire, by Karsten Knight
Polynesian Ashline, adopted alongside her older sister, Eve, by American parents, has always been prone to fits of temper—but they’re nothing to Eve’s violent madness. And after Eve’s crimes drive Ash to an elite boarding school among the California redwoods, she finds herself drawn into a coalition of classmates who seem to have nothing in common but their response to Serena, a visually impaired sleepwalker who has secrets she’s not telling. Slowly the students realize the intriguing truth: each is a reincarnated god from a different pantheon—Polynesian, Greek, Egyptian, Zulu, and Norse. This discovery casts Ash’s volatile sister in a frightening new light, and presages the teens’ mission to band together against a coming disaster.
Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon
Like Okorafor’s Ooni Kingdom, Pon’s ancient Chinese setting is infused with existing mythology, but set in a world created anew for this tale. Ai Ling, a 17-year-old girl in the Xia Kingdom, sets out in search of her missing father and ends up discovering her own frightening destiny. On her long, strange trip to the emperor’s palace, she battles demons, crosses paths with gods, falls in with two travel companions, and begins falling for one of them. The writing is rich with descriptions not just of vivid settings and exotic creatures, but of Chinese culture, most particularly the food. Warning: don’t read while hungry.
The Chaos of Stars, by Kiersten White
Isadora is the daughter of Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, and she’s got all the baggage (all-seeing parents, mortal enemies) and few of the perks (she’s not even immortal!). Her family history is rife with betrayals and infighting, and her home life in the Eygptian boonies is ritualistic and dull—until, sensing danger on the horizon, Isis sends her away from Egypt, and into the mortal life she was born for. In California, Isadora enjoys a new crush, a new friendship, and a part-time museum job, as an unseen peril draws closer every day. White marries universal teen issues—like the desire to get out from under your parents’ shadows—with supernatural dangers and an intriguing take on the ancient gods’ place in a contemporary world.