One of my goals for this year in my blogging life is to highlight books featuring people of color, especially in science fiction and fantasy. I don’t need to rehash what a problem the whiteness of SFF is for the genre – if you’re reading Stacked, you’re probably aware of it already. I know a lot of our readers are on the lookout for titles with characters that reflect the diverse racial makeup of our world, and I haven’t always been great at mentioning this facet specifically in my past reviews, so I thought it might be helpful if I collected them all in one place here. These are all titles I’ve read since I started blogging. They’re also all titles I recommend (some more highly than others) and I hope if you haven’t already read them, your to be read pile grows a little.
I’ve summarized my reviews in a paragraph or two beneath each title, but if you’d like to read the full reviews, they’re linked as well.
While We Run by Karen Healey
This is the sequel to Healey’s “pre-dystopia” When We Wake, which is also fantastic. While We Run focuses on Abdi, a black teenager from Djibouti who moved to Australia to attend school and got caught up in Tegan’s story. Both he and Tegan begin this story in captivity, but they’re separated both by space and by experience.
From a thematic standpoint, this book rocks it. From a craft standpoint,
it’s terrific as well. Abdi’s narrative is heartbreaking at times. I
feel like sometimes writers of dystopias will have their characters go
through really horrible stuff and then gloss over any sort of lasting
effects it may have. Healey refuses to do this – it’s obvious Abdi is
traumatized by his time in captivity and Healey lets him go through it.
She makes us as readers feel it, too. And of course, the plot, which
features cryonics and lots of government secrets, is exciting and
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Johnson’s beautiful writing tells the story of June Costa, who lives in a futuristic Brazil in a city called Palmares Tres. It’s a story about art and power and the many ways we love – and destroy – each other. The world-building is fascinating and its cast of characters is entirely people of color. I never reviewed this one in full at Stacked, but we did choose it as our winner for the Cybils last year. Read why here.
Prophecy by Ellen Oh
Kira is a demon fighter, blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see the
demons that have killed humans and overtaken their bodies for their own
evil ends. To everyone else, though, it just seems like Kira is
attacking innocent people, especially since the king, Kira’s uncle, has
commanded her to keep the presence of the demons secret.
The book is set in a version of Korea, which is interesting and makes it
pretty unique in this aspect. Unfortunately, it still seemed a bit too
much like the world of Graceling, a similarity that was enhanced
by the plot parallels (warrior girl with strange eyes and special
abilities must work for her uncle the king). I also felt the writing was a bit young for the intended audience, but that shouldn’t stop readers hungry for high fantasy from enjoying this one, even if it won’t be their favorite.
Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst
Liyana has trained her whole life to be the vessel for her tribe’s
goddess, Bayla. When Liyana dances and a magician speaks the correct
words, Bayla will be called and inhabit Liyana’s body, displacing
Liyana is prepared to sacrifice herself to save her tribe, but although
the ritual is performed flawlessly, Bayla doesn’t come. Her tribe
decides that Bayla decreed Liyana unworthy of her, and they abandon her
to the desert. Then a young man approaches her, claiming to be the trickster god Korbyn, and they set off on a quest that gives Liyana’s life purpose once more.
It’s clear from the gorgeous cover that Liyana is of Asian ancestry. The desert setting is one of the best parts of this book and is completely realized with beautiful descriptions that never bog down the forward momentum of the story. The magic system and religion are unique, Liyana is a fascinating and complex character, and the story never led me exactly where I expected. This is a well-executed, engrossing novel.
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott
Fairy tale re-tellings are a dime dozen, but this is a standout in a crowded field. The setting is feudal Japan – if feudal Japan were a place where a young
woman like Suzume, our protagonist, could transform her appearance with
a thought. The book is divided into three parts: the first is violent, where almost all of Suzume’s family is killed on the emperor’s orders, and her mother re-marries a man who will become the story’s evil stepfather. Parts two and three delve into Suzume’s newfound ability as a shadow weaver, which enables her to change her appearance. This ability comes in handy
when she’s on the run from those who mean to do her harm, and it paves the way for her plan for revenge.
There’s so much of interest here that sets it apart from a standard
re-telling. Marriott has created a unique culture in Suzume’s world as
well as that of Otieno, her love interest from Africa. It was lovely to read a story
that was not only NOT set in a Western locale, but that also featured
two non-Western leads.
Rot and Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
Zombies are people, too. Or at least, they were. That’s the lesson Benny Imura learns the first time he goes out zombie
hunting with his older brother Tom. Tom’s a zombie bounty hunter (he
prefers to call himself a “closure specialist”) and has agreed to take
Benny on as an apprentice when Benny’s other attempts at holding down a
job fail. Benny’s just turned fifteen, and in the post-apocalyptic world
he inhabits, where zombies outnumber humans, all fifteen year olds must
work a part-time job or have their rations cut in half. Hunting zombies isn’t all this book is about, though – the real conflict is with other living, non-rotting humans. When Benny’s friend and possible love interest is abducted by a gang of bad guys, Benny and Tom set out to rescue her.
If a zombie book can be fun and terrifying at the same time, this one is it. It’s funny, too, and Benny – whose father was Japanese-American – has a terrific voice. This was another Cybils winner, though it was before my time as a judge.
Tankborn by Karen Sandler
Kayla and Mishalla are GENs, genetically engineered non-humans. Unlike
other people who were born to mothers naturally, Kayla and Mishalla were
gestated in a tank. Not even considered human by the trueborns, GENs are created for a specific Assignment, which they take at age 15 and from then on are treated as slaves. The book alternates between their perspectives, but most attention is given to Kayla, who is pictured on the cover.
Sandler has created a unique society (set on an entirely new planet
called Loka) ruled by a strict caste system: trueborns at the top,
lowborns at the bottom, and GENs beneath even them. The
trueborns themselves are divided into castes. The ideal skin color is
what most would consider medium-brown. The farther away from this color a
person’s skin deviates (darker AND lighter), the lower caste they hold. (Kayla’s skin is light brown and Mishalla’s is pale white,
so even if they were trueborn, they would both be low trueborns.) It’s a
unique take on the caste systems in our own past and present worlds,
and Sandler makes it believable.
This is a science fiction story for readers who like science fiction. What I mean by that is it
most likely won’t hold the interest of casual science fiction readers.
Sandler’s world-building is complex, involving a string of new
vocabulary, complicated social structures, a completely new religion,
and a giant backstory that unfolds over the course of the book. It’s
necessary for the reader to understand all of this world-building to
comprehend the story, and it’s too easy for casual SF readers to give up
when they stumble across yet another unfamiliar element. Readers who
enjoy SF naturally, though, will relish this aspect.
The Shattering by Karen Healey
Keri’s beloved older brother Jake has just committed suicide. Jake had
always seemed like a happy young man, and the suicide is both unexpected
and traumatizing for Keri and her family. Because of Jake’s suicide,
Keri reconnects with her old friend Janna, whose brother had also
committed suicide some years ago. Only Janna doesn’t believe the deaths were suicides. She introduces Keri
to her friend Sione, whose brother had also committed suicide recently.
Janna and Sione have been researching the suicides that occurred in
their New Zealand town of Summerton, and they determined that there was
one suicide per year, always around the same time. They are also curious
about the fact that Summerton is always prosperous, always sunny at the
turn of the year, and no one ever really seems to leave. Janna believes there is magic at work; the other two aren’t so sure.
The book tells the story from all three characters’ alternating points of view, though only Keri’s is written in first person. Keri and Sione are both non-white: Keri is half-Maori and identifies as such, while Sione is Samoan visiting New Zealand for the summer. The story is mainly a mystery with some fantasy elements, and the ending – the big reveal of the whodunnit and why – was such a punch to my gut in the best possible way. Even after the main thrust of the book has been resolved, Healey has
more to say about life and love and death and grief. It’s moving, and
despite the fantasy elements of the novel, it’s also true.
Bonus Middle Grade: The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
If you haven’t read this book or listened to it on audio, please do yourself a favor and check it out from your local library as soon as possible. It’s so funny, so poignant, so good. It has an alien race called the Boov and one of them is named J. Lo. It has phrases like “pink squishable gaputty” and funny little drawings throughout. It features a brave black girl named Tip who has a huge sense of humor and an even huger heart. This may the best book about an alien invasion you’ll ever read. (Haven’t actually read any books about an alien invasion? Now is a good time to start.)