The best fantasy novels in which you can’t pick your family

Ellen Jensen Abbott Author Of Watersmeet
By Ellen Jensen Abbott

Who am I?

I have been a reader of fantasy, folklore, and fairy tales through childhood into adolescence and even studying these genres as a college student and adult. To this background, I also bring a complicated family—adopted children, step-siblings, divorce, career—and lifestyle changes. As the youngest of a sprawling clan, I was often left to reconcile my vision of family members with the vision of others. Understanding our family of origin is central to who we are, as my main character in Watersmeet discovers as she goes on a quest to find her father, and then must dig deep to understand what he means to her. 


I wrote...

Watersmeet

By Ellen Jensen Abbott,

Book cover of Watersmeet

What is my book about?

From her birth, Abisina has been an outcast—for the color of her eyes and skin, and for her lack of a father. Only her mother’s status as the village healer has kept her safe. But when a mythic leader arrives, Abisina’s life is ripped apart. She escapes alone to try to find the father and the home she has never known. In a world of extremes, from the deepest prejudice to the greatest bonds of duty and loyalty, Abisina must find her own way and decide where her true hope lies. 

The books I picked & why

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Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast

By Robin McKinley,

Book cover of Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast

Why this book?

McKinley’s Beauty is a classic in (at least) two ways. 1) It’s a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast, rather than an adaptation. These classic fairy tales very clearly indicate the problem of choosing your family, full of wicked stepmothers, bumbling fathers, and jealous siblings. The trope that really gets me is typified in Beauty: the father who is willing to sacrifice his daughter for his own safety. Not exactly stellar parenting, but it’s so common in these old stories! 2) McKinely is a master storyteller, who allows you to revisit this well-known story in new ways (and it predates the Disney version—no Mrs. Potts in Beauty).


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

By C.S. Lewis, Pauline Baynes (illustrator),

Book cover of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Why this book?

It’s hard for me to imagine recommending fantasy books and not mentioning Narnia, which was my most formative reading as a young person. And Edmund embodies the issue of tough family relationships. Although he is a traitor to Aslan and Narnia, he is Lucy, Peter and Susan’s brother and they love him—even when they don’t like him. My main character can relate as she works out her relationship with a father who is not as he seems. I also adore the world of Narnia—the creatures, the geography, the magic. For this recommendation, I could also have chosen The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, another Narnia tale that features a difficult cousin, Eustace, but Edmund is a favorite of mine because of the power of his transformation.


Fire

By Kristin Cashore,

Book cover of Fire

Why this book?

I reread Fire regularly because I love the heroine, Fire, and her conundrum: how can she love herself when her beauty is so destructive, when it inspires such terrible behavior in the people around her? We think of beauty as an asset, sure that we would be happier, more confident, more liked if we were more beautiful, and Cashore explores the limits of beauty in this novel. She also digs deep into a very problematic father/daughter relationship as Fire deals with the lessons her father, Cansrel, taught her about how to use her beauty for power, and decides to forge her own path. Like so many of these hard family relationships, Fire must reconcile her love for her father and her hatred of what he’s become. 


Kindred

By Octavia E. Butler,

Book cover of Kindred

Why this book?

Talk about family issues! In this time-traveling novel, Butler asks her Black protagonist, Dana, to come to face a White ancestor as she is transported from modern-day Los Angeles to this ancestor’s home in the antebellum South. This story held me rapt as I watched Dana’s existence depend on preserving the life of the white man who enslaved her family. She had to save him to save herself—and yet, how could she? Butler’s writing is powerful and compelling as she explores issues of race, gender, and family. Race is one of the most important issues for Americans to consider at this moment in time, and in Kindred, Butler uses her enormous talent to explore the question of race within family.


The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

By N.K. Jemisin,

Book cover of The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

Why this book?

I appreciate Jemisin’s treatment of race in The Fifth Season, as her characters are all people of color, but outside of the racial disparities of current America. This is one of the draws I feel toward fantasy: the genre allows us to explore current issues in alternate realities. But The Fifth Season is a dystopian novel, and that’s where “not choosing your family” comes in. Jemisin describes a group of people called orogenes, who can control the energy of the earth. They are reviled and controlled in this alternative Earth, and when an orogene shows up in a family, they are exiled from that family—if they’re lucky. Some of them are killed upon being discovered. So the orogenes make their own families and communities, which offers the reader a positive view of created families—an answer to the conundrum of not being able to choose your family. 


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