Hello! Welcome to the third SpecFic 101: Introduction to Speculative Fiction post. Last time we talked about Big Fat Fantasy (BFF) and I gave recommendations to readers who usually read YA but want to branch out to non-YA SFF. This week we’re turning that on its head: book recommendations for readers who usually read non-YA Speculative Fiction, who want to read some YA.
In the previous post I highlighted what I think is the main factor in the differences in YA and non-YA SpecFic: the word-count. Here’s a quote:
If you have 400K words to play around with, you can include in-depth world building and pack in more character building moments. You can have your characters plod through the countryside, catching fish at riverbanks and passing through small towns and staying at inns.
YA tends to be full of action – the shorter length demands that everything be packed into a smaller space. So authors only introduce world-building aspects that are absolutely essential, character development tends to occur just before or during action-packed scenes and is usually brief.
One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard from YA fans who read BFF is that nothing happens for pages at a time, which makes sense if you’re used to the world of YA. Conversely, those who mostly read BFF tend to get exasperated at how many convenient coincidences YA tends to have, because how often does the lady living underneath your apartment know everything you ever wished you knew about your mother?
This is not to say all YA is written like this, or that BFF doesn’t have huge coincidences, but in general, non-YA speculative fiction tends to have more leeway when it comes to allowing the characters and action to lull – it’s one of the greatest strengths of YA that it is features high-octane action and rarely gives the characters a break.
Now, I know a lot of people who read YA, a lot who read non-YA, and quite a few who read both. I’m going to structure this recommendation post by de-bunking some of the more popular myths or generalisations about YA literature. When I talk to people and I tell them I like YA, there’s a few comments that almost always come up, and I usually get really fired up about this!
The main reason is that all of these “complaints” come up when talking on non-YA books, but people tend to be more forgiving of it. For whatever reason, readers get a kick out of looking down on YA and find any old excuse to do so, usually without realising how hypocritical there are being.
1. It’s all about teenaged girls
So? Teenaged girls are just as complex and relevant as teenaged boys, as other men and women of other ages.
And related: I’ve never been a girl so I won’t identify with the protagonist.
If I can grow up reading Hamlet, Dune and The Lord of the Rings, I don’t see why you can’t read about Katniss, Tris and Karou. But, here are some stories told from a male point of view:
The Everness series by Ian McDonald – I love this series for so many reasons. A Punjabi protagonist, steampunkery in the world-building, amazing characters, and action-filled plot lines being some of them.
There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one among billions of parallel earths.
When Everett Singh’s scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse—the Infundibulum—the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it. They’ve got power, authority, the might of ten planets—some of them more technologically advanced than our Earth—at their fingertips. He’s got wits, intelligence, and a knack for Indian cooking.
Shift and Control by Kim Curran – Quantum mechanics, a brave hero and Kim’s snappy writing style. What more could you possibly want?
When your average, 16-year old loser, Scott Tyler, meets the beautiful and mysterious Aubrey Jones, he learns he’s not so average after all. He’s a ‘Shifter’. And that means he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made. At first, he thinks the power to shift is pretty cool. But as his world starts to unravel around him he realises that each time he uses his power, it has consequences; terrible unforeseen consequences. Shifting is going to get him killed. In a world where everything can change with a thought, Scott has to decide where he stands.
2. It isn’t well written
I’ve heard this a claimed a lot: that the writing in YA isn’t as good, as lyrical, as beautiful as in non-YA Fantasy. I’d like to point out that Patrick Rothfuss, in the second instalment of his The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man’s Fear, gratuitously dedicated a large section of the book to the unbelievably amazing sexual exploits of a 15-year-old virgin. You are never going to convince me there was finesse in that.
To remedy this belief (that’s largely based in ignorance), I prescribe:
The Wolves of Mercy Falls series by Maggie Stiefvater – this lady is the master of rich, beautiful, evocative prose. Read her books. All of them, don’t just stop with these.
For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without.
Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human… until the cold makes him shift back again.
Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor – another gorgeously written series. Laini will blow you away with these books. The Australian cover for the final book of the series isn’t available yet, so I’ve also included the US covers.
“Errand requiring immediate attention. Come.
The note was on vellum, pierced by the talons of the almost-crow that delivered it. Karou read the message. ‘He never says please’, she sighed, but she gathered up her things.
When Brimstone called, she always came.”
In general, Karou has managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she’s a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand-girl to a monstrous creature who is the closest thing she has to family. Raised half in our world, half in ‘Elsewhere’, she has never understood Brimstone’s dark work – buying teeth from hunters and murderers – nor how she came into his keeping. She is a secret even to herself, plagued by the sensation that she isn’t whole.
Now the doors to Elsewhere are closing, and Karou must choose between the safety of her human life and the dangers of a war-ravaged world that may hold the answers she has always sought.
The Archived by Victoria Schwab – I was surprised at how skilful the storytelling is in this book, and now Schwab is on my auto-buy list. Her books are not to be missed!
Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.
Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was, a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often—violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.
Being a Keeper isn’t just dangerous—it’s a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da’s death was hard enough, but now her little brother is gone too. Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.
3. The world-building sucks
As I mentioned in the previous post, there is a definite difference in the way world-building works in YA. You’re not going to find a world of the same calibre as Sanderson’s Scadrial here. But you will find wonderful, complex, magical worlds to immerse yourself in, that will meet even the most discerning criteria. Try these:
The Graceling Realm books by Kristin Cashore – This world is absolutely amazing to read about, and Cashore brings it to life well. I don’t think anyone could find it lacking. The best thing is that the trilogy tells three amazing stories about interconnected characters, but each can be read alone.
In a world where people born with an exceptional skill, known as a Grace, are both feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of a skill even she despises: the Grace of killing.
Feared by the court and shunned by those her own age, the darkness of her Grace casts a heavy shadow over Katsa’s life. Yet she remains defiant: when the King of Lienid’s father is kidnapped she investigates, and stumbles across a mystery. Who would want to kidnap the old man, and why? And who was the extraordinary Graced man whose fighting abilities rivalled her own?
The only thing Katsa is sure of is that she no longer wants to kill. The intrigue around this kidnapping offers her a way out – but little does she realise, when she takes it, that something insidious and dark lurks behind the mystery. Something spreading from the shadowy figure of a one-eyed king…
The Study series by Maria V. Snyder – another story-world I love. Snyder has thought about everything: language, culture, customs, and ways of dress. Her world is wonderfully realised.
Choose: A quick death or slow poison …
On the eve of her execution for murder, Yelena Zaltana is offered an incredible reprieve – on the condition that she becomes the food taster for the military leader of Ixia, Commander Ambrose.
Avoiding poison is the least of her troubles, however … General Brazell, father of the man she killed, has vowed bloody revenge; she’s beginning to have feelings for her captor, Valek; and someone is plotting the downfall of the current regime.
In a desperate race against time, Yelena must learn to control the growing magical talent within her and master the demons of her past. The Commander’s life, the future of Ixia and all those she loves depend on it …
4. It’s all about romance
Love is part of the human condition. It’s going to come up in books.
Arguably, Aragorn would have gone to destroy Sauron and then faded into anonymity had it not been for his love for Arwen and Elrond’s stipulation that if his daughter was going to debase herself to marry a Man, it would only be the King of Gondor and Arnor. The Lord of the Rings is a romance story from Aragorn’s point of view! In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name many SFF novels that don’t have romance in them.
All books have romance to varying degrees, and the same is true for YA literature. Most forget that YA isn’t a genre: it’s classification. There are many genres represented under the YA banner: contemporary, romance, paranormal romance, paranormal fantasy, science fiction, dystopian and epic fantasy being a few. So yes, you can find lots of books in YA where romance isn’t the main focus, but you’d struggle (as you would with non-YA SFF) to find one where romance isn’t present at all. Here are some books in which I feel the romance is balanced out by the other aspects.
The Lotus War series by Jay Kristoff – Australian steampunk fantasy, with griffins. How are you going to say no to that? The series has also been nominated for many awards, so it’s not just me saying it’s awesome.
Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.
But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.
Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.
Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi – I didn’t read these books for so long because I thought it would be just another romance book with a dystopian background. But it’s so much more than that, with an action filled plot and an interesting, vivid story-world. While the romance is sweet, it’s definitely a subplot in these books.
Aria is a teenager in the enclosed city of Reverie. Like all Dwellers, she spends her time with friends in virtual environments, called Realms, accessed through an eyepiece called a Smarteye. Aria enjoys the Realms and the easy life in Reverie. When she is forced out of the pod for a crime she did not commit, she believes her death is imminent. The outside world is known as The Death Shop, with danger in every direction.
As an Outsider, Perry has always known hunger, vicious predators, and violent energy storms from the swirling electrified atmosphere called the Aether. A bit of an outcast even among his hunting tribe, Perry withstands these daily tests with his exceptional abilities, as he is gifted with powerful senses that enable him to scent danger, food and even human emotions.
They come together reluctantly, for Aria must depend on Perry, whom she considers a barbarian, to help her get back to Reverie, while Perry needs Aria to help unravel the mystery of his beloved nephew’s abduction by the Dwellers. Together they embark on a journey challenged as much by their prejudices as by encounters with cannibals and wolves.
5. But … the love triangles!
Ok, I’m with you here. I’ve even wrote a guest post explaining why I don’t like most of the love triangles in YA. Some authors claim that the choice between two love interests is representative of a choice between who the protagonist wants to be, others exclaim “but what girl doesn’t want two boys fighting over her?”.
I wouldn’t want that. I remember my teen years as terribly awkward and weird enough, without the addition of an improbable love triangle that does nothing but add angst to the story.
However. Let us all remember that Rand al’Thor had three wives at one point. I stopped reading the Wheel of Time books when that happened, because I thought it was weird and disgusting. This trope isn’t confined to YA literature, and there are some famous examples in non-YA literature. Tolkien used Eowyn to show the choice Aragorn could have made: he could have become a great King of Men and married Eowyn, who is a very good match politically, and let Arwen go. Aragorn was in a love triangle (albeit briefly)! But of course, as we discussed above, Aragorn’s main motivation was Elrond’s ultimatum.
There are very few love triangles in YA that I consider legitimate, but here are two:
The Unearthly series by Cynthia Hand – this is a wonderful paranormal series where the love triangle actually adds something to the story and I found myself torn between the two male leads. I think it’s the only time that’s happened to me!
Clara has known she was part-angel ever since she turned fourteen two years ago, but only now is her Purpose – the crucial rite of passage for every part-angel – becoming clear to her. Clara′s Purpose leads her family to Wyoming, where, amidst terrifying scenes of a bush inferno, she finds the boy of her visions, Christian. He is everything she could wish for – so why does she also have feelings for her enigmatic classmate Tucker?
Clara discovers that her Purpose is only a small part of a titanic struggle between angels and their destructive counterparts, the Black Wings. And when the fire of her visions erupts and both Christian and Tucker are in danger, who will she choose to save?
The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare – Unlike most romances in YA that feature a ‘love V’ where the two love interests hate one another, Clare writes about two best friends, brothers in all but blood, and the girl that turns their lives upside down. I personally don’t like how the series ended, but I think if you’re going to read about a love triangle, it should be as well written as this one.
The year is 1878. Tessa Gray descends into London’s dark supernatural underworld in search of her missing brother. She soon discovers that her only allies are the demon-slaying Shadowhunters—including Will and Jem, the mysterious boys she is attracted to. Soon they find themselves up against the Pandemonium Club, a secret organization of vampires, demons, warlocks, and humans. Equipped with a magical army of unstoppable clockwork creatures, the Club is out to rule the British Empire, and only Tessa and her allies can stop them…
And YA that doesn’t have a love triangle:
The Divergent series by Veronica Roth – you’ve probably heard of this! There’s a movie coming out soon. I love the series, it encapsulates everything I love about YA 😀
In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.
Some of the series mentioned above also don’t have love triangles, such as the Wolves of Mercy Falls series by Maggie Stiefvater and the Under the Never Sky series by Veronica Rossi.
There are so many other books I want to highlight, but I think I’ll have to leave it there. Actually, here’s a few more (just a few, I swear)
- The Legend series by Marie Lu
- The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead
- Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – but you’ve already read this, right? And also, The Rithmatist by Fantasy Grandmaster Sanderson?
- These Broken Stars by Amie Kauffman and Meagan Spooner (out December 2013)
- The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
- The Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan
I actually have quite a few more, but I’ll save them for next time, where I’ll be recommending Australian SFF (YA and non-YA)!