The supernatural, or paranormal, subgenre of fiction stems from Gothic tales which were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If you have read Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey, you may remember the trouble Catherine Morland finds herself in due to her obsession with The Mysteries of Udolpho. Gothic fiction combines elements of horror, romance, and suspense. Today’s supernatural craze revives and reshapes a genre which raised eyebrows and inspired teenage fangirls hundreds of years ago. While romance novels and general fiction also have supernatural subgenres, today I decided to focus on young adult titles.
The paranormal has taken young adult fiction by storm and continues to be one of the most popular subgenres, despite industry predictions that the paranormal boom will eventually go bust. The radical popularity of supernatural books–such as the Twilight series–has glutted the market with titles of varied quality, from good to abysmally bad. The Goodreads shelf dedicated to popular young adult paranormal books lists 20,909 titles. This post recommends some of the most original supernatural books on the market for discerning readers (those concerned with solid prose and well-developed characters, worlds, and great plots).
First, supernatural YA as defined by this review needs brief consideration. Supernatural, fantasy, urban fantasy, dystopian, science-fiction, alternate reality, futuristic, steam punk–in reality, these types of books often overlap and cannot be separated out neatly. For example, consider the Harry Potter books. I would classify them as fantasy, but an argument could be made that they are supernatural, or both (I won’t be including Harry Potter in this overview of top picks–if I did, however, it would win). To limit the selection, I am outlining a more rigid definition of paranormal as books which are based in our reality (past or present) with the inclusion of supernatural beings of any varietal. In some cases, this has the effect of altering our world or a paranormal world acts as a parallel, secret reality.
Naturally, I could not read every title out there, so consider this a first installment. Here is a list of the nineteen books I carefully chose and read to select my top picks:
The Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer
Immortal City by Scott Speer
Die for Me by Amy Plum
Clockwork Angel and City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
The Body Finder by Kimberly Derting
Darker Still by Leanna Renee Hieber
The Host by Stephanie Meyer
Glass Houses by Rachel Caine
Fallen by Lauren Kate
Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
The Iron King, The Iron Daughter, The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa
Embrace and Entice by Jessica Shirvington
My top choice is a draw between the two Cassandra Clare books I have read thus far, Clockwork Angel, the first book of her Infernal Devices series, and City of Bones, the first book of her Mortal Instruments series. This is one case where I’m happy to say that the author’s popularity amongst teens is well-deserved. Clare has great writing, which has only improved as she continues to publish new titles. A combination of witty, lifelike dialogues and vivid but pithy descriptions set into mature, light prose make her books easy reads without sacrificing quality. Clare also knows how to drive a solid plot. Her books keep you guessing and turning the pages. Even the attentive reader will surely be surprised. The secret world of Shadowhunters and Downworlders that Clare creates, with its politics, conflicts, and history, is well-thought out and presents an original take on what can be a cliche subject. The characters in Clare’s books–particularly the main characters–are quite well-developed, not to the level of Harry Potter but more so than in most young adult supernatural books. This could be because the romance plot line, at least in the first book of each series, takes a backseat. The author’s use of third-person narration rather than first-person narration for her books shifts the focus more squarely on the plot and all of the characters, rather than the insecurities and the limited viewpoint of one character.
Both Clockwork Angel and City of Bones feature heroines thrust into fish-out-of-water experiences where they learn that they are in fact connected to the secret world of the supernatural. Clockwork Angel takes place in nineteenth-century London, while City of Bones revolves around present-day New York City.
In Clockwork Angel, Tessa Gray is kidnapped by warlocks and forced to develop a special ability which will make her the ideal sacrificial bride for the dark and mysterious Magister. Rescued by Shadowhunters, Gray becomes their ally and works with them to bring down the Magister. Gray and the Shadowhunters must defeat the Magister before he can takeover the world with his mechanical army animated by dark magic. I particularly enjoyed the historical context of Clockwork Angel and found that Clare’s growth as a writer really shows in this her fourth book.
City of Bones features Clary Fray, a teenager who begins to see the supernatural in the shadows. When her mother goes missing and she is attacked in her apartment, Clary becomes thrust in the world of the Shadowhunters. She learns her mother has been kidnapped by an extremist Shadowhunter named Valentine, who wants to purge the world of all Downworlders. Working together with the Shadowhunters, Clary must save her mother and stop Valentine before he throws the supernatural world into an apocalyptic conflict. The plot work in City of Bones is truly stunning, even if the characters and writing of Clockwork Angel are more developed.
I look forward to reading the rest of these series by Cassandra Clare and her forthcoming sequel to the Mortal Instruments series.
There are a few other books which I would like to point out as well. Perhaps the prose or the character development could have used some work, but at their heart they were built on creative concepts which made them stand out in this crowded genre.
The Body Finder is a young adult book with only a dab of supernatural. Violet Ambrose has the ability to hear the unique death echo of those who have met an unnatural demise–murdered animals, people–and is drawn to these bodies until she fulfills their dying wish. When a serial killer breaks onto the scene and Violet discovers one of his victims, however, she is the only hope for the latest girl he has kidnapped. The crime thriller aspect of this book moves the plot along and the loveable characters keep readers invested.
Immortal City begins with a great premise–what if guardian angels had revealed themselves to humans after the Civil War and now only offer their services for hire? Speer paints a picture of an alternate reality where angels are now celebrities, camped out in their own “Hollywood” in, fittingly, Los Angeles. Cue romance between top guardian angel-to-be and an average high school girl. Speer captures the secret politics and intrigue of the angel world effectively. A mystery component keeps the plot moving and maintains the reader’s interest. He also uses a third person point of view, allowing the reader insight into the thoughts of both the hero and the heroine. The romance plot line of the book is unfortunately weak and Speer could work on his dialogue-writing, but overall the general premise makes the book a worthwhile read.