Sometimes I want to escape to the stars, or to the future, or to a magical land where people are just cozily, reliably nice to each other. Luckily, I’m not alone in this wish, as a current wave of speculative fiction is prioritizing kindness in its characters. Here’s a list of current books with plots that are extremely rollicking, and main characters who are kind. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these books also all feature inclusive and expansive attitudes about gender, sexuality, and race.
Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki comes out today and inspired this list. The protagonists include a tough-as-nails intergalactic ship’s captain, a ruthless violinist who made a deal with the devil, and a traumatized trans teen runaway. With that lineup, I might have expected some kind of redemption arc for someone, but in fact, all of these characters are consistently kind to each other, to those around them, and eventually, to themselves. The character arcs and interactions are satisfying, and the plot is a lot of fun—especially if you already love Los Angeles neighborhoods, donuts and/or violins.
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers is the fourth book in the Wayfarers series that began with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but you don’t need any prior knowledge of the world to read and enjoy The Galaxy and the Ground Within. I originally hadn’t been particularly interested in this one, since it had been billed as travelers thrown together at a space truck stop during a travel delay. That description hadn’t appealed, but when I actually sat down to read The Galaxy and The Ground Within, I was engrossed and charmed. There are no human main characters here. Rather, individuals of several different species with different needs and of course individual personalities of their own, navigate their own issues. They find to their surprise that they are able to not only learn from, but also help, each other. Each character in this book is flawed, but doing their best to reach out to those around them. Chambers is known for soft space opera, such as in her most recent book, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and in The Galaxy and The Ground Within, too, the character explorations are at the forefront while the plot gradually unfolds.
The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison shares several features with her more recent book The Witness for the Dead, but The Angel of the Crows does not take place in the world of The Goblin Emperor. Rather, it presents a speculative fiction version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which angels live in and and support London, and gender roles and expectations are front and center. Both the detective character, an unconventional angel modeled on Holmes, and the angel’s doctor roommate who narrates, modeled on Watson, are driven by kindness. They each seek not only to help and understand each other, but also to help the world that misunderstands them. I love the Sherlock Holmes stories already, and found a knowledge of them to add a fun layer to reading this book. Friends assure me, however, that The Angel of the Crows can stand alone, and that one does not need to be familiar with any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories to enjoy it.
Catfishing on CatNet and Chaos on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer are two near-future YA novels in which one of the main characters is an AI who loves cat pictures, and also its friends. The AI character and the teens who are the other main characters each prioritize consideration, communication, empathy and support for each other. Which is good, because the plots of these books are extremely stressful. The tension and intrigue are really well executed, and thank goodness I can rely on the protagonists (and even some human adults in the world!) to make good decisions because these two books are a wild ride.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell is a romance adventure novel, in which two elite men in a space empire are paired as husbands suddenly, for political reasons. While apparently the “fake marriage” trope is common in romances, I’m not very familiar with it, and found this premise to work well for the extremely hierarchical and political world these characters live in. I found the space adventure and politics part fun, and the two main characters are really trying to be as kind to each other as possible, while doing what’s right for their world.
Looking over this list, it strikes me that a shared facet among them is that they feature characters who have undergone trauma choosing to approach the word empathetically, and act for the good of the people around them. It’s heartening, and I appreciate being heartened by these characters’ kindness.