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Jun 06 2016
by Nancy Canevari

10 Must-Read YA Fantasy Books with LGBT+ Characters

By Nancy Canevari - Jun 06 2016
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It’s no secret that I have a love for fantasy novels, but there’s a special place in my heart for young adult fantasy. Maybe that’s because I fit so tidily into the target demographic, maybe it’s because I’ve been browsing the YA section of my library since I realized that I had read all of the books in the children’s section, but I genuinely think that the reason I find myself so drawn to YA, time and time again, is because the young adult genre seems to be the genre where we as readers are seeing more and more representation, and more diverse characters written not as token minorities, but as real people.

I’ve pulled ten books from the young adult fantasy genre that I feel exhibit the best representation of LGBT+ characters, a group that has often been pushed to the side in media even as they fight their way into the public eye. Narrowing this list down was difficult, and there are so many more titles that I could have included, but I tried my hardest to keep the list as well-rounded as I could. It is absolutely not all-inclusive; I have read woefully few books featuring trans characters and those who do not identify within the gender binary, and so I hand the reins over to anyone who wishes to recommend additional titles. I wish everyone happy reading!

*DISCLAIMER* Some of these books are series where one or multiple LGBT+ characters are not introduced until a later book, or where a character’s sexuality is not stated until a later book. I included them anyway because I feel that the characters are still excellent representations of the LGBT+ population.

*FURTHER DISCLAIMER* I identify as heterosexual and cisgender, and therefore do not understand firsthand the struggles that the LGBT+ population faces. 


1. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

goodreads.com

In this glorious adventure through the backwoods of Western Virginia, four students from an all-boys' prep school join forces with a girl who comes from a family of psychics to find a Welsh king who has been buried underground for centuries. As the characters complete their quest, they also face the everyday challenges of relationships and identity. One of the boys is gay, another bisexual, and both are fully comfortable in their sexualities – and the characters around them are equally accepting. The two boys themselves play integral parts in the story; they both contribute to the magic of the world and the quest to find the king, and the arc of their relationship is a side plot that carries through the entire series. Get the entire series here for $26.96.

2. The Emelan books by Tamora Pierce

goodreads.com

I’m cheating a little with this one, because technically the three series that make up Emelan are considered middle grade, not young adult, but I’ve made an exception because these books are such a fantastic example of representation in books for young readers. The three series follow four children, all from broken or nonexistent families, who enter the Winding Circle academy to be educated in various aspects of magic. Daja, one of the students who has a gift for metalwork, is both a lesbian and a woman of color, and is one of the strongest, most well-rounded female character I’ve seen in YA fantasy. Two of the female teachers at the academy are also gay and have been in a relationship for several years, and it is a stable, healthy relationship. We all know that Tamora Pierce writes women well, but with these books she establishes that she can also write LGBT+ characters well, and she can write them as well-rounded characters who contribute to the plot of the story. Get it here for $9.99.

3. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

goodreads.com

Simon Snow is a student at Watford School of Magicks, who has been foretold to destroy the Insidious Humdrum, but there’s a catch – he’s an abysmal wizard. As he navigates his final year of school he faces monsters and corruption, a mentor who hides vital information from him and an impending war between factions of wizards, but he also faces the challenges of school and exams, a breakup with his long-time girlfriend, and his slowly developing feelings for his roommate, Baz. Simon is one of the most realistic teenage characters in YA fiction- deals with the fate of his world and the fate of magic, but he also spends most of the book coming to terms with his sexuality and trying not to fail all of his classes. Baz is also very well-rounded; we see him as a character who has realized that he’s gay but is reluctant to tell his family, but we also see him as an intelligent student and a loving older brother, who deals with regular teenage struggles as he deals with magical ones. Get it here for $7.50.

4. The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

credit: goodreads.com

The Grisha Trilogy is a magical, beautifully-crafted story about an orphan girl who must use her magical abilities to save her already devastated country from a civil war, but beyond that it is a story about love and friendship and the true nature of humankind.

It also has magical lesbians who are two of the bravest and strongest warriors in the entire series, who are also loyal supporters of the protagonist and her mission. And their sexuality is not considered strange – their relationship is accepted as easily as that of the straight couples, because when the fate of the world is at stake there are more important things to worry about than who your team members are sleeping with. Get the entire series here for $24.23.

5. The Shadowhunter Chronicles by Cassandra Clare

goodreads.com

I couldn’t pick just one of Cassandra Clare’s series – they all depict LGBT+ characters, and while some books may contain more examples of diversity, I felt that I needed to include The Infernal Devices, The Mortal Instruments and The Dark Artifices in this list. While the individual plots of each series may vary, the world is the same – Shadowhunters, who are humans with angel blood, protect the mortal world from demons, and are both aided and impeded by Downworlders, the other half of the magical population, which consists of warlocks, fairies, vampires and werewolves. Over the course of this series we have seen two women marry; we have seen two men raise children together; we have seen bisexual characters love both men and women over the course of their lifetimes. Some characters have been fully open in their sexualities, while others have struggled to come out and faced discrimination when they did, but however these characters are shown they are realistic and well-rounded, and play important roles in each story. Get the Mortal Instruments series here, and The Dark Artifices series here

6. The Graceling Trilogy by Kristin Cashore

goodreads.com

In the simplest of explanations, Graceling is a story about women who fight to stabilize their kingdoms and fix the broken world that they have been born into, whether those women are warriors or queens or both. Amidst the wars and political intrigue, Cashore introduces us to a bisexual woman of color as the protagonist of the second book, whose sexuality plays no part in her ability to fight and strategize. We’re also presented with a gay crown prince who has been in a relationship with the quiet court scientist for years, and who fears the day that he will be king and will have to marry and produce heirs, as well as two women in a committed relationship that want to have a baby someday. Cashore handles sexuality matter-of-factly, a part of someone’s character as natural as any other trait, and in doing so creates a realistic world and realistic characters. Get it here for $9.25. 

7. The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkowski

goodreads.com

The story begins with a slave auction and a general’s daughter who can play the piano; it quickly turns into a tale of political intrigue and revolution, of secret alliances and war and the unspeakable things that people can do to protect each other. It is a story about sacrifice and deception, but it is also a story of love and friendship and the ability to find family in the strangest places. When Arin, a former slave who becomes the leader of a revolution to drive out the colonial powers who have captured his country, travels to the nation’s eastern neighbor to seek an alliance, an unlikely alliance forms between the two countries, fueled by a friendship between Arin and the foreign Prince Roshar, a renowned warrior and military strategist – who also happens to be gay. Marie Rutkowsi creates a character who is comfortable with his sexuality, not caring whether or not people know about it, and who simultaneously provides strength and comic relief to the series. Get the first book here for $7.16.

8. The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta

goodreads.com

One day I will die. And on my tombstone will be written: “Will this girl ever shut up about the damn Lumatere Chronicles?”

The answer is no. I will not.

The story of Lumatere is a very difficult one to explain without spoilers, so I feel that the following explanation will suffice: a kingdom is cursed. Actually, multiple kingdoms are cursed. Multiple kingdoms are cursed and the characters who must save their kingdoms find themselves going on very long journeys where they find things they hadn’t even known what they were looking for, and along the way they learn both what it means to belong and what it means to be.

I have to be even more careful of spoilers when discussing the characters, (one character’s sexuality itself is not a spoiler, but the role that he plays in the life of the main character is, and it’s one of the biggest spoilers in all three books) but this particular character, as well as his romantic partner, are one of very few examples I’ve seen of middle-aged LGBT+ characters. Both are gay men in their forties, and are unashamedly comfortable with their sexualities – they are out in the open, and fully accept themselves. One of these two men is the adoptive single father of two very successful children, a fact that speaks volumes about the representation of gay parents in literature. The relationship that exists between these two characters, while complicated, is healthy and realistic, and depicts the very real obstacles that couples face. Get the entire trilogy for $14.96.

9. Ash by Melinda Lo

malindalo.com

This one’s a classic. But if you haven’t read it yet, then let me sell it to you in two very short words: Lesbian. Cinderella.

No, you didn’t hear that wrong.

Ash is the story of a young girl abused by her stepmother, who wants nothing more than to be taken away by the dark and dangerous faeries – until she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, and learns to open her heart again. We see two gay women take the center stage of the novel; the plot revolves around them and their character development, and a classic fairytale is reimagined for a modern, more accepting age. The romance is lovely. There is no other word that I can use – it is lovely, and refreshing, and will make you want to laugh and cry for all the right reasons. Get it for $7.09 here

10. The Seraphina Duology by Rachel Hartman

credit: goodreads.com

Phina Dombegh is a musical prodigy in the kingdom of Goredd, and takes a job as a castle musician just before a royal family member is murdered. The problem? Phina is a dragon, in a country where tensions between dragons and humans are high even decades after a bloody war between the two species. As she joins the investigation to find the murderer she is forced to hide her identity, all while observing the hatred towards her people spiral out of control.

This duology gains extra points in my eyes because it features a transgender character, and creates a world where being trans is the most normal thing possible. This woman is an incredibly vital part of the story, and becomes not only a close friend for Phina but also an instrument in the plot to save Goredd from a grim fate. Furthermore, one of the nations in the world of the duology contains the phrase “how may I pronoun you?” a question that, if a speaker wishes to be polite, must be asked at every new introduction, because the nation believes that gender must never be assumed and that identity must always be respected.

*gleeful screaming in the background*

One of the main characters, a young princess who is forced to take the throne of an unstable kingdom when her parents are killed (and who does so brilliantly), is a lesbian, and her sexuality is accepted easily. There is also a very heavily implied polyamorous relationship between two women and a man, and while I can’t say much more about that because of spoilers, it is a healthy and beautiful relationship built on love and trust and respect, as all relationships should be. Get it for $9.21.

There you have it – my YA fantasy recommendations featuring LGBT+ characters. Take some time to pick one up this summer, and let me know what you think!

Lead Image Credit: unsplash.com

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Nancy Canevari - Smith College

Nancy is a junior editor for Fresh U. She is a sophomore at Smith College and plans on double majoring in secondary education and English, with a concentration in creative writing. She's originally from New Jersey, a place she views with one part love and one part exasperated disgust. She loves dogs and young adult high fantasy novels a bit too much and spends most of her time drinking tea and yelling about politics. Follow her on Instagram @fearlesslynancelot for some solidly mediocre content.

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