This year was a fantastic year for YA, thanks to months of dissertation research and the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in London, which I attended in July. I read a lot of really fun and beautifully written fantasy and a lot of really painfully written fantasy. You might say I spent the entirety of 2016 returning to my roots and reading nothing but fantasy novels. You can find my roundup for the best and the worst reads of the year below!
The Raven King – Maggie Stiefvater
I spent the past year obsessing over this series. Maggie Stiefvater is the first author since J.K. Rowling who has inspired and irrevocably changed my writing style for the better. Needless to say, she’s kind of a big deal. After spending the better part of a year taunting her readers on social media about the highly likely death of her protagonist, I was looking forward to finally seeing Stiefvater make good on that promise and do what few writers dare. While this book was a thrilling, emotional ride, having had months to evaluate it, as a series finale, it falls short in several places. A lot of key players that make or break the final sequence that holds the entire plot together show up way too late in the series for me to truly connect with their presence in the latter half of the book. I will say, plenty of my wildest theories came true and then some, which was pretty satisfying and almost makes up for the aforementioned issues. I look forward to reading more of her books in the future, as I know all too well she’s gonna continue writing stuff that speaks to my own work.
A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schawb
A Darker Shade of Magic was the first of many books I read in prep for YALC and it was a perfect place to start. Schawb imagines a world where there are multiple alternate reality versions of London and there’s only one person left who can travel between them. Her concepts are extremely original and she’s not afraid to get dark. She was also the first author I met at YALC and we had a nerdy little bonding session over writing lady pirates, which the world undoubtedly needs more of. She’s another author who’s pretty present on social media and she’s very keen on sharing her writing struggles in a big way, which I appreciate.
Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo rounds out the trifecta of stellar YA fantasy writers that could not be beat no matter what else I read. Bardugo, Schawb, and Stiefvater set the bar for me and they set it high. Their world building is so rich and different. Similar to The Raven Cycle, Six of Crows follows a ragtag group of six criminals who plan a giant heist which inevitably goes awry. Her world is colourful and full of extremely well-developed languages and races with winks to European cultures. All the female characters have agency, they do what they want and they’re not afraid to go out and get it. She strikes a solid balance between gritty tomboy, Inej and girly Nina, (a description which doesn’t do either of the girls justice; they are truly fantastic). The characters are great, they have intense, sometimes horrifying backstories, and it’s a lot of fun seeing them bounce off each other.
The Sin Eater’s Daughter – Melinda Salisbury
I feel like if I read this at any other time in my life, I might’ve hated it, but I was along for the ride. The cover is beautiful, in fact, quite possibly the most beautiful cover design I’ve ever seen. And I think that set the precedent for what I wanted the novel to be. It also helps that the author is an unabashed sweetheart. I just can’t fault her for any missteps in the novel when she’s just writing what she loves and having a geeky time about it. (She’s also a delight on social media.) The story’s got a really cool premise: a girl who kills with a single touch is brought up to be the queen’s executioner. The entire novel revolves around her finding her identity outside of that. And I can’t be mad at the love triangle when she’s got agency for the first time in her life, and she’s making her own choices. It’s what I wish Shatter Me would’ve been. It’s not about the romance, it’s about her finding her way in a fantastical medieval world ruled by hints of Scandinavian mythology. And I love that.
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
Another Scandinavian-based fantasy world. I think had I read Uprooted before Six of Crows, I would’ve given it at least 4 stars. This seems to be a theme in high fantasy novels lately, yet somehow, I’m thoroughly into it every time. Maybe that’s because I’ve got a Ukrainian-Polish background and I like being represented even with subtle nods in fiction. There’s not enough appreciation in the world of the vast differences in European cultures and I like that fantasy writers are at least the ones going there. There are hints of a potential girl on girl romance, which I wish she would’ve developed, though the romance we get between the female and male leads is still more intense than the majority of YA romances out there. But I think something needs to be said for developing soul mate bonds between platonic friends. (A notion also prominently explored in The Raven Cycle.) I think what bogged the story down for me was the repetitiveness of the spells she uses and the never ending battle scenes. It certainly doesn’t stop Uprooted from being a gorgeously written story…
Half Bad – Sally Green
Yikes. There is one narrative choice I hate in books more than others, and it’s when stories are narrated by emotionally and psychologically damaged kids. You see it in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and to a certain extent, Room (I know, I’m sorry- I said it.) It makes me incredibly uncomfortable when the writing style is choppy and naïve to reflect that mindset. Half Bad in particular reads like a story narrated by a six year old, instead of a teenager. Being that this novel is a debut, it’s very hard to tell whether this particular style is intentional or if Sally Green’s a legitimately terrible writer. Either way, there’s no emotional depth as a result. Green also happened to speak at YALC and the fact that she had to preface everything she said about her writing process with an apology and “I must be doing it wrong” says an awful lot. Do not read this book. It’s a tutorial on how not to write.
Heir of Fire and A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J Maas
Teen readers seem to love Sarah J. Maas, which I find baffling. The Throne of Glass series is like a more action-packed, yet equally poorly written answer to the Twilight series. Throne of Glass follows girly girl, Celaena who is apparently the most fearsome assassin in the kingdom, but it seems she’d rather spend her time wearing pretty dresses, flirting with boys, and eating cake than anything else. Which could be really cool, if we got to see her kicking ass a lot more and reveling in it. A Court of Thorns and Roses follows a similar issue, in that huntress, Feyre loses all agency not even a third of the way into the book. All Maas’ character names are ridiculous and bogged down by unnecessary vowels, which I hate. Throne of Glass lacks a rich world full of different races beyond straight, white people (unless they wanna die horribly…), while A Court of Thorns of Roses suffers from an extremely rapey plot and male characters who seemingly do what they want in terms of sexualizing the protagonist and she doesn’t seem to care? I will admit, Maas is my trashy airplane go-to, which is the only way you can get me to read her novels…
The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon
I should probably give Samantha Shannon some credit because this was another debut novel and unlike Sally Green (who is a full-fledged 30-something adult who should know better by now), she was something like nineteen when she wrote it. This book has a lot of promise which gets watered down by the unnecessary romance. It honestly would’ve been a hundred percent better without the romance. Another reimagining of London, this one’s set in the future, where protagonist, Paige gets captured and put into a magical slave trade and sold off to her love interest. The rest of the novel is her building up a slave uprising, which again, would’ve been great without the problematic romance. The action scenes are so fantastic, they were mentioned multiple times during the panel Shannon was in at YALC. I’m gonna give her the benefit of the doubt and try the sequel before casting any official stones. She’s my age with at least three novels under her belt, so to a certain extent, I both empathise, and am bitterly jealous. I hope the second book is better…
Voyager – Diana Gabaldon
I always read the Outlander series with a grain of salt. Above all else, this series is silly, but it reads like Gabaldon wants you to take her seriously. Which is hard to do when the height of her action always culminates to a rape scene. Always. I think this is the first novel in the series where I properly could not handle the ridiculousness. I thought Outlander was fun and Dragonfly in Amber was the same fun, only this time, in France. This one is twenty years later and Jamie’s still a stubborn asshole (whom I hate with a fiery passion), whom Claire just swoons over anyway no matter how much he abuses, or emotionally manipulates her. That’s pretty much the usual, only this time, Gabaldon outdoes herself with extremely racist stereotyping of Chinese and African slaves. Wow. This is another raving fandom I don’t understand, except the middle-aged housewife edition. If you’re considering getting into the series, stop after book two, because this is an uncomfortable, cringy mess. (But hey, at least there are pirates?)
Rivers of London– Ben Aaronovitch
Another reimagining of London, this time, a magical police procedural. (Aaronovitch, Shannon, and Schwab were on a panel discussing different magical interpretations of London, thus the running theme.) This one also has a ton of glowing reviews, including from friends of mine. I’m very wary of reading male authors and Aaronovitch is a perfect example of why. All his female characters are developed according to how physically attractive they are to the protagonist. Ew. Throughout the entire novel, I got a graphic explanation of what every single one of the female characters’ breasts looked like. I didn’t need that and I nearly put the book down halfway through for this very reason. No, I’m not interested in reading stories through the point of view of a sexist dudebro. And the fact that this particular police procedural happens to have magic in it isn’t enough to separate it from every other male-helmed police procedural. I don’t need another one of these in my life, thanks.
Pantomime – Laura Lam
This is a book I most likely would’ve panned alongside Sarah J. Maas had I read this in 2014. Instead, I think this is the book that really changed my opinion on what makes a “good” story. 2014 Sophie strongly believed a bad book is a bad book if it’s poorly written, no matter what the subject matter. However, despite the cringy, unrealistic dialogue, Lam is undoubtedly well-intentioned. I was really shocked to find that Pan Macmillan pushed to have Pantomime displayed prominently on the main tables in Waterstones instead of simply on the shelves, given its unorthodox protagonist. Micah Grey is a bisexual intersex, gender fluid character, which is several levels beyond the conventional straight white girl protagonist of traditional YA novels. Although there are some problems with depicting intersex people as magical creatures, I’m willing to overlook it, because as far as I know, this is the first high-profile YA novel of its kind. And I respect that and I want more of it.
The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime – Judith Flanders
This might seem like a completely random inclusion on my list, but it’s actually my usual jam. My next writing project is a Victorian crime novel, so I’ve been gearing up my novel research accordingly. I don’t usually read non-fiction, but this was a really fun look at so many different high-profile murder cases and the over the top way the Victorian public reacted to them. The Victorians liked a good scandal and it definitely showed. There’s a nice wide, wide breadth of examples throughout the 19th century, which I really appreciated.
The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge
Again, had I read this before Six of Crows, I would’ve appreciated it more. Frances Hardinge was also at YALC and was fabulous in every sense of the word. She wore this wild, wild west outfit with boots and a bolo tie and hat and waxed poetic about dark Victorian era plots. I loved her to the point where I was too intimidated to compliment her while we were both in line for the bathroom. (Probably for the best…) Given just how much I love (and I mean, love) everything Victorian, I knew immediately after seeing her speak, I had to read one of her novels. The Lie Tree is about a young 19th century girl who wants to be a scientist. Her father’s involved in some hinky dealings involving a rare breed of plant and she gets swept up in the adventure and scandal. It’s pretty great, and the beautiful writing is evidence enough why she won the Costa Book of the Year award. But something about the slow pacing kept me from properly engaging with it in the same way Uprooted did. I wanted a little bit more from her, but she is undoubtedly amazing regardless.
Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton
I find it hard to believe this novel was written by a 20-something white girl. I’m very impressed with the subject matter in this one. It’s set in a fantastical Arabian city, filled with characters of colour. It’s got a very Scheherazade feel to it, except with a lot more female characters kicking ass. It’s got a lead couple you can root for (because in my opinion, a couple who kicks ass together, stays together) and their kind of snarky back and forth really works. It’s a fun gun-slinging Arabian knights romp! Alwyn Hamilton really knows what she’s doing. Kudos to her…
Heir to the Empire – Timothy Zahn
I’m adding this in because it’s a prelude to my January 2017 reads. Heir to the Empire is the first book of one of the many series within the Star Wars, Legends world. I read this one almost immediately after seeing The Force Awakens for the first time. Needless to say, I was brought up as a huge Star Wars fan and felt it was my duty as a fan to get into the novel universe. I was wary going in, but I shouldn’t have been, because this is clean, cheesy fun. It’s a lot of melodrama, it’s a lot of the old gang doing what they do best, which is getting into crazy escapades and getting captured and fighting against the Empire. Leia gets a lightsaber (yay!), Luke gets a bad ass bounty hunter rogue Jedi lady friend (also yay!)… It’s all in all a great time. Look out for more Star Wars reviews this month! (I’ll have many.)