The best fantasy books to break your heart

Anya Leigh Josephs Author Of Queen of All
By Anya Leigh Josephs

The Books I Picked & Why

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

By Gail Carson Levine

Book cover of The Two Princesses of Bamarre

Why this book?

This fairytale fantasy for young readers is one of the most poignant books I have ever read, in any genre. My best friend, Emma, and I were both fans of Levine growing up. A few months ago, we realized we could both recite the epic poem that concludes this book word for word. Step follows step, hope follows courage. It’s a beautiful story of familial love, growing up and finding yourself, and grappling with the inevitability of illness and loss, all set in a delightfully adventurous fantasy world. The tone is playful and bright throughout, the message ultimately hopeful, but there’s no denying the heartbreak along the way.

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The Poppy War

By R.F. Kuang

Book cover of The Poppy War

Why this book?

The first book in a celebrated trilogy by R.F. Kuang, The Poppy War more than earns its fame with innovative worldbuilding, an absorbing and sometimes shocking plot, and beautifully concise writing. But the reason it’s on this list is the way it deals with an almost unimaginable horror, taken from our real world into the realm of fantasy in a way that neither sensationalizes nor diminishes history. I am a descendant of genocide survivors twice over, which makes Kuang’s ability to tell this kind of story especially resonant for me. 

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Ptolemy's Gate

By Jonathan Stroud

Book cover of Ptolemy's Gate

Why this book?

The conclusion to a charming middle-grade trilogy about a quick-witted demon named Bartimaeus, this book also depicts love and loss with an intensity and realism that resonates with readers of any age. I first read this book when I was about nine years old, eager to find out what would happen to the hilarious characters I’d loved so much in the first few books. I’ll never forget how hard I cried on that school bus home. I was just old enough to understand what that kind of loss would feel like, and still young enough to be moved by the story’s idealism and for the fantastical world to feel real for me. But I think, no matter who you are, this is a story at once heartbreaking and hilarious. 

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The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman

Book cover of The Golden Compass

Why this book?

This book begins Pullman’s iconic His Dark Materials series. Originally published for adults, it’s become quite beloved by young readers as well, perhaps because it grasps the real feelings of coming of age better than any book I can think of: the burgeoning of sexuality, the struggle for identity, the recognition of mortality. I loved this book so much as a child that I named my favorite stuffed animal (a tiger that was given to me by my grandmother) Pantalaimon after the shape-shifting daemon in the book. The series’ ending is unforgettably poignant, but the scene that always makes me cry is when Lyra and Pan are nearly separated. This book really shows how real the stakes of fantasy can feel.

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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 can’t sing the praises of The Fifth Season highly enough. It’s a truly original and creative speculative fiction story, with an entirely original system of magic, and storytelling so complex it stands up to any of the great novels of literary fiction. I once taught this book in a college literature class on fantasy and more students wrote on Jemisin than on Tolkien or Ovid or Shakespeare. I truly believe it is one of the best books ever written. It is also supremely heavy, skillfully and thoroughly dealing with issues like slavery, domestic violence, bigotry, and much more. The Fifth Season will make you think about the world we live in, imagine possible futures, and also feel deeply for its diverse and compelling cast of characters.

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