Updated: Nov 29, 2021
This year has made me realise how much I value the people in my life, and how damaging toxic relationships can be. I suppose it’s done that for all of us, right?
Suddenly, our boundaries have all changed, our relationship with the outside world and with society as a whole has altered, and either the people in our lives respect our new boundaries or they don’t.
I have to admit, most of the people in my life have been truly amazing, and I’ve realised how lucky I am to have such wonderful humans around me. But I know it hasn’t been the same for everyone, and it’s got me thinking about how books teach me a great deal about friendship.
Not all the relationships we see around us are healthy and, personally, I don’t think the last ten or twenty years of pop culture have done much to teach us what healthy relationships should look like. But, there are a few books I’ve read this year with lovely relationships in, or where lovely relationships grow. Books have always been my greatest teachers, so here are three brilliant teachers I want to share with you now.
An Unusual Relationship that Works
Book: Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Sometimes, relationships come out of nowhere. You look at two people and you think, that’ll never work, but, against all the odds, there’s something about these two souls that just clicks.
Not only do they accept each other and love each other, but somehow they also bring out the best in each other.
This is what I absolutely loved about Laini Taylor’s beautiful duology. I read book one, Strange the Dreamer, a while ago, and only got round to reading Muse of Nightmares very recently. It’s in Muse of Nightmares that the strangeness of the relationship really kicks off, but I’d recommend reading Strange the Dreamer first. There’s lots to love about these books beyond the wonderful relationships. The worldbuilding is exquisite and the lore of the world is amazing.
But what I adored most about it was the way that new relationships pushed the characters to change. Friendships and romances are struck up between the most unlikely of people, and, as a result, they learn to be different. To be better. Of course, the major relationship in the story is between Lazlo Strange, a poor librarian who dreams of better things, and Sarai, a blue Godspawn hiding in the citadel above Weep.
In theory, they should be on opposite sides of an old conflict, but actually, their love is one of the things that challenges the status quo of the book world.
Taylor’s writing is beautiful anyway, and her imagination is clearly boundless. Anyone who wants to see how difference can actually be a wonderful thing in relationships should absolutely read this short series.
How Acceptance Can Empower Us
Book: The Mermaid, The Witch and The Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Another book I loved during lockdown, and a really great example of how the acceptance of others can help us accept ourselves. This, really, is a love story between pirate Flora/Florian and Lady Evelyn Hasegawa.
Flora and her brother, two orphans, have ended up as pirates under the command of a deadly captain, capturing rich city folk who they’ll sell on as slaves. Flora must pretend to be a boy, Florian, to survive this life, but s/he identifies with both her female and her male self and isn’t sure which of them s/he truly is. Evelyn is leaving a life of isolation and misery, and the servant girl with whom she had a romance, to head across the sea to an arranged marriage she dreads. Of course, she ends up on the pirate ship and meets Florian.
The two strike up a friendship, which then becomes much more.
What I loved about this book was how binaries were challenged and a positive and accepting relationship made both characters braver and stronger. Of course, there were difficulties along the way, and there’s a wonderful theme of the abuse of the sea running alongside, but both characters experienced a kind of acceptance they’d never had before and I loved how this changed and empowered them.
Anyone struggling with being accepted in a friendship group or a relationship, this book is for you.
Sometimes, life is about letting go of people who make us loathe ourselves and finding those who understand and accept us, helping us to be better versions of ourselves.
The Mermaid, The Witch and the Sea is available on Amazon, Kobo, Nook and Apple Books. It is also available on Google Play Books but, annoyingly, I couldn't find a link! However, if you search for it on your device, it should pop up immediately. It did on mine! You can also find it in print from Waterstones.
How we Learn from Difference
Book: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers
A quick disclaimer, this book is an adult, rather than a young adult read. There are adult themes, as well as adult language, openly discussed here. But a mature young adult reader eager for something a little more ambitious might enjoy the characterisation and worldbuilding in this book.
That said, I would argue that the themes explored in this book are ones that older adolescents could really benefit from: understanding cultural differences, developing new friendships and growing a stronger sense of self.
This is the last of Becky Chambers absolutely beautiful Galactic Commons series, which started with Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Although the books are linked by universe, each one takes up with a new set of characters, and so there is no single order in which you have to read them. Becky Chambers has invented an incredible universe, populated with a rich array of sentient, sapient alien races.
Interestingly, humans are relatively new to the Commons, having fled from their own destroyed planet. Controversially, this book has no human characters in. Nonetheless, I would argue the themes explored in them are beautifully and irrevocably human.
How, for example, can two cultures who have both experienced trauma at each other’s hands come together and heal? How might another culture provide us with a new perspective on our own? How might we use our abilities and our privilege to empower those who are oppressed?
In this story, Ouloo the Laru (an alien species that looks a little like a llama) owns a stopover station on a run-down planet. On this fateful day, three spaceships board at her humble little stop, waiting to hop through various gates to get to their intended destinations. When disaster strikes, the three pilots, each from a different race and carrying their own emotional burdens, are stuck at this little stop for an indefinite amount of time.
Stressed and frightened, they come together and begin to learn from each other.
What comes out of this strange union is painful, unexpected and utterly enchanting. Each of these characters will leave this place changed, for better or worse.
I have adored Becky Chambers since I discovered Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a couple of years ago. As always, I devoured this book in a matter of days and read every spare minute I could. The journey her characters go on is subtle and nuanced, but completely gripping. And the exploration of difference in this book was beautiful.
Anyone wanting to open their minds to the experiences of others, or consider new point of views, should definitely use this book as a starting point.
There are, of course, loads of books that deal with themes of friendship and relationships, but these are three that particularly stuck with me. I hope, and feel, I have become a better human because of these books and I want to share their magic with you. Go forth and read!
Peace and love.
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