Here are three recent teen fantasies I’ve read with two things in common: I loved all of them, and they all feature brown-skinned heroines.
A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston. Hyperion, 2015.
Lo-Melkhiin has married 300 girls, each from a different village, and each of them has been found dead the next morning. When news comes that Lo-Melkhiin is coming to the village of our unnamed narrator, she knows that her sister is the prettiest and most likely to be chosen. “She that he chose of us would never be forgotten. She would still be dead.” She puts on her sister’s purple bridal dishdashah, embroidered in black and secrets, to make sure that she is chosen. She will turn shifting sand into a plan as hard as glass to find a way to do what the men will not, and stop Lo-Melkhiin. Her sister, too, plans to pray to make her a smallgod and give her the power she needs. All the characters besides Lo-Melkhiin are identified only by their relationships to each other, which together with the language, gives the story a powerful mythic feel. Our narrator is particular, but also universal, famous and yet unknown in a story about the secret power of women, found in women’s work, songs and talk. Captivating, beautiful, and powerful. Spindle, set in the same world, is coming out in December. And if you haven’t yet, you should also read her Story of Owen.
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. Little, Brown 2015.
Kate Elliott, famous for very long epic fantasies for adults such as Jaran, Spirit Gate and Cold Magic) tries to fit her usual elaborate world-building into a shorter YA trilogy, with fair success. Our narrator is Jessamy, one of Captain Esladas’s four half-breed daughters, including oldest Maraya, Jessamy’s twin Bettany and the young and beautiful Amaya. In the remembered past, the Asian-featured, patriarchal Saro conquered the African-featured matriarchal Efea. Captain Esladas came over from Saro as a youth to make a name for himself (very successfully), and fell in love the girls’ mother, whom he treats as a wife even though she is legally just a concubine, raising their daughters as Patrons even though their faces give them away. The sport that unites the two peoples is the Fives, an arena event involving five very different types of obstacle courses. This sport is Jessamy’s passion, one that she sneaks out to train for and has saved a year’s spending money to enter the official completion as the story opens. Plans of this type cannot be expected to work out: Captain Esladas returns early. Jessamy cannot win lest she be forced to remove her mask, but she still does well enough to come to the attention of the odious Lord Gargaron of Garon Palace, who keeps a stable of Fives adversaries, as the athletes are called. The plot only picks up from here, getting much bigger and more dangerous, involving a hint of forbidden romance, death, more danger, and Jessamy learning about the Efean culture that is half of her heritage for the first time. I don’t often think about books as movies these days, but there is so much action here that I found myself thinking that it would be a really great movie. I had to research to see if there were African-Asian actresses to play this – since this calls for a minimum of four. (There is one white background character, presumably for color.) The middle book of the trilogy, Poison Blade, is just out. You can listen to an interview with Kate Elliott about it on the Fan Girl Happy Hour Podcast Episode 51.
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Keri is making a success of running her mother’s bakery on her own, when her hated father, the Lord of their kingdom, dies. Suddenly, shockingly, the Magic of the kingdom chooses the illegitimate Keri as Lady of the kingdom over the Lord’s three older, acknowledged male heirs, including suave Brann, tough Domeric, and (stage) player Lucas. Not only is this a tough place to start, but the Mist that protects their tiny kingdom from the much larger kingdoms to the north and south is failing. It’s up to Keri – with help from her friend Tassel and her cousin Cort – to stave off the other kingdoms and earn her place as Lady. (Though ethnicity isn’t as big a part of the culture as the previous two books, Keri is described as having brown skin and it’s clear that the kingdom is diverse in that regards, tiny as it is.) Keri manages to keep her head straight and her feet on the ground – and I so appreciate baking for stress belief, even if Keri uses too many poisonous-to-me almonds. This is so perfectly a me book, with beautifully drawn characters, an intriguing magic system, and just the right amount of tension. I believe it’s a standalone, though I would be so happy to read more about these characters. If you haven’t read her other titles, they are also well worth reading – I’m particularly fond of Black Dog.