10 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books That Will Remind You What Joy Feels Like

These days, I find it absurdly easy to slip into despair. (Don’t worry, this post is going to be fun, I promise.)

It’s all too common to turn on the news or look at Twitter and then spend the rest of the day staring into the abyss, suffering from a kind of horrified paralysis. (I mean it, this is going to be a fun post.)

It is so easy to give in to that sense of helplessness, and while contemporary literature has many merits, it frequently feeds my sense of inevitable entropy. Many books examine the desolation of the human condition (really, hang in there, this is going to get fun any second), and reading them can feel like an exercise in the entrenchment of man’s wretchedness. These books and stories are important. They just also might make you want to turn your eyeballs backward in their sockets. (Fun coming soon!)

Well, I’m here to tell you: #NotAllBooks. There are fantastic reads out there that will remind you that life is about more than suffering. It’s about hope, and courage, and justice, and adventure! Here are 10 titles I reach for when I need a reminder that joy is an emotion of which humans are capable.

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
This particular novel (the first in his Tiffany Aching series, set in the Discworld universe) was my first introduction to Terry Pratchett. I resisted reading it for a long time due to an intersection of stubbornness and you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-itiveness, but one day a heroic friend of mine trapped me in a cave with nothing but a candle and a copy of Wee Free Men. She posted a bear at the entrance to the cave and instructed it not to let me leave until I’d finished the book. I had been captured by my friend and her bear, but even more than that, I was captured by the sharp prose, wry humor, and unflinching narration in the story of nine-year-old Tiffany becoming a witch. After I finished it, I asked the bear if I could borrow his copy of the sequel, A Hat Full of Sky (it truly was an extraordinary bear). And I never looked back.

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
This book comes off my shelf at least once every couple of years for a reread. Five-thousand-year-old djinni Bartimaeus supplements what could be a dark-ish book (a political conspiracy! Murders! A wizard’s apprentice with a chip on his shoulder! More murders!) with sarcastic narrative footnotes that help lend brightness to a creative, fast-paced story. The Cave-Bear Book Club gives it a unanimous growl of approval. It’s guaranteed to replenish your sense of snark.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
“Don’t Panic” is one of the first things the bears told me when I realized that they weren’t going to let me out of the cave. At first, I yelled at them, thinking that they were offering me insensitive advice. But soon, I realized that they were making a reference to this classic of science fiction. Arthur Dent’s adventures in loneliness, isolation, and unexpected courage are incongruously relatable and fun. And hey, I may be trapped underground attempting to learn the language of the eyeless fish that swim in the cave-lake, but at least my entire planet wasn’t destroyed! 

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
This book was tossed through a narrow crevice between two stalactites, and as soon as I fought the bats away from it, I knew it was going to be something special. This Diana Wynne Jones essential weaves comfortable fairy-tale tropes around a cozy story that twists just far enough away from tradition to keep the reader on her toes. With a magnificent, brassy main character, and a just-complex-enough plotline, this book is worth breaching a bat-alliance to get your hands on.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
It’s impossible to construct a working time machine while under the watchful eye of a well-trained security bear, but this book will transport you in ways the bears can’t prevent! Ned Henry’s time-travel to Victorian England insearch of a missing antique artifact…and true love? is a witty, intricate science-fiction comedy-of-manners, and will deliver a much-needed dose of sunlight into your to-read list. Unfortunately for the cave dwellers among us, no actual sunlight.

Princess Bride, by William Goldman
William Goldman’s Good-Parts-Version abridgment of S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure is a brilliantly paced meta-story. It’s self-aware, self-deprecating, and relentlessly fun. The primary story is classic and surprising even as it follows comforting narrative paths; meanwhile, the framing of the abridgment is a sweet, subtle tide of snarky jibes and inside jokes. Read it to your guard-bear to win him over so he’ll pass messages to the outside world for you!

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede
The first installment of the Enchanted Forest chronicles is sweet, energetic, and delightful. Princess Cimorene decides that princessing is boring as heck, and she heads to her local dragon caves to get herself a job. The classic no-nonsense not-your-everyday-princess story is satisfying as all get-out, and offers a much-needed optimistic perspective on caves! 

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
This story of people trying to go back caught me right away and didn’t let go, much like a certain obstinate bear I could mention. The prose is rich, and even in their darkest moments, the characters are delightful. The story brought me a great deal of unexpected joy, even as I (like the characters in the book) struggled to accept the fact that I might be stuck forever in a world that doesn’t feel like my own. A lovely book with a surprising arc and a deeply satisfying ending.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s contribution to this list is a starbright classic featuring intricate worldbuilding and a bouncy plotline. The language is as finely wrought as a guard-bear’s chainmaille. Reading it will leave you feeling a sense of wonderment and possibility, and will remind you that sometimes, chasing a dream will lead you on a journey you never thought possible! Like hopefully out of a cave, maybe. Metaphorically. Or literally.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness
Undeniably a love letter to Young Adult genre literature, that’s not the only reason this title is a perfect comfort-read (and I’m not just talking about the pillowy soft pages, which will cushion your head against the pointiest rocky cave floors). The achingly relatable characters struggle with a feeling of normalcy in a world filled with Chosen Ones. As adventures happen all around them, the teens in this book do their best to survive high school, complex friendships, and families that aren’t always easy to live with. Ness has drawn out a lovely story of learning to be who you are, even when who you are doesn’t feel all that special. Even when read by the flickering light of bioluminescent algaes, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a title that feels like a sunbeam.

The titles listed here are just some of my favorites. I would love to hear from you: what are some of your favorite comfort-reads? What authors do you turn to in times of trouble? Do you know how to bribe or subdue a trained guard-bear? Share in the comments!

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