10 Engrossing Found Family Fantasy and Alternate History Novels
Whether it’s the fantasy book and TV series Shadow and Bone or the 2020 song “Chosen Family” by Rina Sawayama, the concept of found family is everywhere in recent pop culture. I’m aromantic and love this trope because it defies cultural messages that always prioritize romantic relationships over non-romantic friendships. The idea that friends can inspire as much love and loyalty as biological families and romantic partners resonates with me.
Found family, people who aren’t biologically related but who protect and trust each other unconditionally, can take many forms. They can be friend groups who love and bicker like siblings or parent figures who never formally adopt the young people they consider their kids. In found families, members’ strengths and weaknesses often complement one another.
This trope is prevalent in fan culture, especially fan fiction. On social media, “incorrect quotes” parody accounts and meme accounts are popular. I think this is partly because fans love the dynamics and banter between characters — sometimes as much as the plot or setting.
While the concept of found family appears in every genre, it lends itself especially well to SFF, where there are no limits. This often makes the stakes much higher: sometimes entire universes are in danger. That can make emotions run high and bring people together. Defiant alliances form between people who are expected to be enemies.
Some of these characters are close to their families of origin. Some have dead or abusive families. Many are from identities that are marginalized, in real life or in the story. In 2022, Laura Sackton wrote on BR: “Queer people have been making found families for as long as we’ve been around. For a lot of queer folks, found family and queerness are inextricably linked.”
Embracing a found family can mark a shift in a character’s development. In Doctor Who, the Ninth Doctor tells his companion, Rose, when he first meets her: “I don’t do families.” Many years and regenerations later, the Thirteenth Doctor affectionately calls her companions her “fam.”
Here are some more of my favorite found families in fantasy and alternate history.
Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R. F. Kuang
Babel combines dark academia, fantasy, and alternate history. In its version of 19th century England, magical silver is the British Empire’s main export. The magic system is based on translation and subtle connections between languages, like cognates. This version of Oxford University doesn’t admit students of color or white women — except to its translation program. That’s where students Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty meet. The story explores colonialism, language, racism, and being an ally. The found family these diverse friends create is at the heart of the novel.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
This novel focuses on Kaz Brekker forming his gang, The Crows, and attempting a heist. This book and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom, explain Kaz’s backstory: why he hates being touched and wants revenge. This unconventional found family will defend one another fiercely, bonding people presumed to be sworn enemies. Although I was disappointed by some big plot changes in Season 1 of the Netflix show Shadow and Bone, which incorporates plot lines from Six of Crows, Season 2 makes up for this. The Crows are best all together, drawing on their unique skills and histories to help the group.
Deep in Providence by Riss M. Neilson
In this YA fantasy novel, Miliani, Inez, Natalie, and Jasmine are best friends in Providence, RI. They’ve been inseparable since childhood and are as close as family. Mili is often called the “mom friend” of the group. After Jasmine’s sudden death, Mili wants to perform rituals to contact her or even bring her back. The novel emphasizes both bio and found families and traditions that connect us to them. I also enjoyed recognizing the many RI landmarks in this book.
Unseelie by Ivelisse Housman
Seelie is a changeling (a fairy exchanged for a human as a baby). She’s also autistic in a world that doesn’t have a word to define it. As the author’s note explains, the myth of fairy changelings has historically been used to dehumanize autistic children, and autistic rep is still mostly white men. So, Housman wanted to reclaim the changeling myth by telling a story of an autistic girl with brown skin and loving parents. Traditionally, human parents would return changelings to the fairies to get their own children back. Instead, Seelie’s parents raised both children as their twin daughters. On the way to save their parents, Seelie and her twin sister, Isolde, form unexpected, strong friendships. This is the first of a duology, and its ending suggests the second book might develop the found family aspect even more.
Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston
In a fantasy world inspired by African folklore and climate change, a spreading poison desert threatens climate apocalypse. Djola, the master of poisons, advises the emperor how to prevent total devastation. Awa is a young girl with the power to speak to bees and to enter the spirit world, Smokeland. Eventually, these two characters meet and form a unique found family. Awa’s own family sold her; Djola lost his family. He becomes a father figure to Awa, who reminds him of his own daughter.
One for All by Lillie Lainoff
Many people call this novel historical fantasy, but I’d describe it as more historical fiction in general. I’m including it because I loved the disability rep and found family. In this feminist retelling of The Three Musketeers, Tania de Batz is a musketeer’s daughter in 17th century France. She’s accepted to a secretive “finishing school” that covertly trains musketeers. Tania’s classmates, Portia, Théa, and Aria, have vivid personalities. Plus, their names play on the original Three Musketeers. Like the author, Tania has POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome). The book describes how Tania sword-fights with dizziness and low blood pressure, defying people who think she can’t.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
In a racist, ableist, patriarchal, fantasy world, leaders use stories of monsters to control people. Teenage Deka must undergo a blood ritual, and her gold blood means she’s considered impure. Does she even want to fit into such a prejudiced society? She gets another option and a chance to join a community of girls who also don’t fit in. The second book in the trilogy is The Merciless Ones. The first book was optioned in 2021 for an upcoming movie.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
After the death of his World War II veteran grandfather, Jacob Portman discovers that all his grandfather’s unbelievable stories were true. Jacob travels to an island near Wales, where he meets a group of children with unusual, dangerous powers. He learns more about his own biological family and this unique found family. Unlike the 2016 movie adaptation, the book is filled with beautiful writing and creepy, black-and-white, Victorian photos.
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree
In fan fiction, almost every fandom has a coffee shop AU. Many writers and readers find coffee shops comforting, social places. That also explains some of the appeal of this humorous, cozy fantasy, with its tagline “A Novel of High Fantasy…and Low Stakes.” Viv, an orc, wants to open a coffee shop in a world where most people have never even heard of coffee. Though she’s never stayed long in the same place before, she connects with people quickly. The romance and found family bring groups together that traditionally don’t get along.
Fire Becomes Her by Rosiee Thor
I loved this urban, political fantasy and its magic system based on fire. In a setting loosely inspired by Prohibition, a substance called flare provides magical and political power, while flicker is the diluted, bootleg version. Both the protagonist and the author are aromantic, though Ingrid isn’t ready to acknowledge it yet. Sometimes aromantic teens have romantic relationships to fit in. The supporting characters are also well-developed, as Ingrid and her found family must decide where their real loyalties are.
Want more found family novels? Check out these backlist books about found family from a variety of genres.