YA: It Doesn't Always Have to Break Your Heart

Caroline: I was a teenager when I first read Harry Potter, and I remember how completely shocked and stricken I was by the death of Cedric Diggory. He was the first “on-camera” death in that series, a few books in, and since the first three books were spooky but not grim this sudden shift in tone took me by surprise. And more was to come: at that point, the last book hadn’t even been written, and it killed far more folks than Cedric. While I felt that I could handle it, I was disappointed by the change in a series I’d started to love for an entirely different reason. More, I worried about the kids younger than me who were reading these books.

It seems to me that in the years since the bloodbath of the battle for Hogwarts, bloodier and bloodier things have been classified as YA, mostly in the fantasy-sci fi areas. I tried a few well-rated books recently (An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir and The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh), and while both are generally well executed, I was emotionally beat up by them. An Ember in the Ashes opens with the heroine witnessing the throat-slitting murder of her grandmother and grandfather. Later, the hero has to lead some classmates in a tournament battle to the death against his (female) best friend, who  is commanding another group of classmates. Anyone who holds back is magically choked to death by the mages running the tournament. The Wrath and the Dawn is a Scheherazade-Arabian Nights story, so the hero murdered previous wives (he’s given a reason, which wasn’t as convincing as I’d like), and the characters during the current story fight and kill as well. Add this to Kiera Cass’s The Siren, about a heroine who has to sing people to their deaths in shipwrecks, and I’m exhausted. While I gave The Siren a B, I didn’t review the other two (they were personal reading, not review copies, so I wasn’t obligated). I was so tired of living in these worlds that I couldn’t face going back to review them, especially since I’d have to read the sequels to find out if the romances end happily.

My feelings aside, the purpose of this post isn’t to bash dark books. It’s to help readers who aren’t looking for one find what they do want. There are times when I want to read or recommend to a young person a book that doesn’t have a body count in the dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and it’s surprisingly hard to find them. I asked around AAR for some recommendations for fantasy or science fiction with less (although not necessarily no) violence and death. And of course, ones with romances, because this is AAR.

Jenna: I absolutely love Graceling by Kristin Cashore. The book is definitely fantasy, and bad things do happen to the characters. And I have to say that the villain of the story is truly terrifying. This is not a light and fluffy read. But I found it much more emotionally uplifting than devastating. You don’t have characters dying for the shock value, and there is no gratuitous torture, nor is there violence that doesn’t advance the story in some meaningful way. What I especially love is that it is almost a fairy tale of sorts, however the heroine Katsa is truly the one doing the saving as opposed to playing the role of damsel waiting for her prince to save her. She’s one of the strongest females around, but she’s also extremely vulnerable, and her growth throughout her journey is where the emotion of the story comes from. If Katsa were a Game of Thrones character, I see her as a cross mix of Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark.

Caroline: I wrote our DIK of Graceling, and I agree wholeheartedly. Bad things, including really terrible things, are happening, but the author doesn’t rub your face in it. At each level of your own maturity, you’ll bring your own knowledge to it. What an 11-year-old thinks as mistreatment of a child is and what an 18 year old realizes it can be are totally different – and an 11 year old won’t have an 18 year old’s darker knowledge forced on them.

Jean: Second the Graceling rec. It is abso-frickin-lutely fantastic. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

Caroline: The Scorpio Races is one of my all-time favorite YA novels. It’s about a young man named Sean who has a special connection to the feral water horses which come out of the ocean on their island, and Kate, who wants to defy tradition and become the first woman to compete in the water horse race to earn enough money to save her family. There are some deaths in it, but again, I’m not ruling books on this list out because they have any violence. I just don’t want ones which wallow in it or barrage you with it. I thought that author struck a good balance between spending enough time on deaths that they weren’t trivialized and not dwelling on them so that the book became grim and depressing.

Shannon: I loved The Selection series by Kiera Cass, about young women who have the chance to compete to marry a prince. The final installment is coming out some time this year. There are some bad things that happen, but there’s a sweetness to the books that I haven’t found in a lot of recent novels. America, the heroine of the first three books, is smart, a bit sassy, and determined to stand up for the people and the things she believes in. Ending up as future queen of the land is a nice bonus, but it isn’t America’s driving ambition.

Haley: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer is good. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell that I recently reviewed (it was a DIK) only has one or two deaths, neither very graphic. The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater is pretty tame also. Those are all more urban fantasy.
Jenna: I second the idea of including Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys series – it’s intense but not gruesome or gratuitous. I’m so excited for the final book to come out in a couple of weeks.

Melanie: The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner has some really sweet romance in the later books, and I don’t really remember deaths in it. It’s been a while since I read them, though, so I may be wrong. They are soooo good, though! We get to follow Gen, the titular thief, from prison to a quest to a kingdom. I can’t recommend the entire series more, and I’d say it’s appropriate for just about any YA age.

There are also the Tamora Pierce series, which are both classic and fabulous. There’s the Song of the Lioness series, following Alanna as she becomes a knight, which is followed by the Immortals and Protector of the Small. Basically, just read all the Tortall books – they are really good, and are definitely female-strong. And the overall world is still going! There is at least one more series expected out in 2017. Fantasy and magic and female knights. Love.

And  Howl’s Moving Castle and its two sequels by Diana Wynne Jones, which is, at heart, romance.

Caroline: LOVE LOVE LOVE Howl’s Moving Castle. I agree that it’s a romance. (The heroine Sophie is transformed into an old woman by a witch, and she leaves on an adventure on a moving castle which belongs to the sorcerer Howl. They fall in love and work to stop a war. The prose is beautifully written, and the movie, a Hayao Miyazaki animation, is also wonderful.)

Melanie: The English dub is good, but the Japanese is so much better.

Jean: Shadows by Robin McKinley. Or actually, almost anything by Robin McKinley will fit your original YA non-violent requirement, but particularly Shadows, Pegasus, and Dragonhaven.

Caz: I’ve mentioned it a lot – and I know you enjoyed it too, Caroline – Sherry Thomas’ Elemental trilogy. There are deaths, yes, but I don’t recall anything being horribly violent or gratuitous, and I certainly wouldn’t put them in the category of truly dark YA. You do have to read all three books, but they’re so good that I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to! The central characters are incredibly well-drawn and the romance that develops is one of the best I’ve read in any genre (but then it’s Sherry Thomas, so it’s a given that the romance would be excellent!) There’s magic, a handsome but burdened hero and a heroine who experiences huge personal growth through the books, going from someone who isn’t convinced of her own strength to someone confident in her powers who absolutely refuses to give up on the fight or the boy she loves. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Caroline: Yes! I know a book is good when I immediately force it on my very picky husband, which I did with Sherry Thomas and also with Graceling, from earlier in the post. He loved them both.

And now I turn to you readers. What fantasy and sci-fi, particularly YA but not a requirement, have you read that fits this description? Do you have any thoughts about the level of violence and darkness that’s becoming mainstream in YA? (And for more great YA recommendations, check out the Young Adult Fiction listings in our Special Titles section.)

Caroline Russomanno



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04/28/2016 2:53 am

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Louise B
Louise B
04/19/2016 11:14 pm

How anyone can recommend the Thief series as non-violent is beyond me. The title character has his hand chopped off on screen–and the reader is supposed to end up forgiving the woman who ordered (and watched) the act.

Reply to  Louise B
04/27/2016 8:34 pm

Yikes! Probably not for me, then! (Although I guess technically Vader did that and I forgave him, so it’s possible in good hands). (Ugh, did I just say hands?)

Dabney Grinnan
Dabney Grinnan
04/18/2016 7:39 pm

Has anyone read the incredible Chanters of Trimeris series?