My favorite posts to write are the end-of-the-year lists, those in which I talk about my favorite and least favorite books of the year. They’re also some of my favorite posts to read.
When I write those lists, I always hope there are a lot of new releases that aren’t sequels on them – not because the backlist isn’t important to me, but because I want new books, especially debuts, to end up on my “favorite” lists the year they get published.
I don’t know if any of you care about this, but even if you don’t, here are 15 books that came out in 2018, some of which very underrated, that are worth reading and may even end up on your “favorites” list, if we have similar tastes! Some of them certainly made it to mine.
I think 2018 has been a great year for contemporary books. Not only this genre is years ahead of YA fantasy in terms of diversity, I also love how easy it is to find fun stories and really powerful ones at the same time.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (debut) – I feel like I don’t talk about this book enough. This is a poetry book, the only poetry book I’ve ever liked, and yes, it’s worth trying even if you don’t love poetry (I don’t, usually). It’s that good. It follows Xiomara Batista, an afro-latina girl, and her struggles with religion, sexuality as a woman growing up in a Catholic family, and body image.
This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow – a wonderful story about recovery (from trauma, from addiction and from a toxic relationship) following three girls who were once friends as they reconnect through music. It deals with teen pregnancy without sounding like a cautionary tale, and there’s a very cute f/f romance. It’s a very emotional book and I loved all of it; it also has really good mental illness representation.
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo – this is the perfect summer contemporary, so I understand if people don’t want to read it in December, but I read it when it wasn’t summer and loved it anyways. It’s a story about family and friendship told from the point of view of Clara, a Korean-Brazilian girl living in Los Angeles who is known for being a prankster. It has the best food description (parts of it are set in a Korean-Brazilian food truck) and it’s the kind of fun, cute contemporary that doesn’t feel trite even though it’s predictable, the kind I can’t get enough of.
Retelling are everywhere these days, and not all of them are good or as original as I’d want them to be. But this year I found some that were both well-written and unique – because they were either a new take on a familiar story, or retellings of a story I had never seen retold before.
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna – this is a space fantasy retelling of the Mahabharata, and it’s both ownvoices and an awesome story full of well-written political intrigue. Also, the setting is unlike everything I had ever read before (I love genre-bending stories!) and this is the first book that made me actually like the lost princess trope. It’s great and really underrated (less than 200 ratings on goodreads!), if you like political fantasy and/or space operas, try this!
The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke – genderbent Beowulf. That was enough for me to read it, but if that’s not enough for you, what about: a gang of norse female warriors + a witch + a soft healer boy who decide to leave mercy killing behind to go on a quest and slay a monster (not because they had to but because they can and they want to?) Also, no romance, sex positivity, and so much sapphic subtext. I loved every moment of this atmospheric, almost nostalgic story – it’s surprisingly quiet, but that’s what made it stand out from many other YA fantasy books.
In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette de Bodard – my favorite Beauty and the Beast retelling, and I’ve read many. This is an f/f version in which the “beast” is actually a shapeshifting dragon, and the whole cast is Vietnamese. I also loved the setting, this book takes place in a terrifying but beautiful palace in which every door can lead to danger. My favorite aspect was, of course, the romance – I had been looking for this kind of f/f content for a while and I’m so glad I read this novella.
Fantasy books inspired by past real-world situations. I thought I didn’t like this kind of novels, but 2018 proved me wrong – there are so many great historical fantasy releases!
The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark – an alternate history novel set in New Orleans in a world in which the American Civil War ended with a truce. It follows a young black girl who has been blessed by the orisha of storms, Oya, and it’s a short, atmospheric read. I want to know more about this world, I loved the main character and many of the side ones (especially the bisexual airship captain) and I also loved the steampunk aspects, of course.
Witchmark by C.L. Polk (debut) – this book is so many things. A paranormal m/m romance, a gaslamp mystery about class privilege, a story about the way society fails veterans set in a world inspired by Edwardian England. It’s so many things and it manages to explore all of these aspects, none of them fell flat. I love this book and I wish it were more hyped.
For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig – this fantasy book is set in a fictional world inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonization. It’s a story about a bipolar girl trying to survive in a world in which people with her magical powers are hunted down and killed. She’s a necromancer, and this book has the most original portrayal of necromancy I’ve ever read – Jetta uses her powers to make shadow plays. Another really unique thing about For a Muse of Fire is that it’s told in a mixed media format, and I loved seeing this in a fantasy book. I don’t know why I haven’t heard many people talk about it, it’s a really good YA fantasy.
Miscellaneous Fantasy Releases
Other fantasy books I loved. This year there weren’t as many as I wanted them to be, which is sad but it also makes easier to write lists.
Temper by Nicky Drayden – an underhyped adult fantasy release set in an alternate-history Cape Town in which colonization never happened. It’s fast-paced, messy and fun in a way few adult fantasy books are, it doesn’t take itself seriously, and it’s also one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. The main characters are terrible people I’d normally hate, and yet this book makes it work. There are so many plot twists in here I didn’t see coming, and that happens more rarely than it should.
Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift – Time travel in Paris! There are many reasons I ended up liking it after the beginning didn’t convince me. One of them is the wonderful atmopshere, another is that this was the first time I saw explicit panic attacks in a fantasy book. I also loved Hallie. She is a very reserved person – I thought she was a flat character at the beginning of the book, and was I wrong (why do I like characters who hide from themselves so much?). To this day I remember the second half of this book vividly because of how unashamedly political (we love anti-fascist fiction) it was, and for how much it felt like a fever dream. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything similar.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (debut) – one of the best YA fantasy books I’ve read in months, and I’m so glad it’s getting the recognition it deserves. It’s an f/f story set in a kingdom inspired by Malaysia (and written by a Malaysian author), and it’s about the ways women react to sexual violence, following two queer girls as they find the strength to fight back. It’s a very dark, heavy read, but it’s worth it. The atmosphere and descriptions are beautiful, too, which somehow made the book an easier read.
Great Mental Health Rep
In 2018 I finally found some books whose anxiety/depression representation I actually liked!
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (debut) – this. book. The Astonishing Color of After is a magical realism story about a biracial Taiwanese girl reconnecting with her culture and her mother’s side of her family after her mother died by suicide, and it has the most nuanced portrayal of a mentally ill parent I’ve ever seen in fiction. Also, part of this is set in Taiwan, and I always want to support contemporary-set books that take place outside the US.
The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé (debut) – this book has the best portrayal of mental illness I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s horror, anxiety horror, as it talks about anxiety and unhealthy coping mechanisms through horror metaphors. This book gets how hopeless and scary it’s like, but it doesn’t make you feel hopeless, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. If you’ve ever wanted to disappear, to fold yourself into nothing and let the world slide around your irrelevance, you’ll probably get this book. It also has a great f/f romance!
Final Draft by Riley Redgate – this contemporary book is a very honest, very heartbreaking portrayal of how anxiety affects hobbies, from the point of view of Laila, a pansexual Ecuadorian girl who is a writer. Difficult to read, but worth it – the romance is one of the best I’ve read this year, if not ever. Laila falls in love with her Korean-American best friend, Hannah, and this is the first time I’ve liked the friends to lovers trope since When the Moon Was Ours.
Have you read or want to read any of these? And if you have recommendations for underrated 2018 releases worth reading before the end of the year, I’d love to hear them!