I read a lot of YA novels here on this blog. Certainly not as many as some other folks, but enough that I have a few excellent books up my sleeve if you ever ask me for recommendations. So this month, in honour of the celebrations of LGBTQIA+ activism and liberation that take place in June, I’m compiling some lists of favourites from the field of YA with queer protagonists.
Today, we look at sci-fi and fantasy: in the stories below we have swashbuckling pirates, ghost boyfriends, magic-thieves, teen witches, space wizards, and more! Queer readers are getting to see themselves in an immensely exciting variety of magical adventures, and this is merely a handful of my personal faves. Read on to see if any pique your interest, and leave any recommendations of your own in the comments!
Ash by Malinda Lo
After the death of her parents, Aisling is left only with her abusive stepfamily and the book of fairy tales her mother gave her. Alone in the world, she wanders into the woods and falls in with the fair folk, entangling her life with the cunning and cold Sidhean. But when Aisling begins to fall for the king’s Huntress, she regains some hope in her life—and needs to find a way out of her fairy contract quicksmart.
You’ve gotta go back to your roots. This was, I believe, the first novel I read with a queer main character, and it remains a gorgeous and iconic work of queer escapism. A sapphic retelling of Cinderella, Ash is both a delightful magical romance and a poetic story about grief. The way magic is woven through the story and the prose itself is just lovely, and it’s a story that’s definitely worth coming back to even after more than a decade.
Cemetery Boys by Aidan Thomas
Desperate to prove himself a brujo, Yadriel sets out to summon a ghost—for dealing with spirits is the magic of men, and Yadriel’s transgender identity has so far kept him out of the circle and out of his family’s coming-of-age rites. He succeeds… kind of. Instead of summoning the spirit of his recently (and mysteriously) deceased cousin, Yads finds himself stuck with the ghost of Julian Diaz, a rowdy “bad boy” who can’t remember how he died. All he wants to do is prove his worth and get rid of Julian’s ghost before Día de Muertos, but as the murder mystery thickens and the two boys grow closer, things become a little more complicated.
Cemetery Boys is a blast. The characters are fun and likeable (with a personal favourite being Julian, Himbo Supreme and Best Ghost Boyfriend Ever), and the world, both the day-to-day life of diaspora in Los Angeles and the fantasy aspects drawn from South American mythology, is rich and cleverly realised. Watching Yadriel come into his own magic and stand up for who he is—and defeat evil!—is just a ball of ghosty-toasty fun. (CW: depictions of casual transphobia)
Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans
Iris grew out of a seed in the ground and is pals with the fairies and dryads who live in the forest, so magic is no surprise to them. Babs is invisible most of the time, and is delighted when Iris can see her. The two form a tight-knit friendship, soon taking a nameless boy under their wings as well, venturing through the magical world that exists just on the fringes of their suburban lives. When they sense a witch in the woods, they band together and set out to figure out a way to lift the curse of invisibility on Babs.
I Am Once Again Recommending Euphoria Kids. It truly is revolutionary in just how sweet it is, starring three trans characters who get to have an exciting magical adventure without being weighed down by the usual tropes of trans tragedy. It’s dreamy, it’s whimsical, and it’s profoundly cute. It also skews a little younger than some of the titles on this list, and I can see this being enjoyed by ages 12+.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
In a spacefaring, magic-infused future, The Immortal Emperor sends out a call: a call that reaches even the rocky, desolate, and skeleton-filled pit that is the Ninth House. Harrowhark, bone magic prodigy, sees an opportunity to finally strut her stuff and gain some imperial prestige. Gideon, Harrow’s childhood nemesis, who crash-landed on the Ninth as a baby and who has been trying to escape ever since, sees an opportunity to get out of dodge. The two reluctantly team up as mage and bodyguard and set off, only to end up entangled in an interstellar murder mystery and a quest to uncover the Emperor’s secrets.
(I think this may technically be published as general sci-fi, as Tor doesn’t specifically have a YA imprint. But listen. The main characters are 17/18, there’s nothing in here I think is wildly inappropriate or out-of-line for a teen audience, and it’s good as Hell and I want to talk about it)
Swordfights! Necromancy! Intrigue! A loveable bunch of extremely weird and volatile characters! Gloriously strange prose that should not work, but does! The only enemies-to-lovers romantic tension I’ve truly ever gotten emotionally invested in! There is much to love here, and if you really want, you can go see it bend my brain in real time over on Twitter. (CW: body horror, character death. Don’t worry, though—this is only part one of a trilogy, and in a world of necromancy, someone who seems to be a Buried Gay may not remain Buried forever).
Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
Jess, despite being the daughter of two superheroes, hasn’t developed any powers herself, a fact she’s universally bummed about. When her search for an after-school job finds her interning for the local mischievous supervillains, she’s excited to finally get to be involved in something… but ends up deeper than she planned when she begins to uncover nefarious plots that skew the very idea of “hero” and “villain”.
When are we getting an animated adaptation of this series, seriously? It’s got everything I enjoy about superhero stories, with this narrative handed to a cast of diverse underdog kids. Secret identity shenanigans and fantastically goofy romantic subplots make this very fun, and a thematic undercurrent about how social narratives of heroism and villainy are carefully constructed by the Powers That Be to push a certain agenda makes this very relevant.
Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve
In an alternate 1996 where magic and monsters are a fact of everyday life, fourteen-year-old Z has died in a car crash and awoken as a zombie. Orphaned and ostracised, Z searches for a cure to their state of decay, and along the way befriends Aysel, a fellow misfit who is keeping her lycanthropy under wraps. Secrecy becomes ever more important for these monster-kids as anti-werewolf sentiment builds in their town, following the mysterious murder of a doctor who was performing electroshock “therapy” to try and disconnect fae and monsters from their magic.
Harrowing in places but also deeply heartfelt, this is a story about friendship between misfits, and how we need that friendship to survive in a world where we’ve been deemed Monster. There are werewolves running underground revolutionary zines, spells being performed in garages, and genderqueer zombies using the pre-Y2K Internet. It’s a magical, fascinating, and very queer world to play in. (CW: homophobic violence) (More details here!)
Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno
Georgina is the latest in a long line of witches who live on the island of By-the-Sea, but she has no powers of her own. But when the island’s resident magical migratory bird (who may, once, have been a witch herself) is found dead, and Georgina’s sister starts acting strangely, it’s up to Georgina, powerless or not, to solve the mystery and save By-the-Sea from the dark forces possibly at work within it.
A lush and dreamy small-town mystery, blended with a story about family and figuring yourself out (with a very sweet sapphic romantic subplot as a bonus). Leno builds the island world, so casually interwoven with everyday magic, with gorgeous prose that draws you in when it’s both heartening and haunting. The way witchery manifests in metaphors and power fantasies is sometimes triumphant and sometimes deeply freaky, so if you like that kind of Chaotic Neutral, emotionally-charged magic, give this a shot. (CW: an off-page, but plot-relevant, scene of sexual assault. The attacker gets his dues in a spectacular way by the end)
Spellhacker by M.K. England
Magic (known as maz) is a physical resource that comes up from under the ground, but to access it you have to pay the big bucks to the corporation that has monopolised it. What if you want maz but don’t have the aforementioned big bucks? Well, that’s where Diz and her crew of thieves come in. For years now they’ve had a sweet side hustle where they siphon maz and bring it to the highest bidder. It’s a risky business, though, and the gang is set for One Last Job that will ensure they never have to steal again… but the “last job” goes awry and the crew instead finds themselves in the midst of a corporate cover-up that is putting millions of lives at risk. Do they save their own skins and sneak away, or try to save the world?
This one’s just plain fun—a zippy blend of sci-fi and fantasy with strong imagery, tight worldbuilding, and most importantly a loveable cast of messy misfits who must band together to save the world from greedy Powers That Be. (More details here!)
The Lost Coast by A.R. Capetta
The Grays are a tight-knit coven of teen witches, until their most charismatic and talented member, Imogen, walks into the woods one night and comes back a shell of her former self. The Grays cast a spell to summon someone, anyone, who might be able to help, and into town wanders Danny, a girl with a strong sense of yearning but little sense of where it’s always been trying to take her. Danny is ecstatic to find the witches and win their approval, but as the mist thickens and the ancient redwood forest fills with dead boys and disappeared girls, time is running out to discover her inner magic and find what’s left of Imogen.
This is a gorgeous, spooky, dreamy story about found family and the weird ways a place can become home. The nonlinear storytelling and the style of the writing makes this a fun little mystery to piece together as you’re drawn ever deeper into the eerie yet inviting world of the ancient redwood forest. (More details here!)
The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Flora—disguised as a boy named “Florian”—is a pirate indebted to her bloodthirsty captain. Evelyn Hasegawa is a lady, shipped off to an arranged marriage with her luggage stored in her own coffin. The pirates’ plan is simple, the same one executed countless times before: kidnap the rich girl, sell her for a profit. But as Flora and Evelyn begin to fall for each other, alliances shift, and the two end up on the high seas in a battle for their own agency—helped along by an unexpected friend in the Sea itself.
A dark, satisfyingly grimy swashbuckling fantasy where the greatest sea monster of all is Imperialism. If you’re keen for a play with the “crossdressing pirate” trope that uses it to explore gender fluidity and non-binary identity, you may find Flora/Florian very interesting; and if you want fantasy worlds that draw from cultures other than Europe this may also pique your interest. Tokuda-Hall presents a gloriously cruel world but gives her heroes the magic and guts they need to navigate it towards their own happy ending. (CW: multiple, multiple threats and discussions of sexual assault)
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The poets all sing of Achilles, demigod hero of the War of Troy—but no one knows his tale better than Patroclus, the boy who loves him.
This gorgeously written queer retelling of The Iliad is perhaps one of my favourite takes on Greek myth ever. Miller’s prose is exceptional, capturing both a sense of ancient grandeur and a sense that this story is deeply personal. It gives a voice to Patroclus, a character often forgotten until it’s time for him to die to move the story along, and it paints a moving portrait of two young people falling so deeply, hopelessly, tragically in love that you have no choice to get swept up in it even if you know it’s galloping towards a heartbreaking ending. This is not a happy queer story, but it’s gloriously bittersweet, and gives this relationship the emotional weight that it’s historically been denied by scholars from the No Homo school of classical studies. (CW: mentions and brief depictions of sexual assault)
The Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire
Literature is full of tales of children who fall through portals, and undergo their coming-of-age stories in magical worlds. The end of those stories usually necessitates a return to the “real world”… but what if the portal world is truly home? What if you can’t adjust to being an ordinary teenager after your time as a hero? For those seeking help and solace, make your way to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children.
These books capture a queer and youthful sense of yearning so well that I wrote a whole paper about it. As well as being a wonderfully meta take on the portal fantasy genre—simultaneously critique and love letter—these books function as dazzling, dreamy portal fantasies in their own right. The adventures begin in Every Heart a Doorway, where tension mounts in this haven for outsiders as grisly murders ripple through the school. After that, the series ebbs and flows: some novellas work as standalones and prequels, and some progress the timeline and let you return to the shenanigans of the lost and magic-touched kids as they break West’s “no quests” rule time and again. They’re a lot of fun, wicked and poetic and almost like fairy tales, perfect for anyone who daydreamed about slipping through a doorway to a place all of your own as a kid.