In a genre brimming with eternal fates and thwarted prophecies, it’s no surprise that romantic bonds often steal the show in fantasy. I naively expected my debut novel, Raybearer, to fall into this mold: the groundwork was certainly there, being a story in which teens swear to serve each other for life. But no matter how much I highlighted these relationships, the protagonist’s driving motivations continually flew back to her charismatic mother: The nameless, ever-present Lady.
Many of my favorite fantasies revolve not around romantic soulmates, but the companions they’ve had from birth. These protagonists are shaped by bonds they did not have the luxury of choosing, and which pursue them, for good or for ill, all their lives. Here are five fantasy titles that expertly explore traumatic family bonds.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K Jemisin
Think your relationships with your siblings and parents are complicated? Try being gods in a sprawling, multidimensional pantheon. I adore how these books explore common relationship dynamics—petty jealousies, child favoritism, ‘middle-child’ syndrome—on the scale of gods who hold universes in their palms. Despite their power, the incestuous deities of Jemisin’s universe are startlingly unequipped to navigate family dynamics. Jemisin paints a picture of beings who are enslaved by their very nature—such as Sieh, the god of childhood, who must act out against his celestial father despite a millennia of wisdom warning him not to—or Itempas, god of order, who resists change of any kind, even at the cost of losing his siblings and sanity.
The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
Everytime I hear praise for Frozen—”how refreshing that the love story is between sisters instead of a romantic couple!”—the nerdy fangirl inside me slides glasses up her nose and says, Actually, Gail did it first. As a tween, I read my copy of Two Princesses until it fell apart. Cowardly Princess Addie lives happily in the shadow of her older sister, fearless Princess Meryl. But when Meryl is struck ill by the Gray Death, Addie has mere weeks to embark on a sweeping quest in search for a cure. There’s a cute romance in this book, but it’s a footnote compared to the bond between Addie and Meryl. In particular, I loved how this book celebrates the strikingly different approaches to “strong femininity” in each sister. Meryl is the stereotypical Strong Female Character, complete with sword-swinging bravado, and uses muscle to dispatch monsters. Addie is shy, kindhearted, loves embroidery…and is able to withstand days of torturous mind games in the den of a fearsome dragon, outsmarting the beast without changing a single facet of her gentle personality. The narrative celebrates both sisters—just as they celebrate and grieve for each other.
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli
I include this book because it traumatized me as a young reader, showing just how abusive mother-daughter bonds can go. Zel is a retelling of Rapunzel, from the perspective of Mother, a soft-spoken witch who aches to have a baby—and Zel, the child she manages to procure. It follows the storyline of the original fairy tale, which is significantly grimmer than any Disney iteration (the prince gets blinded by falling into a patch of thorns, and that’s among the least traumatic events in this book), but concentrates heavily on the sincere love that Mother has for Zel, which teeters constantly toward obsession, until it tumbles into emotional (and finally physical) abuse. This classic retelling is not for the faint of heart.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This hypnotic, lyrical first person retelling of the Odyssey from Circe’s perspective is one of my favorite books that I read last year. From the beginning, Circe is an outcast among her divine family of gods while having her identity completely defined by that family. Her father and jealous relatives pull the strings of her life, until she is exiled by herself on an island where her own power grows. Circe is also deeply challenged by her relationship with her demigod son, who for quite some time is her only companion in exile. While this masterfully written novel is also driven by Circe’s personal reflections, romantic relationships, and eventual motherhood, the legacy of her Titan family—especially her father—looms throughout.
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
Anyone who has heard of Deerskin, a retelling of the obscure fairy tale Donkeyskin, has heard of The Event. The Event is one paragraph—not even a full page—between the protagonist and her father…and to this day, it’s one of the most harrowing moments I’ve experienced in fantasy fiction. What I love about this book, however, is that for one paragraph of unspeakable parental abuse, McKinley devotes hundreds of pages to the mental healing of protagonist Lissar. Through a pensive journey into a magical wilderness (where I’m happy to report that Lissar acquires several pet dogs) McKinley centers Lissar’s recovery from her encounter with her royal father, as well as from the toxic throng of enablers around him.
Jordan Ifueko is a Nigerian-American author of Young Adult fiction. She stans revolutionary girls and 4C curls. Raybearer is her debut novel.