10 Diverse YA Fantasy & Sci-Fi Titles | SLJ Spotlight

Ten new sci-fi and fantasy books featuring a diverse range of leading characters, including sequels to Traci Chee's and Daniel José Older's YA debuts.

From reimaginings of the Evil Queen mythos to long-awaited sequels with kick-butt heroines, the following works are just right for fans of speculative and fantasy fiction and feature protagonists from marginalized cultures.

redstarBashardoust, Melissa. Girls Made of Snow and Glass. 384p. Flatiron Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781250077738.

Gr 8 Up –When Mina fell ill, her father the magician cut out her dying heart and replaced it with glass. Unable to love or be loved, Mina learns that beauty can be used to manipulate others. At 16, she leaves the South with her father to move North where snow perpetually falls. Her father is being rewarded for curing the king’s daughter, the cover story the king is using for having the magician create a baby replica of the recently deceased queen out of snow and blood. Soon after, Mina marries the king in hopes that being queen will bring her the love she desires. However, she forms a real bond with her stepdaughter Lynet. At 15, when Lynet learns what she really is, the clash for the role of queen begins. While kill or be killed is the only option Mina sees, Lynet believes she can save Mina’s heart and find a happily ever after for everyone. Told in alternating viewpoints, this work uses elements from recognizable fairy tales to create an empowering novel with strong, three-dimensional female protagonists who refuse to let jealousy and power break their bond. Filled with magic, adventure, and interesting characters such as the huntsman created by Mina from glass to cure her loneliness, and Nadia the fearless court surgeon whose friendship with Lynet turns to something more, this debut will keep readers thoroughly engaged. ­VERDICT A ­refreshing and progressive original retelling. Highly recommended.–Marissa ­Lieberman, East Orange Public Library, NJ

redstarChee, Traci. The Speaker. 512p. (Sea of Ink and Gold: Bk. 2). Putnam. Nov. 2017. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780399176784.

Gr 7 Up –This installment picks up where The Reader ended, with Sefia and Archer on the run from The Guard. Unsure about how to proceed, Sefia searches the Book and uncovers several jaw-dropping discoveries: Tanin is still alive and Archer is still believed to be the one to lead the impending Red War. In an effort to quell Archer’s nightmares and to stop the conflict, the pair uses the Book to find and kill impressors and free their captives. Meanwhile, Tanin will stop at nothing to retrieve the Book, to ensure important events take place that lead to the Red War, and to hold on to her power. This sequel is an intense story about destiny, sacrifice, and selflessness. Chee introduces dynamic characters with gut-wrenching backstories, whom readers will want to hate but won’t be able to resist rooting for. Strategically written with elements from the previous volume, this entry is rich with twists and turns that will leave readers in constant shock while reminding them that there are no coincidences in this narrative. VERDICT A must-have for all collections and highly recommended for fans of Mary E. Pearson’s “The Remnant Chronicles” or Megan Whalen Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” series.–Dawn Abron, Zion-Benton Public Library, IL

Dao, Julie C. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. 384p. Philomel. Oct. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781524738297.

Gr 10 Up –The first volume in the “Rise of the Empress” series, Dao builds the world of Feng Lu, five kingdoms ruled by the Dragon Lords through their earthly descendants. Xifeng is raised by her aunt Guma in desolate poverty. Guma instills in the child that she’s meant for greater things than being a simple peasant. Xifeng has courtly manners and an education that will enable her rise to rule the kingdoms. Guma practices dark magic and welcomes the Serpent God who will lead Xifeng to greatness. The girl leaves her village for a life in the palace and must learn to balance cruelty with intelligence. Rich in detail and full of gore and blood, this dark novel will satisfy “Game of Thrones” fans. The magical elements are few and slow to develop in the beginning; the setting and unfolding of the plot is based in East Asian storytelling and drama. Uneven writing is confusing in chapters, but the reimagining of the Evil Queen story will entice fans of antiheroine journeys. VERDICT Violent and gory descriptions place this strong choice on high school crossover to adult fantasy shelves.–Pamela Thompson, Col. John O. Ensor Middle School, El Paso, TX

redstarGriffin, Emily Ziff. Light Years. 304p. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781507200056.

Gr 10 Up –A lyrical science fiction novel about a sensitive and creative teenager tasked with saving herself—and the world. In a near future, Luisa Ochoa-Jones, 16, is a brilliant coder and has just been accepted into a high-profile internship program at a leading tech company. She is eager to begin her career and get out from under the thumb of her controlling mother. But Luisa’s plans change abruptly when a mysterious virus erupts that affects thousands of people, including her best friend and her father. Luisa and her brother Ben, along with her crush Kamal and friend Phoebe go on a cross-country journey to find a cure and stop the spread of the virus. The protagonist gets hints in the form of mysterious poems and has to learn to trust faith and intuition that extend beyond science and logic. Luisa also experiences overwhelming sensory effects similar to synesthesia (colors, sounds, tastes) when under stress or in highly emotional situations. Griffin crafts a gorgeously written tale with depth, suspense, intriguing characters, and an engaging plot that moves along like a gripping action film. The ending is a cliffhanger, leaving open the strong possibility of a sequel. VERDICT Unlike many sci-fi novels, the fast pacing doesn’t come at the expense of thoughtful character development. Highly recommended for older adolescents.–Margaret A. Robbins, University of Georgia, Athens

Kaczynski, Heather. Dare Mighty Things. 384p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062479860.

Gr 9 Up –With her “designer genetics,” Cassandra Gupta has enhanced intelligence and physical stamina. In a future where infertility is an epidemic, “desi” children are not unusual and at barely 18, Cassie qualifies for a unique opportunity to go into deep space. A diverse group of exceptional young adults undergo punishing physical and mental tests that quickly cull the group to a handful, which includes Cassie. Denied contact with the outside world, Cassie relies on outgoing Emilio and roommate Mitsuko, who acts as a big sister to her. Participants are constantly ranked and the mysterious Luka consistently maintains the lead. When Luka is chosen first and Cassie is selected as the alternate, they learn the nature of a seemingly impossible mission. Training intensifies and Cassie realizes she is drawn to Luka, and that her role in the mission will go far beyond what she ever envisioned. An original take on the competition theme featuring a unique and flawed heroine, this sci-fi novel blasts off with tons of action balanced with authentic dialogue and characters. While the diversity is welcome, repeated references to characters as the “skinny white kid,” “tall black guy,” or “Hijabi girl” felt tacked on. In such close quarters, Cassie wonders if she might be asexual, which is realistically explored throughout. The science behind the premise is exciting and accessible. A major plot twist sets up a sequel readers will eagerly await. VERDICT A general purchase especially appropriate for fans of Andy Weir’s The Martian and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.–Lee De Groft, Jamestown High School, Williamsburg, VA

Meadows, Jodi. Before She Ignites. 496p. (A Fallen Isles Novel).HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062469403.

Gr 9 Up –Mira Minkoba, nicknamed the Hope-Bearer, is seen as the living representation of the Mira Treaty. The treaty united and brought equality to the six island-nations of the Fallen Isles; each island (populated by people of color) is connected to a different god who bestows gifts to its people. Mira, used to being the mouthpiece of The Luminary Council, is thrown into prison, known as the Pit, when she discovers dragons have gone missing and makes the mistake of bringing it to the council’s attention. Away from her best friends, wingsister Ilina and protector Hristo, who disregards his islands’ peaceful ways, Mira must rely on herself for the first time. Living with anxiety, the protagonist has learned to cope with breathing exercises and panic pills. A secret obsession with counting everything turns shame to skill when learning to communicate with prison mate Aaru in code. Relying on her belief in the treaty, and the ways of her island gods Damyan and Darina, the lovers, Mira works to survive and make allies. Interspersed with flashback chapters, the novel is fairly fast-paced with surprising twists and turns. This richly written fantasy—the first in a trilogy—will keep readers asking whom to trust and wondering what’s true. For fans of Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore. VERDICT A must-have for YA collections, especially where the author and fantasy is popular.–Rebecca Greer, Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative, FL

redstarOh, Axie. Rebel Seoul. 400p. Tu Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781620142998.

Gr 7 Up –It’s the year 2199, post the Great War that left East Asia divided. Living in the slums of Old Seoul, Lee Jaewon wants a better life and enrolls in the Apgujeong Academy in Neo Seoul to secure a high-level position in the military. After surviving a crucial simulator placement test, Jaewon is placed in the Tower to monitor a secret military weapon—human killing machines. As the rebels become stronger, the military must hurry to prepare their human weapons for battle. There’s just one problem: Jaewon has fallen in love with his assigned killing machine, Tera, and must make a tough decision between love and war. The theme of fathers and sons is multilayered and engaging in this stand-alone novel. Alex Kim, a friend of Jaewon, desperately seeks his father’s approval while his other friend Park Young has made peace with his father. Jaewon’s own parental issues fall somewhere in between as he struggles with abandonment and identity. This debut has a large cast of characters that includes teens and adults, and heroes and villains. Jaewon is the most fully developed, but those around him help to shape this appealing young man and to help him grow and decide which side he is on in the impending civil war. VERDICT This action-packed sci-fi novel, with deeper explorations of empathy, humanity, and the capacity to love, is a great choice for most collections.–Dawn Abron, Zion-Benton Public Library, IL

redstarOkorafor, Nnedi. Akata Warrior. 496p. Viking. Oct. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780670785612.

Gr 7 Up –Fans of Akata Witch will fall again for the wondrously intriguing fantasy world in modern-day Nigeria in this imaginative sequel. Ekwensu, the evil spirit that Sunny, now 13, and her leopard society friends defeated in the previous book has returned. He severs Sunny’s connection to her spirit face Anyanwu, and without it, Sunny feels lost and unsure of herself. The fact that the severing did not kill her means that the vision that she saw a year ago of a fiery apocalypse may come true. The prevalence of oil spills caused by companies in the Niger Delta makes the threat of a massive fire all too real. To restore Sunny’s spirit face, she and the others must find the giant spider spirit Udide, ask it to spin a flying grasscutter (a van-sized rodentlike creature) for them, then fly it to the city of Osisi in Lagos to prevent the world’s end. The magic in Sunny’s world is not always kind or gentle, and the punishment for breaking the rules can be brutal. This, alongside the novel’s portrayal of contemporary Nigeria with its cuisine, multiethnic groups speaking many languages, economic inequality between social classes, and threats against albinos, will make readers believe that this magical world could really exist. The story has playful elements too, like Grashcoatah the grasscutter and Sunny’s wasp artist. VERDICT Don’t miss this beautifully written fantasy that seamlessly weaves inventive juju with contemporary Nigerian culture and history.–Sharon Rawlins, New Jersey State Library, Trenton

redstarOlder, Daniel José. Shadowhouse Fall. 368p. (Shadowshaper Cypher: Bk. 2). Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780545952828. POP

Gr 7 Up –Sierra and her crew of shadowshapers are back for another adventure in this sequel to Shadowshaper. A mysterious card deck appears and, with it, a conflict between Shadow House and The House of Light arises. Sierra must act quickly to figure out whom she can trust while learning what it means to be a leader. She also begins a relationship with a new love interest. There is a satisfying conclusion, leaving threads of an open-ended mystery involving the Deck of Worlds. It will be exciting to see where this increasingly political urban fantasy will go next. Older has upped the ante with this second installment. This entry adds a layer of social activism that is refreshing and timely. The crew challenges their white AP history teacher about how she is approaching the topic of slavery. Many of the protagonists experience conflicts with the police and are able to resist. For a change of pace, those who enjoyed Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give may want to check out this fantasy title. In addition, it is good to see a sequel include a very realistic changing romantic landscape for the protagonist. VERDICT A worthy follow-up to Shadowshaper that fans will devour.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH

Sangster, Caitlin. Last Star Burning. 400p. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Oct. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781481486132.

Gr 6 Up –Game piece soldiers placed on a weiqui board provide a foreshadowing of the plot twists to come in this novel. Jiang Sev, of the First Class, has been demoted to the Fourth Class because of her traitor mother. The demotion has not dimmed the devotion of Sev’s Second Class friend, Tai-ge, whose family is tasked with “reeducating” Sev. Heavily influenced by the author’s experiences in China, this dystopian fantasy features a strong 16-year-old character who must navigate a world in which city leaders drop bombs on the lower classes while blaming the explosions on a nearby country. As Sev leaves the safety of the walls to face the Outside with the help of the chairman’s son, Howl, she begins to uncover the true nature of the city’s leadership, and that the rebels within the Mountain have their own agenda—one masterminded by a brilliant double agent and former colleague of Sev’s mother. Sangster does a masterful job of world-building, and takes the time to develop characters and a plot that twists in on itself multiple times. As with Sev, readers are dribbled clues that clearly point to more diabolical machinations on both sides. The backdrop of vicious creatures coupled with adventures in which survival is not always assured will keep patient readers engaged. The cliff-hanger ending guarantees a sequel in the offing, and the action-packed, adventurous prose makes it appropriate for younger teens. ­VERDICT Give to fans of Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” series and Sabaa Tahir’s “Ember in the Ashes” trilogy.–Jodeana Kruse, R.A. Long High School, Longview, WA

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