If you haven’t heard about Coven Book Club, you’re missing out. Coven Book Club is an all-recommendation site that supports women writers, with dozens of contributors talking about the best books by women writers across all genres.
The head witch at Coven Book Club is Allison Carr Waechter. When she’s not reading and blogging, she’s a college-level writing instructor who drinks copious amounts of tea. Her cat Winnie is her “copilot in all things book related.”
I know everybody starts of their “Top Anything” posts with a statement like this, but it is seriously hard to choose between friends. Books are your friends too, right? Okay, now that we have my anti-social tendencies out of the way, here’s how I went about choosing my top five YA books/series of all time. OF. ALL. TIME. No pressure.
Reading is my escape, so you won’t find any “realistic” or “contemporary” fiction on this list. Just wild adventures in pretend places. Since I spent most of my childhood imagining I was on a magical quest of one kind or another, I’ve ranked my five favorite YA series from oldest to newest, rather than importance. Here goes:
#5: The Tortall series by Tamora Pierce
I’ve been reading these novels since I could read books with chapters. Even though the books are full of romance and adventure, there’s something deeply comforting about Tortall. I started with The Song of the Lioness quartet and I must have read them a hundred times. Heck, I still read The Song of the Lioness quartet at least once a year.
I’m a huge high fantasy fan, so Pierce’s world of magically gifted individuals, knights, meddling gods, demigods and fantastical monsters all appeal to me a lot. However, what I adore most about the Tortall books is the characters. Pierce writes female protagonists who struggle to grapple with the complications of how their personal power (whether it be magical or not, in the case of Kel) clashes with Tortall’s idea of who women should be. Pierce doesn’t write the same “strong female” character over and over (though I would argue that they’re all strong people). Even the protagonists you expect to be similar because of vocation aren’t.
Since the Tortall books come in quartets and duologies, there’s a lot of interconnectedness. Your favorite characters show up from books to book, which really adds to that cozy books-are-my-friends feeling we all love.
#4: the Darkangel trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce
“He does not rule us. No one can rule us. No one can rule anyone who does not first agree to the ruling.” She smiled a trace at Aeriel and patted the little camp dog, which was whining for more tidbits. “One must rule oneself.”
I must have checked these books out a million times from the library as a kid. They went out of print for a little while and the only copies I could find to buy were old library books, which is lovely synchronicity.
It took me until I was an adult to understand that the story takes place on the moon far, far in the future. Aerial, a slave, watches her mistress be carried off by a winged vampyre and she sets out alone to rescue her. The vampyre is beautiful, but cruel and cursed. To save her mistress, Aerial must first save the vampyre, herself and eventually life on the the Moon itself.
The standout thing about this series is the ethereal quality of Pierce’s prose. The language is absolutely stunning, almost poetic at times. As a side note, if you love sentient animals/animal companions in your fantasy, these books are for you. Between the mythical lons that guard the Moon kingdoms and the vampyre’s gargoyles, these books are full-up on fantastical creatures. Plus, soul-drinking vampyres, an evil lake-witch, dwarves and people of every literal color (some blue, some green, some mauve, some black, etc.)… I don’t know, y’all, it just works.
#3: the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore
This series is important to me because it came along during a time after grad school when I simply could not read for pleasure. By the end of my MA I didn’t want to read books anymore, which killed me. People on tumblr were always talking about Graceling, so I picked it up and boom. Magic. I loved reading again.
I like that though the books relate, they’re not a linear trilogy, it makes putting the pieces of the overarching story together really fun. In a lot of ways, when I picked up Graceling, I felt like Cashore had called up Tortall and shaped it into something entirely new. It felt familiar and fresh at the same time and I was hooked after only a few pages. The world of the seven kingdoms (Graceling and Bitterblue) and the Dells (Fire) is so vivid. In the seven kingdoms, those with special, supernatural skills are “Graced.” In many cases this leads to their exploitation. The world of the Dells, though just on the other side of a mountain range, is much different, filled with beautiful, deadly monsters… And some of them are people.
Much like Tamora Pierce, Cashore does a lot to deal with “real world” women’s issues via her gorgeously nuanced characters. Each book takes us through the ways in which women must constantly negotiate their power in relationship to the world around them. In my opinion, these books espouse feminist messages when it comes to the exploitation and objectification of feminine power and they do it so subtly that you never feel as though you’re being preached at. You just absorb it all like a well-entertained little sponge.
#2: the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor
First of all, Laini Taylor is the coolest, so it jazzes me up to recommend her books to people. I’m not always drawn to love stories; I tend to like adventures most, but the love story at the heart of this series is an adventure, so it totally works for me. Karou is the teenage girl I wish I could have been: smart, artistic, and kickass, with a killer secret life. Plus, BLUE HAIR.
Karou works as a messenger for her father figure, Brimstone, a creature who is part man and part beast, with a wicked penchant for teeth. Along with a motley crew of other monsters, Brimstone raised Karou behind a secret door that can go almost anywhere in the human world. Though Karou is never allowed to see more than Brimstone’s workshop, she knows it is elsewhere. Around the time a beautiful stranger appears in Karou’s life, the doors to elsewhere are burned shut, cutting Karou off from her monster-family. Adventure ensues.
I adore the way Taylor plays with the idea of monstrosity. Though there are three types of creatures in these novels (human, angels and chimera) it’s hard to tell who the real monsters are. Taylor does a lot of cool work with portals and this is ostensibly a series about avoiding the collapse of parallel universes, but really it’s about star-crossed love in the time of war and what you’d do for family.
#1: The Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon
Knowledge is dangerous. Once you know something, you can’t get rid of it. You have to carry it. Always.
As a writer, there are books you love to read and books you’d love to have written. For me, these books are both. In an alternate (dystopian) timeline, an entity known as “Scion” takes over multiple world governments around the time of Queen Victoria. Scion asserts that the wrongs of the world can be blamed on the “unnaturalness” of clairvoyance. This has the kind of effect you’d expect: persecution eventually leads to poverty and the criminalization of an underclass.
At the start of the books, it’s 2059 and Paige Mahoney is an Irish immigrant, living in Scion London (SciLo). She is the enforcer to a local “mime” lord (“mime crime” is the act of selling clairvoyant abilities). Paige is an incredibly rare kind of clairvoyant known as a “dreamer,” meaning she can send her spirit away from her body into “dreamscapes.” As bad as Scion is, striking fear into the heart of clairvoyants and amaurotics (non-clairvoyants) alike, there’s something worse lurking behind the walls of SciLo: creatures known as the Rephaim. When Paige is arrested for using her ability in public, the rebellion begins.
What I love about this series (so far) is the incredible attention to detail Shannon has paid to worldbuilding. 2059 SciLo is a gritty, modern take on a Victorian aesthetic. Shannon’s classification of clairvoyants and the hierarchical structure of their underworld is utterly believable, down to the slang. It’s the kind of imagined landscaped that’s so well thought out that you’re able to completely lose yourself. I love nothing more than when books take you on a complete vacation, where time and your real life disappear. I’m really looking forward to the next five books, if not the wait.
Thanks so much to YA Interrobang for letting me go on and on. If you want to do some rambling of your own, hit me up on Twitter. I’m always up for a good book chat.