I'm trying something new with this blog post - instead of reviewing a single book or series, I'm going to give you some recommendations of books that I think need more hype. Some of them are already well known, some are not, but altogether I wish more people read them so that I can gush about them with more people!
1. The Young Wizards Series by Diane Duane
Pretty much every time I get the chance, I recommend these books to someone. This series was my Harry Potter growing up. I found the first book, So You Want to be a Wizard, by chance at my local bookstore when I was only about nine years old. It was eerie, because the opening blurb on the book was very similar to my experience of finding the book itself - the main character, Nita Callahan, happens upon a book with the same title down in the Children's section of her local library. She, like me at nine, assumed it was some kind of joke. But the joke was, it turns out, on us.
There are always going to be comparisons to Harry Potter when young people and magic are involved, but that is really where the similarities between these two series end. Diane Duane's series is about Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez, two young New Yorkers who each happen upon their own copy of the Wizard's Manual, a book that asks them to take an unusual Oath in order to become wizards. Kit thinks the idea is cool and wants to try everything; Nita thinks it's a joke, but then hopes she can use magic to at least stop getting beat up at school. The two find each other in their travels, and the first novel is all about them taking the test all young wizards must take (though the test changes drastically depending on the wizard) and pass in order to take on the duty of wizardry: The Ordeal.
It's an urban fantasy series that borders on science fiction in a lot of ways. Wizardry doesn't just exist in this world - there's a reason for it, rules to it, limits to it, and consequences to its abuse. There is no wizardry school - wizards learn on the job, and it is a job - one with life and death circumstances. But there is also fun, and silliness, and aliens, and anthropomorphic computers, and a lot more.
This is a series that gets better and better as it goes on, which is incredible given the first book came out in the 1980s. Duane recently released the first 9 books as New Millennium Editions - compressing the timeline and making it clear how old the characters are from book to book, and what year each book is taking place in. Which makes you, the lucky reader who hasn't found these yet, all the luckier - back in the day we spent many a forum post trying to figure out character ages and grades.
A remarkable facet of this series is that every new character is equally awesome - even characters just introduced in the latest book, Games Wizards Play (book 10), already have a fan following. And at the core is a wonderful recurring cast, including our leads Nita and Kit, who have grown so much over ten books, but are still the ones we fell in love with at the beginning.
If you, like me, have had a hard time getting into fantasy novels that are all the rage in YA these days, definitely try this one out. It's so close to sci-fi that it might as well be, but with all the fun, magic and wild rides of a fantasy series. I love everything about this series. I love that a new book just came out after almost 6 years of waiting (minus some bridging novellas in the interim) and the fandom has already been revived. I love that I grew up with this series and still feel like a kid again when I read it.
Definitely check it out.
2. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
This is a book that was recommended to me by a friend in the Young Wizards fandom. I don't think I ever would have picked it up on my own - it's an adult urban fantasy novel about fairies, not something I have ever been really into. But thank goodness I did!
War for the Oaks takes place in Minneapolis and follows Eddi, the guitarist of a band that's falling apart since she broke up with its leader. She's pulled into the middle of a war between the Seelie and UnSeelie Courts of fairy, and is bestowed a guard to protect her in the form of the Phouka, who can transform at will into a large dog-creature.
This is another great ensemble cast, because there's both Eddi's band and the fairies involved. I love Eddi and the Phouka and their antagonism, I love Eddi's band to bits for their found family vibe, and I even like the villains for their dark complexity.
This is definitely an adult book - there are some sexytimes - but I read it when I was pretty young and wasn't exactly scarred for life. This was my first real dip into urban fantasy outside of the Young Wizards series, and it was one of the most unique.
For one, I typically don't like books that have bands or music in them - I can't read a book and hear the music as it's described. But the way Emma Bull paints a picture of the band and its music somehow makes it work, and in a visual (instead of just auditory) way that got right into me and stayed there long after.
I also didn't know much about fairy lore going into this book, so everything I think about fairies now is heavily colored by the way Emma Bull describes them. I love all the different kinds that appear in this novel, and how they interact with Eddi in very different ways.
Most of all, I love that this is a standalone book that really does stand on its own. It's got a complete story within its pages, beginning, middle, and end, and every bit is just as satisfying as the one before it. If you're intimidated by lengthy series (like the first one I mentioned), then please try this. It'll get you hooked on the urban fantasy genre and chomping at the bit for more.
3. The Sirantha Jax series and The Dred Chronicles by Ann Aguirre
I've already reviewed all of the Dred Chronicles (Perdition #1, Havoc #2, and Breakout #3) on this blog, as well as the first book in the Sirantha Jax series (here), but I might as well give it all an extra shoutout here.
The Sirantha Jax series consists of 6 sci-fi romance novels (I say romance, but that feels like an awfully small part of it despite its categorization...) that take place in a future where warp and FTL drives don't exist. Instead, humans (and some aliens) are born with a gene that allows them to jump ships through an in-between space called Grimspace to get ships across the universe. Jumpers, as they're called, are partnered with trusted pilots, but the jumpers are on borrowed time - they almost always die young, because after an uncertain number of jumps, they'll jump into Grimspace and never come back out again.
Sirantha is one such jumper, or she was until her ship crashed, killing her pilot (and lover) and everyone else on board. She's in a mental facility going slowly crazy, trying to remember what happened and failing. That is, until she's broken out by a military-esque man named March who thinks she can help save the universe or something.
Sirantha Jax is one of the coolest lead females in a sci-fi series EVER. She's mouthy, sarcastic, impulsive, self-deprecating, sexy, and more. If you aren't getting the hint yet, this is another great ensemble cast as Jax finds herself on a ship of questionables who worm their way into your heart and never let go. They're all beautifully complex, and from one book to the next you never know if you'll still like the ones you thought you loved the book before.
I loved the idea of Jumpers from first reading the blurb (though I picked up Grimspace for its cover), and Aguirre thoroughly explores the concept in the six books of the Sirantha Jax series. Her world building is just perfection, filling all my needs without being too wordy.
I was really sad to see the series go when it ended, but thankful to have had the experience. I love that Aguirre writes these books with very short chapters - I could read a bit here and there while still feeling like I was getting somewhere. The pace of them all is very fast for that reason.
Then there's the Dred Chronicles, which take place in the same universe but some decades in the future, and on a space prison full of barbaric criminals who, left unwatched, have split the ship into factions and are killing each other to gain status. Dred is the leader of one such faction, Queensland, and the series starts with a new crop of criminals being dropped off to die. One character from the Sirantha Jax series (a surprise which one it is!) carries over into this one, and it's a very different feel than the Jax series while still including lots of kick ass ladies, including Dred. This one is paced even faster despite taking place over far less time than Sirantha's series. There were a lot of times reading the Chronicles that I forgot to breathe.
You don't have to read one to read the other, though I would read Jax's series first if you're going to read both - it gives you some background on the character that shares both that really informs your reading of the Dred Chronicles.
And, well, there are sexytimes. And blood and gore. Neither series is for the faint of heart or stomach. But they're fast, snarky and super unique. I hope more people give them the chance they definitely deserve.
That's all for now. If you're interested, maybe I'll put together a contemporary recommendation list someday.