I gotta admit—I really struggle with dark, morally gray stories with heavy, bleak endings. I have to ration those kinds of books, limiting myself to one every 4 or 6 months. Most of it is because of depression, my constant shadow—past experience tells me that I’ll take on all those heavy emotions, and it’ll make for a pretty unpleasant week or so afterward. The rest? Personal preference for the shinier side of life.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think darker stories are important, especially as a way of processing trauma and addressing big issues. And hell, some people just like them! That’s cool. You do you. For me, though, I want to leave a book feeling like the world isn’t so bad, like there’s hope for us all if we can just keep going. And so, this list was born!
Let me clarify, though—these books aren’t shiny happy rainbows all the time. There’s betrayal. There’s death. There’s confict. But what really matters in a Book That Leaves You With Hope For Humanity is the attitude of the main characters and the overall tone of the work. Does each moment drip with existential dread and mounting hopelessness as obstacle after obstacle destroys the good guys? Nope, disqualified. Is there persistence in the face of hardship, a hopeful ending, and characters who are, deep down, Generally Good People? Sign me up.
So whether you deal with mental health issues and need to take care of yourself, or you’re just feeling crushed by The World and All Its Stuff, here are five books I hope will leave you feeling like your soul is filled with stars instead of crushing black holes.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
All you can do, Rosemary—all any of us can do—is work to be something positive instead. That is a choice that every sapient must make every day of their life. The universe is what we make of it. It’s up to you to decide what part you will play.
If this book and its companion novels have been on your TBR for a long time, please let this be the final kick in the ass you need to actually read them. You won’t find action-packed shoot-em-up sci-fi here—remember, this is a book about the long way. What you’ll find instead are characters you will fiercely love and deeply understand, and brilliant commentary on war, the lenses through which we each view the world, and what makes a being worthy of personhood from culture to culture. The book is full of little gems of positive wisdom like the one above, and you’ll leave this book with a renewed sense of your place in the universe and greater respect for the disparate life experiences of the people around you.
The Light at the Bottom of the World by London Shah
I believe that any dad who raises his child to believe the world is full of magic, and that there’s always hope no matter what, truly deserves for her to rescue him one day when he needs it.
This book is one of the most unique debuts of 2019, and far too many people have missed out on it. British Muslim protagonist, submarine races in a future where London is completely underwater, a Good Dad who has been mysteriously arrested, and some next level conspiracy stuff. It’s book one of a duology, so you gotta know that there won’t be easy or satisfying answers here yet. What lands this book on the list, though, is the way the theme of hope is woven throughout the book. The quote above is just one example of many. Leyla is a protagonist I’m thrilled to follow along with, because her determination and relentless spirit make me feel more powerful and capable, too. Also, that cover!
The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli
Maybe Greta was right. Maybe everyone did have a song in them—or a story. One all their own. If that were so, Asha had found hers.
And here she stood at the beginning of it.
This one may not scream “hopeful” on the surface. The main character is a dragonslayer girl with a tragic past and a bleak future, forced into a death dealing role she doesn’t want and a marriage she’s repelled by, and living in a world full of slavery and selfish politics. The story, though! The awesome dragons who are lured by the power of storytelling! Lest you be turned off by the idea of hunting and killing dragons, I will give you a very minor spoiler and say that things… evolve over the course of the book. Most importantly, the ending filled me with the exact feeling I’m going for with this list, and the same feeling I try to end all my own books with—that feeling of the world opening up before you, with healing and possibilities and brighter futures and change on the horizon. Best of all, there are two companion novels, and the covers of all three are GORGEOUS gold-flecked additions to your shelf.
How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
Courage is the best companion when going into the unknown.
An unusual and unique read with a majorly voicey omniscient narrator. This book gets called “The Princess Bride meets Princess Leia,” and… yeah, actually, that works. It’s a full integration of fairy tale tropes in a spacey science fiction setting. Our hero, Rory, is fiercely smart, has a magical BS meter, and can cook up a political scheme with the best of them. I will never be tired of girls breaking out of the cages they’re born into, and Rory does it with wit, humor, and mountains of courage.
Nyxia by Scott Reintgen
You get in there and fight, Emmett. Be worthy. Not in their eyes, but in yours. Break the rules you need to, but never forget who you are and where you come from. When they knock you down, and they will, don’t you quit on me.
This book doesn’t pull punches. There will be deaths that hit you in the feels, and plenty of twists and turns. There’s also powerful social commentary, a fighting spirit, and that relentless drive to do what’s right for family, friends, and humanity. This now-complete trilogy wraps up with plenty of drama, action, and pain, but never loses that feeling that got it on this list to begin with.
Originally published January 2020.
M.K. England is an author and YA librarian who grew up on the Space Coast of Florida and now calls rural Virginia home. When they’re not writing or librarianing, MK can be found drowning in fandom, rolling dice at the D&D table, digging in the garden, or feeding their video game addiction. They love Star Wars with a desperate, heedless passion. It’s best if you never speak of Sherlock Holmes in their presence. You’ll regret it. M.K. is the author of THE DISASTERS (2018) and SPELLHACKER (January 2020), both from Harper Teen.