Three excellent, unconventional YA trilogies to read next

Apologies for the late post! Amazing things have been happening lately with Anomalies, and I’m going on holiday at the end of the month, so I’ve been scrambling to get things done and the Narratograph was shunted to the backburner.

Today I’ll be reviewing three brilliant first instalments of trilogies. I tore through all of these, and their available sequels; even if you don’t normally gravitate towards books for young readers, these are worth the adventure.

3. Caraval by Stephanie Garber

There’s something a little unnerving about carnivals, circuses and magicians. Bound up in the wonder of watching a performance is the knowledge that you’re being deceived and manipulated. Awe and unease dance around you throughout Garber’s novel. This tale of love and lies glitters like sequins in the darkness.

Scarlett lives with a tyrant. Her father, Governor Dragna, knows just how to keep her in line: if she disobeys him, he beats her beloved younger sister, Donatella. As children, Scarlett and Tella dreamed of adventures in faraway places, but now their only hope is Scarlett’s arranged marriage to a count she’s never met. She’s put aside her grandmother’s tales of Caraval – the week-long festival of magic and mischief, with a dangerous game at its heart – as a marvel she’ll never see. The mysterious Caraval Master, Legend, has never answered a single one of her letters.

Until today.

Scarlett has no intention of attending Caraval. She’s going to be married to the count in a week, and has no room in her heart for fairytale yearnings. Besides, she’s heard that Legend has a sadistic streak. But impulsive, idealistic Donatella has other ideas. With the help of Julian, a handsome sailor, Tella drags Scarlett to the island where Caraval is held once a year.

Then Tella disappears. All that Scarlett has left of her is a riddle, telling her that her sister is a key piece of this year’s intricate game. Scarlett must play to save her. But nothing in Caraval is what it seems. Anybody Scarlett meets might be part of the performance, and she has no way of knowing what’s real and what is part of the show.

Garber’s style is as rich and vivid as the colourful, early-19th-century Mediterranean world of her story. I was drawn in by the mindgames, the unpredictable magic and the sisterly love aspects of this story. Normally, I don’t care for romance, but this wouldn’t be the same story without the heady melodrama of Scarlett being torn between beautiful dangerous men, so I was along for the ride. I will say that my immersion was a little interrupted by the way Christianity seems to be taken for granted in what is otherwise a fantasy world built from scratch, but I give even that a pass because of its fairytale atmosphere (and folktales sometimes mention saints and angels). The rest of the trilogy is yet to be published, but promises to be just as elaborate and intriguing as the first instalment.

2. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Kady and Ezra broke up this morning. They thought it would be the worst thing that happened to them this week.

Then their planet was invaded.

And hopping aboard the evacuation spaceships is just the beginning of their problems. Amidst the chaos that unfolds aboard the three vessels, the only person who can help Kady is the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

These books, man. Agh. They’re so good. They’re so strange.

Imagine a novel composed of the paper trails and recorded conversations of its characters: memos, emails, radio conversations, texts, journals and lab reports.

Now imagine everything that can possibly go wrong on a spaceship. Deadly viruses. Rogue AI. Enemy fleets of multi-planetary corporations, trying to fly close enough to blow you up so you can’t dob them in to the intergalactic UN.

That’s Illuminae.

The sense of voice in this novel – and its sequel, Gemina – is so powerful. You’re right in the characters’ instant messages, their most confidential work documents, their bloodstained diaries. I also loved the other trilogy Amie Kaufman worked on – the Starbound series – but this one takes the cake for pure originality and absolute unputdownability (shut up, it’s totally a word). The way the teenage characters talk to each other is so realistic – they have their own slang and a very believable amount of swearing (which is cleverly ‘blanked’ with black bars, in keeping with the ‘propriety’ of the framing device of the novel: a dossier of evidence in a space crimes trial.)

They look hefty, but the unique formatting of Illuminae and its sequels makes the pages fly past. These books are so absorbing. I actually muttered ‘oh no’ and ‘whose blood is that?!’ as I was reading, which is a rare experience for me these days.

A word of warning to the sensitive: the kill count in this series is brutal.

1. A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Yes, you read that right. Jaclyn Moriarty has written a fantasy series, and all of it is out there, right now, published and ready to seize in your trembling adrenaline-charged fingers.

While her previous novels – like Feeling Sorry for Celia and The Betrayal of Bindy MacKenzie – took place in ordinary Australian high schools, The Colours of Madeleine trilogy is a ‘whirlshine’ of weirdness. It takes place in Cambridge, England… and also in Bonfire, the Kingdom of Cello. It’s unlike anything you’ve read before… but it’s also exactly like everything you would have loved about Moriarty’s other books. It has her humour, her vivid characters, her startling plot twists.

‘What about the way the characters write letters to each other?’ you might well wonder.

Yes. The characters write letters to each other… across dimensions.

Bindy Mackenzie will always be my favourite Moriarty creation. I identify so much with lonely, nerdy, earnest Bindy, and the twist is so bold and hilarious that I want to applaud it forever. But there’s just as much to love about Moriarty’s brave foray into fantasy, and the characters who populate the bizarre parallel universes of the trilogy.

At the helm of this gloriously odd vessel are Madeleine Tully and Elliot Baranski. Madeleine lives in a tiny flat in Cambridge with an ailing mother and memories of a life of luxury left behind when her parents separated. Elliot divides his time between school, deftball, working his family’s farm… and sneaking off to dangerous caves full of magical malevolent Colours, in search of his vanished father. One day, Madeleine spies a note tucked into a broken parking meter that reads ‘Help! I am being held against my will!’ When she writes back, she discovers a tiny rift in the multiverse, and a friend she never could have imagined.

Moriarty has a gift for capturing what it feels like to be young: the goofy comedy, the frustration, the pointless hurt, the mistrust of the world, the passion and the sparkling fragile hope. She has an eye for detail that can change the way you see the world. And she has such skill with her plot twists that I can’t help but envy her.

These books are so immensely rewarding. I can’t wait to see what Moriarty will produce next.

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