YA (and YA-adjacent) SFF without Romance

Okay, so this is a post compiled from a recent post about books aimed at teens, but without romance, especially without angsty romance. I went through the comments and pulled out most of the titles suggested, leaving out just a few that I think are much more aimed at young MG readers. Actually, I think a few of these here are probably aimed pretty young as well, but I wasn’t sure because I haven’t read them. When in doubt, I left them in because children’s books can be so wonderful, why not? But most of these are YA.

So, here are mine:

City in the Lake

The Floating Islands

The White Road of the Moon

The Keeper of the Mist

And now, here are the ones by everyone else, starting with the few I suggested and going right on in no order at all except by order of comment.

 The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst

 I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

E.C. suggests:

Diana Wynne Jones (and since EC did not pick out a title, I will: my personal favorite is Dogsbody.

Garth Nix (and I think the place to start is Sabriel)

Rosemary Sutcliff (and I think most people start with The Eagle of the Ninth)

Dragon and Thief by Timothy Zahn

Arthurian stories by Gerald Morris (seconded by Kathryn M) (Beginning with The Squire’s Tale)

The Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series by Brian Jacques. I’ve managed never to read anything by Brian Jacques, though I keep meaning to.

Wabi, Bearwalker, Wolf Mark, and Dark Pond all by Joseph Bruchac

Boys of Blur and 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson (not SFF)

Alcatraz by Brandon Sanderson

The Secret Country trilogy by Pamela Dean

Alison contributes:

The Prodigy by John Feinstein (Not SFF — it’s a sports story.)

OtterB suggests:

Airborn series by Kenneth Oppel (I second that pick)

and OtterB adds

Another source of reading for teens are the Alex Awards, which are for books published for adults that the American Library Association committee thinks appeal to teens as well. Winners include All Systems Red by Martha Wells, The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi, and Educated by Tara Westover.

As long as YA exists as a category, then this is a great type of award and we need more emphasis on it. I would pick The Cloud Roads over Murderbot for an award like this. Moon is very much a YA type of protagonist.

Moving on —

Lydia says:

The Year of the Reaper, by Makiia Lucier

Wow, great cover:

This reminds me of Michael Whelan, and I don’t say that lightly.

We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett. Not vampires! The description begins: Two girls use forbidden magic to fly and fight — for their country and for themselves — in this riveting debut that’s part Shadow and Bone, part Code Name Verity. My response, Code Name Verity! Wow, that’s quite a comparison to live up to, and also, Code Name Verity is another good one for this list.

Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson. I’ve had a sample for a while.

The Wicked and the Just and Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats (warning about heavy themes)

The Silence of Bones by June Hur (historical fiction novel without romance, about a servant girl at a police station in 18th century Korea; I immediately picked up a sample because this sounds so interesting!)

Megan Whelan Turner

From Elaine T:

A Darkening of Dragons and A Vanishing of Griffins by S. A. Patrick (a fantasy “using the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in a setting where Pipers are a trained, known thing and Hamelin’s had done what none of them ever should,” says Elaine, and that certainly sounds promising.)

Hanneke:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (which has been on my TBR pile for AGES)

From Heather:

The End of the Alphabet by Fleur Beale (Heather says, “it’s about relationships, but it’s MUCH more family relationships than romance. There’s romance in there but it’s… not great AT ALL and seems to be an afterthought.”) (Not SFF)

Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant’s, (but Heather adds, “the sequel is more violent and put me right off reading further in the trilogy,” to which I respond, wait, there are sequels?)

The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan (Historical)

Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl, and wow, that takes me back! I loved this book when I was a kid.

The Christmas Mystery and The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr. Heather says, The narrator has amnesia, which is Very Much a main point. She can’t remember *anything* that happens day-to-day… until she does. Just ONE thing. And she goes off looking for it. (Despite the thing she remembers being a kiss with a boy, this isn’t a romance story. And it’s not horrible, either – the strangers she encounters are kind. I don’t think there’s really even a villain to the piece – not one with nasty intent, anyway.

WHEW. There are a LOT here that I’ve never read and a lot I’ve never even heard of. Should someone be looking for books aimed at teens, with no romance or very restrained, non-angsty romance, this might be a good place to start.

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27 thoughts on “YA (and YA-adjacent) SFF without Romance”

  1. >Red Moon and Black Mountain by Joy Chant’s, (but Heather adds, “the sequel is more violent and put me right off reading further in the trilogy,” to which I respond, wait, there are sequels?)

    Not a trilogy: she wrote a prequel called The Grey Mane of Morning set among the Khentorei long long before RM&BM, and then a sort of romantic fantasy, When Voiha Wakes, which is set in a culture so far removed from the other two that it’s essentially in a different world — I think it’s only an author’s note that clarifies they’re all supposed to be on the same planet.

    I picked them both up in college and don’t think I’ve discussed them with you since then.

  2. I would suggest Tamora Peirce. A lot of her books straddle the MG / YA categories, but the Trickster’s Choice duology is definitely more on the YA side, and is one of my favourites by her.

    I also like Shannon Hale. The Goose Girl series is good, but they are romances. I really liked the Princess Academy, where romance is not the focus. The Princess Academy sequels are not as good, imo. I also like Dangerous, which is modern day SF I guess. This book has romance, but it’s basically an adventure story. It’s also a great example of a betrayal that is not a betrayal.

    I don’t think I saw Robin McKinley mentioned yet either. Lots of great stuff there.

  3. I would like to add Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe which also may appeal for its ghost dog! (There’s a prequel coming out soon too, but not sure about the romance?)

    Also Nicole Kornher-Stace’s weird and wonderful postapocalyptic Archivist Wasp, Latchkey, and adult prequels Firebreak and Flight & Anchor are really good and described by the author as “ride or die friendships,” which also fits Karina Sumner-Smith’s Towers trilogy starting with Radiant- I think the very generic YA dystopia marketing did that series a disservice, it’s a fascinating and atypical magical postapocalyptic setting centered around a strong friendship between two girls. (I’m a really hard sell for the postapocalypse generally but I really liked these two series! Maybe because they are rather distant postapocalypses that lean into magic and read more along the lines of secondary world fantasy, especially Archivist Wasp?)

    I do like Garth Nix’s Sabriel and love that setting, but there is an understated romance subplot in it as well as an eventual romance in the following triad of Lirael, Abhorsen, and the recent Goldenhand (mostly back-loaded into Goldenhand in a way I didn’t find very satisfying). Clariel is a villian centered prequel and the only book without romance, the anti-heroine’s disinterest in romance is explicitly cast as a key component of her fall and eventual descent into evil so while it’s a technical fit for the category I would really not recommend it for readers not interested in romance! (I hoped for some nuance to be added to this in Goldenhand where she shows back up as an antagonist, but there was not.)

  4. Am I imagining things, and/or is anyone else creeped out by how amazing Shannon Hales first books were, and how she then wrote that book The Actor and the Housewife where she doesn’t give up her husband even after he dies, and now she only writes children’s books with her real husband as co author? I worry about her. It could be my imagination, but I am totally creeped out by this progression.

  5. Sandstone, I don’t know how I missed Archivist Wasp, which I ADORED, and Latchkey as well. I haven’t yet read her other ones.

    I agree Archivist Wasp doesn’t read like post-apocalyptic at all, though it does have the typical YA post-apocalypse arc of horrible oppressive society –> which gets torn down through the heroic action of the protagonist and friends –> the seeds of a much better world. This arc is excellent. I don’t always want to start off with a close look at a horrible oppressive society, so if anyone feels the same way, let me add that Wasp spends most of the book somewhere else.

    Anyway, fantastic book.

    I remember Sabriel and the sequels MUCH LESS WELL, so thanks for the comments about romance in the sequels.

    I’ve never read Karina Summer-Smith’s trilogy, so thanks! I agree that I burned out on post-apocalypse and quit looking at the subgenre, and I can easily see latecomers to that subgenre having a hard time as many readers decided they were over that kind of story.

    Melanie, great suggestion, and I should have thought of Tamora Pierce. I like the Protector of the Small series best, but I think the Beka Cooper trilogy is definitely on the YA side of the line and very good.

    I love Robin McKinley, but there we do see strong romance subplots in … most? Almost all? .. of her books.

    Thanks, Craig, I remember now that those other books by Chant exist, but I’m pretty sure I never read them.

  6. Pierce’s Tortall books all have romance; the level of angst is variable. Her Circle of Magic series (and sequels) have none until the last one, so although those start closer to MG they might be a better fit overall. Numair’s prequel series might work, but it’s unfinished.

    What about McKinley’s Dragonhaven? No romance that I can recall. Also some of McKillip’s works — like the Book of Atrix Wolfe and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld– would work. The second has romance, but I felt the revenge plot overshadowed that. Oh and the Riddle Master of Hed!

    I think Redwall will appeal to YA as well MG readers, although Flying Dutchman is more solidly YA.

    Is there a reason to leave off LOTR and the Hobbit? (If we’re including the Alex Awards.)

  7. It’s a little frustrating because I think there are a lot of comics that fit the criteria, but I can’t think of many book equivalents.

  8. There’s minimal romance in Protector of the Small, which is easily Pierce’s best.

    I was thinking of Martha Wells. There’s not a lot of romance in Court of Fives, and it certainly does not drive the plot. (Cold Magic is another story!)

  9. Pete, you mean Kate Elliott, and I haven’t read Court of Fives. I really loved the Spiritwalker trilogy and I have plenty of Elliott’s on my TBR pile.

    Mona, yes, you’re right, Dragonhaven is a great choice. Also right about McKillip, of course. There’s definitely a romance subplot in the Riddlemaster trilogy, but it’s about as far from the teen angst style of romance as you can get.

  10. Of course Kate Elliott. I can certainly see teenage boys wanting to avoid angsty romance novels. *I* try to avoid angsty romance novels! After the first one, they are just dull. So maybe Spiritwalker is OK after all: plenty of romance, but plenty of action, too. And no angst. (And the sex scenes are all moved to the author’s blog.)

  11. @ Sandstone,
    The Old Kingdom series does have romantic subplots; I was in a hurry and didn’t specify that I was thinking of his Keys to the Kingdom series, his YA sci-fi standalone A Confusion of Princes, and Angel Mage, which is basically a retelling of The Three Musketeers set in Magical Italy with angels. Awesome friendships in the last one, seriously so much fun.

  12. Alison, didn’t mean to ignore your comment; I haven’t followed. Shannon Hale’s career because (sorry!) I wasn’t nearly as impressed by her early books as many other readers were. I’ll hope that the personal arc suggested is purely an artifact of her own changing tastes as an author.

  13. A series I completely forgot to mention was Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” – and the spinoff “Feline Wizards” trilogy – and the spinoff short stories. YW starts good and gets better (and REALLY kicks into high gear at #5, when the stakes suddenly become far more personal); it ranges from urban fantasy to high-fantasy-Faerie to outer space.

    FW you have to read after you’ve got a handle on the world or you’ll end up very very confused; I like the second book of the trilogy best (steampunk Victorian Era, sort of. The Lone Power managed to send a physics textbook through a time rift and suddenly the colonial powers have NUCLEAR WEAPONS… I mean, what better way to encourage the world to unwittingly send itself into a eternal nuclear winter? And standing in the Lone Power’s way are… some cats).

    Also, if you think Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort had a power mismatch, think again. In #1, two pre-teens only just starting out in their wizardry…. and a rather lost sentient white hole nicknamed Fred… are taking on someone who, in their opening gambit to destroy Earth, clicks his fingers and PUTS OUT THE SUN.

  14. I loved Enchantress from the Stars so much when I was a girl I bought the book for my girls, who of course ignored it. Also The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key. A lovely MG book , he also wrote Escape to Witch Mountain, I think. Dated, I’m sure.

  15. Hilari Bell’s Knight and Rogue series don’t have romance in the earlier books in the series – later on there is some very understated romance. Actually, most of Bell’s books are like that – either no romance or very lowkey romance.

  16. Kathryn, I’ve got something by Hilari Bell on my TBR pile; maybe someday I’ll actually read it.

    Alison, I LOVED Escape to Witch Mountain. Dated does not mean not worth reading. Actually, I’d put Escape to Witch Mountain in exactly the same sub-sub-sub-genre as Zenna Henderson’s stories of the People. Anyone who likes Zenna Henderson is almost certain to enjoy Witch Mountain.

  17. I second Kathryn’s recommendation for Hilari Bell. She’s a lesser known author that is definitely worth reading. Especially good fit for fans of Rachel Neumeier.

  18. See, it’s comments like this that make me add stuff to my TBR pile, and then download things to my phone, and then I wind up gazing at a hundred titles, wistfully wondering what I should actually read first … next time I’m reading anything …

  19. I’m going to unhelpfully third that Hilari Bell recommendation, and further suggest you start with either the Farsala trilogy or her Knight and Rogue series, though I very much enjoyed her Shield, Sword, and Crown trilogy as well.

  20. Yes, I always loved the Farsala trilogy – partly because my eighth-grade self was so proud of picking up on the echoes of the Roman-Parthian wars!
    One more for the recommendation list: Tales of Derring-Do, by Victoria Goddard. It’s a great coming-of-age tale for Damian and Jullanar, two of the Red Company, with a young Fitzroy falling out of the sky (literally) to join them for the last third of the book. You don’t need to have read any of Goddard’s other books to enjoy this one.

  21. On Shannon Hale, I never liked anything of her better than her first, The Goose Girl. But she’s a lot better than someone I’ve seen confused with her: Jessica Day George who comes off as weirdly derivative of picture book retellings (when she’s doing fairy tale retellings, that is.) Descriptions match certain editions the Teen grew up with, that sort of thing.

    Hilari Bell hasn’t worked for me. “she-bitch” really?

    I love Rosemary Sutcliff, and started with The Silver Branch. Someone put off by Romans, could try Norman and Saxon in The Shield Ring, too.

  22. Elaine T, I didn’t like The Goose Girl, where to me the protagonist seemed astoundingly helpless and ineffectual. I realize Hale followed the fairy tale. I would have (strongly!) preferred a substantial departure. It’s an awful fairy tale — and the horse! Aargh!

  23. > E.C. Ah! I haven’t read those by Nix, but I should check them out, thanks!

    > Rachel, if you enjoyed Archivist Wasp and Latchkey I think you would like Firebreak and Flight & Anchor- these are prequels about (spoiler) the Ghost and Foster, Flight & Anchor when they’re children and Firebreak when they are adults (though they are not POV characters). Firebreak is a bit dystopian but it focuses on resistance, community organizing, and hope and stops short of the apocalypse, though we do see the deaths of some characters we meet as ghosts later in Archivist Wasp and Latchkey. More directly, Kornher-Stace is also writing a third Archivist Wasp book set after Latchkey posted sporadically on Patreon if you might be interested!

    I happened to read Sumner-Smith’s Towers trilogy right before Archivist Wasp when I read them the first time and there are some really interesting coincidental similarities that made them good companion reads- fantasy-tinted postapocalypse, strong central platonic relationship, girls who interact with ghosts, dealing with post-injury disability…

  24. I’m sure I would love both books, Sandstone, if I ever get to them! And it certainly does sound like the Towers trilogy made a pretty neat comparison.

  25. Thank you so much for the reference to Year of the Reaper. I just finished it and LOVED it, and am started on her second trilogy.

    Intisar Khanani writes some excellent stories that have romance elements but are so much more. I liked her Goose Girl retelling titled Thorn much better than Shannon Hale’s retelling. I have also read Lorna Freeman’s Covenants trilogy several times. I think it was supposed to be more than a trilogy but nothing more was ever written. Doesn’t leave you hanging but you know there’s more to the story. The first book is my favorite of them, but I enjoyed them all. The only bit of romance in it is more of an anti-romance.

    Does the Goblin Emperor count as young adult? Maybe the upper end of young adult. It fits the bill.

  26. For crying out loud, Mary, like I needed to add a paper book to my TBR shelves! But The Year of the Reaper is half as much for the hardcover as for the ebook, and I DO really love the cover, so fine, I’m picking it up.

    I’ve read a couple by Khanani and liked them okay, but not enough to seek out others of hers.

    I think The Goblin Emperor DOES count as YA and I think it’s a great choice here.

  27. I really liked Khanani’s Sunbolt series, and I’m glad she’s working on finishing the series. The Covenants trilogy was very good, I agree the first one was the best. Picking up Year of the Reaper now! Thanks!!

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