6 Debut Fantasy Novels Starring Black Women
The editor of fantasy anthology "A Phoenix First Must Burn" recommends books that take "black girl magic" literally
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I often talk about how I created A Phoenix First Must Burn, my anthology of fantasy stories by black women authors, for my younger self, a girl who loved fantasy and science fiction and so desperately wanted to see herself in those worlds. It’s a strange experience to create the thing you wanted as a teen, to be unsure how it’ll be received and then to find out that so many others crave the same thing.
I was an editor when I first came up with the idea for an anthology that would pull together some of today’s best-sellers, rising stars, and talent-to-watch. When it sold, we were just beginning to see Black-authored YA fantasy and science fiction novels get major traction, with novels like Children of Blood and Bone and The Belles and Dread Nation all becoming instant New York Times bestsellers. It said that these stories didn’t just matter to us Black girls who grew up reading and imagining ourselves in fantastical and futuristic worlds, but that there is a wider market than maybe even we ourselves realized. In the two years since A Phoenix First Must Burn sold, it has been absolutely amazing to watch the rise of rise of Black-authored YA fantasy and science fiction novels. And so, to celebrate other newcomers to the genre, I’m sharing six Black women–authored debut novels that I am so incredibly excited exist (or will soon exist) in the world.
Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron
I’m going to assume you know the story of Cinderella. Whether it’s the Grimm or the Disney version, the basic story is about the same: outcast girl gets a chance to go to a grand ball where she meets, and instantly falls in love with (supposedly) a prince. After some mishaps (which in some versions include her stepsisters losing some toes… yikes) they get married and live happily ever after, of course. Well, what if Cinderella’s been dead for years but her “love story” spurned an unfortunate tradition of having all girls of marrying age required to go to a ball and meet their beloved… or else? This story is set in that reality and follows Sophia who wants to marry her best friend, Erin, another girl—it is so delightfully queer. After an incident, Sophia runs away (classic) and then, well, a bunch of secrets come out and now it’s up to Black girls to save the day. If you can’t tell, I’m obsessed with this book, as a lifelong Cinderella fan. It’s such a wonderful twist on the old story.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Okay but for real, it’s actually about two Black girls who are sirens (yes, the ones from mythology who kill men with their voices). First, I have to comment on the cover. It is hands down one of the best I’ve seen—absolutely gorgeous. The story is set in modern-day Portland, except mythological creatures are real. Tavia and Effie are best friends who are basically sisters—Tavia is secretly a mermaid and Effie is exploring powers of her own—navigating their life, in that illuminating yet oftentimes painful cusp of emerging adulthood. There’s family drama, school drama, oh and yeah people are terrified of sirens—why, because now sirens are mostly Black women—so they have to deal with that too. What I really loved, aside from the emphasis on friendship—I’m always here for such tales—is the focus on the policing of Black bodies, especially Black women’s bodies. Bethany Morrow nailed that and it was so refreshing to read about so many issues facing Black women and girls but in such an captivating novel.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
This book made me CRY.
On the surface, it’s about a Karina, a crown princess who is not ready to be queen. So she does what any reluctant heir would do: she offers to marry whoever wins a competition so that she can use their heart (specifically, a king’s heart) to resurrect her mother. Totally chill, right? And then there’s Malik, whose younger sister has been taken and in order to get her back, he has to kill the crown princess. Basically, two people, from different worlds, have to kill each other, and there are very real stakes, but… of course, they begin to realize they have more in common than they thought. I was really struck through by just how much of the story is about what it’s like to be a refugee, as Malik is one. And yet, given all he’s been through, he’s still is the most cinnamon-roll of characters. It broke my heart to see him trying to hard just to do right by his sister. And Karina, reminded me of my younger (and sometimes current) self: she really wrestles with how people perceive her, she can list all of her failures and remember none of her accomplishments. Seeing her grow to own herself was so damn rewarding. These characters have my whole heart. Not to mention, there’s magic and the world-building is fantastic.
This book wrecked me. It’s autobiographical, but it’s fiction. The main character, Echo, is a wizard living on the East Side. At home, family members battle drug and alcohol addiction, and then her school is on the West side and it’s like a different world. There, she’s a straight-A student and dreams of going to Dartmouth. There’s so much magic infused throughout this novel, but what’s particularly strong is the exploration of mental illness, rape, sexism, racism, and abuse. It’s so specifically and wonderfully focused on Black girl and womanhood and a young girl’s powerful transformation.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
I love it when characters are faced with impossible choices. Even better, add MAGIC. I was hooked from page one. I will pretty much automatically read or buy anything that has mother-daughter drama; I was constantly trying to live up to my mother’s expectations and impress her growing up and it was only by deciding to embrace being my own person that we started to have a good relationship. Similar thing here, only my mother didn’t compel me to kill the very person I’m supposed to be loyal to. Talk about needing therapy.
Tarisai is the only child of a powerful woman and has been given the finest tutors, etc. since birth. One day, her mom is like “it’s time for you to go out into the world,” i.e. you have to go compete against others for a spot on the Crown Prince’s council. Sounds great, right? No. There’s definitely a catch: if she becomes a council member, she’s going to be compelled by her mom to kill the Crown Prince. Yikes. The world-building is gorgeous, there’s so much throughout about colonialism and how an individual and an entire peoples’ identities and cultures can be erased. And I just loved the push and pull between her growing connection with the Crown Prince and her duty to her mother and knowing that this won’t end well no matter what.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
Whew boy. Where do I begin. Okay well first, this is the one adult title on this list. A very important note. I think some teens are going to be totally fine with this (I mean, I read Anne Rice and Stephen King a as a teen…) and for some, maybe not so much. I’ve been excited for this book for a very long time, have been watching the author’s publication journey for a while, and I was just so incredibly excited when it sold. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while. The cover is stunning. Like that girl looks like she’s about to tear down a whole society, which is very fitting because it’s like The Village meets The Handmaid’s Tale—only its protagonist, Immanuelle, is ten times more badass. There are witches and there’s a super religious puritanical society and if you’re part of that society you’re taught that witches are bad. Emmanuelle, who is part of said society, has basically been suffering the repercussions of her late mother’s actions—an “unsanctioned union” which produced Immanuelle. And then she finds her dead mom’s diary and that’s when shit hits the fan. I mean, it gets so creepy dark. Loved it. So much smashing of the patriarchy and at the heart of it all a girl understanding her own power and realizing that her reality is made up of lies. If you like dark fantasy, and, of course, if you love witches, this book is for you.