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Swashbuckling Stories: The Best Adventure Fiction for Young Adults

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There is a sort of fundamental resonance between the once overwhelmingly popular genre of “adventure fiction” and the now ascendant genre of “young adult fiction.” If adventure fiction is characterised by its swift pace and constant sense of danger, then the overwhelming majority of young adult fiction also fits the bill.

Moreover, while “adventure fiction” might be determined by tone and pace, it otherwise fits just as neatly into other genres, whether they be thriller, science fiction, or dystopian fiction. Young adult fiction is in a similar position. Books like the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are often categorised as YA, but might just as easily be considered urban fantasy, dystopian science fiction, or paranormal romance.

In that regard, much of what we would consider “young adult” fiction today would have comfortably fallen under the general heading of “adventure fiction” not long ago, particularly when you consider the pace and tone of much young adult fiction.

Given these fundamental similarities and how popular adventure fiction was at its height, it’s hardly surprising that 80% of young adult fiction is now purchased by adult readers. So, while we call this a list of "the best adventure fiction for young adults," it is equally a list of adventure fiction for those of us who love young adult fiction.

The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras

Jules Verne is among the all-time-greats of adventure fiction, but much of his best known work has been the subject of so many adaptations and modernisations that it can be difficult to find that sense of adventure in them. This is the case for Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea… but probably not for 1864’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras.

Captain John Hatteras is obsessed with making his way to the North Pole, and commissions the construction of a steel-reinforced ship to help him make it there. What follows is an adventure that often showcases the strange side of then-current 19th century scientific thinking, though to describe them in too much detail here would spoil a lot of the fun. It’s a genuinely strange read, but one that should tickle the fancy of anyone who enjoyed the all-encompassing weirdness of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

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The Poison Belt

Obviously, Arthur Conan Doyle is better known for Sherlock Holmes than he is for anything else, but it’s often said that Doyle felt that Holmes was taking up time that would be spent on other projects. For those of you who love Conan Doyle but haven’t read his adventure fiction, you’d do well to check out the stories of Professor Challenger.

The most influential of the Professor Challenger stories is undoubtedly The Lost World, which has been endlessly reimagined in popular culture. However, more interesting perhaps, is the story of The Poison Belt, in which Professor Challenger discovers that the earth will soon pass through an area of poisonous “ether” that stands to eradicate all life. This is Conan Doyle writing postapocalyptic science fiction, and the result is an unexpectedly charming adventure that has more potential to surprise the reader than The Lost World

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A Double Barrelled Detective Story

For those of you who saw Arthur Conan Doyle’s name and got excited about the possibility of a Sherlock Holmes story, don’t be disheartened. While Sherlock Holmes typically avoids being classed as adventure fiction, it’s no coincidence that the stories are overwhelmingly titled “The Adventure of…” Of course, Conan Doyle is a little obvious to recommend here, so we’ll recommend the under-appreciated Mark Twain Sherlock Holmes novel, A Double Barrelled Detective Story.

That Twain wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel often comes as a surprise to fans of either, but it’s worth noting that Twain’s well-worn sense of humour is on full display here. The whole book satirises Holmes’ “scientific” approach to detective work and the complexity of the typical Sherlock Holmes plot. This strange parody follows the exploits of the great detective in the American West.

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In the 19th century, Emilio Salgari was one of Italy’s best known authors, outselling Dante at his peak, but he remains criminally underread in English. While his science fiction remains largely untranslated into English, his swashbuckling pirate adventure stories remain eminently readable. The Tigers of Mompracem is the first book tracking the adventures of the bold pirate Sandokan as he wages a vendetta against the British empire. Salgari’s style is fast paced and always dramatic, perfect for adventure fiction.

It’s worth noting that Salgari’s work, and Sandokan in particular, tends to feel sort of wholesomely anti-colonial, which is a practical rarity among 19th century adventure fiction. However, it’s also worth noting that Sandokan is also a dispossessed prince, so it’s anti-colonial with a quietly pro-monarchist streak, but captivating nonetheless.

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Wind, Sand, and Stars

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, "Wind, Sand and Stars" is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure - through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes - combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

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The Dream Detective

Sax Rohmer is now largely forgotten (and perhaps rightly so) despite his once immensely popular series of books about the sinister Doctor Fu Manchu. Borne out of an orientalist fear of the “yellow threat” posed by people from “the East,” it’s unfortunate that Doctor Fu Manchu was Sax Rohmer’s greatest success. By contrast, The Dream Detective introduces readers to Morris Klaw, Sax Rohmer’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. Where Sherlock Holmes introduces himself to Watson as the world’s first consulting detective, Morris Klaw is an occult detective, solving apparently impenetrable cases using strange rituals and astral projection. These processes are always just detailed enough to leave the reader hungry for more, rather than yawning at the ease with which cases are solved by magical means.

For those who enjoy classic detective novels, The Dream Detective represents a refreshing inversion of the typical arrangement whereby hapless villages attribute a crime to supernatural agencies only to have Poirot/Holmes/Marple inform them that it was a terrestrial agency all along. Here, Morris Klaw informs clients that apparently impossible crimes are possible, once you open to your mind to the idea of influences from beyond our plane.

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Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More


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