Young adult fantasy books

June 12, 2009 at 10:08 am (book reviews, speculative fiction, young adult) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I write, therefore I read.

In honour of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Day June 23rd (which I first heard about on http://www.alanbaxteronline.com/), the below is all about books I’ve read lately – in alphabetical order by author. Almost all are brilliant – and the others are successful 😉 I am sticking to people that I think are alive, and as a control I’ve put in C.S. Lewis (Narnia), J.K.Rowlings (Harry Potter), and Stephanie Meyer (Twilight) because most people have a familiarity with one or all of those. No spoilers, except some info (as limited as possible) in ratings warnings.

Australian authors get an asterisk, and members of ROR (a writing group with an abnormal amount of talent, found online at http://www.ripping-ozzie-reads.com/) get two.

I will also take requests to review other books – as long as they’re YA fantasy, and available in my library. Make requests at my blog.

CASSANDRA CLARE

City of Bones

City of Ashes

City of Glass

ie the Mortal Instruments series

(Also the infamous Lord of the Rings Secret Diaries – mature content – as Cassandra Claire.)

Free sample: Clary shook her head. “Don’t stop there. I suppose there are also, what, vampires and werewolves and zombies?”

“Of course there are,” Jace informed her. “Although you mostly find zombies farther South, where the voudun priests are.”

“What about mummies? Do they only hang around Egypt?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No-one believes in mummies.”

“They don’t?”

“Of course not.”

Review: I read the three books in three days – many people have. They are extremely addictive. Funny, with well-drawn characters and an involving story. Mild cliffhangers at the end of books one and two (a plot line is left dangling in the foreground, but the main characters don’t get stabbed in the final paragraph or anything like that). Clare is a master of vivid description.

The second-biggest plot is an extremely angsty love triangle (which some people will find sickening in one or more aspects). It’s written very very well – and the main character does at least try to do the right thing – but angst is still too big a plot line for my liking. On the other hand, every aspect of the relationship/s has a strong bearing on the main plot, and every character is going to stick with me (unfortunately, a lot of the non-love-triangle characters are left relatively undeveloped except for promising hints). The love plotlines really reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager in love but trying to not be selfish or stupid – they are seriously well-written (sooooo much better than a certain Bella). The main character does sometimes make stupid decisions, and although the plotting has been done very well over the three books some of it is a bit transparent (I guessed or figured out several things before the characters did). Other parts are so clever they made me gasp.

Rating: M (seriously scary violence, including an attempted rape by a demon – brief but creepy), adult themes including homosexuality and incest (no sex happens on-screen at any time). Bad things do happen, including death/s of good people.

Recommended for: age 10 and up, including adults.

EOIN COLFER

Artemis Fowl

Six books in the series so far.

Free sample: Nguyen brought the cup trembling to his lips.

“Don’t be alarmed, Mister Xuan,” smiled Artemis. “The weapons will not be used on you.”

Nguyen didn’t seem reassured.

“No,” continued Artemis. “Butler could kill you a hundred different ways without the use of his armoury. Though I’m sure one would be quite sufficient.”

These are smart, interesting books. One reason is that they’re spy books – but definitely fantasy. (Fairies are real, they live mainly underground, and they have really awesome high-tech equipment – including strap-on wings.) Artemis is an interesting character (12-year old genius), and a sympathetic one – as are all the others. He’s meant to be a criminal mastermind (and he is), but he’s a decent kid, too. High adventure – but without compromising on intelligent writing.

Rating: G

Recommendation: 7 and up

BERNARD CORNWELL

The Last Kingdom series

Many other books

This guy knows his historical information, and never ever bores you by shoving in bits of research he’s particularly proud of (as so many do). Great, involving, sensory style; meaningful and exciting plots; well-drawn characters who deserve to be cared about (even when they are, technically, selfish pricks). I read the first book on my honeymoon and had to read the second and third IMMEDIATELY. (Luckily my husband had the same reaction.)

Rating: M to R (realistic violence, sex including unpleasant sex/rape) – depends on the series

Recommended for: 14 (depending on the kid) to adult (entertaining and involving without compromising on depth or intelligence)

*JOHN FLANAGAN

Ranger’s Apprentice series

Strangely compelling. Like Horowitz (below), I just don’t consider Flanagan a good author. Yet I keep reading. Flanagan’s books make me feel like I’m getting my buttons pressed, one after the other (including cliffhanger endings). I did eventually stop reading. But he pushes those buttons very well – smallest kid around gets picked for special task; best friends fight (for the first time) over a girl; etc.

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 6 and up

**RICHARD HARLAND

Worldshaker

Many other books (various genres and age but he’s fond of young adult steampunk)

Richard Harland is a fascinating individual. This book has been compared to the work of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve, but Harland brings a satirical wit to the table that is unique. It is very funny.

His world is fully-realised and original, with vivid characters and an interesting story. His diagrams of the juggernaut are a highlight, but the book never gets bogged down in over-complicated details.

Free sample: Gillabeth took Antrobus over to the slides. . . “No flapping, no waving,” she ordered. “You know how Grandmother likes to see you slide.”

Antrobus came sliding down, arms fixed at his sides like a wooden doll. There was no way of telling whether he enjoyed or hated the experience.

“Now again,” said Gillabeth.

Rating: M (gory violence, bad stuff happens to good people)

Recommendation: 8 and up, definitely including adults.

ANTHONY HOROWITZ

StormHunter

This is the beginning of a long and wildly successful series. (Not actually speculative fiction, sorry – spy genre.) It’s interesting to me that the good guy’s bosses are highly unpleasant and evil people. Horowitz’s style sucks, some plot twists are predictable, and his characters are cardboard cut-outs.

It was terribly fun to read. Terribly, terribly fun. I laughed out loud (with pleasure) at some of the ridiculous scenes. It’s described by the author as “adolescent fantasy” and it’s the best example I’ve read. (I confess I won’t be reading more, despite how enjoyable it was.)

Free sample [Our twelve-year old hero, Alex, is being attacked by two men on quad bikes. He has already managed to dispatch one guy AND steal his quadbike. Now he’s on his way to dispatching the other – who, like the first but unlike Alex, has a gun]: The quads were getting closer and closer, moving faster all the time. The man couldn’t shoot him now, not without losing control. Far below, the waves glittered silver, breaking against the rocks. The edge of the cliff flashed by. The noise of the other quad filled Alex’s ears. The wind rushed into him, hammering at his chest and face. It was like the old-fashioned game of chicken. . .”

Rating: PG (unrealistic violence, including death)

Age recommendation: age 7 to 17

BRIAN JACQUES

Redwall series

Each book is about heroic animals (badgers, mice, moles) fighting bad animals (weasels, wildcats, etc). The animals do talk – there are no humans – but the battles are absolutely serious, violent, and deadly. This contrasts bizarrely with how incredibly jolly the good guys ALWAYS are with one another. The series quickly gets repetitive (if you liked Martin the Warrior you’ll like Lord Brocktree – they are almost identical, except with the characters from the first book played by their own relatives in the second book). The worst part for me was the world’s most annoying accents – and plenty of them. I enjoyed the fact that the bad guys were actually unpleasant to the extent of often handily killing one another – it’s nice to have a genuine BAD guy every once in a while (plus it adds plausibility to the good guys’ victories).

Free sample: Dotti wiped her lips ruefully on an embroidered napkin. “I bally well wish we could, I’ve never tasted honeyed oatmeal like that in m’life. I say, Rogg, how the dickens d’you make it taste so jolly good, wot?”

Rogg chuckled at Dotti’s momentary lapse from molespeech. “Hurr hurr young miz, oi chops in lot of. . .” [let’s just stop it here, or I’ll bally punch meself, wot wot?”]

Rating: M (violence)

Recommended for: 8 to adult (if you like that sort of thing)

**MARGO LANAGAN

Black Juice

Red Spikes

Tender Morsels

. . . and many others.

I haven’t actually read all of these, because they’re all collections of unrelated short stories. Margo Lanagan is hard to pin down because she writes such a wide variety of work. She is very literary, which in my mind means stunningly beautiful writing, intelligent plots, and deep characters. Her work has such an intense emotional impact that I plan a restful evening AFTER reading it. But when she writes for a younger audience it’s much lighter.

Rating: G to R

Recommended for: 15 to adult (more for adults)

DEREK LANDY

Skulduggery Pleasant

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire

Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones (first cliffhanger-ish end)

The opening line of the whole series is: “Gordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone – not least himself.” This humour/horror series is enormous fun from beginning to end (not that we’ve reached the end yet). There are interesting and complex characters throughout, and their secrets are still being gradually revealed. Very very funny.

Rating: PG/M (horror violence, but not hard-core unless you’ve never read horror before)

Recommended for: age 8 and up, including adults (for fun)

C.S. LEWIS

Narnia series (seven books in total)

I love every book in this series. Original world (though it doesn’t feel original any more, because there are so many imitators – and it bears some resemblance to Middle Earth, since Lewis and Tolkien were friends), though some people find it limited (I find it cosy). Interesting, realistic characters (main characters shift throughout). The arc from first book to last book works well despite the fact they were written out of order, and The Horse and his Boy is fascinating to me because it looks at the same world from a completely different angle. Some people have argued that Lewis is sexist or racist because of the way women are treated (particularly in a battle), and people with dark skin are usually evil. I disagree with the racism – the dark-skinned Calormenes are simply an enemy country, with good and bad citizens (but predominantly bad because hey, they’re the enemy). The roles of women do show that Lewis is a man of his time, but it has a chivalric (rather than patronising) feeling that suits the medieval-ish world (eg women shoot arrows rather than fighting in the melee). Great, exciting plots.

Rating: G (with – arguably – religious themes)

Recommended for: age 5 and up, including adults (particularly Christians, who have a whole other level to examine – it should be noted that Lewis did not intend them to be thinly-veiled Bible stories, but an exploration of how Jesus would appear and behave in Lewis’ world. The Jesus-esque character doesn’t ruin the stories, which is the main thing).

STEPHANIE MEYER

Twilight (I only read the first one)

Excellent writing style, good characterisation of the hero (for sympathy – it irks many readers that she has no flaws whatsoever). Almost no plot (other than romance) for hundreds of pages, which annoyed me (there’s about 100 pages of action at the end). The whole basis of the romance seemed to be physical (rather than anything to do with the personality/lack thereof of either party), which also annoyed me.

MUCH angst. Much talking about angst. Probably would have been better at half the length.

Rating: PG (sexual symbolism) to M/MA later in the series (on-screen sex). Mild violence.

Recommended for: emos. (ooh, the claws come out!)

Approximate quote: “Ooh, you’re ever so pretty. It’s so hot that you want to eat me! I’d rather DIE than be single, wouldn’t you? Oh that’s right, you are dead. . . Let’s have babies!”

*GARTH NIX

Sabriel

Lirael

Abhorsen

I love Garth Nix and want to have his babies (by which I mean his books). Sabriel is possibly the best book ever written, and although Lirael and Abhorsen feel like one book split into Part One (with good resolution of the main emotional conflict, but including only the leadup to the main physical conflict – not a true cliffhanger, but not one to be read on its own) and Part Two – they are also extremely good (and don’t skip Lirael just because it’s the middle of a trilogy – you will miss the coolest coming-of-age tale ever).

Rating: M for scary supernatural gore and plenty of death (not limited to naughty people).

Age recommendation: Twelve and up – but if you’re an adult, you should definitely read it. It isn’t dumbed down or irrelevant in any way. Even the romance is mature (not in rating, but in emotional depth and maturity).

Keys to the Kingdom series

If I hadn’t read Sabriel etc, I would have been more impressed. This series is a quest-per-book series, where there’s a magical item to be attained, and every climax involves getting said magical item. This makes it a little dull for my taste. On the other hand, the world is original and interesting, and the characters and their problems are good. There’s also over-arching plot lines that draw you through the series. I don’t really recommend it, though – not for adults (even though I’m drawn in enough to be faithfully reading every book as it comes out). There’s just not enough depth to it – I feel like Nix is pushing buttons of tension rather than drawing us into a new reality where we really care what happens. Oh, and each one ends on a major cliffhanger.

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 8 to 12

The Seventh Tower

Very good – not as good as Sabriel etc, but clearly written by the same person (not in any repetitive way, but in the emotional depth and originality). I’ve only read the first three (of perhaps seven), and I’ve chosen to put it out of my mind until it ends (cliffhangers BUG me).

Rating: PG (possibly M) violence

Age range: 12 to adult. Worth reading as an adult.

As far as I know, only the first three books are out.

**MARIANNE DE PIERRES (who, incidentally, read one of my novel openings in a competition and stopped me at the con to tell me how fabulous I am)

Nylon Angel etc

Gritty futuristic world, shining with imagination. She has a tough main character (this is the beginning of a series) with a serious and interesting problem. I enjoyed it, and would have read on except this was definitely a world where rape was common, and I just can’t handle that.

Rating: M (violence, rape in past and probably future)

Recommended for: 14 and up, including adults.

PHILIP PULLMAN

Northern Lights (Golden Compass in North America)

Subtle Knife

The Amber Spyglass

Free sample: Lyra stopped beside the master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the Hall.

“You’re not taking this seriously,” whispered her daemon. “Behave yourself.”

Review: Philip Pullman is a grumpy and egotistical man, an angrily fanatic atheist – and a true master of storytelling. This story sprawls a bit in all the lies and schemes going on, but it sprawls because it’s so magnificent and epic. It wasn’t until book three that I realised Pullman didn’t just hate the church but hated God – that’s when his convictions leaked into the story the most clearly (the book was written as an answer to Milton). But I was still impressed by the originality of what he did with the character of God.

Rating: PG (violence, symbolic sex, religious theme)

Recommendation: age 7 and up, definitely including adults

Ruby in the Smoke

Shadow in the North

The Tiger in the Well

The Tin Princess

There’s not a hint of preachiness in this series. Each book is a truly fun, original adventure tale set in 19th-century England. the Tiger in the Well has a particularly interesting plot (it’s improved if you read the books in order, but you don’t have to).

Rating: PG (sex)

Recommendation: 10 and up, definitely including adults.

PHILIP REEVE

Larklight

Starcross

Mothstorm

(these are illustrated in an intricate steampunk style by David Wyatt)

These are the first books, in my mind, to overtake Narnia as being the best books ever written for children. They are the funniest books on this list. For this quote, I opened the first book at random (because I was that confident): “I returned the locket to my jacket pocket, though privately I felt that Jack and his friends would not have tried to steal it. They were too busy dividing up the mounds of loot which they had stolen from those Martian ships they’d raided. I do not know quite who it was who started the rumour that crime does not pay, but I can assure you they were wrong. It pays very well. . .”

These are tales of high adventure – space pirates feature – in a brilliantly-realised alternate history/future (sort of Victorian times, but in space).

Rating: G

Recommendation: 6 to adult. If you don’t laugh within three pages, you are probably dead.

Mortal Engines

Predator’s Gold

Infernal Devices

A Darkling Plain

Another brilliantly-realised world, but a much darker one. The characterisation is a particular strength – the pain of one of the characters still breaks my heart. There is a LOT of violence, and bad things definitely do happen.

Rating: M (violence)

Age Recommendation: 12 to adult.

Free sample: He remembered dying. He remembered a girl’s scarred face gazing down at him as he lay in wet grass. . . What was her name? His mouth remembered.

“H. . .”

“It’s alive!” said a voice.

“HES. . .”

“Again, please. Quickly.”

“Charging. . .”

“HESTER. . .”

“Stand clear!”

And then another lash of electricity scoured away even those last strands of memory. . .

J.K. ROWLINGS

Harry Potter series

 This is funny and imaginitive, and gets increasingly scary (sometimes to a worrying extent for parents, including possession and mind control of a good character). Has been criticised for being evil due to (a) popularity (b) people who believe all fantasy is evil (c) misinformation spread online, mainly by the Christian community. Characterisation is a bit stereotyped (eg Hermione is the “good/nerd girl” and Ron is the “dorky friend/source’o’humour”), but the biggest fault is that the hero suffers from angst. It IS realistic that a teenage boy orphaned by an evil wizard (and then blamed for everything bad that ever happens) would start whining about it – but no-one wants to actually READ that. (It might have been okay in summary  – “and then Harry walked off with Ron, whining all the way. Then he saw a pretty butterfly and got over himself” – but by the end many fans were hoping Harry would die.)

Rating: PG to M (horror violence, possession) depending on the book.

Recommended for: 10 (depending on the kid) to adult

PAUL STEWART

Edge Chronicles

Seriously cool, wondrous world illustrated in grotesque beauty by Chris Riddell. Everything about this series is great. It does tend to sprawl a bit in terms of overall plot, but only because there are several quite different stories told in the same world (which makes the world 3-D, in my opinion).

Rating: G

Age recommendation: 7 to adult.

Free sample: The spindlebug paused for a moment at the foot of the sweeping staircase and looked up. The skin, as transluscent as the high arched windows above, revealed blood pumping through veins, six hearts beating – and last night’s supper slowly digesting in a see-through belly.

SUMMARY

Best book for your kid: Larklight by Philip Reeve (but beware some of his other books)

Best book for your teenager: Sabriel by Garth Nix

Best book for a reluctant reader: Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan) or StormHunter (Anthony Horowitz)

Best short story writer: Margo Lanagan (my favourite is the well-known Singing My Sister Down)

PS thanks to Ben for corrections

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4 Comments

  1. Emma said,

    This blog’s really quite intersting.. Thankyou 🙂

  2. Ben (Crispin) said,

    Well, that was… exhaustive…
    Oh, and the His Dark Materials series was actually meant (as the title implies) as a response to Milton, not Dante.
    (What the hell is wrong with me…)

  3. someone said,

    did a library search for the Edge Chronicles… came up with the Queer as Folk DVDs… hmmm….

  4. Tabby said,

    Stephenie Meyer is one of the best writers I have read at emotional connection. I don’t think she is as strong at plot but I don’t think it is because there isn’t any (there is but some of it is emotional rather than event-based which can make it seem a bit light). I think, rather, that when she does have events in her novels they aren’t as powerful as they might be. Not as inevitable as they might be and not as much is riding on the events as there could be.

    But I would still give her a Distinction for plot. But a High Distinction for character and emotional connection.

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