Crier’s War Author Nina Varela Shares Her Favorite Sapphic YA Must-Reads

Today on the Barnes & Noble Teen blog, we’re pleased to welcome debut author Nina Varela, whose stunning fantasy Crier’s War features a f/f romance—between an android and a human! It’s still disappointingly rare to see girls falling in love with girls in YA fiction, but there are more now than in the past. Varela stopped by the blog to share some of her favorite Sapphic love stories in celebration of her debut release, which hits shelves this week. 

Hi y’all. Let’s talk about girls falling in love.

Let’s talk about girls falling in love: in fairy tales, on tiny magic islands, amidst morally questionable science experiments, in outer space, in dystopias, in utopias, in a thousand different fantasy worlds, in a thousand different contemporary high schools, in any and every place imaginable and then some. Because that’s how it goes. Whether it’s dangerous or not. Whether it’s a terrible idea or not. Whether it’s revolutionary or the most normal thing in the world. Whether it’s fierce and raw or soft and sweet or something in between, some heady combination of everything, which is perhaps the most realistic way it happens: falling in love. No matter the circumstances, no matter the world, girls are and have been and will be falling in love, and thank god, we get to read about it.

My debut novel, Crier’s War, is about an android princess and her human handmaiden falling, very slowly and often reluctantly, into love. Dangerous, yes; terrible idea, yes; but that’s how it goes. Sapphic love is the dandelion in the sidewalk crack, baby. It grows despite.

So that’s my book: androids, alchemy, revolution. Here’s five more sapphic love stories from anywhere and everywhere to get you through the month.

Ash, by Malinda Lo
Of course this list begins with Ash, because Ash was a beginning for me. Like so many other young queer girls, ASH was the first lesbian book—fantasy or otherwise—I ever read. I was fifteen, I think I picked it up at random because I liked the cover, and I still remember the intensity of the reading experience. It took me ages to finish because I kept getting overwhelmed and putting it down for weeks at a time. This was back when I was “straight”—I knew perfectly well I had feelings for girls but kept writing it off as one fluke after another. (For the record, “one fluke after another” is what we call a pattern.) And I was reading this lesbian Cinderella retelling like, “Why does this make me feel such indescribable yearning? Why do I feel so off-balance and dizzy and haunted and breathless?” Reader, I figured out why.

Summer of Saltby Katrina Leno
Let’s talk about atmosphere. I’ve always been obsessed with small town, rural, isolated settings, and the tiny island of By-the-Sea gave me all the quiet, eerie, dreamy, aching-lonely-feeling magic I was hoping for. Leno turns this island real. The story follows twin sisters Georgina and Mary, who come from a long line of women with strange magical abilities. When an ancient magical bird who visits the island every year turns up dead, the whole town blames Mary—so Georgina has to clear her sister’s name by figuring out what actually happened. That’s the surface plot, but beneath that, this book is an exploration of rape culture and the importance of believing women. The writing is nuanced, compassionate, respectful, and Leno deftly balances the darkness with the light—Georgina’s blossoming romance with Prue is so soft and sweet, and her relationship with Mary is fierce and loving and powerful and everything I want from a story about sisters fighting like hell for each other.

The Grief Keeperby Alexandra Villasante
My god, this book sticks with you. It’s about Marisol, an El Salvadoran girl who, in exchange for US asylum for her and her sister, agrees to become a “grief keeper”—a person who takes someone else’s grief and trauma into their own psyche. Of course, this immediately raises like a million moral and ethical questions, and Villasante does such a good job of exploring them, of handling this idea: that something as intimate as grief is transferrable, that grief is a problem and making it disappear is the solution, that a certain type of person (rich white girl) shouldn’t have to feel pain, that a certain other type of person (brown immigrant girl) should be expected to carry that burden—because if someone’s got to experience suffering, well, we all know who the government would choose. The Grief Keeper is about the cruelty immigrants face in the US, it’s about the sacrifices they shouldn’t have to make; it’s about sisters and depression and PTSD and, yes, falling in love with a girl. All that and beautiful writing, too.

The Weight of the Starsby K. Ancrum
The protagonist, Ryann Bird, is a Black butch lesbian who rides a motorcycle and dreams of traveling through space. Are you sold yet? Yes? Well, I’ll keep going anyway. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to describe Ancrum’s writing. It’s beautiful and poetic—but more specifically it cuts, lovingly, to the core. There were so many times when I read a line of description and thought, “This is exactly, exactly how (space, the stars, a girl) should be described. Nobody else would have come up with this turn of phrase in a million years, but this is exactly it.” It’s like that belief about how everything has a common name and then a true name, a name that somehow contains the absolute perfect essence of the thing. Ancrum writes to the true names. The Weight of the Stars is a love letter to space by way of longing, loneliness, and hope, and the slow-burn romance between Ryann and Alexandria unfolds like a second love letter, and it’s just so good.

We Set the Dark on Fire, by Tehlor Kay Mejia
This is a story about two sister-wives falling in love behind their gross horrible husband’s back, set in a beautifully realized Mexico-inspired world, and it’s fantastic. In Medio, men have two wives: a Primera and a Segunda, two women trained to handle different aspects of the household. Dani is a Primera, and—oh ho!—her nemesis from the Medio School for Girls is assigned as the same man’s Segunda. I loved Dani and Carmen’s romance, but what really blew me away about We Set the Dark on Fire was the focus on structural, systematic oppression—the kind of oppression that lives in the big societal hierarchies, the dominant cultural mores, but also in the tiny nuances of everyday life—and the parallels to the current state of the US. Like, Medio literally has an anti-immigration border wall. This society is corrupt from the ground up, and by the end, Dani and Carmen are ready to destroy it together. There’s truly nothing more intoxicating than girls conspiring to just burn the whole damn system down. I can’t wait to read the sequel, We Unleash the Merciless Storm!

Nina Varela grew up on a hippie commune in Durham, North Carolina alongside pot-bellied pigs, a meditation hut, and an assortment of fascinating characters who will forever populate her stories. Her work has accumulated over a dozen national and collegiate awards, and her short fiction has been featured in New Millennium Writings and Scribe. As a queer woman, Nina is dedicated to storytelling with diverse representations of sexuality, gender, neuroatypicality, and other marginalized identities. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is earning her BFA in Writing for Screen & Television at the University of Southern California. Visit her at ninavarela.com.

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