Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.
With stories by: Elizabeth Acevedo, Amerie, Patrice Caldwell, Dhonielle Clayton, J. Marcelle Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte Nicole Davis, Justina Ireland, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, L. L. McKinney, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi.
Evoking Beyoncé’s Lemonade for a teen audience, these authors who are truly Octavia Butler’s heirs, have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. A Phoenix First Must Burn will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A Phoenix First Must Burn shine brightly. You will never forget them.
When you’re a rebellious girl in a fantasy setting, you’re defying certain power systems. If you add to that the fact that you’re a queer girl, you end up also going against patriarchal and heteronormative notions of desire.
In this post, brought to you by the Crier’s War Blog Tour (thanks to Karina from AfirePages), I’m talking about fantasy YA books where the main characters are both sapphic and rebelling against the systems they were born into. They all go about it in different ways, and I thought it would be interesting to put them under the microscope and analyze what makes them special (in my heart).
In the debut novel by Nina Varela, CRIER’S WAR, we follow two girls: Lady Crier and Ayla. Both girls are polar opposites and come from different worlds. In this world, beings named Automae (which are sort of cyborgs) have overthrown the humans who made them and rule over them cruel and mercilessly.
Lady Crier is the daughter of Sovereign Hesod, ruler of their lands. Crier is betrothed to a man who seeks power and to eradicate humans from existence to prove how superior Automae are. On the other hand, Ayla is a human girl trying to make her way into the Automae’s castle in order to exact her revenge after her family was killed and she was left to be raised by rebels. When Ayla saves Crier’s life one fateful night, Crier seemingly can’t stop thinking about Ayla and decides to take Ayla on as her handmaiden.
Even as there’s political intrigue going on, Crier seeks to be heard by her father and to join the ranks of the governing body. Ayla, however, still plots her revenge, wishing to take out the Sovereign Hesod and Crier’s fiancé as her feelings for Crier become muddled in her mind and heart.
In a way, Crier learns how to be more human in learning how to love, while, Ayla’s struggling not to give into her burning desire to have revenge and also trying not to fall for her target. In the process, they come together in moments of silent appreciation and admiration, learning a bit of what makes the other tick, realizing that tenderness in the face of violence can be revolutionary in itself.
If you’d like to read more YA books with sapphic girls and radical tenderness, here are some of my personal favorites:
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova- If you’re searching for a love story about your identity, coming to terms with it as you keep learning about yourself, and along the way fall in love with your best friend, then this is the perfect book for you.
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia- Sometimes you fall in love with the woman your husband is also married to, and that’s fine, especially when you’re spying on your husband and his family in the name of rebellion. And sometimes romance doesn’t have to look a certain way for it to be valid, which is important considering the patriarchal, machista fictional world of Medio.
Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust- If you like subdued contemporaries like We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, you’ll love this quiet fantasy based on Snow White, where the princess learns that love comes in different shapes and forms and tenderness isn’t always a romantic form of affection.
Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst- In the world of Denna and Mare, Denna is betrothed to Mare’s brother, yet is increasingly attracted to the fierce princess who’s teaching her how to ride horses as a metaphor about learning how to be independent. (Its sequel, Of Ice and Shadows, is available now as well!)
From debut author Nina Varela comes the first book in an Own Voices, richly imagined epic fantasy about an impossible love between two girls—one human, one Made—whose romance could be the beginning of a revolution.
Perfect for fans of Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse as well as Game of Thrones and Westworld.
After the War of Kinds ravaged the kingdom of Rabu, the Automae, designed to be the playthings of royals, usurped their owners’ estates and bent the human race to their will.Now Ayla, a human servant rising in the ranks at the House of the Sovereign, dreams of avenging her family’s death…by killing the sovereign’s daughter, Lady Crier.
Crier was Made to be beautiful, flawless, and to carry on her father’s legacy. But that was before her betrothal to the enigmatic Scyre Kinok, before she discovered her father isn’t the benevolent king she once admired, and most importantly, before she met Ayla.
Now, with growing human unrest across the land, pressures from a foreign queen, and an evil new leader on the rise, Crier and Ayla find there may be only one path to love: war.
Nina Varela is a nationally awarded writer of screenplays and short fiction. She was born in New Orleans and raised on a hippie commune in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent most of her childhood playing in the Eno River, building faerie houses from moss and bark, and running barefoot through the woods. These days, Nina lives in Los Angeles with her writing partner and their tiny, ill-behaved dog. She tends to write stories about hard-won love and young people toppling the monarchy/patriarchy/whatever-archy. On a related note, she’s queer. On a less related note, she has strong feelings about hushpuppies and loves a good jambalaya. CRIER’S WAR is her first novel.
How did a raw chicken get inside Yasmany’s locker? When Sal Vidon meets Gabi Real for the first time, it isn’t under the best of circumstances. Sal is in the principal’s office for the third time in three days, and it’s still the first week of school. Gabi, student council president and editor of the school paper, is there to support her friend Yasmany, who just picked a fight with Sal. She is determined to prove that somehow, Sal planted a raw chicken in Yasmany’s locker, even though nobody saw him do it and the bloody poultry has since mysteriously disappeared. Sal prides himself on being an excellent magician, but for this sleight of hand, he relied on a talent no one would guess . . . except maybe Gabi, whose sharp eyes never miss a trick. When Gabi learns that he’s capable of conjuring things much bigger than a chicken–including his dead mother–and she takes it all in stride, Sal knows that she is someone he can work with. There’s only one slight problem: their manipulation of time and space could put the entire universe at risk. A sassy entropy sweeper, a documentary about wedgies, a principal who wears a Venetian bauta mask, and heaping platefuls of Cuban food are just some of the delights that await in his mind-blowing novel gift-wrapped in love and laughter.
In her striking second collection, Natalie Scenters-Zapico sets her unflinching gaze once again on the borders of things. Lima :: Limón illuminates both the sweet and the sour of the immigrant experience, of life as a woman in the U.S. and Mexico, and of the politics of the present day. Drawing inspiration from the music of her childhood, her lyrical poems focus on the often-tested resilience of women. Scenters-Zapico writes heartbreakingly about domestic violence and its toxic duality of macho versus hembra, of masculinity versus femininity, and throws into harsh relief the all-too-normalized pain that women endure. Her sharp verse and intense anecdotes brand her poems into the reader; images like the Virgin Mary crying glass tears and a border fence that leaves never-healing scars intertwine as she stares down femicide and gang violence alike. Unflinching, Scenters-Zapico highlights the hardships and stigma immigrants face on both sides of the border, her desire to create change shining through in every line. Lima :: Limón is grounding and urgent, a collection that speaks out against violence and works toward healing.
For Nesto Vasquez, moving his Afro-Caribbean food truck from New York City to the wilds of Upstate New York is a huge gamble. If it works? He’ll be a big fish in a little pond. If it doesn’t? He’ll have to give up the hustle and return to the day job he hates. He’s got six months to make it happen—the last thing he needs is a distraction.
Jude Fuller is proud of the life he’s built on the banks of Cayuga Lake. He has a job he loves and good friends. It’s safe. It’s quiet. And it’s damn lonely. Until he tries Ithaca’s most-talked-about new lunch spot and works up the courage to flirt with the handsome owner. Soon he can’t get enough—of Nesto’s food or of Nesto. For the first time in his life, Jude can finally taste the kind of happiness that’s always been just out of reach.
An opportunity too good to pass up could mean a way to stay together and an incredible future for them both…if Nesto can remember happiness isn’t always measured by business success. And if Jude can overcome his past and trust his man will never let him down.