What makes a fantasy series successful isn’t the number of dragons its author jams into it. Given the grand scale of fantasy, both readers and writers can sometimes forget that stories don’t necessarily come from big stakes, but from small moments. Although the genre deviates from reality, the center of any story is an emotional one: an exploration, however abstract, of the things that make us human. (Or, at least, what makes elves human enough that we bother reading on.)
Clearly, Tomi Adeyemi has done something right—more than one thing, by the looks of it. At only twenty-three years old, Adeyemi scored a shockingly lucrative book deal forChildren of Blood and Bone, a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Nigerian culture & mythology. OneEntertainment Weekly article entitled “Is Tomi Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling?” emphasizes Adeyemi’s cultural feat: “it’s not every day that an unknown-23-year-old sells the movie rights to an unpublished fantasy trilogy for seven figures.” In a rare move, Fox 2000 bypassed the optioning phase entirely and purchased the rights directly. Adeyemi credits her Nigerian immigrant parents with much of her success, claiming that they instilled a hard work ethic into her from an early age. But perhaps some of her success has come from the weight of her mission: “Write a story that’s so good and so black that everyone’s going to have to read it—even if they’re racist.”
Image Via Teen Vogue
Many think that writers primarily sort themselves into one of two categories: plot writers and character writers. In reality, there are at least four. There are good plot & character writers—and there are the others.
Adeyemi self-identifies as a writer to whom plot comes more naturally, but that doesn’t mean she neglects her characters. After writing the plot, she told attendees at her 2019 BookCon panel, she spends “every draft” figuring out the ways in which the plot changes her characters. “Fantasy has to be human,” she emphasized. “Fantasy needs to be especially human.” Authors can get caught up in the gravitas of their own worlds, often forgetting that our own reality holds the same high stakes. The world tends to be ending, not as a prophecy but as a general statement of fact. That tends not to be our main motivation on any given day. Even if you are an activist whose primary focus is societal responsibility, there are friends and events and moments that matter to us outside of that objective. Adeyemi discussed the ways in which some high fantasy can draw a low level of engagement:
There are a lot of popular fantasy series that are the fantasy series of our day, and I just don’t care about those people. I don’t care if they get killed by a dragon. I don’t care if it happens – I’m hoping for it to happen. I know I cracked a character when I fall in love with something about that character. The most epic moments in our lives… for you it’s epic, but for someone else, it’s nothing. Reality is something different to every single person.
As for good and evil, the binary of most works of fantasy, Adeyemi believes it’s all a bit more complicated than that. “I have to believe what my characters believe,” she admitted, but at the same time, “I have to acknowledge what is right and wrong about those beliefs. Everybody is a little bit right, and that’s why they keep coming against each other.” In order to create engaging characters, we have to acknowledge that evil is a buzzword, not a motivation. “I’m not letting people off the hook,” she emphasized, “but I find the percentage of people being bad for bad reasons is incredibly small.”
So… is Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling? Probably not—it’s a different fantasy world that inspired her from an early age.
Image Via Fine Art America
Avatar: The Last Airbender inspired Adeyemi’s worldbuilding and changed her perception of the role culture could play in a story. She recalled one Twitter user recommending A:TLA to cure their Children of Blood and Bone book hangover:
I was so honored because that’s the world I want to live in. Even when it wasn’t my dream to be a writer, it was my dream to create a world that people get lost in. A lot of people were so inspired by Harry Potter, but for me it’s Avatar. Culture is more than what people wear, what they eat. It’s the way they interact with each other in the world. So it was a joy to do that with my own heritage.
Of course, Adeyemi wasn’t always as successful in her world building. Improvement is just as much practice as it is understanding the mechanics of storytelling—arguably, you can’t understand those mechanics until you practice! “All my fantasy worlds before were like, ‘ok, now they can do lightning!’ They didn’t have depth,” Adeyemi explained, “but now, I can build a world with heart and meaning.”
According to Publisher’s Weekly, Children of Blood and Boneby Tomi Adeyemi won big at last night’s 24th annual Audie Awards. Held in Manhattan, the awards recognize outstanding audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment. Children of Blood and Bone is the debut novel from young author Tomi Adeyemi, and it depicts the story of a young woman called Zélie Adebola who leads her clan of maji against a brutally oppressive regime. A popular YA fantasy novel, the book the first in a highly-anticipated series and has already climbed the ranks of The New York Times’ bestseller list. The audiobook’s narrator is Bahni Turpin, known for her roles in Malcolm X and Cold Case Files.
The book took home the award for Top Audiobook of the Year, a well deserved win for such a striking debut. Other highlights of the evening included Edoardo Ballerini winning Best Male Narrator for his narration ofWatchers by Dean Koontz, Julia Whelan taking home Best Female Narrator for Educatedby Tara Westover, and Richard Armitage nabbing Best Audio Drama for The Martian Invasion of Earthby HG Wells.
Tomi Adeyemi and Bahni Turpin are no doubt very pleased with their win. We look forward to seeing more entries in this series!
The Nebula Awards may honor the most out-of-this-world science fiction and fantasy, but its finalists are highly representative of the diverse world we’re living in. White men may still dominate high school reading lists (and the government, depending on your country of origin), but women and nonbinary authors of color are filling the rosters for one of genre fiction’s most prestigious awards. Chances are, you’ve read some of these. And chances are even higher you’ll love all the ones you haven’t.
Image Via The Wild Detectives
Categories for winners include Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story. There’s also a specific prize for YA sci-fi and fantasy: The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Fiction. Since there are fifty nominations in total across each category, let’s focus on the ten nominees for Best Novel and The Andre Norton Award, two categories in which some real some real magic is happening. First, let’s take a minute to reflect on exactly how big a deal these awards are: YA superstars J.K. Rowling (who you know) and Holly Black (who you really should) have both been Nebula Award-winners.
Now that we’ve established the prestige level of this award (to clarify: massively high), let’s consider that, in these two categories, female and nonbinary authors of color comprise fully half of the nominees. In case this actually needs establishing, that’s a massive deal.
Though the other categories don’t boast such incredible statistics, they’re still strikingly diverse. The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation has two particularly high-profile works among its nominees: Janelle Monae‘s album Dirty Computer;Boots Riley‘s film Sorry to Bother You, and Ryan Coogler‘s international sensation Black Panther. (This list seems to indicate that including Tessa Thompson will statistically increase your chances of a nomination. Is this true? True enough.)
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YA has always been a particularly diverse genre, quick to shirk the confines of more traditional literary fiction. As the YA craze reaches a wider audience, it has more people to represent. Let’s just say the genre has risen to the challenge. For example, let’s look at underrated YA romance release Let’s Talk About Loveby Claire Kann, depicting the experiences of an asexual and biromantic black teenage girl with a nuanced and thoughtful touch. Many feel that the publishing world’s interest in YA reflects an alarming cultural trend: a departure from the classics and other works of value. But literary fiction is a genre like any other—it’s not a synonym for good. Publishers aren’t the only ones all over YA fiction; readers gravitate towards the books that represent their own experiences.
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Diverse YA releases like Tomi Adeyemi‘s Children of Blood andBone, a fantasy debut inspired by Nigerian mythology, have gotten massive attention—from media coverage to a reported seven-figure book deal. And everybody’s talking about Samira Ahmed‘s upcoming Internment, a dystopian novel in which American Muslims are detained in camps. While many are quick to complain about the market’s saturation with YA genre fiction, readers shouldn’t be so eager to decry its literary value—some of these dystopian worlds no longer come with all the logic of an Internet personality quiz. Instead, these groundbreaking authors are using technology and magic as metaphors to comment upon reality.
Image Via Samira Ahmed Twitter
YA is growing increasingly diverse from the top down—even lesser-known releases are incorporating richer cultural contexts into their works. An underrated December release, The Disastersby queer author M.K. England, features a world in which space exploration has been driven by African and Middle-Eastern science and technology. It’s all space ships, shenanigans, Muslim calls to prayer, and seriously making sure you’re not wearing a bright turquoise hijab when avoiding interplanetary mercenaries in a crowd! (Looking at you, character-who-will-not-be-named.)
Though many are quick to associate sci-fi in particular with white teen boys thirsting after Princess Leia, these skeptics should maybe slow down with the assumptions.
Surely we’ve all gone to see a profoundly boring film with bleak comments about the nature of being, interspersed with eclectic yet disjointed scenes and the occasional shaky-cam. If the point of the movie was to reiterate the pointlessness of existence, we think upon leaving, it certainly achieved its goal. Critics, inevitably, will find the film just as meaningful as the filmmaker did. This isn’t to say that critics are always or even frequently wrong—instead, it’s to note that critical approval is not the only measure of quality. Since it matters what we readers love, let’s take a look at some of our favorite titles with this years’ Goodreads Choice Award winners!
Best of the Best
“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”
A timely commentary on police brutality and the way it impacts individuals, Angie Thomas‘ The Hate U Give tells the story of a high school girl whose best friend is shot by the police… which is also a story of race, class, and an adolescence where everything feels tumultuous- mostly because it is. The Hate U Give (THUG) was the winner of the 2017 award for Young Adult Fiction, and Thomas herself won the award for Goodreads Debut Author. The Best of the Best indicates the most popular book of all previous recipients.
Readers say: “Angie Thomas picks you up from whatever world you’re living in, and she drops you right smack in the middle of a new one. Events unfold rapidly, and things you’re used to seeing on TV and walking away from are given a voice. You feel as though you’re right in the middle of the plot with the other characters. You can’t just look away.”
“Books are what teach you about life. Books teach you empathy.”
Still Me by Jojo Moyes is the third book in Moyes’ trilogy, which begins with Me Before You. The third installation follows the exploits of Louisa Clark, who has moved overseas for one of the two reasons people tend to do that (1. career, 2. love). The problem is that although she’s moved towards one, she’s moved further away from the other. Her boyfriend waits for her back home—but is it home anymore? And is she still the person she expected to be?
Readers say: “Is it possible to read and finish a Jojo Moyes novel without tears streaming down your face?”
Mystery & Thriller
“I believe there’s another dozen thoughts lined up behind each one I’m aware of.”
It’s difficult to summarize a Stephen King novel. Usually, it goes like this: something horrible happens. Then, something really horrible happens. Possibly, you assume things cannot get more horrible. That’s exactly when they do. The Outsider is like that—only even more grim. After the shocking discovery of a child’s violated corpse, a town finds evidence pointing to one of the city’s most popular figures—a beloved coach, loving husband and father. Is he as kind a man as he seems? Probably not. Are any of the other characters? Also probably not.
Readers say: “Stephen King amazes me. Here, he has managed to turn a 300-page story into a 560-page story by leading us on a long-winded wild goose chase while waffling on about almost everything, but somehow, though it seems hard to fathom, I could not put this cracktastic shit down.”
“Such a thin veil separated the past from the present; they existed simultaneously in the human heart.”
Kristin Hannah‘s The Great Alone, depicts 1970s Alaska with all the wildness of a frontier that is as geographic as it is emotional. When her Vietnam POW father moves his family North after losing yet another job, young Leni hopes that this will be the start of their new life. And that’s exactly the problem—it will be. As Alaska plunges headlong into winter, into night, Leni learns that the wildness outside their home is nothing when compared to the wildness within.
Readers say: “There is such a poignancy in this book, and I’m not ashamed to say it wrecked me emotionally at times, but I kept reading and reading and just couldn’t stop. The Great Alone is the story of survival, not just in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, but within your own lives.”
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
Less a reimagining of Homer’s classic The Odyssey, Madeline Miller‘s Circe perhaps imagines the nymph and sorceress the way she truly might have been. Circe—originally little more than a waypoint, a powerful woman and threat to be overcome—stands alone against man and gods. A child of the divine living among mortals, Circe has to make a choice—which world to choose, which version of herself to be. But as she incurs the wrath of the most dangerous Olympians, the question changes: will she be able to choose either one?
Readers say: “This is the pièce de résistance I’ve been searching for my entire life… This book is about love; the love between lovers, the love of a mother, and the love you must find in yourself. This book proves why family of choice will always be greater than family of origin. This book is about magic.”
“All the things that make you different make you perfect.”
Introducing a bold new voice in fiction, Helen Hoang‘s The Kiss Quotient gives us a protagonist on the autism spectrum, a mathematics fanatic for whom romance—especially physical intimacy—doesn’t really add up. The solution is at once whimsical yet deeply rational: Stella hires a prostitute to teach her all the things that don’t come naturally (and to make sure that both parties do). But when love follows its own sort of logic, Stella has some new problems to solve. As an autistic writer herself, Hoang tells parts of her own story with authenticity and impact.
Readers say: “I devoured this in a single sitting. And it was fucking delicious. For me, this book has everything going for it. It’s dramatic, emotional, educational, complex, diverse, and hotter than sin.”
“Knowledge may be power, but money buys both.”
The sequel to genre giant V.E. Schwab‘s Vicious(five years in the making), Vengefulwas an uncertain prospect when Schwab herself was unsure whether or not there might be one. When the news dropped of its confirmed release, fans knew what to do—buy it immediately. After reading it, fans didn’t know what to do with themselves. A subversion of your typical superhero story, the saga is a story of two rivals—a battle between good and evil. Except that it’s hard to tell which is which. Except that sometimes our heroes are neither… or both at the same time. Except that these two are not necessarily rivals, but instead are former friends, caught in the same misfortune and headed towards what could easily be the same ruin.
Readers say: “Me, having absolutely no concept of liking things in moderation: I WOULD DIE A THOUSAND FIERY DEATHS FOR THIS BOOK.”
“Everyone should have this, he thought, and perhaps, at the end, everyone does. Perhaps in their time of dying, everyone rises.”
Stephen King is at it again with Elevation, another impossibly good book rife with impossibly awful things. This time, though, it’s a little more possible than you might suspect. In this case, the awful thing is something more recognizable than a sewer clown, or rather, something we are more likely to encounter: illness and prejudice. I’ll leave this one alone except to say that it’s (1) uplifting and (2) not a horror novel AT ALL. It’s pretty clear why the novel won in the horror category—Stephen King is the author. It’s pretty clear why it’s award-winningly good—Stephen King is the author.
Readers say: “Instead of feeling scared, I cried my eyes out. It was not what I expected, but it was so much much better.”
“What is the lasting damage when you believe the warm spot you were just sleeping in will be your grave?”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the final achievement and master work of now-deceased journalist Michelle McNamara, completed by her closest research colleague. The book details McNamara’s investigation into the infamous Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and murderer who shone a flashlight on his victims’ faces to blind to them—and to make certain that they were awake for the carnage. Survivors remember only the grim rasp of his voice as he left them for dead: “you’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”
Readers say: “My mouth continually fell open and my head was shaking NO as I listened to this moving account from one woman with an enormous investigation to relate to the public. It is simply a magnificent piece of work.”
Memoir & Autobiography
“We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.”
Tara Westover‘s Educatedis the story of a girl who wasn’t. Until she was 17, Tara had never been in a classroom—or a hospital. Born in her family’s remote Idaho home, she didn’t legally exist, with no birth records to help her get an education and no school records to help her get a birth certificate. Her plan for the future was the apocalypse bug-out bag she shared a bed with. Given that she ended up with a PhD from Cambridge University, calling this a book feels almost like an understatement—it’s a story, and it’s as challenging and important as the word implies.
Readers say: “Educated: A Memoir scalded the very edges of my soul. It took me through a whole gamut of my own emotions from belief to disbelief, from hesitation to doubt to wariness, and most importantly, from the weightiness of compassion and empathy to the restrictions of frustration and anger.”
“I won’t let your ignorance silence my pain.”
Tomi Adeyemi‘s Children of Blood and Bone is impressive for every possible reason: it was written by a twenty-four year old author. It earned an astonishing seven figures, unheard of for a debut author. More importantly, it’s a mainstream YA interpretation of Nigerian mythology, written by a Nigerian author. And most importantly, it’s (according to over 70,000 people who VOTED, which is more readers than most books ever have) astonishingly good.
Readers say: “All you need to know from this review is…. Read the book.”
While these aren’t all of the winning titles, these are the smash hits of 2018-the books that, were they songs, would be blasting 24/7 in cars and supermarkets. (The difference is that these are so good you still might like them after.) Check out Goodreads for more information on the other winners.
All Images Via Goodreads.com Featured Image Via Bustle.com