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.

Recommended Read: Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Book cover for Radiant Days by Elizabeth HandThis is a wonderful book. I read it on the plane coming back from Virginia, where the main character, Merle, grew up. Parts of it gripped me so hard that I sat there in my seat, grinning like a fool, as if someone had just drenched me in sunshine. At the beginning of the novel, Merle is an 18-year-old art student in Washington, D.C. in 1978. On page 1 she leaps head-first into an affair with her 23-year-old teacher, Clea, because Clea is beautiful and Merle wants to capture her image. It's not a romance in the typical sense; it's a relationship between artist and muse, which is both straightforward and complex. In a way, the entire novel is about the relationship between artist and muse — or between artist and creative spark.

That spark comes into Merle's life in many ways, not only through Clea. It also comes when Merle encounters a homeless man by the river who gives her a key made of fish bones that unlocks the door to a building that spans time. This is where Radiant Days takes on a mythical quality, because it involves time travel.

Back in 1870 France, young poet Arthur Rimbaud is burning bright. He is tossed in prison for vagrancy; he dashes off fiery letters to his friends demanding that they help him; he meets a tramp with a fishbone key. Arthur steps through the door to 1978 Washington, D.C., and he meets Merle.

Their brief, brilliant encounter is the centerpiece of this book, and I think that if you don't get the life-changing nature of this meeting, you won't get the book. This is where I stopped and re-read two paragraphs several times, because these two paragraphs describe the sometimes reckless intensity of youthful creativity in a way that I completely recognized:

Arthur started as though I'd awakened him; turned and nodded. Carefully, he folded the pages and put them back into his coat. "The poems I'm working on now are better. These are…" He paused, frowning. "Old-fashioned. Pretty words and pictures. People want poetry to be a nursemaid. I want to be a murderer and a thief. Art should be like this—" He took my hand, pointing at the fresh scab where I'd cut myself on the fish-bone key. "It should be ugly, and hurt so you can feel it. That's what makes it powerful."

I nodded. "That's what I think! Clea said I need to learn the rules before I break them, but I think that's total bullshit. That's what my tag means—radiant days. Because right now I'm burning and alive, and I don't even fucking know if I'll be here tomorrow. Nobody does. I could die tonight. So I only have this one day to paint, all these radiant days, and when I'm gone my tag will still be there, and my paintings…"

Even though Radiant Days was published as young adult fiction, it does many things that are typically not done in YA. The main character is not under 18, and you also get to find out what happens to her later in life. But I think that Radiant Days captures the urgent desire of young creative people in a way that is absolutely genuine and authentic. I think this is a book that young artists in particular will appreciate.

I also enjoyed Radiant Days because it has a lesbian main character who is distinctly, uniquely cool. (Yes, cool!) Speaking simply as a reader — a reader who still hasn't read nearly enough books with lesbian main characters — I'm always looking for books where a character's sexual orientation isn't a problem; it just is. And that's the way it is with both Merle and Arthur. I'm still hungry for depictions of queer female characters who don't struggle with homophobia, internal or external; who move through the world with self-assurance. Merle does that, even as a young art student figuring out who she is. I really appreciate it when a character like her exists, because there simply aren't enough of them.

I will say that Radiant Days is an unusual book, and it's not for everyone. It spoke to me because it reflected some of my own feelings about art and inspiration. It reminded me of the magical effect that one experience can have on you. And on a writerly level, I loved it because Elizabeth Hand's sentences are damn good. It made me want to be a better writer.

Get Radiant Days from your local indie, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.