The best books with complex characters in dire straits

The Books I Picked & Why


By Madeline Miller

Book cover of Circe

Why this book?

I love myths re-imagined, and this is the best I’ve ever read. Circe, the enchantress of Homer’s Odyssey, comes to vivid life in this novel. She is so real, so flawed, and in the end, so admirable. There is nothing noble about divinity in this re-telling – the gods, whether Olympian or Titan, are treacherous and often despicable. With that in mind, watching Circe struggle against her own divinity throughout her long life, watching her humanity grow and develop, is deeply moving. This is the kind of book you read more and more slowly as the end nears, and I finished it in tears. Beautiful!

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Witch Light

By Susan Fletcher

Book cover of Witch Light

Why this book?

A historical fiction that recounts real events and people in Scottish history, this story is told through two main characters: Corrag, a young woman accused of witchcraft, and Charles Leslie, the man who wants to question her as one of the few surviving witnesses of the Massacre of Glencoe. And from there, this gorgeous novel rapidly leaves the mundane world behind. Rich in sensory detail and herbal lore, the author evokes a time and a place so vividly the Scottish countryside bloomed in my mind like a flower. One character evolved as the other revealed her truth, in a story that satisfied not just my senses, but my heart. Even now, years after my first reading of this book, I find myself thinking about Corrag, about her innocence and wisdom. She is as alive in my heart and mind as a real-life friend.

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The Girl With All the Gifts

By M.R. Carey

Book cover of The Girl With All the Gifts

Why this book?

I recommend this zombie book to everyone who hates zombie books. (Side note: I introduce my own novels to people as “Post-apocalyptic. No Zombies.”) Skillfully told from multiple points of view, the characters are faceted and complex, even the cold-as-ice scientist I wanted to simply hate but just couldn’t. Melanie, the “girl” of the title, is both endearing and terrifying, the science is plausible and interesting, and the plot twists just keep on coming. If you can’t take one more Walking Dead knock-off, this is definitely a book worth giving your time to.

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Guns of the Dawn

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Book cover of Guns of the Dawn

Why this book?

Fantasy at its best, with magic used to wage war between kingdoms and an epic pace that never lets up. Emily, the main character, is hopelessly out of her depth and manages to be kick-ass anyway – I just love a heroine I can admire. I also love the political and sociological nuances in this book – nothing is black and white, and I appreciate the complexity of the issues and feelings the characters grapple with. And though I usually skim battle and/or fight scenes, I read these word-for-word, the pacing was that good. A delicious escape!

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The Stand

By Stephen King

Book cover of The Stand

Why this book?

Of all the “classic” post-apocalyptic novels, this is by far my favorite. Originally published in 1979, it remains on nearly every “best of the genre” list I’ve read. Unforgettable characters struggle to survive in a brutal post-pandemic world, with supernatural and biblical themes running throughout. I’ve read this book at least three times since I first discovered it in the ’90s, and to this day, Mother Abigail is one of my favorite literary characters. I love the way King tells a story, with both unflinching realism and great hope. I studied dozens of novels in the post-apocalyptic genre as I worked to write my own trilogy, and this one, by far, had the greatest impact on me as an author. This book will always have a place on my bookshelves.

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