“We read to know that we are not alone.”
I still remember hearing this line spoken for the first time as a child—it’s part of the screenplay for Shadowlands, the film adaptation of a part of CS Lewis’s life story, and I knew, from the moment I heard it, that it was a true statement.
There have been times in my life when I’ve fallen into depression, and, in order to cope, would keep an iron grip on my emotions and cut myself off from the world. The one place I could be assured of finding comfort was between the pages of books. We read to learn that others have walked the paths we’ve walked, felt the pain we feel, feared the things we fear, and borne the weights we carry. There is reassurance and camaraderie in the written word, if you only look for it.
Here are five fantasy novels that were my companions when I needed a little light along the way.
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
A Newbery Honor winner and classic work of fiction for teens, A Ring of Endless Light is the first book in which I ever saw a young protagonist struggle with bouts of depression and despair. While spending the summer on an island off the American east coast with her family, main character Vicky finds herself confronted with the stark realities of life, death, and tragedy in ways she’s never had to deal with before. Vicky’s difficulties in reconciling her acutely sensitive artistic temperament and the harshness of the world we live in still ring very true today. L’Engle melds reality and fantasy with her usual deft touch, weaving the two together with skill and empathy, and concluding Vicky’s story with a message about the transcendent and transformative power of hope.
Plain Kate by Erin Bow
In Erin Bow’s lovely YA fantasy debut Katerina Svetlana deals with prejudice, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of a piece of herself. A dark and winsome book, beautifully written, that never shies away from grief, but leaves readers hopeful and whole by the time you reach the bittersweet ending. Kate’s loss of her shadow, and subsequent need to conceal its absence, will be all too familiar to readers who’ve found it necessary to hide a part of themselves from the world. But Kate’s grit and determination offer a fortifying alternative to sorrow or despair—if she can attempt to face down a witch and regain her missing piece, surely those who journey with her can weather a little darkness, a little sadness, and come out on the other side.
Lirael by Garth Nix
Garth Nix’s Abhorsen books (Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen) all grapple heavily with human mortality, given that so much of the magic system involves death and the Dead. The second installment in the trilogy, Lirael, is particularly accessible, portraying a vulnerable, oftentimes ill-at-ease young woman who feels acutely out of place in her environment. Nevertheless, in circumstances where Lirael feels left behind and sometimes despairing, she finds ways to keep busy and take control of her own fate. And in the final book of the trilogy, she joins many beloved characters as they choose life instead of Death, hope instead of despair. An immersive set of stories about being, belonging, and choosing your own path.
The Naming by Alison Croggon
A richly told epic fantasy, in which Light and Darkness exist as literal, semi-religious forces and magic wielders known as Bards serve them through the Three Arts of Reading, Tending, and Making. Main character Maerad enters the wider world of Bardic intrigue and conflict in her late teens, after a childhood of great difficulty and hardship. Though darkness both literal and metaphorical sometimes threaten to swallow Maerad up, she always battles through, clinging to the beauty that remains in her world no matter what evils may arise.
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta
Melina Marchetta’s beautiful and achingly prescient Finnikin of the Rock is a book about the refugee experience, as seen through a fantasy lens. In it, the novice Evanjalin attempts to lead her splintered and exiled people back to their cursed homeland. A story of immense pain and the heartbreak of displacement, it tempers those sorrows with the joys of friendship and family and the fierce-burning fire of renewed purpose. Finnikin of the Rock unflinchingly portrays humanity in all its griefs and glories, and leaves you better for having read it. As they journey, the exiled Lumaterans weather many storms, clinging to the belief that where there’s life, there’s hope. Journey with them, and you’ll come to believe it too.
Laura Weymouth is the author of The Light Between Worlds (HarperTeen; October 23, 2018). A Canadian living in exile in America, she is the sixth consecutive generation of her family to immigrate from one country to another. She was born and raised in the Niagara region of Ontario, and now lives at the edge of the woods in western New York, along with her husband, two wild-hearted daughters, a spoiled cat, and an indeterminate number of chickens. Visit her at her website, and follow her on Twitter at @lauraeweymouth.