Science Fiction/Fantasy

The Best Heroes in YA Fantasy

R. Nassor

Senior Contributor

R. Nassor may spend more time with books, tea, and ceramic mugs than recommended by professionals but it hasn’t failed her so far. Nassor has a MA in English Literature from Georgetown University, where she looked at the way medieval and early modern literature reappear in fantasy books today. She’s been writing about romance, fantasy, science fiction, and pop culture for quite a while, starting at Book Riot in 2020. She’s also written for You can follow her on Tiktok and contact her through her website.

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Are you holding out for the best heroes in YA fantasy? Well, these are the kind of teen heroes we build dreams, legacies, and franchises on.

They swoop into communities and just save the day from inexplicable odds with enough bravery and sincerity to impress even the most cynical. After all, everyone loves a hero.

It’s not too surprising that heroes dominate fantasy books. In classical Greek mythology, a hero is often a human possessing superhuman or divine skills. Really, the modern definition hasn’t drifted too far off, and YA fantasy, in particular, is a genre made up of young heroes saving the day.

Heroes have to overcome unbeatable odds for the greater good, despite their fear, because they feel compelled to act. Oftentimes, their actions are the kind that have you yelling at your book because you, too, fear for their safety. I have to admit that I love a good YA hero in the midst of nail-biting danger — even when the books require I keep a tissue box on hand for oncoming tragedy.

When it comes to the selection of the best heroes in YA fantasy books, I went with my gut. (As an aside, I will use the gender-neutral hero/heroes here.) There is a mix of high and low-fantasy books and a range of hero archetypes — from common thieves to superheroes, to high schoolers trying to fix the world. They are not always likely heroes or even likable heroes, but these are the heroes that captured my heart.

Brave Heroes in YA Fantasy

The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas Book Cover

The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas

Hero: Teo

In this Mexican-inspired fantasy series set during the deadly Sunbearer Trials, the 17-year-old trans son of the goddess of birds, Teo’s, heroism is put to the test. In this set of trials, ten teen semidioses — including Teo — must go through a series of challenges to participate in a ritual that will keep evil at bay. Since the contestant who loses is sacrificed in the same ritual, the stakes are high. So, every time Teo chooses to help another contestant, he risks his life. The fact that he does it anyway makes him a hero.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo Book Cover

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Heroes: The Crows

In Ketterdam, the greatest heroes are the Crows themselves of course. Sure, they are performing a heist that will result in financial gain and overall stability, but at every turn, they could make selfish choices and they simply don’t. Kaz is creating a social safety net for anyone under his protection; Inej’s goal in life is to take down enslavers; Wylan does the best he can to help who he can when he can; Matthias saves people he was trained to hate; Nina risks her life for her friend’s time and time again; and Jesper always, always fixes unfixable problems.  

Forging Silver into Stars by Brigid Kemmerer Book Cover

Forging Silver into Stars by Brigid Kemmerer

Hero: Jax

Kemmerer knows how to write a hero stacked against the odds, but Jax’s show of bravery against the odds may just make him her best hero yet. In the small village of Briarlock, Jax is a blacksmith living with a below-the-knee amputation and an alcoholic father. When a noble offers him money to pass off a message, Jax says yes, even though it’s suspicious. After all, his best friend, Callyn, is behind on rent at her bakery and they both need the money to survive. Jax is a hero because when the dashing King’s courier, Tycho (who Jax can’t help but fall for), tells him about the plot to upend a kingdom that has never helped Jax, he does his best to stop them — even when he has so much to lose.

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn Book Cover

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Hero: Bree

Bree is the best hero in YA fantasy. Inspired by African American and Arthurian legend, Bree lives in a version of our world where a secret society of the descendants of Arthurian knights protects the world from demons. When she discovers her mother’s mysterious death might be linked to the secret group at her campus, Bree uses her connection to one of the knights to gain entry to the group and uncover what really happened to her mom. Bree balances managing her burgeoning powers and a secret investigation, all while risking her life trying to save others. The fact that she is afraid to act but does anyway makes her a true hero.

The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon Book Cover

The Witch King by H.E. Edgmon

Hero: Wyatt

When Wyatt’s royal fae fiancé finds him and asks him to come back to the kingdom he escaped, he wants to say no. In the human world, he can be a trans witch in peace with a family that loves him. After his parents and the kingdom shunned him for being a witch, Emyr wants him to return so they can marry and secure his throne. Wyatt’s heroism shines through every difficult choice he makes to stand up for witches, as he does his best to confront and disarm bigotry in his kingdom.

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa Book Cover

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

Hero: Yumeko

Half human, half kitsune, raised by monks, Yumeko is an upbeat, clever hero. When her home and family are lost in an attack, she must run if she wants to save the ancient scroll they died protecting. On a long journey reluctantly accompanied by the deadly samurai Kage, she does her best to keep the scroll a secret. Yumeko’s failure would threaten not only her life, but the lives of everyone affected by the magic held within the scroll. Through it all, Yumeko’s sincerity and ability to bend any truth helps her just as often as her illusion magic.

Skyhunter by Marie Lu Book Cover

Skyhunter by Marie Lu

Hero: Talin

In this science-fantasy dystopia where the Federation seeks to conquer all, Talin, a mute refugee and member of one of the last free nations’ elite fighting forces, is the greatest hero. When the Federation attacked, Talin fled her home with her mother and witnessed the devastation they left. She will train as hard as she can, even with a group that doesn’t fully trust her, in the hopes that her new home will remain free. So when they bring a prisoner from the frontlines, Talin is the first and only person who believes he can be used to help their fight. Talin risks everything for a nation that barely accepts her because she knows that if she doesn’t, everyone’s freedom will be gone.

Beneath These Cursed Stars by Lexi Ryan Book Cover

Beneath These Cursed Stars by Lexi Ryan

Heroes: Jasalyn and Felicity

Ryan’s spin-off series has two heroes that snuck up on me— and not just because, by night, Princess Jasalyn’s enchanted ring grants her a kiss of death, and Felicity can shape-shift daily. The half-human princess will become fae by her 18th birthday, and she cannot stand the idea of becoming the very creatures who imprisoned and tortured her. She will do anything to escape. So, when a charming rogue from her past introduces her to Felicity with a plan for her to take Jas’ place on an upcoming trip to the Wild Fae king, she says yes. Both women are talented, but they are heroic because they struggle to do the right thing. Quite often, they do the selfish thing and then work to fix the problems they cause. It’s that moral difficulty that makes Jasalyn and Felicity compelling heroes.

If the best heroes in YA fantasy can teach us anything, it’s that heroism is subjective. What makes an excellent hero to some, may not even register as heroic to others. As circumstances push characters beyond their limits and they overcome the improbable, their chance to become heroes emerges. It’s the ones who decide to try anyway, despite the odds, that are the real heroes.

Are you still thinking through heroes in YA? Try this list of heroes we want to see in YA Fantasy, or this essay on the superficiality of villainy.