When a genre gains sudden popularity, the market becomes flooded with titles as publishers rush to fill the demand. That’s a plus in the sense that some hidden gems which would have never been purchased are now garnering attention. That’s also a huge minus, because every other book and its sister is also getting picked up. And let’s face it – the mediocre offerings probably outnumber the gems by at least 10:1 (totally unscientific assumption). In the case of YA fantasy, we now find ourselves drowning in incredibly average titles. The YA landscape is suddenly very difficult to wade through for us. I know that we’ve all had a few (or many) disappointments this year. So today we ask, is there hope for YA fantasy? Is it all becoming one mass-produced slurry of average or is there still original, inventive, brilliant fantasy to be found out there?
However, even with these discouraging results, I still have a lot of hope for YA fantasy. There are truly brilliant works being released this year, but in my opinion (with maybe one exception), they aren't getting the attention they deserve. So I say to you all: please, give the following books a little love! There's nothing derivative or pedestrian about any of these books. These authors each have imagination coming out of their ears. These are some of my favorite reads of 2012, full stop - never mind their genre. Aren't they beautiful all lined up there? Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover, apparently.
Listed by release date:
This was my second Frances Hardinge and once again, she completely blew my mind. I thought her 2009 release The Lost Conspiracy (also titled Gullstruck Island in the U.K.) was fantastic and this one was just as brilliant, if not better. I am completely disappointed in myself for missing the release date on this one and not picking it up until July. Shameful! What kind of rabid fan am I? This is the mind-bending story of an underground society and the outsider girl who grows up there and longs to get out. Class politics, assassination, theft, revolution, friendship, madness, and exploding cheeses ensue. JUST READ IT. And then thank me later.
Railsea by China Miéville
China Miéville's second "young adult" offering came out this year and just like his other novels, it is breathtaking in scope and contains some of the most detailed, immersive world-building I've ever come across. (& it also contains more ampersands and giant moles than any other novel this year, guaranteed.) Whether this book is truly "young adult" or not is matter for debate, but personally I am thrilled to see writers (& particularly fantasy writers) come out with work that is so new and different that it resists definition. China Miéville has accomplished that time and again in his career and he does it once more here, with this beautiful (& fun!) high-rails adventure.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
Out of the four books on this list, I think that this is the one that I truly hope gets more attention. Not only did this book take my breath away with its clever inventiveness (djinns, hackers, and revolution...who does that?!), it is incredibly relevant to our time. This book made me see the very real, modern day middle east in a completely different light and it drew my attention to the current struggle going on there. Of course, all of this relevance is wrapped up quite nicely in a fun adventure story which features (and I seriously can not believe I forgot to mention this in the review) a TALKING CAT. Please, everyone read this.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
I am so gratified to see this book popping up all over the internet these days and I hope it continues to get lots of love and attention - and awards maybe? I can hope. This is actually (gasp!) the only book on my list that's a part of a series. I can't wait for the next installment to come out. Do I really need to tell you what this book is about?
Some honorable mentions that haven't been released yet, but that I'm 99.9% sure will be great: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente, Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta and Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor.
I try to temper my excitement about books these days because I easily get my hopes up and then they are sliced to pieces when a book doesn't come through for me. That said, there are many upcoming YA fantasy books I am looking forward to sampling. I say sampling only because I am fairly positive at least half of the fall 2012/winter 2013 books won't be as great as I'm hoping they will be. I'm also excited about some of the books Tatiana and Catie mentioned but that goes without saying, even though I just said it.
Publication Date: 1/2/13
The greatest warrior in all of the Seven Kingdoms... is a girl with yellow eyes. Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope...
Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king.
Publication Date: 10/9/12
Is it written in the stars from the moment we are born?
Or is it a bendable thing that we can shape with our own hands?
Jepp of Astraveld needs to know.
He left his countryside home on the empty promise of a stranger, only to become a captive in a strange and luxurious prison: Coudenberg Palace, the royal court of the Spanish Infanta. Nobody warned Jepp that as a court dwarf, daily injustices would become his seemingly unshakeable fate. If the humiliations were his alone, perhaps he could endure them, but it breaks Jepp’s heart to see his friend Lia suffer.
After Jepp and Lia perform a daring escape from the palace, Jepp is imprisoned again, alone in a cage. Now, spirited across Europe by a kidnapper in a horse-drawn carriage, Jepp is unsure where his unfortunate stars may lead him.
Before Jepp can become the master of his own destiny, he will need to prove himself to a brilliant and eccentric new master—a man devoted to uncovering the secrets of the stars—earn the love of a girl brave and true, and unearth the long-buried secrets of his parentage. And he will find that beneath the breathtaking cruelty of the world is something else: the persistence of human kindness.
Publication Date: 2/5/13
The girl with no past, and no future, may be the only one who can save their lives.
Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.
Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life.
Publication Date: 1/10/13
Having already survived six years at the Tildor’s top military academy, sixteen-year-old Renee De Winter is determined to graduate, training day and night to compete with her male classmates. When the boys overpower her parries, she works harder. When a bully sabotages her gear, she fights without it.
But when an underground crime group captures her mentor for its illegal gladiatorial games, she must choose between her career and her conscience. Determined to penetrate the group’s inner circles, Renee will leap from academia to the crime filled streets, pick up a sword, and weigh law against loyalty.
It's hard to say why fantasy is on the rise right now. Maybe it has something to do with the popularity and success of Kristin Cashore's Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Maybe R.R. Martin and HBO are at fault. Or maybe it's just all artificially generated by publishers who strive to hit the next genre gold mine.
In any case, I am very skeptical of this trend, and my skepticism is enforced by the fact none of the fantasies released this year I enjoyed (sorry, fans of Grave Mercy, Bitterblue, Throne of Glass, Shadow & Bone, Stormdancer). The utter failure of these new books made me think back at the past great fantasy works that are bound to be lost in a shuffle while so-so books are heavily promoted. So, what I want to talk about is older fantasy novels that deserve, IMO, much more attention than many of the new ones.
Before Katsa and Fire, there was Robin McKinley's Harry riding her horse, coming to terms with her magical powers and finally finding her place in the world. I just love how rich and romantic The Blue Sword is, by far McKinley's best.
Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books might be just my most favorite fantasy books ever. I like to say that if I were a writer, I'd love to have written these books, because Turner's writing style is something that appeals to me greatly - the tightness, the intricateness, the precision and intelligence of her prose never cease to wow me.
And, of course, Melina Marchetta's fantasies. I keep coming back to them, like I do to all her books, because of the character, who are like a family to me.
In terms of what fantasy books I look forward to, I am afraid I don't have any big hopes for novels written by debut or unknown to me authors. I am very mistrustful of the hype and flashy blurbs. Fantasies written by the authors I already know and respect are another story. Melina Marchetta's Quintana of Charyn is at the very top of my to read list, and I am counting days until its release. And Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island is sure to at least surprise, if not shock.