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.

A few book recommendations

While I write (and sometimes while revising), I take breaks to recharge my creative juices by reading fiction. Not all writers do this; I know some who avoid reading any books in their genre while they're writing something new. But I love to get inspiration from other novels, whether or not they're in the genre I'm writing. Here are several books I read and totally loved while writing the book I'm currently working on:

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner (adult) — This is a reimagination of the myth of Alcestis, who was known as the dutiful wife who willingly gave up her life for her husband, descending to the Underworld for three days before being rescued and returning to the living world. I had never heard this myth before, and I probably would never have picked up the book on my own ((Someone recommended it to me months ago but I didn't find time to read it until recently.)) because the cover looks so much like a literary historical novel about Ancient Greece. I love literary historicals, but I've never been drawn to Ancient Greece.

This is just another lesson in how much I should not judge a book by its cover, because this book is a luscious, lyrical fantasy, full of gods and goddesses and lusty love. And in Beutner's version of the tale, Alcestis's three days in the Underworld also involves meeting Persephone, who, as a goddess, has quite a bit of seductive power of her own. This is a beautiful book! I highly recommend it to people who like retellings of myths or fairy tales, especially those in which women fall in love with women. Those are certainly rare. (And this book just came out in paperback! Go get it.)

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (adult) — This is an older book, first published in 1996. I've been carrying a copy of the paperback with me from place to place ever since I got it, knowing that I'd want to read it someday, because it has so many themes that I am fascinated by: religion, space, anthropology, first contact with an extraterrestrial species.

The Sparrow is about a Jesuit priest who is among the first group of humans to make contact with an intelligent nonhuman species. It is science fiction the way I love it best: about big ideas and humanity and love and sacrifice, with a backdrop of interstellar travel. :) If you haven't read the book before, it's a gorgeous read. And Russell manages to deliver a lot of specialized, technical information about linguistics in a very fluid, intelligent and even gripping way. It is an amazing book.

Red Glove by Holly Black (young adult) — This is the sequel to the first book in the Curse Workers series, White Cat, and if you haven't read that one yet, you should read it first because Red Glove is a total giant spoiler for White Cat. What I love about these books is that Holly Black is a master manipulator. The plot she weaves is intricate and tricky and you can't trust anybody in her books to tell the truth, but you can trust that she will take you on an amazing ride.

At the same time, there is way more than merely plot to these books. They're also about civil rights, uncomfortable family relationships, the imperfection of romance, and of course, identity. And did I mention page-turner? You will not be able to put them down. Red Glove comes out the same day as Huntress (obviously an auspicious day!).

And now I go back to work ...