Intro to Young Adult Fantasy

Up until recently, I thought it was considered odd to read young-adult literature (especially young-adult fantasy), but I’ve learned that the genre is actually in very high demand. My personal favorite was always the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. My mother bought Divergent for me when I was in the sixth grade, and I couldn’t put it down; it inevitably became my Bat Mitzvah theme.

Divergent is what introduced me to YA literature, and served as a stepping-stone to help me realize which specific genre I most adore: YA fantasy. Young-adult literature is the all-encompassing genre, which I do not always enjoy. It includes realistic stories that take place in our world, but I never liked to read those books because I am living a realistic story that takes place in our world. I want something new, something to wish for, something to aspire to. For this, I can always rely on young-adult fantasy.

If you are someone who wants to get into YA fantasy — or if you are just wondering what, precisely, is so impressive and addictive about these books — say no more; I offer you a list of YA fantasy novels that will help introduce you to the genre.

Bear in mind, however, that on this list you will not find classics such as The Hunger Games, The Selection, or Percy Jackson. Many of the books I recommend to YA fantasy virgins are off the beaten path. However, I will admit when I first fell in love with some of these books they were unfamiliar and even insignificant in the wide world of YA literature, but they have since become well read and adored.

My first recommendation falls into the former category, however. Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen is not a book I would have read if I hadn’t found it myself, squeezed onto a shelf of my local bookstore. That being said, it was so good that I became a re-reader. I hadn’t understood the concept of re-reading before I read Scarlet (and Divergent), but it was just such an amazing and compelling story with equally magnificent writing; even though I knew what was going to happen, I had to read it again!

Goodreads lists Scarlet first under YA historical fiction and then YA fantasy, but seeing as how this was the first book to get me into the fantasy world of YA literature, I’m going to place it there. The plot is a twist on the tale of Robin Hood who is said to be the most infamous and beloved vigilante of England. The main character is instead a girl named Scarlet who is a member of Robin Hood’s band of thieves. At first, she appears only to be an outlaw of a girl raised in poverty, but when a vicious lord arrives in Nottingham with the aim of finding and killing Robin Hood, parts of Scarlet’s past come to light.

Because the story is based off of another, the plot is not all that complex, making it a perfect introduction to a new genre. This is not to say, though, that it is a dull read. Violent action and espionage are part of almost every page — and there is a serious romantic subplot that had me swooning throughout the entire novel.

For those of you who are still a bit wary of the “fantasy” part of this genre, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead (and her succeeding installments) is a great toe-dip into the pond. The only fantastical element is the existence of vampires; the characters are in an otherwise exact version of our world. The story follows a seventeen year old girl named Rose Hathaway who is an assigned guardian to her best friend, Vasilisa — a member of one of the most powerful vampire families. As a guardian, though, part of her high school requirements involve intense combat training with a personal instructor who just so happens to be a dark and handsome, older man named Dimitri.

I will admit that I fell in love with Vampire Academy almost purely because of the romance, but that is only a subplot. I also enjoyed it because I could more easily identify with the protagonist than in other books I had read. While I love Divergent, I was never able to relate to the main character. Similarly in Scarlet, I adored the story, but there were parts about Scarlet herself that I did not. Rose Hathaway is a bold, cocky, feisty, and strong young woman who is rarely painted as a damsel-in-distress; even when she is, she almost immediately redeems herself.

Like in Scarlet, Mead’s Vampire Academy series has some pretty significant violence, but it isn’t as overwhelming or imaginary as something like Game of Thrones, making it another good introductory read. Not too strong, but enough to give you an adequate taste.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, however, is unlike both Scarlet and Vampire Academy. It is a quicker read and a stand-alone, giving you another chance to only just dip your toe into the YA-fantasy pool. Cruel Beauty is a twist on the story of Beauty and the Beast; the protagonist, Nyx, is a young woman betrothed at birth to the wicked ruler of her kingdom who has placed a nearly millenia-old curse on his subjects. Consequently, Nyx has trained all her life for the moment she can take his.

Obviously, things do not go according to plan.

Upon meeting him, she is intrigued by both him and his castle. The longer she waits to kill this ruler, the more off course her mission is thrown; only by the end do readers learn if Nyx decides to kill the ruler Ignifex, relieving her people of the curse, or save him so that she may love the one person she was never meant to.

The story of Nyx and Ignifex has many elements, but it is solely a romantic story. After all, it is based off of Beauty and the Beast. So if you aren’t one for romance, perhaps this read isn’t for you, but it’s so short you might as well just try it anyway.

My final recommendations are written by my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. I was introduced to her writing — also by my mother — in the eighth grade when I came home one day to a new book sitting on my desk. It had a dramatic cover — a woman armed with knives, silver hair blown back while simultaneously covering half of her face, and walking forward with a powerful and deadly look. I hadn’t yet figured it out, but this is the kind of protagonist I most love reading about.

And so we return to the purpose of reading young adult fantasy: aspiration and inspiration.

Celaena Sardothien, the main character in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, is not kind, sweet, or simple, as desirable women are often painted to be in literature. She is ambitious and powerful, strong and cunning, valiant and unapologetic. In fact, there are so many adjectives I could use to describe her, this article would likely extend much further if I continued. So in order to learn more about this young woman, you’ll simply need to read her story. It stretches over seven novels and one pre-novella; there will be no shortage of excitement, drama, action, and emotion.

I will concede, though, that if you choose to start your YA-fantasy journey with Sarah J. Maas’s writing, you will likely be hooked for life. Her telling of Celaena Sardothien’s story will pull you in close and keep you there.

Her other series includes my favorite book in all of literature. A Court of Mist and Fury is her second installment in the series, but it begins with A Court of Thorns and Roses. It is another retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but the series remains wildly unique; I’ve never read anything like it. The first book is based off of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, but as soon as the second book begins, all connections are severed. Maas creates an entirely new universe unlike even her own in Celaena Sardothien’s story.

Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses are two entirely separate works, but the protagonists are what differentiate them the most. A Court of Thorns and Roses is about a young woman named Feyre Archeron who is suddenly bound by a contract to live in the home of a great lord not of the human race, but of the fae — a majestic and far superior being. There arises a potential romance between Feyre and this male protagonist as there does in Throne of Glass — and nearly every other YA fantasy novel — but that is where all similarities end. Where Celaena is determined, Feyre is hesitant; and where Feyre is kind, Celaena is likely not. Both are beautifully-written, unimaginable stories, so the decision of which one to start with is perhaps determined by which protagonist you as a reader will prefer.

I love A Court of Thorns and Roses because the story itself becomes so complex and fascinating; it has kept me up at night on many separate occasions. However, this is not because of the protagonist. I reread Celaena’s story in the Throne of Glass series because I of course like the story, but I like the protagonist more. This is not the case with A Court of Thorns and Roses, but that does not diminish its value. It is not always the protagonist that makes the story.

Each of these books is unique and serves as a great introduction to young-adult fantasy, but of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one final YA fantasy read. One Cruel House is a novel I published in January that tells the story of Alexandria Rose Anastasia Stuart, only daughter to the king and queen of her nation. The plot follows her as she navigates a life of royalty while also maintaining an alias when night-sparring at the infamous Arena. However, things quickly grow complicated when an unexpected tragedy hits and Alexandria is thrust into the middle of a looming war with a neighboring power. Things are not made easier by the presence of two princes — one provocative and infuriating, the other suspiciously kind — come to visit her family. 

I would, of course, suggest you start with One Cruel House, but again, all of these novels are such great reads; you can’t go wrong with any one of them! Whichever you do choose, though, once you start YA fantasy, there’s no going back.