Children’s Books

Young Adult Fantasy Novels That Sweep Readers Away

By Marjorie Ingall

Young adult speculative fiction is a big tent. A Gothic, feminist literary ghost story shares shelf space with a rip-roaring, ripped-from-the-headlines climate change dystopia; an otherworldly, falconry-focused, spectacularly imagined high fantasy novel; and a weird and playful fable about a teenage girl with a tunnel through her belly. You know, something for everybody.

Nova Ren Suma’s A ROOM AWAY FROM THE WOLVES (Algonquin, 336 pp., $18.95; ages 14 to 18) harks back to Shirley Jackson (a creepy house!), Sir Walter Scott (a cursed opal! strange mist!), and Henry James (another creepy house!). As she did in her best-selling “The Walls Around Us,” Suma serves up an unreliable narrator and a haunted residence full of trapped girls. This time, the setting is Catherine House, a boardinghouse for young women, the last of its kind in New York City. We learn that the home opened in 1919 after the mysterious death of its namesake, Catherine de Barra; Bina, 17, knows that long ago, her mother lived there. After a late-night confrontation in the woods with her two stepsisters, Bina finds herself at the side of a country road, unsure of just how she got there, bloody but determined to escape to New York City and Catherine House. “It was almost like I was there already, swaying on new legs in the glittering night that used to know my mother and now might know me,” she tells us.

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Catherine House is haunted in the classic style: surrounded by a black wrought-iron gate and savagely pointed spiked fence, with dark and opaque curtains, a strange caretaker, a musty golden parlor and a portrait of the patroness with eyes that seem to follow Bina. The book’s first line gives a sense of what’s to come: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning, she showed no twitch of fear.” Leaps and falls and cracks and edges are everywhere in “A Room Away From the Wolves.” It’s all mist and mood. Some readers will find it frustrating, others shiver-inducingly delicious.

There’s no mystery to Neal Shusterman and his son Jarrod Shusterman’s DRY (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $18.99; ages 12 and up): It’s a propulsive action thriller about our failure to grapple with climate change. Suffused with zombie-movie dread, it’s told in the present tense, adding to the feeling of immediacy. In four alternating points of view and quick “snapshots” of strangers in crisis, “Dry” tells the story of the Tap-Out: a time in the possibly near future when all the faucets in Southern California run dry. The Central Valley is desiccated — the media have dubbed it “the Pacific Dust Bowl” — and the price of produce has skyrocketed. Arizona and Nevada back out of a “reservoir relief deal,” shutting the floodgates on their dams to preserve water for their own populations.

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And society breaks down. Four very different teenagers — Alyssa, Kelton, Jacqui and Henry — join forces in a desperate search for Kelton’s doomsday-prepper family’s hidden shelter and bottled water supply. The kids drive through dried-out riverbeds (“really just the memory of a river,” Kelton notes); through woods smelling of ever-growing wildfires and littered with vicious survivalists. Alyssa is repeatedly threatened with rape or sexual abuse. The book’s only humor comes from Henry, a manipulative little future titan of industry who spouts bizdev jargon yet observes, like the kid he is, “If we don’t adhere to the convention of calling shotgun, what rule of law is left to us?” The writing can be clunky (“My God! It happened in the blink of an eye!” and “It may be his turn to go down with the ship” appear on the same page) and character development isn’t this novel’s strong suit. But the depiction of our collective blindness to the environmental devastation we’re wreaking — as well as the irresponsible way mass media cover it — is gripping.

Nothing feels familiar about the setting of Alex London’s BLACK WINGS BEATING (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 432 pp., $17.99; ages 12 to 18). London, author of the underappreciated “Proxy,” gives us a brilliantly crafted high fantasy about a society in which survival depends on falconry; even bird haters will be spellbound. There’s a lot of world-building right up front, which means it can take a little while for readers to find their wings. It’s worth it, though, as we meet Brysen, a young man smitten with his handsome hawk master, and his twin sister, Kylee, who has all the falcon-whispering skills Brysen lacks and desperately craves. Kylee hates her secret ability to speak the ancient language of birds — the Hollow Tongue — and wants only to escape.

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London conjures up a vivid world in which even the metaphors are bird-focused. Brysen’s moods are “like hummingbirds, fleeting and fast”; Kylee’s memory of their father’s abuse “pinned her in its talons, mantled its wings over her mind.” We meet anti-bird-taming religious fanatics who crawl in the dirt, refusing to look at the sky, and “battle boys” who fight for coins (“bronze”) in deep pits, wearing feathers and bone bracelets, covered in brilliantly colored tattoos (“they looked like a flock of bloodthirsty parrots”). There are warriors on kites, ice snakes, a blood-birch forest. The vivid story has flashes of “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Max” (the woman-powered remake, not the Mel Gibson original), but “Black Wings Beating” is its own wondrous thing. London has a gift for depicting physicality — brutal fights, delicious food, muscled bodies. The heroes of his epic — there will clearly be a sequel — are a gay boy and a strong girl who needs to accept her own power. “A falcon could mount to the stars and still count the hairs on a goat’s head,” Kylee muses. “So could a good imagination.” Indeed.

Kendra Fortmeyer’s HOLE IN THE MIDDLE (Soho Teen, 360 pp., $18.99; ages 14 and up) is somehow both conventional and quirky. This first-time novelist (and 2017 Pushcart Prize winner) delivers a body-positive fantasy in which friendship is as important as romance. Morgan Stone was born with a peach-size hole in her abdomen, a tunnel through her entire body. “I look like a bead that’s lost its necklace,” she says. She lives with her friend Caro, a beautiful plus-size model and activist. (Vamping in a hot dress, Caro demands, “Aren’t I punching preconceived notions of fatness equaling lazy, ugly and unlovable in the face?”) Morgan comes out as a girl with a toroid center at a club called the Mansion, dancing in a crop top, enjoying her body and getting lost in music. She becomes a local celebrity in Raleigh, N.C., and soon, around the world, thanks to a TMZ-like gossip blog. “Hole Girl” fan fiction and fan art spring up as everyone realizes “we all have holes” — feelings of loneliness, grief, otherness.

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When Morgan is introduced to Howie, a boy with a protrusion of flesh on his abdomen — her precise opposite (“the puzzle piece pair,” the tabloids call them) — genetic engineering offers her a chance to be “normal.” But what might that mean? The science makes no sense, and the whole/hole wordplay and often too-fancy writing (“the trees sheltering the spaces, still in autumn splendor, drop heavily”) can be wearying. But Fortmeyer’s humor, sweetness and focus on sexual and medical consent are winning.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet magazine and the author of “Mamaleh Knows Best.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 37 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Y.A. / What If?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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