Can teens today get enough of fantasy? Luckily for readers who grew up on series such as Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, this ever-expanding genre is continuing to attract new and distinctive voices, producing imaginative offerings for discerning teen readers. Here are three titles representing some of the best new work in fantasy.
FINDING HER PLACE
Nnedi Okorafor, who teaches creative writing at Chicago State University, has written for both teens and adults, winning critical acclaim and honors such as the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. Okorafor, who was born in the U.S. to two Nigerian parents, sets her latest book, Akata Witch, in Nigeria. But like the author herself, Sunny, the heroine, is American by birth.
Sunny isn’t having an easy time of it in school. She is an albino, which means not only must she carry a black umbrella everywhere to protect her skin from the sun, but she is also teased and ridiculed by her peers. Her first friend is her classmate Orlu, who introduces her to a girl named Chichi. But these are not ordinary teen friendships: Before long Sunny finds that, like her companions, she is one of the Leopard People, someone imbued with magical powers. Soon the three friends, plus an American boy named Sasha, are being trained by Anatov, their teacher, in the mastery of their magical powers—which they will have to draw on to confront a serial killer of children who is terrorizing the community.
This is a wonderful coming-of-age story with an intriguing setting and an original magical world that will draw in readers. As Sunny comes to terms with her growing powers, she also discovers a connection to her late grandmother, and manages to find a way to navigate the two separate worlds of her existence. Teens beginning their own life journeys apart from parents and home will find much that resonates in Sunny’s story.
A JOURNEY OF THE HEART
Cindy Pon’s new novel is the conclusion to her debut title, Silver Phoenix, named one of the Top Ten Fantasy Novels of 2009 by Booklist. In Silver Phoenix, readers were introduced to Ai Ling, a 17-year-old girl in the kingdom of Xia, who has magical abilities, including the capacity to throw her spirit outside of herself in order to listen to others or even touch their spirits. In the first book, Ai Ling met Chen Yong, a young man of mixed races who was searching for the truth of his birth. As Fury of the Phoenix begins, Ai Ling stows away on the same ship as Chen Yong, concerned for his safety as he undertakes a long and dangerous sea journey to continue his search for his birth father.
When Ai Ling is discovered on board the Gliding Dragon, she pretends to be Chen Yong’s sister who has stowed away to be near her brother. The ship’s captain, Peng, is a fair and wise leader, who suspects that the relationship between Ai Ling and Chen Yong is not what it appears. As the journey progresses, the story alternates between Ai Ling’s onboard adventures and the story of a young man named Zhong Ye, the highest-ranking adviser to the Emperor. Ai Ling and Zhong Ye are inextricably linked through a mysterious past: “She could almost see his pale gray eyes, felt as if it were yesterday that their spirits entangled when she killed him. No matter how often she tried to push Zhong Ye from her mind, he lingered, festering like some dark wound.”
Cindy Pon weaves an intricate tale of adventure and romance in Fury of the Phoenix, creating a magical yet believable world infused with the incense of its ancient Chinese setting.
RESTORING THE BALANCE
Like Cindy Pon’s work, Malinda Lo’s novels also draw their inspiration from China culture, with shades of Irish folklore as well. Her first novel, Ash, has been described as “Cinderella . . . with a twist.” In Lo’s novel Ash is not swept away by a prince, but falls in love with Kaisa, the King’s huntress.
Huntress is set in the same world as Ash, but the story takes place many centuries earlier, during a time when nature is out of balance. The sky is continually overcast, and the sun has not shone in a long time; people are faced with starvation because of failing crops. Not only that, strange creatures are beginning to appear, some masquerading as human children.
When an invitation from the Fairy Queen arrives, two 17-year-old girls are tapped to make the journey to try to help restore balance in the human world. Taisin is the most celebrated student seer of her generation, but Kaede can’t figure out why she is being asked; while she has been studying at the Academy of Seers for years, it is clear she doesn’t have a magical bone in her body. Yet she has other skills, including the ability to throw a knife. And, as Kaede soon discovers, there is another reason for her selection: Taisin has had a vision of her. In fact, Taisin’s vision reveals her deep love for Kaede—a love that is forbidden because Taisin wants to be a seer, and seers must be celibate.
Filled with dangerous adventure, an evocative setting and a compelling romance between its two leads, Huntress is an appealing and exciting offering from this talented author.