Sometimes, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes we do the wrong things for the right reasons. And sometimes even the best of intentions go awry.
Which means, for us readers, it isn’t always clear which side we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Here are five of my favorite books that test our loyalties at every turn.
Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
This book took the young adult fantasy genre by storm when it pitted triplet sisters, each raised separately on the island queendom of Fennbirn, against each other in a deadly battle to see who will become the next queen. In the opening chapters, it might seem obvious which sister is meant to be the victor, but as we’re given glimpses into each of their minds, strengths, and histories, the answer becomes increasingly more difficult to detect. By the end of this book, I was left entirely blindsided, with no clue which direction the story might go, who I hoped would win the crown, and which of the sisters, if any, would ultimately survive. Kendare Blake’s ability to build up the conflict and the constant twists and turns makes for a breathtaking read.
Legend by Marie Lu
In a futuristic version of the United States called The Republic, Day is the country’s most wanted criminal, while June is an elite military prodigy. When June’s older brother is killed and Day becomes the prime suspect, June makes it her mission to hunt him down. What follows is a battle of wits as Day and June attempt to stay one step ahead of each other… until they begin to uncover a series of lies and secrets that could suggest their goals aren’t so different after all. Legend is a thrilling page turner, but what sets it apart in the world of dystopians is the amount of heart and humanity Marie Lu brings to all her characters, and the ways in which Day and June are ultimately able to bridge the gap between distrust and empathy, despite the mounting struggles between them.
The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski
The country of Herran has been in turmoil since it was conquered by the Valorian Empire ten years ago. The citizenry have become enslaved to a new ruling class. Kestrel is the daughter of one of those conquerors—the highly respected General Trajan who played a vital role in winning the war. When she stumbles onto a slave auction, she finds herself drawn to the slave Arin, whose defiance and inner strength mirror her own. Their lives become increasingly entangled, with Arin keeping dangerous secrets and Kestrel constantly pushing against the boundaries of society. What might seem like a simple story of the underdogs seeking to rise up against their oppressors is anything but. Marie Rutkoski deftly weaves the motives of all the players into a deliciously nuanced tale, full of complicated politics and power plays, mind games and strategies, a budding revolution and shattered loyalties. This epic series keeps us guessing to the end.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
This groundbreaking graphic novel duology tells the dramatic story of the Boxer Rebellion that took place near the end of the Qing Dynasty in China. One volume is told from the point of view of Little Bao, a peasant boy whose village is attacked by Western “missionaries.” Inspired by visions of Chinese Gods, he ultimately joins the uprising against their infiltrators. However, the second volume tells the story from the perspective of a Chinese girl who has been taken in by those missionaries and finds in them a home and a family. Both sides of the conflict bring difficult questions of cultural identity, personal beliefs, and heart-wrenching choices, and the way in which Gene Luen Yang manages to balance the parallel storylines is nothing short of brilliant.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
On the surface, Laini Taylor’s stunning fantasy might appear like a classic story of angels and demons, and who doesn’t know who wins that fight? But it doesn’t take long for this book to turn those archetypes on their heads. The story places blue-haired Karou, raised by teeth-collecting monsters in modern-day Prague, in the center of a centuries-old war that has been waged by the forces of good and evil. But nothing is as simple as it seems, particularly as Taylor weaves together a history full of prejudice, massacres, and an indestructible star-crossed love through the narrative. Between lush worldbuilding and Taylor’s signature poetic writing, this is a fantasy that tugs at every heartstring.
Originally published in November 2018.
Marissa Meyer’s first book in the Lunar Chronicles, Cinder, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. Marissa lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and their three cats. Archenemies, book two in the super-powered Renegades trilogy, is available from Feiwel & Friends.