A contemporary cotillion determines your station in a sumptuous world of dark magic. An anonymous agency offers globe-trotting thieves a once-in-a-lifetime prize. And the World Chess Federation delivers a former prodigy first love and a second chance at success.
This fall, three authors at the top of their game invite YA readers to explore elite worlds, where the stakes range from wish fulfillment to mortal peril.
“I wanted to create a place that you just didn’t want to leave,” says bestselling author J. Elle (Wings of Ebony, Ashes of Gold) of her new book, House of Marionne (Razorbill/Penguin, Aug. 19). Set in a vivid fantasy world ruled by a magical aristocracy, it is the first volume in a planned trilogy. “My favorite stories are the ones where, when I finish, I have a book hangover, and all I want to do is experience reading it for the first time again. That is the mark of the fiction I aspire to write.”
Seventeen-year-old Raquell Janae Marionne did not grow up in a rarified world. Possessed of a power she doesn’t know how to define or control, Quell and her mother have been on the run for almost as long as she can remember. When a chance encounter with a magical assassin tears their latest home asunder, Quell seeks refuge with her estranged grandmother, a VIP in a shadow realm of sorcerers. Grandmother is headmistress of the House of Marionne, a boarding school for the magical elite, and enrollment is a condition of Quell’s refuge. To survive, she must learn to live by the rules—and fast.
“Each of us has our own creative gifts,” Elle says. “And I think each of us sometimes questions where those gifts, or the things we value about ourselves, fit in with the world.
“Quell has an amazing power that needs to be fostered, nourished, and sharpened, so she can use it the way she wants, like a tool,” she says. “In book one, you see the [prevailing culture] approving of a very narrow way of going about that. They say, ‘This is the way the majority does it.’ Ultimately, it’s up to Quell to say, ‘I’m going a different way.’”
Seventeen-year-old Rosalyn Quest is well aware that her place in the world is at her mother’s side—which means pretty much anywhere in the world, depending on the next job. Ross and her mother are members of a Bahamian family of elite thieves, acquiring whatever priceless objects their cosmopolitan clients desire, in Kayvion Lewis’ action-packed Thieves’ Gambit (Nancy Paulsen Books, Sept. 26), the first book in a high-flying heist thriller duology.
“I grew up daydreaming about being an adventurer,” says Lewis, a former youth services librarian who made her authorial debut with The Half-Class (2021). (She’ll soon add executive producer to her achievements: Motion picture rights for Thieves’ Gambit sold to Lionsgate in 2022.)“When I started writing Thieves’ Gambit, I thought, I’m going all in; I’m going over the top. That’s how we ended up with this globe-spanning adventure, this outrageous underground society of thieves, and their criminal network. Ross’ adventures are all the things I wish would happen to me in real life.”
All Ross wants is a normal teen life: to attend an intensive summer gymnastics program, maybe make some friends her age, consider colleges. But when a last-minute heist goes awry, and her mother is captured, Ross is forced to accept an invitation to compete in the Thieves’ Gambit to try to save her. This mysterious competition, which pits the world’s best teen thieves against one another in a series of seemingly impossible challenges, promises the granting of one wish—any wish—to its winner.
“The high school years are a time of deciding who you want to be,” Lewis says. “Having characters in a high-stakes story who are at that point in their lives creates a unique [juxtaposition], in terms of their motivations and concerns. Even an international thief will wonder, Why don’t I have any friends? Or, Am I the only one who hasn’t done this thing yet? Sometimes you think you know everything, and sometimes you feel like you know nothing.”
Around 2018, neuroscientist and novelist Ali Hazelwood was wondering how to write a romance set in the world of professional chess. She realized the characters in a world that prizes prodigiousness might be younger than her usual protagonists.
“I find it fascinating that professional chess players train like Olympic athletes from an early age,” says Hazelwood, the bestselling author of The Love Hypothesis (2021) and Love, Theoretically (2023). “Chess is such a cerebral game; you’re trying to predict what the other person is going to do. You’re trying to read their mind, trying to understand their strategies—but you’re also showing a lot of yourself. And all of this has to be done with the best poker face. I love the idea of a relationship developing from that.”
The last thing 18-year-old former prodigy Mallory Greenleaf has time for, at the beginning of Check & Mate (Putnam, Nov. 7), is a relationship. She doesn’t have time for chess (and hasn’t played in years). She doesn’t have time for college (and forfeited a scholarship). Instead, she’s working as a mechanic to help support her mother and sisters, now that her father is gone.
“The book starts with Mallory having made a lot of sacrifices,” Hazelwood says admiringly. “The things that I feel would break me don’t break her.”
As a parting favor to her college-bound best friend, Mal begrudgingly agrees to participate in a one-off charity tournament. When she meets—and beats—current world champion Nolan Sawyer, all eyes are on Mal. Suddenly, she’s playing pro chess on the sly, navigating a heavily male-dominated world with the help of a new mentor, and exploring true love, all while attempting to stay true to herself.
“It was very important for me to write this fundamentally happy story about someone who’s not that happy at the beginning of the book,” says Hazelwood, who believes Check & Mate is her best book yet. “I really wanted to have positive representation of a character who’s been going through it and making a lot of mistakes—because she does make several mistakes—but by the end, she understands herself and the people around her better. She becomes a better person, ready to tackle the rest of her life.”
Editor at large Megan Labrise is the host of the Fully Booked podcast.