The best books of science fiction and fantasy that create engaging characters

The Books I Picked & Why


By Frank Herbert

Book cover of Dune

Why this book?

One of my all-time favorite soft science fiction novels, Dune creates a world of sand filled with intriguing characters and themes revolving around the interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion. Paul Atreides is the main character who achieves superpowers as a result of a trial by fire or sand in this case. If you are looking for engaging characters in a unique yet familiar world, Dune is a must-read. Heck, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in this genre.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

By J.K. Rowling, Mary Grandpré

Book cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Why this book?

This may well be the most popular fantasy series ever and much of that is because of the main character, Harry Potter. Each book has Harry grow and develop as a fantasy character but also as a human being, so in the first few books we relate to Harry as though he were an apprentice wizard and a young middle schoolboy in YA fashion. Then in the later books, Harry must face evil in a very adult-like fashion. As with all of us, Harry makes mistakes but manages to somehow overcome them and in so doing demonstrates his connection to humanity and ultimately to us. It is this connection that makes Harry Potter such an engaging character.

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The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

When I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in college, I was blown away. As an English major, I immediately saw many of Tolkien’s literary connections, but it was his development of Frodo and Sam that are at the heart of this series. Frodo, a Hobbit from the Shire, is the high-minded Hobbit with a mission and he must achieve it at any cost. His determination becomes his cloak of honor and ultimately his heroism. Sam, on the other hand, is the simple Hobbit with simple needs who is steadfastly loyal to Frodo and their quest. It is his loyalty and resolve that becomes his heroic shield, so if you’re looking for the true hero of the trilogy, my vote is for Sam.

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The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman

Book cover of The Golden Compass

Why this book?

For those of you not familiar with The Golden Compass, the first book in the Dark Materials series, it flits between fantasy and speculative fiction with Lyra Belacqua as the main character. Lyra is a young scholar at Jordan College who is constantly at odds with her classmates and professors. She is a willful youngster determined to do things her way, but with a daemon familiar (in the form of a cat) who constantly must remind Lyria of the moral and ethical ramifications of “doing it her own way.” The journey Lyra takes is the journey we all must take at some time in our lives: to discover the true path in life—through religion or through science.

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The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins

Book cover of The Hunger Games

Why this book?

With the advent of the films, The Hunger Games has become one of the most popular dystopian novel series of this generation. At the heart and soul of Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old youth from a poor District 12 who replaces her sister Primrose in the gladiator-style games—a fight to the death. Katniss is the narrator of the series in the books and it is through her eyes that we see what has become of this future world. Her struggles to overcome almost impossible odds gives her an almost superhero status as a very down-to-earth teenager. This is the strength of the series and the reason why this YA novel has risen so rapidly to become a dazzling success. 

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