Five Books About…

Five Young Adult SFF Books Where Compassion Is Strength

One theme I’ve explored again and again in my books is the concept of strength. What it means. How we keep or lose is. And, while I’ve examined this through traditionally violent means—alongside Lada Dracul in the And I Darken books, her path to power littered with bodies—through desperately manipulative means—Elizabeth Lavenza, from The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, lying and pretending so she can survive—and through good old Chosen One tropes—Nina, the newest Vampire Slayer, trying to figure out what to do with Buffy’s unwanted mantle on her shoulders—when it came time to write my Camelot Rising trilogy, I wanted to explore a different kind of strength: compassion.

There’s so much strength in empathy, strength in kindness, strength in meeting people where they are, but also seeing who they could be if given the chance. And so, in honor of Guinevere’s last adventure in The Excalibur Curse, five of my favorite young adult novels in which compassion has the power to (re)shape the world.


Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

“Why does everyone hate change so much?” I demanded.
“Because things could get worse.”
“Maybe. But do you know what I think?” My chest throbbed. “I think deep down, we’re afraid that things could get better. Afraid to find out that all the evil—all the suffering we ignore—could have been prevented. If only we had cared enough to try.”

This quote perfectly sums up Jordan Ifueko’s glimmering debut: she cares. Her characters care. Her heroine, Tarisai, wants nothing more than to be loved. But it’s not a selfish, hungry desire—she moves through the world extending the same love she hopes for. Amidst incredible powers, terrible empires, and life-or-death stakes, it’s the genuinely compassionate heart of friendship and hope that makes this novel come alive.


The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

“I think people show us what we need to see… The important thing is to remember that they are more than what we think they are, every time. We must look past what we need to see and find the truth of them.”

To be fair, any book by E.K. Johnston could be on this list. Johnston’s books run on compassion above all. But the core story of The Afterward is about what happens after the end of the story—when the great evil has been thwarted, when the heroes return home, when the world is saved. Who thrives, and who gets left behind? What I love about Johnston books is the constant assumption that people, given enough information, will choose to be kind. I like living in worlds with that assumption.


The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

“If I am to fight for women—all women—I have to understand how human girls think, have to have experienced the same pain they did.”

Though Forna’s narrator Deka—a Gilded One, labeled a demon and taken to be trained as a soldier alongside other girls like her—is terrifying and deadly, she finds her true power not in her golden blood and ferocious abilities, but in the strength of the bond she has with her sisters. They’ve suffered, they’ve died (repeatedly), and they’ve grown enough to realize no one is going to protect them if they don’t protect each other. I love Deka’s huge heart, and how it isn’t enough for her to simply protect her friends. If she can, she’s going to protect every girl in the kingdom. Her pain hasn’t made her hard—it’s made her deeply, fiercely determined to save as many girls from her own pain as she can.


Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

“And that’s how you go on. You lay laughter over the dark parts. The more dark parts, the more you have to laugh. With defiance, with abandon, with hysteria, any way you can.”

Strange the Dreamer is a book about the aftermath of incomprehensible violence and oppression, the slow and painful recovery of an entire city isolated and terrorized by an almost inescapable evil. But it’s also a book about delirious, reckless, and selfless love, both romantic and platonic. It’s a book about forgiveness, a book about grace, and, okay fine yes also a book with a pages-long kissing scene that left me wondering, yet again, how Laini Taylor does it. Kissing aside, though, this book has the most complex, tender, compassionate heart. Strange is a dreamer, and he reshapes the world with that hope.


Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Image: Tor Books

“Being a superhero is easy. Being a real person? That’s hard.”

I first got an early copy of this book in March, 2020. And, strangely, it was so hopeful, so kind, so warmly written that I couldn’t read it. I tend to retreat into horror when things are bad, and losing myself in such a wildly loving book actually made me feel more panicked. But I’m glad I found my way back to Tina, a character determined to live up to her destiny without leaving herself behind, helped by her merry band of big-hearted, open, and honest friends. We should all have such a crew to combat evil, and we should all have a Charlie Jane Anders book for when we’re ready to let some hope in again.

In many ways, compassion is harder to plot than ambition, or violence, or terror. Sometimes it’s harder to read, too. But in the end, I’ll always love those narratives for reminding me that caring, that empathy, and that hope really are tremendous sources of power both in fiction and in real life.


Kieirsten White is the New York Times bestselling author of The Guinevere Deception, The Camelot Betrayal, The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, the Slayer series, the And I Darken trilogy, and many more novels. She lives with her family near the ocean in San Diego, which, in spite of its perfection, spurs her to dream of faraway places and even further-away times.


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