I can't remember where I first heard about Zarah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Graphia). It took me a while to get a copy, because I ordered it at the same time as something that was on backorder. Once I had it, I zipped right through it.
Zarah is dada: vines grow intertwined with her dreadlocks. She's a Windseeker: she can fly. She has to figure out how to save her best friend and not get killed inside the Forbidden Greeny Jungle.
There were a few spots where I felt the story was a little uneven, like Zarah was sometimes suddenly older or younger without that being tied to the story; I thought there was perhaps too much beginning and too much end to this story, and not enough middle. Those are really minor quibbles, though, compared to the absolutely fabulous world-building. I love this world. I love that plants and people have to exist together--that you grow computers from seeds, that a big plant is a building. I love that the Jungle is really, truly wild and that if you're going to enter it, it's going to take the woods trope and make it huge. I love that--I think that this book is both a fantasy and a science fiction as much as a story about empowerment without being a didactic message book.
The other thing that I love about this book (and The Shadow Speaker) is the exploration of the monstrous. I'd been looking for books related to this theme for a while. What I mean is not so much monsters in the literal sense, though Zarah must confront more than one, but the idea of questioning what it means to be a monster, whether or not you are a monster yourself (perhaps an especially interesting question for a teenager, who is told from all sides in U.S. culture that she is, and for exploring girls/women portrayed as monsters), whether it's even a bad thing to be a monster. Despite all of the vampires and werewolves hanging around the bookshelves right now, I haven't found many books where that's more than a device to separate two lovers.
After reading Zarah, I was really interested in reading more by the same author because I thought her work was good, but had potential to be really, really good. I was pleasantly unsurprised to see The Shadow Speaker (Hyperion) living up to that.
Shadow Speaker shares some of the universe of Zarah the Windseeker, and it's the stronger, smarter older sister to that book. In this, Ejii is a shadow speaker, someone who can speak to spirits and who, as her powers mature, can read the lives and motivations of others; at times she's revered for this, and others, treated as a monster (luckily for theme-exploring me). Her Earth is an odd one, disrupted by war and magic--creating a vivid and interesting world for her to navigate as she tries to catch up with Jaa, her queen (and her father's murderer), who is on her way to a summit between the worlds. It's Ejii's ability to see motivations that helps her in the big confrontation. Again I'm drawn in by the world-building: it follows neither the rules of fantasy nor the rules of science fiction. I adore the magic technology, the mix of the familiar and the odd-to-me. I recommend both of these, as well as reading this post by the author on the cover designs.