The best fantasy novels with protagonists mired in toxic family relationships

Why am I passionate about this?

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. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Charmed Life

Kate Stradling Why did I love 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.

By Diana Wynne Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Charmed Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Glorious new rejacket of a Diana Wynne Jones classic award-winning favourite, featuring Chrestomanci - now a book with extra bits!

Everybody says that Gwendolyn Chant is a gifted witch with astonishing powers, so it suits her enormously when she is taken to live in Chrestomanci Castle. Her brother Eric (better known as Cat) is not so keen, for he has no talent for magic at all.

However, life with the great enchanter is not what either of them expects and sparks begin to fly!

Winner of the Guardian Award.


Book cover of Cinderella Must Die

Kate Stradling Why did I love 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.

By W.R. Gingell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cinderella Must Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cinderella is married to The Prince, and the Evil Stepsisters are banished to a pocket dimension for their punishment and rehabilitation. It’s Happily Ever After.

Or is it?

Jane and Charlie have been imprisoned for two years now, serving a sentence especially chosen by their stepsister as justice for her sufferings. It seems that they’re the only two people in the world besides Ellen who know that Ellen’s “sufferings” were a carefully manipulative campaign to win a prince and a crown; the two stepsisters merely collateral damage.

But now, trouble is brewing at the castle: death threats, torn gowns, ruined…


Book cover of Witchblaze

Kate Stradling Why did I love 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.

By Rabia Gale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Witchblaze as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gruesome rites. Whispers of witches. Arabella’s past has caught up to her.

Arabella finally feels like she belongs. She’s settled into her role as the Bearer of St. Brigit’s Arcana. She has family, friends, and a purpose. And assisting the Phantasm Bureau has brought her close to handsome viscount Trey Shield, a formidable magician in his own right.

But then a prized racehorse is found butchered in a grisly and familiar rite. A beloved cousin arrives unexpectedly, bringing bad news. Arabella’s family secrets create a rift between her and Trey, one that is further complicated when his intended bride comes…


Book cover of The Ghost Bride

Kate Stradling Why did I love 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.

By Yangsze Choo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Ghost Bride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

A haunting, evocative and highly unusual romantic debut and now a Netflix Mandarin original drama premiering January 2020!

Seventeen-year-old Li Lan lives in 1890s Malaya with her quietly-ruined father, who returns one evening with a proposition - the fabulously wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son. The only problem is, he's dead. After a fateful visit to the Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also her desire for the Lims' handsome new heir. At night she is drawn into the Chinese afterlife - a world of ghost cities,…


Book cover of Mistborn

Kate Stradling Why did I love 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.

By Brandon Sanderson,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Mistborn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Brandon Sanderson - the international phenomenon who finished the Wheel of Time sequence - introduces a fantasy trilogy which overturns the expectations of readers and goes on to tell the epic story of evil overturned in a richly imagined world.

A thousand years ago evil came to the land and has ruled with an iron hand ever since. The sun shines fitfully under clouds of ash that float down endlessly from the constant eruption of volcanoes. A dark lord rules through the aristocratic families and ordinary folk are condemned to lives in servitude, sold as goods, labouring in the ash…


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Alpha Max

By Mark A. Rayner,

Book cover of Alpha Max

Mark A. Rayner Author Of Alpha Max

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Human shaped Pirate hearted Storytelling addict Creatively inclined

Mark's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Maximilian Tundra is about to have an existential crisis of cosmic proportions.

When a physical duplicate of him appears in his living room, wearing a tight-fitting silver lamé unitard and speaking with an English accent, Max knows something bad is about to happen. Bad doesn’t cover it. Max discovers he’s the only human being who can prevent the end of the world, and not just on his planet! In the multiverse, infinite Earths will be destroyed.

Alpha Max

By Mark A. Rayner,

What is this book about?

★★★★★ "Funny, yet deep, this is definitely worth venturing into the multiverse for."

Amazing Stories says: "Snarky as Pratchet, insightful as Stephenson, as full of scathing social commentary as Swift or Voltaire, and weirdly reminiscent of LeGuin, Alpha Max is the only multiverse novel you need this month, or maybe ever."

Maximilian Tundra is about to have an existential crisis of cosmic proportions.

When a physical duplicate of him appears in his living room, wearing a tight-fitting silver lamé unitard and speaking with an English accent, Max knows something bad is about to happen. Bad doesn’t cover it. Max discovers…


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