The best SFF books with emotionally scarred characters

Why am I passionate about this?

I read (and write) in various genres, but the common thread is that I crave compassionately written character-driven stories. I generally prefer novels, as they allow more time for the reader to get to know the characters and more room for those characters to grow. That said, I have limited patience with literary fiction that could be fairly, if unkindly, be called navel-gazing. I want the characters to confront problems provided by an actual plot. And if both characters and plot exist within a richly imagined world with at least some unique elements, so much the better.


I wrote...

Twin-Bred

By Karen A. Wyle,

Book cover of Twin-Bred

What is my book about?

Humans have been on Tofarn for seventy years, but they and the Tofa still know little about each other. Misunderstandings breed conflict, and the conflicts are escalating. Scientist Mara Cadell’s radical proposal: that host mothers of either species carry fraternal twins, human, and Tofa, in case the bond between twins can bridge the gap between species. Mara lost her own twin, Levi, in utero, but she has secretly kept him alive in her mind as companion and collaborator.

Mara succeeds in obtaining governmental backing for her project – but both the human and Tofa establishments have their own agendas. Mara must shepherd the Twin-Bred through dangers she anticipated and others that even the canny Levi could not foresee.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Sparrow

Karen A. Wyle Why did I love this book?

A science fiction adventure, a cautionary tale, a master’s class in worldbuilding and use of language and plot construction, an exploration of religious belief, an exploration of the depths and breadth of the human heart... there are so many levels on which I appreciate this book!

One is its wealth of wonderful characters. Of all the innumerable novels I’ve read, The Sparrow has the characters I’d most love to know.

It’s clear from the start that something goes terribly wrong with this Jesuit-sponsored mission to Alpha Centauri. There are traumas for readers to endure along with the characters. But notwithstanding what happens, the book doesn’t end in despair.

Just to warn, this book does have some sexual violence.

By Mary Doria Russell,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Sparrow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The Sparrow is one of my favourite science fiction novels and it destroyed me in the best way when I read it. It is so beautifully written and the construction of the narrative is masterful.'
Emma Newman, acclaimed author of Planetfall

Set in the 21st century - a number of decades from now - The Sparrow is the story of a charismatic Jesuit priest and talented linguist, Emilio Sandoz, who - in response to a remarkable radio signal from the depths of space - leads a scientific mission to make first contact with an extraterrestrial culture.

In the true tradition…


Book cover of The Name of the Wind

Karen A. Wyle Why did I love this book?

I’m strongly recommending this fantasy in spite of the fact that Book 3 is still not available.

As in my previous pick, we have a contrast, or more of a gulf, between the main character as we first meet him and the boy and man he used to be – but all these versions are compelling. The worldbuilding is rich and original, revealed gradually and masterfully.

I would bet that I’m among many readers who long for Kvothe to somehow, against all the somewhat mysterious odds, regain what he’s losing and has lost.

By Patrick Rothfuss,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Name of the Wind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The lyrical fantasy masterpiece about stories, legends and how they change the world. The Name of the Wind is an absolute must-read for any fan of fantasy fiction.

'This is a magnificent book' Anne McCaffrey

'I was reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, and J. R. R. Tolkein, but never felt that Rothfuss was imitating anyone' THE TIMES

'I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University…


Book cover of Shards of Honor

Karen A. Wyle Why did I love this book?

First, this is in most respects the beginning (in internal chronology) of a wonderful SF series, the Vorkosigan Saga. Each book can be read in isolation but adds to the depth and richness of the series as a whole.

Second, the reader is introduced to Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, two strong and unique characters who meet under daunting circumstances that become even more challenging. The title aptly (if cryptically) describes the crisis with which Aral must cope, with a competence that conceals its almost unbearable effect on him.

Speaking of competence, it’s remarkable how Bujold conveys so much of the essence of two very different societies so efficiently.

By Lois McMaster Bujold,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Shards of Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Cordelia Naismith and her survey crew are attacked by a renegade group
from Barrayar, she is taken prisoner by Aral Vorkosigan, commander of the
Barrayan ship that has been taken over by an ambitious and ruthless crew member.
Aral and Cordelia s


Book cover of Paladin's Grace

Karen A. Wyle Why did I love this book?

What does Stephen, paladin sworn to the Saint of Steel, do when the god dies?

The berserker rage can still rise and overwhelm him, but with no holy purpose behind it. Co-protagonist Grace is a perfumer, well nigh indomitable but struggling to overcome her own traumatic past. Throw them together and add... comedy and romance?

Well, yes, and Kingfisher pulls it off in her own inimitable fashion, with terrific worldbuilding and a suspenseful, engrossing plot. This is an entertaining and ultimately hopeful read.

By T Kingfisher,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Paladin's Grace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stephen’s god died on the longest day of the year…

Three years later, Stephen is a broken paladin, living only for the chance to be useful before he dies. But all that changes when he encounters a fugitive named Grace in an alley and witnesses an assassination attempt gone wrong. Now the pair must navigate a web of treachery, beset on all sides by spies and poisoners, while a cryptic killer stalks one step behind…

From the Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of Swordheart and The Twisted Ones comes a saga of murder, magic, and love on the far…


Book cover of Gateway

Karen A. Wyle Why did I love this book?

I seem to be drawn to troubled characters—hence this listand Robinette (Bob) Broadband is surely troubled.

We see his struggle from the book’s beginning, in which a virtual psychoanalyst, Sigfrid, attempts to get him to face and discuss his emotions. Sigfrid is itself an intriguing and, while it claims not to be sentient, still a sympathetic character.

Key aspects of the SF worldbuilding are also doled out carefully throughout the book, and then in the three books that follow. The scope of this imagined future and the importance of the stakes are revealed as the series continues.

By Frederik Pohl,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the very best must-read SF novels of all time

Wealth ... or death. Those were the choices Gateway offered. Humans had discovered this artificial spaceport, full of working interstellar ships left behind by the mysterious, vanished Heechee.

Their destinations are preprogrammed. They are easy to operate, but impossible to control. Some came back with discoveries which made their intrepid pilots rich; others returned with their remains barely identifiable. It was the ultimate game of Russian roulette, but in this resource-starved future there was no shortage of desperate volunteers.


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Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

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