Black Speculative YA Books to Liven Up Your Bookshelves

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

If Black girl magic was a literary genre, it just might take the form of YA speculative fiction written by Black writers and featuring Black characters. Of course, not all Black speculative YA books feature Black protagonists who identify as women or girls, but my point remains: these books are a celebration of not only Black youth but also the many and various cultural traditions that can be tied to Blackness.

Since this list focuses on works of speculative fiction, there is often literal magic happening in the storylines. Some of these authors have built that magic around cultural practices, epistemologies, and ontologies that can be traced to different parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and other areas. Other authors have invented magics that are entirely new (and so cool!).

Whatever the inspiration for the magic and other speculative elements in these books, there’s a little bit of everything to be found on this list. Duologies are all the rage right now, so you’ll notice a number of books here that are one half of a pair. Regardless of whether the books stand on their own or are meant to be enjoyed as part of a series, they’re all amazing reads, and I hope you enjoy them!

So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole book cover

So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole

When this Caribbean-inflected fantasy tale begins, Faron Vincent has already saved the island nation of the Childe Empyrean from the Langley Empire. She wields powerful magic but is feeling somewhat purposeless since she’s living in a time of peace. But (because of course there’s a but) while she’s away on a diplomatic venture, her older sister bonds with a dragon, and the timing couldn’t be worse. Dragons are turning deadly because of something called the Fury and the gods insist that the only solution is killing the dragons…which would also kill those they’re bonded with. Now Faron has to find a way to save her sister despite the risks to herself and her nation.

Forged by Blood by Ehigbor Okosun book coverForged by Blood by Ehigbor Okosun book cover

Forged by Blood by Ehigbor Okosun

This epic fantasy is the first book in the Tainted Blood duology, and the second book is due out this fall. It follows Dèmi as she attempts to stay alive long enough to exact revenge for her mother’s death. Dèmi, like other Oluso, has dark skin and magical powers. When an opportunity finally presents itself, Dèmi seizes it, and the pace quickens immediately. Since this is only the first book of the duology, it definitely leaves you wanting the next installment so you can find out what happens to the characters!

Nubia: The Reckoning by Omar Epps and Clarence A. Haynes book coverNubia: The Reckoning by Omar Epps and Clarence A. Haynes book cover

Nubia: The Reckoning by Omar Epps and Clarence A. Haynes

This second half of the Nubia series picks up in the near-future New York City the first volume introduced to readers. Where the three central teenage characters were just learning to use the fledgling powers that emerged in the first book, this installment sees them become more entrenched in a society that’s fast adapting to this change. The divisions that began to develop in the first book have much higher stakes in Nubia: The Reckoning and the power imbalances plaguing future NYC come to a head.

Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor book coverLike Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor book cover

Like Thunder by Nnedi Okorafor

Like Thunder is the second book of the Desert Magician’s duology, but interestingly the first book, Shadow Speaker, was published 16 years earlier. Shifting focus from Ejii, the protagonist of the first book, this second volume takes place just three years later and follows Ejii’s friend Dikéogu. The setting — a near-future Niger wracked by human-induced climate and political disaster — remains the same, as does the presence of the Changed Ones, who hold the ability to exert control over various natural forces. But the new plotline delivers another compelling and complex book that has a lot to say about our contemporary reality.

The Shadow Sister by Lily Meade book coverThe Shadow Sister by Lily Meade book cover

The Shadow Sister by Lily Meade

Casey is a 16-year-old girl navigating her biracial identity in a wealthy Seattle suburb. She doesn’t have a great relationship with her older sister Sutton, but when Sutton goes missing, everything changes. Nobody seems to think much about the other girls who’ve gone missing, and things are weird when Sutton actually returns. Little things are off, and it’s more than just a little disquieting. The mystery at the heart of this book is deeply engaging, and the speculative elements add an interesting dimension to the story.

The Blood Gift by N.E. Davenport book coverThe Blood Gift by N.E. Davenport book cover

The Blood Gift by N.E. Davenport

This is the second book in the sci-fantasy Blood Gift duology, and it’s an exciting read! Following close on the heels of the drama and intrigue of its precursor, The Blood Trials, The Blood Gift finds protagonist Ikenna continuing in her search for her grandfather’s murderer. The political dangers and personal stakes are even more dire in this second installment. Between Ikenna’s expanded abilities, the monstrous Blood Emperor, and the struggle for power, it’s impossible to turn the pages fast enough.

House of Marionne by J. Elle book coverHouse of Marionne by J. Elle book cover

House of Marionne by J. Elle

The first book in a trilogy, House of Marionne, is nothing short of glamorous. Set in a New Orleans from an alternate reality, it follows 17-year-old Quell as she navigates her own magical powers. That magic—her toushana—is growing, which leaves Quell vulnerable to the Dragun assassins who seek out people like her. Her last option is to join a magical secret society, but that requires her to perform certain tasks as she becomes a debutante. Since this book is as romantic as it is fantastical, this is where Quell’s mentor Jordan enters the picture. Fair warning: once you pick this book up, you won’t want to put it down.

King of Dead Things by Nevin Holness book coverKing of Dead Things by Nevin Holness book cover

King of Dead Things by Nevin Holness

Out next month, Nevin Holness’ debut novel delivers in droves. Transforming London via Afro-Caribbean folklore, the novel follows two British Jamaican teenagers on a magical quest. Malcolm and Eli have opposing magical gifts: Malcolm’s magic awakens the dead, while Eli’s heals the living. Add to that the fact that Malcolm is running from his past while Eli can’t remember his, and the scene is set. When dark magic creeps into the community, their paths cross when Eli and his friends are sent on a mission to find a magical artifact (Osebo’s fang) that eats magic.

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