Kate Elliott has long been a favorite of mine thanks to her Spiritwalker series, so when she made her first foray into the world of YA fiction with Court of Fives last year, I eagerly snatched it up! And neither that novel, or this year’s follow-up, dissapoint. Our protagonist, Jessamy, wants nothing more than to compete in the dangerous and prestigious Court of Fives, a competitive obstacle course popular with all levels of society. An athlete through and through, she doesn’t want to have to worry about politics. But having been born to--and, shockingly, acknowledged by--a high ranking Patron soldier, member of the ruling class and race, and a Commoner mother, a colonized and oppressed racial group in this Roman-esque empire, for Jess her very existence is political, a fact she just can’t escape. Because change is brewing. Rebellion is simmering amongst a people desperate to hold onto and reclaim their culture; deadly political maneuvering is taking place in the highest tiers of power; and war is approaching with neighboring countries. Jess must carefully make her way in this fraught landscape, striving to protect her family and make the right choices when there are no good choices. More tightly plotted and faster paced than Kate Elliott’s adult novels, I look forward to the next installment.
Reader discretion: Some rather disturbing/gory violence; reference to and threat of sexual abuse/violence; the murder of children.
A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes) by Sabaa Tahir
Whereas the above series takes place in a carefully drawn world with distinct cultures, Sabaa Tahir’s world, though similar in some ways to that of the Court of Fives series, feels like the world is simply sketched in. A staged setting where, while a couple of elements might stand out, the majority fades into the background. While that might not be something I’d usually excuse, I can overlook it in this series because the story itself feels meticulously built: Tahir isn’t flying by the seat of her pants, she knows where this story is going. And let me tell you, where it’s going is some pretty dark and brutal places! The viewpoint characters, Laia and Elias (in the second book a third viewpoint is introduced) could not come from more different backgrounds. Laia is born to the Scholars, a conquered people now brutally oppressed by the Empire, and Elias, taken as a child to be trained as a member of the elite soldiers/interrogators/assassins known as Masks, is a bitter and deeply reluctant tool of the Empire itself. When Laia’s family is torn apart, she makes the desperate decision to become a slave and spy, and as her and Elias’ paths cross and their lives become tangled together, they both have to find their own kind of strengths, and figure out just what sacrifices they’re willing to make--and what horrors they’re willing to commit--in order to survive, save those they love, and try their best to do right. This is one of these extremely grim, dark stories with truly horrible things happening pretty much constantly, but which still manages to have hopeful threads throughout. The characters and plot both are extremely compelling, and these books have stuck in my head long after I finished reading them... I really hope the bright spots are built on in the final novel(s?) so that the darkness doesn’t feel completely overwhelming.
Reader discretion: Torture (of both adults and children, including viewpoint characters); murder (again, of both adults and children); slavery; genocide (yes, really); attempted rape.
Six of Crows sets itself utterly apart by being something I almost never see in fantasy fiction: a heist novel, complete with a mastermind criminal who’s always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else; a sharpshooter with a gambling problem; the best spy (and thief, and occasional assassin) in the city; an incredibly dangerous magic user; an explosives expert with a secret; and an ex-soldier and (mostly ex) zealot who’s roped into all of this very much against his will. Members of an up-and-coming street gang in the bustling mercantile city of Ketterdam, all of them are hand picked by the aforementioned mastermind to travel across the sea in order to steal something of immense value and dangerous political ramifications… Following their theft and all that comes after it, this series is fast-paced, quite dark, often funny, and all around delightful. Watching the bonds develop and deepen between these characters is a real pleasure, and I hope to see more of them in future novels.
Reader discretion: Gore, torture, murder, reference to past sexual abuse/rape, all involving children and teens.
A Gathering of Shadows (A Darker Shade of Magic) by V. E. Schwab
Take multiple Londons (grey London, with no magic; red London, steeped in magic; white London, vicious and starving; and black London, shut off from the others lest it consume them all); a rare traveler able to move between worlds; and a ruthlessly ambitious cross-dressing thief with dreams of becoming a pirate, and you end up with this series. Forming a slightly uneasy truce, world-traveler Kell and thief Lilah must work together to stop a creepy body stealing being, defeat a desperate sorcerer, discover the true nature and limits of their respective magic, and find their own place in the worlds. Though the first book started off a bit slow in my opinion, once I got into it, I was hooked. I positively adore mean and prickly Lilah, and I’m pretty darn fond of brooding Kell and his beloved and rather dramatic brother Rhy (who gains a whole lot of greatly appreciated complexity as the series progresses). In many ways this is classic fantasy: dark sorcerers and evil worlds and the like, but there’s so much about it that feels fresh and original, and I very much appreciate V. E. Schwab’s distinctive voice.
Reader discretion: Attempted rape, murder, torture, creepy body stealing being, mind control.
If I had to pick just one favorite YA novel of 2016, it would be this one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more misleading cover jacket description of a first book, which I believe goes something like “romance blah blah first love doomed to die blah.” In actuality, this is a book about relationships: romantic ones sometimes, yes, but every bit as important are friendships and familial relationships, in all their incredible complexity, fierceness, devotion, tenderness, jealousy… Maggie Stiefvater is a truly marvelous writer, moving from laugh-out-loud funny to lyrically moving between one sentence and the next, dragging the reader deep into a world where the rural Virginian countryside and it’s stark class divides are overlaid by a hidden world of sleeping Welsh kings and mystical forests and dark beings. Following a year in the life of five friends--the decidedly un-psychic daughter of psychics; a ferocious dreamer; a scholarship student desperate to forge his own identity; a quiet, insightful boy prone to disappearing; and a driven, charismatic boy who is going to die. You just can’t look away from their relationships, the beauty of the world they discover, and the creeping horror that is every bit as much a part of these hidden worlds. This series also includes one of the most nuanced and real feeling “coming out” arcs I’ve ever seen, as well as deeply moving and sensitive explorations of the trauma of abuse, of loss, and of growing up. Those themes are every bit as magical as the more fantastic elements. Though there are a couple of things I wish were different about the final installment, it really does do an excellent job of closing one of the best series I’ve read in recent years.
Reader discretion: Child abuse; strong horror elements; murder; suicide (attempted and successful); drug abuse.
What were your favorite novels this past year? Share them in the comments below!