YA world building

The following YA titles feature strongly built worlds — some well-known to fans, some brand new — that will sweep readers up with their fantastical details and enthralling adventures. Don’t miss our “Five questions for Megan Whalen Turner,” author of the Queen’s Thief series, which concludes with Return of the Thief.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn
by Melissa Bashardoust
High School    Flatiron    323 pp.    g
7/20    978-1-250-19614-9    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-19615-6    $9.99

“Stories always begin the same way. There was and there was not.” Soraya, sister of the Kingdom’s future shah, lives a privileged life in Golvahar Palace and loves to hear her mother’s hopeful fairy tales. But the threat of divs, monsters who attack and harm people, lurks at the base of the mountain. Soraya is trapped by the curse of a div, put upon her as a baby: any living creature that touches her will be poisoned. In richly descriptive third-person narration, the reader meets Soraya as she begins to rebel, hoping to break the curse and realizing that the tale of its origin, as she knew it, is not true, and neither are her notions of good and evil. When she becomes allies (and eventually romantic partners) with a female div, she learns that everyone, div or human, is capable of choosing between cruelty and kindness. Bashardoust weaves a compulsively readable modern queer fairy tale that is part fantastical adventure and part allegory. An author’s note gives background about the book’s origins, including the Persian epic tale of the Shanahmeh and Zoroastrian theistic notions of the creator and destroyer, as well as about its use of “a combination of words taken from Old Persian, Middle Persian, and modern Persian.” CHRISTINA L. DOBBS

How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories [Folk of the Air]
by Holly Black; illus. by Rovina Cai
Middle School, High School    Little, Brown    192 pp.    g
11/20    978-0-316-54088-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-54082-7    $9.99

Black returns to the world of her acclaimed Folk of the Air trilogy (beginning with The Cruel Prince, rev. 1/18) in this illustrated companion volume that hinges on three chance encounters between the inscrutable elf Cardan and the troll woman Aslog. Each time they meet, they exchange a story about a boy with a heart of stone, a story that grows and changes in the retelling, even as Cardan and Aslog themselves change from meeting to meeting. Ultimately, the themes coalesce around forgiveness, redemption, and transformation. (“You didn’t get what you deserved, but you don’t have to live inside that one story forever. No one’s heart has to remain stone.”) The book works best as a character study, revealed in brief, impressionistic vignettes, helped enormously by a handsome design and lavish imagery. Cardan was a complicated love interest in the trilogy, and fans will welcome this opportunity to see what makes him tick. JONATHAN HUNT

Daughters of Jubilation
by Kara Lee Corthron
High School    Simon Pulse    352 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-4814-5950-1    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-5952-5    $10.99

In the summer of 1962 in an alternate-universe Jim Crow South, Black teenager Evalene Deschamps learns that the women in her family are blessed with magical abilities (including telekinesis, telepathy, and visions of “haints”) called Jubilation. These powers, granted with the onset of menstruation, are tied into the women’s emotions and provide them with the protection they need to survive in an anti-Black world — though they need to control their feelings to control their magic. With her grandmother’s help, Evalene learns that the Deschamps women, and many other Black women, have used “jubin’” to keep themselves and their families safe from predators. When an evil white man from Evalene’s past comes to haunt her, she must rely on her ancestors and her Jubilation to save herself and the ones she loves. Corthron’s novel uses an innovative landscape to explore Black girl magic and intergenerational family trauma while also excavating the horrors of anti-Black violence in the past and the present. With its combination of magic, realism, and horror, this is a perfect choice for readers searching for stories where Black girls unapologetically use their magic to save and, when necessary, destroy. S. R. TOLIVER

Igniting Darkness
by Robin LaFevers
High School    Houghton    560 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-544-99109-5    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-33580-1    $9.99

In the second book of a duology (Courting Darkness, rev. 1/19) set in an alt-historical world of fifteenth-century Brittany and France (also the setting of several of her other novels), LaFevers returns to the tangle of intrigue and danger in which she last left Sybella and Genevieve, both trained assassins of the convent of Saint Mortain, patron saint of death. Ensconced as attendant to France’s new queen, Sybella fights to keep her young sisters safe from her half-brother, a powerful and sexually predatory viscount. Meanwhile, Genevieve has become a sometimes-trusted lover and friend to France’s king, but has endangered the convent she serves by telling him of its nature. And, pressed as he is on all sides by seditious, power-greedy advisors, the king’s indecisiveness and insecurities are the greatest threat of all. LaFevers wraps up the romances and story lines of escape and treachery first set in motion in the previous volume, in part through a broader arena of rebellion and national misalliance, which culminates in the (literal) pyrotechnics of Sybella, Genevieve, and their band of friends and allies. Aside from their formidable efficiency in killing and routing much larger forces — skills the novel values highly — Sybella and Genevieve are characterized as finding healing and resolution from traumatic pasts through romance and through their own sisterly solidarity. DEIRDRE F. BAKER

Burn
by Patrick Ness
High School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    371 pp.    g
6/20    978-0-06-286949-4    $18.99

It’s 1957, and Sarah Dewhurst’s father has hired a dragon to work on their farm despite his prejudices against them. That’s not really big news; in this alternate universe, humankind has maintained an uneasy peace with dragons for centuries. But, as Sarah learns, dragons are more complex than she’d imagined — and the situation is more perilous: a cult of Believers, who worship the magical creatures, has sent a teenage assassin to the United States in an attempt to start a prophesied war (though he’s been told his mission is to stop one), a war that will directly affect Sarah and everyone she loves. Nothing is quite as it seems in this imaginative novel. Timelines fluctuate, characters change species, and genres tangle together. However, the plot is solid enough to ensure that, with a healthy suspension of disbelief, readers will follow the story with ease as the stakes get ever higher. Ness’s (The Knife of Never Letting Go, rev. 11/08; Release, rev. 9/17) engrossing historical-fantasy adventure is at once accessible and complex, tackling both human issues — racism (Sarah is biracial; her love interest is Japanese American), war, religion — and grand fantasy action with skill. SARAH A. BERMAN

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix
High School    Tegen/HarperCollins    416 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-06-268325-0    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-268327-4    $9.99

In an alternate version of 1983 England, eighteen-year-old Susan Arkshaw travels to London to search for the father she’s never known. Almost immediately, Susan encounters dashing Merlin St. Jacques and is thrust into the dangerous world he inhabits. Merlin is a member of a sprawling family of “booksellers” who do incidentally sell books but whose primary duty is to protect humanity from entities from other realms. (Merlin’s pronouns are he/him — for now; among the booksellers it is accepted to magically transition one’s gender, something Merlin is “pondering.”) With the help of a motley crew of booksellers both left- (the fighters) and right-handed (the researchers), Susan and Merlin face off against fantastical creatures, unravel the mystery of Susan’s supernatural parentage, and fall a little bit in love along the way. As in his high-fantasy novels (the Abhorsen Chronicles; Angel Mage, rev. 11/19), Nix puts a strong, capable, and resourceful young woman front and center within a diverse cast; here, the grounding in our own world (sort of) allows him to work in plenty of pop-culture references and tropes from British spy stories. A thrilling, suspenseful romp with lots of humor and romantic tension; the ending is satisfying but implies we haven’t seen the last of Susan and Merlin. KATIE BIRCHER

From the January 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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