As per request by @sarahtaylorgibson, I have compiled a list of formative fiction, mostly dark fantasy, from my adolescence. Unfortunately, the majority of the romantic subplots are heterosexual, but almost all of the books are very feminist:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: The first book in the Gemma Doyle trilogy. Lesbian side characters! Victorian lesbians! Takes place at an all girl’s boarding school in Victorian England. There’s ancient magic, secret societies, etiquette training, prophecies, and dark forces. Very dark, at times creepy, fantasy that deals with Victorian heteropatriarchy, xenophobia, and ableism in a nuanced, beautifully crafted way.
Magyk by Angie Sage: Book one of the Septimus Heap series (7 books). These books are middle school reading level, but very fun, a little dark, and always interesting. A foray into young Septimus Heap’s journey into sorcery, his destiny as the seventh son of a seventh son. Magic, dark forces, magisocial politics, strong female side characters and role models.
The Faerie Path by Frewin Jones: The first book in the Faerie Path series (6 books). Sixteen-year-old, Anita Palmer, is hospitalized after an accident on her birthday and discovers that she is the seventh daughter of Queen Titania and King Oberon, who put a sleeping spell on the kingdom of Faerie until his youngest daughter returned. Parallel universes, complexities of sisterhood, special powers, fae, court intrigue, fate mixed with politics, family ties, and duty to country. Dark fantasy that plays heavily with Celtic mythology (especially Welsh and Irish).
Mira, Mirror by Mette Ivie Harrison: Stand-alone novel. Mira is trapped in a mirror and forced to serve her vain adopted witch sister, who uses blood magic to remain youthful and powerful. After becoming queen, Mira’s sister abandons her. Years later, Mira finds herself in the hands of the peasant girl, Ivana. Mira does anything she can to get her human form back. Manipulation, female friendships, betrayal, intrigue, dark magic, moral growth. The first book I read that didn’t have a cut-and-dry happy ending. All major players are women.
Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix: Retelling of Cinderella. Ella is chosen by the Prince for her looks, rather than true love. She finds Prince Charming as dull as she does court life, where she is in training to be Charming’s bride. Frustrated by her own powerlessness, Ella attempts to break off the engagement, only to be imprisoned in harsh conditions. She must use her wits and her new friends to escape the palace. Eating disorders, abuse, and the dark side of royalty.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede: Book one of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles (4 books). Headstrong Princess Cimorene runs away from her painfully ordinary family and a looming engagement to become a dragon’s princess. Dragon politics, wizards v. dragons, industrious young women, friendship over romance.
The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor: Dark!Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. Alice must regain her memories and imaginative capabilities in order to save her queendom from her wicked aunt, Redd, a corrupt, neighboring kingdom, and social disorder. If you like murder, evil aunts, the power of Imagination, Victorian England, and/or matriarchy, this series is for you. Violent, cause-centered love interest and reluctant queen. War, terrible war. DARK. Rich imaginative world-building.
Princess Academy and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale: Both are first books in a trilogy. PA is lighter, focused on classism, education, friendships between girls and the power that comes from that, set in mining country. The prince must find a bride from the mountains, so all eligible mountain girls are sent to a new academy to hone their etiquette, as well as their minds. TGG is a retelling of the original fairy tale. Princess Ani can talk to animals and is betrothed to the prince of Bayern, but she is betrayed by her caravan in-route to Bayern and her lady-in-waiting poses as her. Ani disguises herself as a goose girl and fights to regain her rightful place with the aid of her friends.
Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine: Fairest is about Aza, a young girl with a beautiful voice and much less beautiful looks. Aza can “throw” her voice, a talent which ties her up with palace intrigue, ogres, bravery, and adventure. TTPoB is about princess sisters, one of whom (Meryl, the adventurous one) comes down with the Gray Death. Addie (the shy, quiet one) must overcome her fear and the lack of help from the king to find the illusive prophesied cure to save her sister. Though she is assisted a little by her sorcerer friend/love interest, Rhys, Addie must go on this hero’s quest alone.
The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima: First book in the Heir Chronicles (5 books). Small town America meets British fantasy stretching back to the Middle Ages. Fantasy politics, warring houses/factions, underguilds controlled by Wizards. Each book follows a different teenager from different guilds as they discover and fight against the Wizard guild for equality and freedom.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: Early sci-fi. Part of a larger series, but perhaps best as a stand-alone novel. I really love parallel book, Ender’s Shadow, which is probably better than EG, but needs the context EG provides. Follow Ender as he rises through the ranks of fellow child soldiers in a war to protect Earth. This book features dubious morality, questioning ethics, violence between young children chosen for combat, and an exploration of the actual psychological repercussions of traumatic events on survivors.
Avalon High by Meg Cabot: Essentially, a King Arthur Modern High School AU, centering around Ellie, who has recently moved to Maryland with her parents, who are professors of medieval history. Is it better to know your fate, or does it just mess things up? Featuring issues of interpretation regarding prophecy, going against destiny, unproblematic love interest, and complex motives and morality.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw: Written in the 80s. Mara is a brilliant slave girl freed from bondage to become a spy-turned-double-agent in the court of Queen Hatshepsut. Mara also becomes caught in her feelings for the brooding, Enjolras-type love interest, Sheftu. Who can you trust when everyone you know is a spy? A little trope-y at times, but very enjoyable. Not exotifying, as far as I remember.
Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng: First in a series of many. Magical orphan girl kind of fiction. Molly is charming, brilliant, and finds a book about hypnotism that she uses to make life better for herself and her orphan friends. Filled with action and humor, Molly and her pet pug are on the run from a man who wants to steal her secrets.
Girl, 15, Charming but Insane by Sue Limb: First in a series of three or four. Jess navigates teenage life through friend break-ups, jealousy, first loves, and body issues. Charming, funny, British. For fans of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging.
The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty: A stand-alone Australian novel. Funny, charming novel about pen pals between schools, budding romances, false identities, secret missions, and friendship.
I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter: First book in the Gallagher Girls series (6 books). Overly competent spy girls in a private school attached to a small town filled with cute, less competent boys. A light-hearted spy romance. The following books have more complex plots, intrigue, and issues of trust and romance between spies.
Spy Goddess: Live and Let Shop by Michael P. Spradlin: First of three books in the Spy Goddess series. Rachel gets in trouble with the law and is sent to Blackthorn Academy, a spy school masquerading as a boarding school for troubled teens. While there, Rachel encounters some weird, creepy occult stuff, including a man who believes her to be a reincarnated goddess. Betrayal, romance, action, intrigue. Spradlin does not write women or teenagers very well, but the books are thoroughly enjoyable.
Hidden Talents by David Lubar: First of two books. 13-year-old Martin is sent to Edgeview, a juvenile corrections facility/boarding school. Martin and some of the other boys at Edgeview discover they have special powers, which they use for their own gain and to save the school.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles: This book was assigned reading in high school English. Gene Forrester is a sixteen-year-old at Devon Academy during the advent of the USA’s entrance into WWII. The novel explores Gene’s time at Devon, the loss of innocence, and the untimely death of his friend, Phineas. An academic/campus novel with homosexual undertones.
When I find the derelict-looking door, I punch a code into a cleverly hidden box and turn the knob. Once inside the cold space, I don’t blink as the red line sweeps across my eyes, reading my retinas. I hold my hand to the sensor and wait for another steel door to swing open. Then I step inside and start down the stairs, two at a time. “Ms. Morgan,” Agent Townsend yells from below. “You’re late.” “Sorry,” I tell him. I hold up my report. “Almost finished,” I say, but he doesn’t care about the paperwork. He nods toward the boy who looks like him. “We have a lead on a rogue asset outside of Kabul. CIA wants the two of you. If you have the time?” Townsend asks, almost condescendingly.
Read the first chapter of the LAST Gallagher Girls book. Right here. Right now.
The water was still as we walked beside it. A single rower sliced through the channel like an arrow shooting out to sea, and I couldn’t help but stare after him, more than a little jealous.
“It’s beautiful. Isn’t it, Cammie?” I heard my mother ask. She slipped her arm around my waist. It felt sure. Safe.
But all I could do was muster a nod and add a not-very- enthusiastic “Yeah.”
“Do you have an interest in rowing?” asked the man in the tweed cap and brown trench coat who was accompanying us. He looked like an ad for London Fog. Either that or a Sherlock Holmes impersonator. Or a bigwig British academic. And, of course, I knew that last one was right on.
“Cam, Dr. Holt asked you something.” Mom nudged me.
“Oh. Yes. Sure. Rowing looks … fun.”
“Do you row at your school now?”
He sounded interested. He looked interested. But I’ve been trained to hear what people don’t say—to see the things that are better kept hidden—so I knew that Dr. Holt was simply trying his best to be nice.
“No. We do … other things,” I told him, and reminded myself that it wasn’t a lie. I didn’t, however, feel the need to add that by other things I meant learning how to kill a man with uncooked spaghetti and disarm nuclear bombs with Tootsie Rolls. (Not that I’d done either of those things yet. But I still had one semester left at the Gallagher Academy.)
“Well”—he pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up on his nose—“Cambridge is a very well-rounded university. Whatever activities you enjoy, I’m sure we have them here.”
Oh, I highly doubt it, I thought, just as my mom said, “Oh, I’m sure you do.”
Dr. Holt turned up a path, and my mother and I followed. The long lawns were green, even in winter. But the sky over- head was gray, threatening rain. I shivered inside my down jacket. I wasn’t as thin as I had been at the start of my senior year, but I was still a little underweight. Despite the fact that Grandma Morgan had spent the better part of Christmas break force-feeding me various things covered with gravy, my coat felt too big. My shoulders felt too small. And I remembered with a pang what had happened to me the previous summer—that even Gallagher Girls aren’t always as strong as they need to be.
“Cammie?” Dr. Holt asked, pulling me back to the moment. “I said, what other schools are you—”
“Oxford, Yale, Cornell, and Stanford,” I said, rattling off the universities that Liz had put on my hypothetical short list, answering the question I’d only half heard.
“Those are all excellent schools. I’m sure that if your test scores are any indication, you will have your pick.”
He patted my back, and I tried to see what he was seeing. An average-looking, average-sounding American teenage girl. My hair was in a ponytail, and my shoes were scuffed. I had a zit coming in like gangbusters on my chin and a couple of scars at my hairline, which had forced a recent experiment with bangs that hadn’t turned out so well.
There was absolutely no way for Dr. Holt to know what I’d done over my summer vacation; but there are some scars that even bangs can’t cover, and they were still there. I could feel them. And I couldn’t tell Dr. Holt the truth—that I was a perfectly normal senior at the world’s foremost school for spies.
“And this, Cammie, is Crawley Hall. What do you think of it?”
I turned to study the big stone building. It was beautiful. Old. Regal. But I’d been living in an old, regal building since I was twelve, so I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm Dr. Holt was probably hoping for.
“Our economics department is world renowned. Do I understand correctly that you are interested in economics?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Can we go in?” Mom asked. “Take a look around?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Dr. Holt pushed his glasses up again. “The university is closed for our winter break. I’m afraid we’re already making something of an exception.”
My mother reached out and touched him gently on the arm. “And I am so grateful to you for working us in like this. As you know, we’re only in the UK for a couple of days, and Cammie has so been looking forward to it.”
Dr. Holt looked at me. I tried and failed to mimic my mother’s smile as Dr. Holt walked on.
“And here we have the library. Some might say it’s the jewel in our campus crown,” Holt added. “We have the ﬁ nest collection of rare books in the world. First editions by Austen and Dickens—we even have a Gutenberg Bible.”
He puffed out his chest, but all I could say was “That’s nice.”
“Now, up this path you will ﬁ nd—”
“Excuse me, Dr. Holt?” My mom cut him off. “Do you think it would be okay if Cammie looked around on her own? I know classes aren’t in session, but maybe that would help her to get a feel for the place.”
“Well, I …”
“Please?” my mother asked.
“Oh, of course. Of course.” Dr. Holt looked at me. “What do you say, Cammie? Meet us back at the quad in an hour or so?”
Something seemed so strange about that moment. For months, there had always been someone by my side. My mother. My roommates. My (and I don’t use this word lightly) boyfriend. Someone was always there, watching out for me. Or just watch- ing me. It felt more than a little strange for my mother to nod her head and say, “It’s okay, kiddo. Go on. I’ll be here when you get back.”
So I stepped away, reminding myself that when you’re a spy, sometimes all you can do is go on. One foot in front of the other, wherever the narrow path might lead.
Before I turned the corner, I heard Dr. Holt say, “What a … charming girl.”
My mother sighed. “She’s had a hard year.”
But Mom didn’t try to explain. I mean, how do you tell someone, Oh yes, my daughter used to be a real sweetheart, but that was before all the torture? So she didn’t say a thing, which was just as well. Dr. Holt didn’t have the clearance to hear it anyway.
I walked by myself around the corner of the grand old build- ing. There was an arbor covered with ivy. A statue of someone whose name I didn’t know. The air was moist and cool around me. I felt alone as I walked between two buildings and found myself staring down at the river again. Another single rower slid across the water, looking backward, moving forward. It seemed to go against all logic, but the man kept pushing on against the cur- rent, and I wondered how he made it appear so easy.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
The voice cut through my train of thought, but I didn’t startle; I turned.
“So did you get it?” my best friend, Bex, asked. Her British accent was even thicker in her native land, and her smile was especially mischievous when she crossed her long arms. The wind blew her black hair away from her face. She looked alive and eager, so I held up the key card I had slipped out of Dr. Holt’s pocket.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
She looped her arm through mine. “Cammie, my dear, I was born ready,” she said, and then she walked up to Crawley Hall and swiped.
When the light ﬂashed green she said, “Come on.”
Available in US and Canada September 17, 2013!
Want to buy it in your country? Check with a local bookstore to find out when it will be available for you.
Above the plains up on the hill there stood a castle bold
A gleaming palace made of white, a pillar to behold
The horsemen lived in service to the castle and crown
But the knights rose up and killed the kings
And it all burned down.