We may not know what the earliest tropes in fiction are, but the character archetype of The Chosen One has to be somewhere near the top of that list. Stories about a powerful hero prophesied to banish a great evil are common in many cultures, ranging from demigod heroes of Ancient Greece to Biblical figures like Moses, whose story has all the trappings of a Chosen One narrative. Clearly, it’s an effective trope that makes for great storytelling.
But well-worn tropes are also really boring. After the nth Chosen One, they all kind of start to blur together. They’re always young people who rise from mundane circumstances, not primarily because of their hard work, even if they do work hard, but because they happen to be able to wield a magical item, have magical powers, come from an ancient bloodline, etc. Do it enough times, and even exceptional becomes meh.
If you’re growing sick of chosen ones in your fantasy fiction, here are some fantasy books to read that don’t have chosen ones in them.
1. A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
Read ‘A Shadow in Summer’ by Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer is a slow-moving novel set in a vivid world where concepts can be bound into godlike beings called andat that people can command as slaves. It’s a high fantasy concept, sure, but the novel is decidedly low fantasy. Magic doesn’t extend from the logical rules of what the andat can do, and the way the magic of the andat works only serves to highlight how painfully mundane their masters are.
In A Shadow in Summer, the focus is on a trio of teenagers who are trying to save the world but are consistently put in their place by the realization that they lack the life experience to make big ethical decisions. The biggest moves in the book are instead pulled off by their older counterparts. The young, headstrong apprentice doesn’t save the day. It’s her superior, a middle-aged woman who serves as the accountant of a merchant family, who does.
Even as the Long Price Quartet progresses into its later books, the heroes never truly become bigger than life. On the contrary, they chafe against the tropes that a real chosen one, and that chosen one’s trio of sidekicks, would be comfortable in.
2. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Read ‘A Game of Thrones’ by George R.R. Martin
HBO’s adaptation Game of Thrones and the subsequent pop culture perception of the show make it easy to forget that the original A Song of Ice and Fire book series absolutely loathes the chosen one trope. Forget Jon Snow being this heroic Azor Ahai figure who will save the entire world from the Long Night for a bit, and consider how many times Martin toys with the idea of there even being a chosen one.
Is it Daenerys? Is it Stannis? Is it Jon? Maybe Tyrion? Or, just maybe, the audience’s longing for their favorite character to become the chosen one is Martin’s own commentary on how people in his books pin their hopes on legends and saviors who turn out less heroic than expected.
The books also subvert Arthurian tropes – something especially noticeable with Brienne, Jaime, Sansa, and Sandor Clegane – so it’s worth the read if you want to see old tropes with fresh eyes.
3. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Read ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ by Scott Lynch
No heroes or chosen ones here, just a group of guys pulling off Peaky Blinders type shenanigans in a fantasy world. The titular Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a relatively respectable organized crime group running an elaborate scheme where they secretly steal from the noble elite, all while passing themselves off as petty thieves.
There’s magic in the book, and it becomes a plot point several times in the book, but it’s mostly a story about a con man living his best life. It’s part of a book series, so if you decide you like the first book, there’s Red Seas Under Read Skies, The Republic of Thieves, and other books to read after it.
4. The First Test by Tamora Pierce
Read ‘The First Test’ by Tamora Pierce
If you liked reading Brienne of Tarth kick ass, The First Test is worth picking up. Kel, the book’s protagonist, isn’t a chosen one, but she is a first one. When it becomes legal for women to become knights, Kel decides it’s her time to shine and signs up to train under Lord Wyldon. The only problem is that Wyldon will do everything in his power to stop her from becoming a knight.
What makes this so compelling is that on top of not being a special, powerful chosen one, we also know that Kel is a regular girl fighting against the odds of her own physical strength (because, hello, sexual dimorphism), but also against traditions that are keeping from becoming a knight – even if she legally can be one.
Without powers, Kel has to rely on her best quality: her stubbornness.
5. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
Read ‘Un Lun Dun’ by China Mieville
There’s a chosen one in Un Lun Dun, alright, but it’s not the protagonist. Our heroine is the chosen one’s best friend, Deeba. Though Deeba starts off playing second fiddle to her friend Zanna, it soon becomes clear that no amount of prophecy will make Zanna a hero, so when the chosen one fails, it’s up to Deeba to choose herself and take on the responsibility of being the “unchosen one.”
The mirrored theme of a chosen and unchosen one works so well for Un Lun Dun because of its mirror world setting. Much of the story takes place in UnLondon, a strange shadow world that mirrors the real London, where reality is subverted in many ways.
6. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Read ‘She Who Became the Sun’ by Shelley Parker-Chan
This book can be summarized as “Local heroine hates being a side character so bad they become the main character.”. Set in a fictional China, the story follows the ambitious second daughter of the Zhu family on her quest to defy destiny. She and her family are told she is destined to be nothing and no one while her brother will become a great hero. Unable to accept this fate, she uses her brother’s untimely death to assume a male identity and fulfill the prophecy initially given to her brother.
This is not a fluffy feel-good feminist story. The protagonist has a visceral need to become larger than life, and she won’t stop at anything to get what she wants: to become the furthest thing from nothing. She starts getting into some very Tywin Lannister territory, all while making us question if the prophecy was, in a way, actually meant to be about her.