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Navigating the Expectations of Adulthood: Five Young Adult Fantasy Books for College Students

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Young Adult fantasy is a prolific subgenre famous for its many trends. Over the years, store shelves have groaned under the weight of vampire romances, dystopic adventure tales, and a few high fantasy epics. There are now so many novels that separating the wheat from the chaff is a daunting task.

Being a college-age fantasy reader adds to that struggle. What to do when teenage heartbreak and disappointing proms are semi-recent memories best forgotten but adult books are also off the mark? Most of the “New Adult” or “College YA” titles are realistic fiction, and often YA fantasy feels too childish.

This five-book list suggests some answers. All the titles here are marketed at teenagers but are mature and/or riveting enough to capture any twenty-something’s attention. And adults will like them, too.

Ice Massacre

Tiana Warner’s debut is a standout. In Ice Massacre, mermaids terrorize the citizens of a remote island. One girl, Meela, secretly befriends a mermaid named Lysi. But as a teenager, Meela is drafted into the annual mermaid hunt, where she must navigate mutinies and battles while hiding her traitorous views. Exploring both her childhood and adolescence lets readers fully understand Meela’s dilemma: working for interspecies peace would turn the island against her, while seeking revenge would betray her feelings for Lysi the mermaid. Other highlights include vivid and terrifying battles, a colorful supporting cast, and an efficient yet intimate writing style. Notably, Ice Massacre dodges the overused "Chosen One" trope. No prophecy directs Meela to end the war. Instead, her struggles are small-scale: cultural disapproval, fighting battles, keeping order on the ship. For any college student navigating the expectations of adult life, Meela’s lack of ego is refreshing.

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Ice Crypt

Ice Crypt is that rare sequel as good as its predecessor. On the island, Meela searches for a mythical weapon to give the mermaid king in exchange for Lysi the mermaid’s life. Meanwhile, Lysi teams up with a band of rebels to kill the king and get back to Meela. Instead of mermaids, Meela battles adults and cultural betrayal on her quest. Her somber attitude is in contrast to Lysi’s upbeat nature. Although the mermaid traverses war zones, her optimistic outlook and goofy friend, Spio, keep things lighthearted. The additional focus on Lysi is welcome. Other appreciated additions include development of Meela’s friends and a deeper understanding of the girls’ respective cultures. Of course, the two stories eventually collide. While the final battle is gripping, the twist ending feels rushed and somewhat lacking in emotion on Meela's part. However, Warner’s sparse, graceful prose and tight plotting ensure that Ice Crypt remains an excellent addition to YA fantasy. 

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Anna Dressed in Blood

This middle-grade read follows teenage ghost hunter Cas, whose mission to eradicate a ghost named Anna goes horribly wrong. Kendare Blake’s poetic writing makes Cas’ clichéd urban fantasy troubles—a double life, high school parties, prophetic dreams—enjoyable and vivid. The plot is engaging even though the horror is toned down to a middle-school level. However, Blake’s attempts at interlacing action with humor can feel awkward; references to Dasani-fueled exorcisms fall flat in the face of demonic possession and tragic backstories. Despite this tonal issue, Cas’ story satisfies. His discoveries about Anna the ghost deepen her character, and their attraction grows slowly enough to be believable. Side characters are also dynamic, especially the evolution of “mean girl” Carmel. While it aims at the younger end of YA, Anna Dressed in Blood is a solid example of romantic urban horror and is a good choice for anyone who enjoyed the Percy Jackson or Paranormalcy series.

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Six of Crows

Six of Crows follows Kaz Brekker, a teenage criminal, and his crew as they attempt to break a chemist out of prison before the scientist’s lethal drug falls into politicians’ hands. The story is meticulously woven, and Leigh Bardugo’s plot twists are all unexpected. While the story is compelling, this novel’s best quality is its dynamic characters who all buck stereotypes in unexpected ways. Two of the six are prostitutes-turned-fighters while another is a dyslexic merchant’s son who ran away to build bombs. Six of Crows’ only flaw is that the teenagers act like adults; the witch and witch-hunter, for example, could age forty years and act the same. Only a couple of teenage grumbles and mentions of first loves keep the cast young. Thus, this novel and its sequel are excellent choices for new adults.

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Crooked Kingdom

In Crooked Kingdom, Kaz Brekker and friends return to the city of Ketterdam to recover from their heist, hiding knowledge of the world-changing drug from the nations tearing apart the city looking for it. Crooked Kingdom is even more suspenseful and carefully plotted than Six of Crows, filled with murders and extortion. Bardugo’s masterful world-building—a soot-blackened beam here, the jangle of coins there—makes readers feel like they could book a train to Ketterdam. Yet Bardugo rightly focuses on the characters, enhancing the crew’s snippy banter and deepening their relationships. The six crew members act slightly more like teenagers, but their harrowing lives and mature aspirations keep the novel best suited for older teens and adults. The one flaw is Kaz Brekker. It’s fun to watch his machinations outsmart everyone in Ketterdam, but he also feels unbelievable, an urban noir mastermind stuffed into a teenager’s body. Ultimately, however, Bardugo’s world-building and characters make up for Brekker’s improbability. Readers will be happy to sneak behind him to catch a glimpse of Ketterdam in all its terrifying glory.

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Fantasy novels for college students are difficult to find. This list runs the gamut: Kendare Blake’s novel feels more high school, Leigh Bardugo’s duology suits adult readers, and Tiana Warner’s bloody tales are somewhere in between. Hopefully, at least one of these titles will help twenty-somethings find an engrossing fantasy read, no matter what kind they’re looking for.

American student, writer, UX designer, and poet. Majoring in Environmental Studies at Northeastern University. In my free time, I like to bake, hang out with friends, and play video games.

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