Rachel Swirsky’s Recommendations for 2014 Young Adult & Middle Grade SciFi/Fantasy Novels

So! I’m on the Norton jury this year, which is the jury that’s responsible for reading widely for the award (which is given to young adult and middle grade science fiction and fantasy novels). After SFWA voters wisely nominate their own slate, the jury has the option of adding 1-3 worthy books which voters may not have come across in their travels. (The assumption is that most SFWA voters are primarily writing and reading fiction for adults.)

To that end, I’ve read (or at least read part of) about 75-80 books. The process for acquiring these was less difficult than it can be for me in other categories because the books came to my mailbox. So many books. Droves and droves of books. For a while, we’ve had books sprawling across many of our surfaces. Thank you to all the authors and publishers who trusted us with their work.

I did add books to my reading that didn’t come straight to my door. I gathered these via recommendations, although that wasn’t a big part of my process this year. I also tried to follow books by authors who I’ve previously enjoyed, which is why I bought A. S. King’s novel, for instance (although her publisher did also generously send us the book a while later). Finally, I was really surprised to see the Locus Recommendation list for young adult sf/f as there were a number of pieces I didn’t have my hands on. I don’t know why there was such a disparity in what we were seeing and what the Locus reviewers were seeing. The Locus list alerted me to Emmi Intarata’s MEMORY OF WATER, for instance.

Being on the jury, I was able to participate in a collaborative process of figuring out what to read. For instance, if a book got negative reactions from another of other jurors, I generally didn’t pick it up.

I have a couple of books on my kindle that I didn’t get to because I ran out of the time I’d allotted for this. There’s also a small pile of hard copy books. I was also frustrated by the fact that, because I had to go through so many books, I ended up abandoning several books 1/3-1/2 of the way through which I would have liked to finish. If I’m reading at full speed (and not doing ANYTHING else) I can do about two and a half full young adult/middle grade books per day. In the end, I just didn’t have enough time. I could have only read Norton books and ignored the other categories, but this late in the game, my doing more Norton reading doesn’t really help–there’s not enough time for me to recommend books to the other jurors and reasonably expect them to be able to read them.

Since I read so many books, I also find that I have a LOT to say about them. I don’t think I can adequately do so in a recommendation post. Firstly, because I don’t have the time to write out reviews of everything I recommend or enjoyed. Secondly, because it would take up way too much space, and be confusing. So, for some of the books, I’m going to resort to short sentences. I can always go back and do fuller reviews in separate posts, I tell myself (although I will probably get distracted by other things because I tend to).

I’m trying not to just default-link to Amazon, so there will be a lot of links to people’s websites and other places where you can find multiple retail options. But I’ll probably also include some Amazon links.


Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, A. S. King (young adult) – I’m a big fan of A. S. King and her direct, forceful writing. She’s kind of like Chuck Pahlaniuk for kids, but with a Dorothy Allison vehemence and emotionality. That makes her work sound darker than it is–to be fair, sometimes it’s quite dark, but generally her young adult protagonists begin to find their way as they grow up. This story is about a girl and her friend who decide to drink the powdered corpse of a mummified bat, and find that it endows them with visions about other people and their pasts, presents, and futures. The main character pieces together her own future life by watching visions stimulated by other people. It’s not clear if the future she sees is fixed (I sort of imagine it’s not). The characters and clarity of this book are excellent, as is characteristic of King’s work. It’s a very strong novel, beginning to end.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford (middle grade) – I’m also a big fan of Kate Milford, though her writing morphs more from book to book than King’s does. This middle grade is a charming, fun tale about an adopted boy who lives with his parents at an isolated, east coast inn frequented by smugglers. Several mysterious guests arrive just before a major snowfall that traps everyone together. The main character and his accomplice, a young girl, scramble to find the heart of the mystery before the smugglers do. It’s extremely well-executed with the whimsy supported by a strong framework of character detail and emotional development. It’s a compulsive read, weaving the mystery skillfully and demanding attention. It also does some really cool things about considering the main character’s interracial adoption, and his sense of isolation and curiosity about his family, and how those things make him feel intensely guilty. There’s a sense of real love and well-being between him and his adoptive parents, and it’s lovely to see how that can be drawn in the story while still leaving room for the main character to feel unresolved about his identity. The novel is beautifully shaped as a whole.


Ambassador, William Alexander (middle grade) – This novel is a departure for Will Alexander, a contemporary and fanciful science fiction novel about a young American boy with Mexican parents who is chosen by a strange alien creature to become the ambassador for the earth. The science fiction bits are just a lot of free-wheeling, engaging fun. As the ambassador, the main character is immediately thrown into a situation where he has to investigate and resolve an interstellar conflict while trying to avoid the attention of a nearby genocidal alien race. Simultaneously, his real life is thrown into chaos when his father is pulled over at a stop sign and discovered to be an illegal immigrant. The story has really smart threads about immigration and cooperation. I particularly liked that the main character’s super power is that he’s extremely perceptive about people, and kind and empathetic as he tries to make sure the people around him are safe and happy. It’s wonderful to see someone writing a well-developed young boy with those traits because they’re pretty awesome and boys can have them, too. (It reminds me of the debate I’ve had online about Dr. Who, wherein the arguer says that Dr. Who is a rare beast because he’s a male character who solves things with intelligence and diplomacy while actively avoiding violence.) The ending of the novel was weird; I think I know what Will Alexander was doing, and I suspect it’ll all be resolved in a satisfactory way in the sequel, but I felt the last couple paragraphs were a misstep when presented without follow-up.

Girl on a Wire, Gwenda Bond (young adult) – Two rival circus families with a complicated Past end up traveling together; the main character, Julieta, who does a high wire act, falls for a son of the rival family, Remy, also known as Romeo. The thing that worked for me least here was the Romeo and Julieta naming convention; the parallels to Romeo and Juliet are clear enough in the set-up, but the story goes its own way plotwise (which was good), and I wasn’t persuaded that it was a good idea to tie it so closely to Shakespeare. It does prepare the reader for the death of one of the teenage characters, though, and I wondered whether that was the point. This is a fairly straightforward young adult romance with magical underpinnings, but I thought it was particularly well-executed, with memorable events and a memorable character. The romance employed several tropes that usually bug me a lot, but that only irked me slightly in places here, perhaps because while the main characters are star-crossed in their fates to love despite their families, they never go into much of a will-we-or-won’t-we oh-but-you’re-my-enemy tailspin, and instead all in love and move on from there. I also really liked the secondary characters, Julieta’s cousin and nana, and Remy’s sister. The circus imagery really distinguishes it, especially the main character’s passion for the high wire, and her love of past high wire peformer, Bird Millman, who did walks between skyscrapers while holding a parasol.

Salvage, Alexandra Duncan (young adult) – People I’ve spoken to have really polarized reactions to this book which I find interesting as I thought it was straight-up good. It’s traditional science fiction with a lot at stake and an interesting slant on character. It seems to me that some of the divide over the book had to do with whether or not people resonated with the voice. I did. I thought this novel moved in the same space as Alaya Dawn Johnson’s SUMMER PRINCE, in terms of putting real, well-done YA in unusual science fiction settings. In this story, the main character is born as part of a fundamentalist cult that lives in space. The cult appears to be based on fundamentalist Mormon cults, involving non-consensual plural marriage of minors, and abandonment of young boys. (This could describe other cultural situations as well, but the material trappings of the cult seemed to indicate a fundamentalist LDS inspiration.) I should emphasize here that I don’t think the word Mormon is ever used, and even if it were, the novel would not be a reflection on mainstream Mormon practice. Inhumane fundamentalist cults don’t represent whole religions, and it is a pet peeve of mine when people conflate the two out of ignorance. The novel is depicting a problematic cult. Anyway, when her father announces that she’s going to be married, the main character thinks she’s going to be the first wife of the son of the visiting ship captain; the son thinks so as well. They meet tenderly and in private to discuss how pleased they are, but are discovered, and it’s revealed that she was actually meant to marry the ship’s captain himself. She’s declared dead for having sullied herself and exiled to Earth where she learns to navigate the strange-to-her cultures. She also tries to help other people who have been ill-served by the cult, including boys who have been exiled from their families in order to sustain the polygynous system. While the structure is a bit lumpy in parts, I thought this was a well-done and unusual novel and I recommend it strongly.

Otherbound, Corinne Duyvis (young adult) – This was the right novel for me at the right moment; I descended upon it and devoured it from first to last page, totally compelled by the storyline. There are two main characters (who don’t romance each other!). One is a boy who lives in our world but suffers from visions wherein he is fully immersed in a painful and jarring fantasy world, a situation that no one in our world knows how to explain, and so they call a variety of epilepsy which he goes along with so as not to be considered psychotic. (For people who have a sensitivity to the trope, that does mean that the novel falls into the “magical disability” category; I felt it navigated the issue well enough, but others may disagree.) The other is the girl whose mind he drops into when he has those “seizures” — an enslaved magic-wielder who has been violently dealt with by her owners, who have cut out her tongue, regularly beat her, and do things like burn her hands (she has healing powers so they can cause her extreme pain without risking her life). She is bound to protect a captive princess who tries to mitigate the excesses of her treatment but has very little power to do so. They’re on the run from a curse. I found the girl’s storyline completely, viscerally engaging, and I thought there was sharp character development, and really well done rendering of trauma, especially given that it was leavened by opportunities for action and escape. I gave my copy of this book to my niece (who was a couple months shy of eleven); my brother looked up reviews which were very upset about how violent it is. I was worried, but my brother shrugged, and said if she didn’t want to read it, she’d stop (that’s how I was raised, too, but I don’t assume all parents give their kids free range). Instead, she started it on Christmas day and read it with such constant attention that we often had to break her out of it to get her to participate in family activities. As soon as there was a lull, she was back in the book.

The Glass Sentence, S. E. Grove (middle grade) — I fell in love with the beginning of this strange and beautiful novel about a girl who lives in a world where time has cracked, causing different parts of the world to tumble into different eras, past and future. She’s from nineteenth century Boston and crosses into strange territories looking for her uncle, a kidnapped explorer. The novel has this beautiful imagery about maps, and the types of maps, and how they function. I was utterly enchanted by the voice and world building, and some of the story was quite haunting. When I started, I expected the story to be about the main character’s journey with her uncle; when he was removed from the picture and replaced with a romantic interest, I was less enchanted. The adventure part of the book got bogged down, I thought, and was less interesting than a quieter story against this stunning background might have been. But that’s quite possibly my idiosyncratic reaction; I often want more subdued stories and get bored by world-saving. Despite that, it’s quite a good book, and definitely notable for its odd loveliness.

Egg and Spoon, Gregory Maguire (middle grade) — In this sweeping epic, Maguire takes on Russian mythologies, particularly that of Baba Yaga, in a Tzarist setting of both poverty and grandeur. He takes two pre-adolescent protagonists — one, a starving member of the proletariat, the other an aristocrat — and forces them together in what looks initially like it will be a Prince and the Pauper mix-up but eventually becomes more sophisticated. As always with Maguire, the descriptions are very beautiful (especially of manmade objects), and there’s a sort of breathtaking grace in the sweep of his world-building. Another reader wondered if this cribbed too much from the Russian epics; I can’t really speak to that because I haven’t read most of them. Baba Yaga is a time traveler, constantly throwing out anachronisms, which is often something that bugs me, but for some reason, worked for me here. I also liked that the aristocratic girl’s aunt had foibles but also generosity, as did her governess and butler. The novel works smoothly up to the halfway point; after that, I thought it got bogged down with itself and some of its detail and started to move slowly. But it’s really gorgeous and striking and I expect I’ll remember it for a long time. I also expect it would reward rereading.

Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry (young adult) – An adopted piano prodigy feels stifled in her regimented life with her perfectionistic mother. She meets a homeless teenage runaway with psychic powers and they decide to run away from the city together. The story of their travels is interwoven with the story of their meeting and pasts, as well as mysterious encounters with a figure who is heavily implied to be the devil. The speculative thread of this (the devil figure) is never particularly developed or resolved, which didn’t bother me as much as it did other readers I talked to, but did actually seem like a drawback. I wanted something more from the ending than what it gave me, and further development of the devil figure seems like the easiest way for it to have achieved that, although there are other methods, too. (Looking at the amazon page for the book, it looks like this may be part of a longer sequence of novels, which might be why it’s not particularly resolved.) The character development, language, and detail are sharply and astonishingly developed. There’s a lot of non-moralistic depiction of heavy drug use in the book which makes it unusual for YA, but also makes it feel very honest. As a gift-giver, I’d probably skew toward giving the book to people near the top of the young adult age range–probably sixteen or over–but younger teens may well be fine with it. I’d just want that to be something they negotiate for themselves/with their parents. I certainly read pretty honest and dark stuff as a teen.


Witch’s Boy, Kelly Barnhill (young adult) – Trademark Kelly Barnhill whimsy with omnipotent, distinct storyteller voice. A witch’s son and the daughter of a bandit use the last of the world’s magic to stop a war. Also trademark: Barnhill is surprisingly good at creating folk tale imagery and threads that have the same feel as the folk tale lexicon, but are in fact her own, new creations. Not as unique as IRON-HEARTED VIOLET, but perhaps better structured.

Death Sworn, Leah Cypess (young adult) – I find Cypess easy and engaging to read, as in this story of a sorceress sent to teach magic to a cloister of assassins. Liked the magic system, liked the main character, liked the read. Felt the ending flattened out a little, and it didn’t seem as distinct from other YA as some of her work has been. Good, enjoyable read.

Chasing Power, Sarah Beth Durst (young adult) – Durst is always an enjoyable read for me, and is here, too. A girl with the power to move very small objects with her mind finds her life upset when a boy reveals that he’s discovered her secret and blackmails her into embarking on a risky endeavor to rescue his kidnapped mother. Really liked the main character lots and got really attached to her. Also liked the clear love for archaeology in the text. Didn’t feel as unique to me as Durst’s work can be, and felt that it got bogged down in the last third.

Memory of Water, Emmi Itaranta (young adult) – Debut science fiction novel. World after environmental crises have caused global warming, severe droughts, and loss of many advanced technologies. A young girl who inherits her father’s role as a tea master guards her family’s secret, a hidden spring, which has to be concealed from a military obsessed with controlling all access to water. Absolutely exquisitely written, with many beautiful contemplative passages, and gorgeously evocative sensory details. Loved the development of the secondary characters, especially the main character’s best friend. This was another one that got bogged down for me toward the last third with what felt like a lot of repetition of the same kind of emotional moments. Also, it was coy with giving information, which is a minor peeve. Let me reemphasize its beauty, though.

Love Is the Drug, Alaya Dawn Johnson (young adult) – I generally adore Alaya Dawn Johnson’s work, but for some reason this one never really grabbed me, narratively. I felt like there was a tension between the personal plot, which was about the main character’s assertion of her sense of identity against her parents, and the action plot, which was about secret agents and plagues and drugs and terrorism. The two intertwine structurally, but somehow seemed to resist each other in my reading. I liked the personal plot more. The writing is really sharp, the characters are well done, and the scenes between the main character and her paramour Coffee are often intriguing and unexpected.

Evil Librarian, Michelle Knudsen (young adult) – This wasn’t particularly unique, but it was surprisingly fun. Like a really good and satisfying episode of Buffy. (Not like it was copying Buffy, just it had that sense of “let’s go and have fun, and be teens going through emotional stuff, and face ridiculous supernatural threats”). High school student faces down demon librarian. Plus Sondheim!

Mortal Heart, Robin LaFevers (young adult) – The third book in the HIS FAIR ASSASSINS trilogy which is about a convent of nuns who are the daughters of the God of Death and who train as assassins to act as his hands in the world. In this final book, the main character, suspicious of the abbess’s motives, runs away from the convent, risking the anger of her god and his hell-riders. What really impresses me is that it’s so unusual for a third book: it’s as good or better than the earlier books, and I think it would even stand alone. That’s some talent, right there.

Black Dog, Rachel Neumeier (young adult) – Three children, one of whom is a werewolf, flee north after their parents are murdered to find the pack that their father had abandoned and beg to be taken in. As they try to adapt to the new pack’s hierarchy, they also have to fight off hostile their parents’ murderers who have followed them northward and are trying to kill their new pack, too. This story dealt with a lot of themes I like and that are common to Octavia Butler’s work, including characters struggling to negotiate biological imperatives that force them into hierarchical social orders. Because of that, I kept sort of reading a shadow Octavia Butler book as I was reading this one, and wishing that the characters had been drawn with just a touch more of Butler’s sharpness and ambiguity. This probably didn’t serve the book well. On the one hand, it meant I was really into it; on the other, I was preoccupied with considering other ways it could have been written. I felt it suffered a bit from bluntness, but was still quite striking.


Drift, M. K. Hutchins (young adult) – Some of the most unique worldbuilding I’ve seen in young adult novels. May be particularly interesting to those with an interest in anthropology.

The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim, E. K. Johnston (young adult) – Does not include a romance!

Lockstep, Karl Schroeder (middle grade) – Got my hands on it late & had to abandon mid-book for time reasons once I realized it wasn’t a top spot contender for me. Will go back to it when I can. Old-fashioned gosh-wow adventure with lots of hard SF cookies.

The Cure for Dreaming, Cat Winters (young adult) – Interesting take on women’s suffrage movement.

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One Response to Rachel Swirsky’s Recommendations for 2014 Young Adult & Middle Grade SciFi/Fantasy Novels

  1. 1
    KellyK says:

    I read Salvage (in about two days) and loved it. I can see why some people would (wrongly, I think) view it as a critique of religion in general or their particular religion, but I thought it did a really good job of showing characters both within and outside of the cult sympathetically.