The best fantasy novels with protagonists mired in toxic family relationships

Who am I?

I come from a large family, both immediate and extended. As a result, my writing often includes a spectrum of family relationships, from the functional to the toxic. Nurturing or gaslighting? Supportive or undermining? Fantasy is my genre of choice for playing with these dynamics because its otherworldliness creates a safe space to consider true-to-life patterns, including the default trust we grant to those closest to us, how quickly that crumbles when expectations fall short, and the echo effect our earliest interactions have upon the rest of our lives.


I wrote...

The Heir and the Spare

By Kate Stradling,

Book cover of The Heir and the Spare

What is my book about?

Tormented at home and bullied during her studies abroad, second-born Iona of Wessett hides in the quiet corners of her father’s castle. When the neighboring country proposes a marriage alliance between its crown prince and Iona’s venomous older sister Lisenn, Iona sees it as a promise of reprieve and retribution. The would-be groom is her former bully, Jaoven of Deraval, who deserves Lisenn’s malice as much as Lisenn deserves his.

But although it seems like a poetic match, Jaoven, humbled by the war that elevated his rank, appears to have reformed. Now the fate of two kingdoms hinges on the disastrous union he’s about to make, and Iona is the only person who might intervene. 

The books I picked & why

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Charmed Life

By Diana Wynne Jones,

Book cover of Charmed Life

Why this book?

Every time I read this book, I want to strangle basically every character except for Cat—and that’s half the fun! Charmed Life taught me that sometimes we can be too close to a situation to recognize its dangers or the safest paths to get away.

Cat assumes his sister is good, and everyone else assumes that he’s wicked because he’s always with her. I find his innocence endearing and I love that, as his understanding of Gwendolyn unfolds, he continues to seek goodness in others around him.


Cinderella Must Die

By W.R. Gingell,

Book cover of Cinderella Must Die

Why this book?

Everyone should have a favorite “Cinderella” story, and this fantasy romp is mine. Gingell turns the classic fairy tale upside down, maintaining its stepfamily-gone-wrong trope, but from an opposite angle. Ellen got her prince and her crown while her stepsisters Jane and Charlie received a life sentence in a magical prison. Only, she lied and schemed to do it, and now the pair of girls must plot their escape to clear their names.

I admire Jane’s quiet resolve and Charlie’s feral energy. Plus, any story with knockout lipstick earns some extra points from me.


Witchblaze

By Rabia Gale,

Book cover of Witchblaze

Why this book?

Regency aesthetic in a fantasy world? Yes, please! I adore the twisty unfolding of Arabella’s character: a girl who wants to be good, but who once did terrible things to survive alongside her vicious aunt and grandmother.

Themes of repentence, forgiveness, and redemption permeate this novel, reminding me that past wrongs don’t have to govern one’s future or worthiness of heart, and that a single determined soul can break generations of toxic behavior.


The Ghost Bride

By Yangsze Choo,

Book cover of The Ghost Bride

Why this book?

This historical fantasy has some serious Spirited Away vibes working in its favor. I especially love Li Lan: her charming naivety, her compassion towards others, her stalwart convictions, and her daring to uncover secrets kept by both the living and the dead. Her would-be in-laws are all kinds of shady and her own family has skeletons in its closet, but as these truths unfold, she remains her considerate, hardworking self.

In its careful treatment of the afterlife, this story helps me contemplate my own ancestry, what honor I give to those who came before me, and what they might expect me to become.


Mistborn: The Final Empire

By Brandon Sanderson,

Book cover of Mistborn: The Final Empire

Why this book?

I’m a sucker for heroes who rise from obscurity. Vin’s path from a street urchin to a pretend noblewoman to a blazing revolutionary kept me on the edge of my seat. She grapples with trust and treachery, power and corruption, and the authenticity of found family, all while her cruel older brother’s warnings play inside her head: trust no one, expect betrayal, accept abandonment as inevitable. 

But do her tragic origins really dictate her fate? Hers is a journey of hope, and I love every minute of it.


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