My favorite YA sci-fi and fantasy novels of 2012

Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Book cover for Radiant Days by Elizabeth HandI gushed about this novel already in a Recommended Reads post, but I would be remiss if I didn't include this book in this post. This is a really interesting sci-fi novel because the sci-fi elements are so minimal. It's about two artists — 18-year-old street artist Merle in 1978 Washington, D.C., and then-teen poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1870 France. The connection between the two is a hobo/homeless musician who turns out to have mythical roots. It's this man who brings Merle to 1870 Paris, and Arthur to 1978 Washington, D.C, via time travel.

Yes, time travel! I've read some reviews in which readers say they don't buy the time travel element, and I think in this case I would encourage readers to avoid being logical about it. I believe this book uses time travel as a device; I don't think it's meant to be "believable." It is, instead, metaphorical. It is mythical. And it's beautifully written. I think it's one of the best examples of the way that science fiction elements can be used to reveal deeper truths about reality. The fact that the reality being explored here is the development of artists' creativity … well, it just made sense to me, in a gut-level, magical realism way.

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

After all my analysis of Bitterblue's (minor) shortcomings last week (part 1; part 2), I must say I think this is one of the best fantasy novels of the year. It's about a young queen, Bitterblue, coming of age while learning how to manage a kingdom still reeling from the horrible trauma done to them by a sadistic, murderous king — her father, Leck.

What I enjoyed about Bitterblue is the fact that this is a fantasy novel in which the main character does not have any magic. Instead, she's dealing with people all around her who do have magic, and figuring out how she can lead them. Bitterblue as a character is forthright and matter-of-fact about basically everything, including her curiosities about other people's relationships and her attractions to others. I would venture to say that this isn't the way most people are. Most people are prone to hiding reality from themselves, but Bitterblue has grown up to understand that the most important thing is knowing the truth, because her father took that away from so many people with his magical ability.

I think it's a complicated character study. It uses puzzles ingeniously to reveal a mystery. And I just really like Bitterblue as a character. A wonderful book.

Black Heart by Holly Black

This is the third and final (sadly) installment in Holly's amazing Curse Workers series, and by now everybody should know it is one of my favorite YA series ever. This book cannot really be read without having read the first two (White Cat and Red Glove), and this is when I wished the Norton Award, like the Mythopoeic Fantasy Awards, could be awarded to a complete series. Because this trilogy as a whole is … well, it does everything right, in my opinion.

First, the world-building is airtight. This trilogy is about an alternate contemporary United States in which magic is known as "curse working." It was outlawed in the 1920s, like prohibition, and that created a series of curse working crime families who are a lot like the mafia. The main character, Cassel Sharpe, believes in White Cat that he's the only kid in his family who doesn't have any magical talents. Of course, this is an urban fantasy trilogy, so it shouldn't be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Cassel is actually magically talented.

In terms of characterization, Cassel is just an incredible character. Because it's written in first person, present tense, the reader comes along with Cassel throughout all of his discoveries. His character arc is carefully crafted from book one through book three, when everything we've learned in the past culminates in a scene that is just masterful. I mean, it totally tricked me. I did not get what was happening until it was happening, and then I thought: OMG HOLLY BLACK YOU ARE THE WINNER OF ALL WRITING THINGS!

So, Black Heart. One of my favorites of the year.