By Catriona Mactaggart

A friend of mine mentioned that she had been reading a lot more fantasy fiction than she usually would since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. This sparked an interesting discussion between us about the types of books that we have been turning to for comfort in recent weeks. The answer: mostly fantasy and dystopian fiction. 

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

– Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

While we are living in such close quarters, with restrictions of where we can go and who we can meet, reading has been a constant source of comfort for many people. Interestingly, readers have found solace in fantasy and dystopian fiction during the pandemic, a lot more so than they usually would have in normal circumstances. While some are baffled by the need to seek out uncertainty in literature, I completely understand it. The appeal of fantasy and dystopian books has skyrocketed in recent weeks because they provide the perfect escape from our own uncertain reality. 

Everyone has their own relationship with literature and knows which genres they prefer. For me, fantasy and dystopia have always been a haven – a place to which I can retreat to shield myself from the world. So, this is exactly what I have been doing during the pandemic. I delight in the escapism and protection that this type of fiction offers, and evidently, I am not the only one who feels this way. 

Post-apocalyptic dystopia and fantasy fiction is crazier and more adventurous than our real lives, and no matter how complicated and scary the world gets as a result of the pandemic, we can always escape into literature and be comforted by a storyline that is even more alien to world we presently know. 

Below is a list of five of my favourite fantasy and dystopian fiction books. If you’ve only been immersing yourself in light and happy books during the pandemic and they haven’t really been doing the trick, I sincerely suggest that you pick up one of these next. 

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has always insisted The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction, but it fits into the dystopian and science fiction categories. It is set in an alternative but not-so-distant future located in Cambridge, Massachusetts and depicts a powerfully oppressive regime where women have been stripped of their civil rights. As the Republic of Gilead is still relatively new and there is a premium on procreation, it is the duty of the handmaids to bare children to their commanders. The narrative centres around the handmaid Offred who finds slivers of joy and hope in breaking the rules so heavily enforced. 

Offred’s fate is left hanging in the balance, her story continued in the log-awaited sequel, The Testaments.

The Ballads of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Collins’ recently published prequel to The Hunger Games is the next thrilling fix in the dystopian world of Panem. 

The Ballads of Songbirds and Snakes chronicles the defining moments in the life of eighteen-year old Coriolanus Snow. The man who we know as the fiercest adversary against Katniss Everdeen’s rebellion starts out as nothing more than a caring young man seeking to rebuild his family’s reputation. Collins’ reconciles those two sides of the same man in this narrative as he shows contempt for the Capitol’s games, falls in love, feeds his own ambition, and ultimately betrays his best friend. Collins’ shows how Snow’s desire to survive and hunger for power outweighs all else, paving the way for his future life as the Capitol’s villainous President. 

The Power by Naomi Alderman 

The Power is a dystopian science fiction novel in which Alderman rewrites five-thousand years of patriarchal history. The story speculates what would happen if girls and women suddenly gained a power that made stronger than men. The lives of four characters, Roxy, Margot, Tunde and Allie are intertwined in this electrifying tale that sees women all over the world take control with their new power.

Alderman holds a mirror to our own world and forces the reader to think about power and fear in our present society. This feminist text exposes the bleak truth that people abuse power simply because they can.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Greek myth becomes fantasy in this timely retelling of the life of Circe, a character from The Odyssey. In this epic tale Circe is set free from the handful of pages she is afforded in Homer’s ancient poem. Miller empowers Circe and celebrates her as an important character in her own right. 

As the unloved daughter of Helios and Perse, Circe searches for affection anywhere she can find it, resulting in her heartbreak at the hand of a mortal. In her quest for revenge she reveals her affinity for witchcraft, a crime amongst the gods for which she is sentenced to an eternity of solitude upon Aiaia by Zeus. It is here that her journey really begins. She takes back her power, embraces her witchcraft and plays a part in my many other mythological stories. 

The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien 

The Hobbit is a fantasy fan favourite that has stood the test of time, first published in 1937. If you have only seen the films then now is the perfect time to read the book and immerse yourself in this fantastical world. 

This prelude to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy follows Bilbo Baggins as he leaves his comfortable, undisturbed life in his home at Bag End to join a company of thirteen dwarfs on a treacherous quest through Middle Earth. The company encounters elves, trolls, orcs and a dragon in a quest to retake the Lonely Mountain. Enlisted by the wizard Gandalf to be a burglar for the company, the untold dangers of their mission take Bilbo on an adventure he could never have imagined. 

Read more of Catriona’s writing in our Goodness Magazine personal essays and culture sections, and be sure to follow her on Instagram and Twitter!