Waiting for Mockingjay? These Dystopian YA Series Will Scratch Your Hunger Games Itch

If you’re like me, you’re counting down the days until November 20, when final big-screen installment in the Hunger Games film series, based on the books by Suzanne Collins, is released. Full disclosure: when the first movie came out, a girlfriend and I went to the midnight showing at the Mall of America. It was us and a theater full of teenagers with Katniss-inspired side braids. We were old enough to be their moms—very young moms, come on now—and were exhausted. But we were totally there, and gave ourselves props, even while the preteens were edging away from us in line.

Older moviegoers in a matinee line.

What we felt like at the midnight showing of The Hunger Games back in 2012. I’m the guy with the cane. SusanNYC via Flickr

I don’t know what it is about dystopian literature that sucks us in. Is it because it often feels harrowingly closer than pure fiction? Certainly the settings that are more fantastic (such as the Red Rising trilogy, which you’ll hear more about shortly) are much more comfortable than those gritty urban settings that feel like they could be less than a decade away. Whatever the reason, if you need your fix—and you just reread The Hunger Games books again, so that’s not an option—check out the list of dystopian YA series below for some options to consider. Though they may not all be epic reads, they’re definitely fun and worth your time. And admit it: you need something to help you while away the hours between now and midnight on November 20.


Red Rising

Red Rising book coverRemember that part, just a moment ago, when I said they’re not all epic reads? Completely ignore that when it comes to Red Rising by Pierce Brown. It. Is. Epic. Okay, one caveat: I haven’t actually finished the trilogy yet. I’m about 85 percent through the second book, according to my Kindle. But this series is my favorite discovery of 2015.

The setting is a distant future where mankind has split into different subspecies, each engineered to fulfill a purpose, with privileged Gold rulers at the top and Red slave labor at the bottom. The trilogy follows a young Red who risks everything to infiltrate the Gold hierarchy and attempt to destroy it from the inside.
I could go on for hours about all the reasons that this series is compelling, but honestly I’m so overwhelmed by it that I would just babble incoherently. The characters are complex and endearing, the adventure is exciting, and the heartbreak is shattering. From almost the first page it takes you on a literary roller coaster. I highly recommend it.


The Lunar Chronicles

Cover for Cinder, part of the Lunar Chronicles seriesThough I haven’t read the final book yet—it comes out November 10—I feel confident enough in this series by Marissa Meyer to recommend it. The four books (Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter) take place in a future where the moon has been colonized and society hosts a mix of humans and cyborgs, the latter of which are kept in a lower class than full humans. The broad strokes of the series see a band of unlikely heroes join together to overthrow the evil Lunar Queen.

The fun boost comes from the premise of each of the books: each one features a fairy-tale character transplanted into this futuristic society. Cinderella becomes Cinder, a cyborg with a too-small foot who falls in love with the Emperor. Little Red Riding Hood becomes Scarlet, the plucky pilot who meets her Tall, Dark, and Deadly dreamboat Wolf. And Cress is the sheltered Rapunzel locked up in her metaphorical tower (in this case, a satellite orbiting Earth). As the reader is caught up in the adventure of the plot, it’s fun to catch tidbits of classic fairy tales here and there. I will admit that the idea of futuristic fairy tales hooked me, but the fun writing kept me coming back for more.


Uglies

Uglies cover artScott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy takes place in a world where society moves through very distinct and deliberate phases according to age. Gawky preteens are classified as “Uglies,” who have the faces that nature gave them (gross, right?). Everyone undergoes extreme plastic surgery at age 16 and turns into a “Pretty” before moving through the bland phases of the adulthood. The trilogy follows a set of teenagers as they explore the world outside the boundaries of their society and have to decide whether what’s comfortable and safe is the same as what’s right. As the series progresses, the teenagers discover other, lesser-known aspects of their societies, including groups of Smokies (those who live outside the established cities) and Specials (members of a genetically modified brand of human, who get their own book in the series). What makes the Uglies trilogy enjoyable is the details: the classification of the society, the journey that the teenagers take as they explore their world—it all makes the reader want to experience it with the protagonists. It’s light and it’s fun, and it isn’t too much of a time commitment.


Legend

Legend cover artLegend by Marie Lu (along with its two sequels) has more of a gritty urban setting than the others I’ve mentioned so far. Streetwise criminal teenage boy meets military-brat genius teenage girl, and adventure ensues. There’s a Romeo and Juliet star-crossed-lover element, but it’s not annoying the way star-crossed plots often can be. It also features a plague and a generous dose of revolution, with an ending that is unexpected and (at least in my opinion) immensely satisfying.

This series is different from many of the other dystopian options out there because its future is actually not that distanced from our own world. I recommend it to those who like their dystopian literature with a little more military action and politics than fantasy.


And . . .

If you like a healthy bit of romance mixed in with your YA dystopian literature (you caught me! guilty), I recommend the following:

  • The Selection cover artMatched (Ally Condie)
    In a world where everyone’s partners are predetermined according to a computer algorithm, what happens when you fall for someone who isn’t your match?
  • The Selection (Kiera Cass)
    Think The Bachelor for the monarchy with a side of caste system. Except more entertaining than I made it sound just now. The original Selection trilogy is a fun read if you don’t take yourself too seriously, but the spin-off book The Heir made me want to stab myself in the eye with a really hot french fry. You’ve been warned.
  • Delirium (Lauren Oliver)
    Love is considered a disease, and the part of the brain that regulates it is lobotomized around puberty. It pretty much makes people about as ticked off as you think it would.
  • Divergent (Veronica Roth)
    The books are better than the movies. In case that even needs to be said.

There you have it! Enough reading to keep you busy until The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 and beyond. The YA recommendations above may not be quite like cracking The Silmarillion, but hopefully you’ll have some fun with them. Let me know how it goes!

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