Ah, family. Can’t live with them, can’t live without finding ways to avoid THAT cousin on social media. But for all the griping, tales revolving around family drama dominate human story-telling, and science fiction and fantasy aren’t any different. Whether it’s Darth Vader declaring fatherhood or the Lannisters plotting each other’s murder, it’s clear not even fleeing to the stars will let you escape your relatives.
There are innumerable books about scheming families, but for this list I wanted to highlight five recent novels that add a bit more nuance to these kinds of relationships. Family can be complicated enough—add earth-shaking magic and daunting political responsibilities, and things get downright dangerous. Yet even as the characters below find themselves being torn apart, they refuse to stop fighting for each other, suggesting that yes… perhaps the family that plots together, stays together.
Temper by Nicky Drayden
In a world where everyone has a twin, and vices and virtues are divided unequally between them, sibling rivalry is understandable. Throw in demonic possession and possibly being the opposing incarnations of good and evil…well, that’s not a relationship one would imagine surviving. But in Nicky Drayden’s thrilling, funny, and wonderfully bizarre sci-fi story set in a futuristic country similar to South Africa, we never doubt for one instance that the main character, Auben, deeply loves his brother even as he’s just as deeply envious of the perfect future for which Kasim seems destined. Their relationship is the central one of the book, profound and gripping in a way you typically see reserved for romantic love. I found myself rooting for their partnership to survive, even when it seemed irreparably broken.
The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
Set in medieval Russia, in an era when Christianity is replacing folk magic, the Winternight Trilogy revolves around Vasilisa, a young woman with one of the last connections to the magical world, and her extended family. So many of the relationships are incredibly well drawn, but I was particularly captivated by the one between Vasilisa and her brother Sasha, a devout warrior monk. Though they’re set on VERY different sides of a theological war, with Sasha’s faith a direct threat to Vasilisa’s beloved magical world and Sasha truly fearing for his sister’s soul, they never stop fighting for (and with) each other.
The True Queen by Zen Cho
I was fortunate to get my hands on an early copy of this companion novel to Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho’s first novel is one of my favorites, so when I learned of this one, which features a pair of cursed sisters, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve just started it, but have found myself already struck by the sister’s bond. Though they’re very different and clash badly over how to untangle the mystery that surrounds them, when Sakti goes missing, everything else immediately falls away for Muna. There is only saving her sister and she’ll do anything—journey to a foreign land, risk her life in the Unseen Realm, or pretend to be a witch—to save her. Couldn’t we all do with that kind of loyalty?
The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
Moving from siblings to mothers, Caruso’s Venetian-inspired fantasy has a great one. La Contessa, the protagonist Amalia’s mother, is a political force to be reckoned with and she’s taking great, often forceful, care to make sure her daughter follows in her stead. This could have very easily have fallen into the “Tywin Lannister camp of controlling political parenthood” but Caruso took care to flesh out this relationship. La Contessa is a hard woman, but it’s never in doubt that her actions are moved by an effort to protect her daughter and prepare her for a difficult life as much as they are for political gain.
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
Suri’s quietly powerful fantasy, set in a land where nomadic magic-users have been persecuted and enslaved, masterfully explores issues of identity and power so it’s no surprise she brings the same nuance to Mehr’s complicated relationship with her father, an imperial governor. Mehr is an illegitimate daughter, holding tight to traditions now outlawed. She lives a difficult life in her father’s home, protected but despised by his new wife. And yet I never got the sense Mehr hated her father, and the scene in which it becomes clear to both of them that his protection isn’t enough was heart-breaking, as was his desperation to save her. Part of growing up is accepting your parents as human, flaws and all, and the way Mehr handles this, quietly taking her part instead as the protector, was fantastic.
S. A. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her debut novel, The City of Brass, is the first book in The Daevabad Trilogy, an epic fantasy set in the 18th century Middle East. Book two, The Kingdom of Copper, is forthcoming from Harper Voyager in January 2019. When not buried in books about Mughal portraiture and Omani history, she enjoys hiking, knitting, and recreating unnecessarily complicated, medieval meals for her family. You can find her online most frequently at Twitter (@SAChakrabooks) where she likes to ramble about history, politics, and Islamic art. A longer list of works, similar to the ones above, is available at her website.