The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst (September 2016), would be right up there. I haven't enjoyed a fantasy book this much for ages, and if your taste in books is at all similar to mine, I'm willing to bet you will love it too!
Daleina's world is one in which elemental spirits are both necessary for life and growth, and an ever present danger. The spirits are wild and savage, both creators and killers. Only the power of the Queen of Renthia keeps the balance in check, though other women, from hedge witches making charms to the Queen's heirs, trained in the mastery of spirits, have a measure of power that allows them to bend the spirits to their will. When Dalenia is still a child, her village is attacked by spirits, which the Queen should not have allowed to happen. Dalenia finds the power in herself to keep her own family safe, but around them all the other villagers are slaughtered horribly. She is determined to gain more power and knowledge, so that she can keep her family safe, and save others from the fate from which she hadn't been able to save her friends and neighbors.
Though her power is far from strong, she is accepted (barely) at an academy for the honing of talent, a place where possible heirs to the Queen are trained. Though she does well on the academic side of things, all the girls around her are much better at coercing the spirits to obey them. And Dalenia becomes pretty sure that she doesn't have what it takes to be an heir. But then Ven, the disgraced former champion of the Queen, chooses her to be his protégée. He doesn't see her lack of raw power, but instead appreciates her strength of will, her intelligence, and her ability to think outside the box. Travelling with Ven from village to village, where bloody attacks are continuing, she hones her ability to direct the elemental spirits, and she is accepted as one of the pool of fifty heirs, from whom the next queen will be chosen by the spirits.
When at last the reasons why the Queen is not stopping these attacks becomes revealed, a new Queen is needed. Dalenia, still full of doubt, takes her place with the other heirs...and, just saying, this isn't called The Queen of Blood for nothing.
So if you like rich world building of magical complexity with a constant knife edge between mortal peril and wonder, a dash of political intrigue, and fantasy school stories (my favorite part of the book was the Academy--I like boarding school stories lots), do look for this one! It is also one of the more sex-positive books I've read in a while. In a minor episode, Dalenia and a young man with whom she is friendly but not In Love decide to have sex for mutual enjoyment and comfort; they continue to be friendly. She goes on to have a more romantic, but still not Star Spangled Love of Destiny with another very nice young man, but since she's caught up in life-threatening danger most of the time they are together, there's not much page time for their romance to be at the top of her mind. There's also a reference to birth control, which you don't see much of in fantasy.
Though this is marketed as an adult book, it seems to me that it would also be a great one to offer to a young teen. The plot is essentially a child growing up, and coming to believe in herself (although Dalenia is always aware of her lack of raw power); it is a very encouraging sort of story for those who measure themselves against others and feel they are wanting. And really it felt like a book I'd give an older middle school kid who was looking for something un-childish to read, because the focus of the plot on the skills to be acquired and the dangers to be overcome is very much a middle-grade sort of story, as opposed to Young Adult books, in which the identity of the main character is often centered around romance. I also think a nice dose of mutually consensual sex is a healthy thing to offer young readers starting to think about things. Thanks to The Hunger Games, gory violence isn't really anything young readers aren't familiar with, so the fact that there's a lot of that here isn't much of an issue. Although some of the horrible things are really horrible....
But back to The Queen of Blood. It is a very good read, that made made late for work. It makes tremendously vivid pictures in the mind, and though I'll be re-reading it, I don't really need to, because it is all so beautifully clear. It is a stand-alone book, but since it's billed as "Book 1 of the Queen's of Renthia," there should be more. And there is lots more I want--I want to explore the tension of the relationship between humans and spirits. I want to know more about the tensions with neighboring kingdoms. And I want to know what happens to one of Dalenia's classmates, a strong character who sets off on her own path whose story isn't resolved. And of course I want to be sure that Dalenia survives....
Here's the Kirkus review, which goes into some of the plot points in more detail, but which basically agrees with me that this is a good book!
disclaimer: review copy received from the author