Today’s TTT theme is actually one I have a lot of practice making lists for, because one of my very best friends is always asking for ‘happy’ books – this is our unimaginative shorthand for books that just make you feel happy, even when they still contain adventures and drama and scary bits. There’s this bubbly-sparkly feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when reading a Happy book, and a particular kind of grin you find yourself grinning, and if you’re not careful you might end up hugging your ereader because FEELS!
So: books that make me smile!
In Other Lands is always the first rec that comes to mind if someone asks me for Happy books, despite the fact that it’s far from fluffy. Elliot, a snarky bisexual, gets whisked away to magic school – and is distinctly unimpressed. Probably because fantasy-land glorifies war and its arts, and Elliot vehemently objects to swords and killing people! So weird, that. Like all of Brennan’s books, In Other Lands is packed full of laugh-out-loud moments while also being a clever dissection and subversion of, oh…all the fantasy tropes??? I’m pretty sure she hits them all.
There’s plenty of moments that will twist up your heart, too, but ultimately In Other Lands will leave you smiling.
Not fantasy??? Not even spec-fic??? Say it isn’t so! But it is so: Red, White & Royal Blue is possibly The Happiest Book; no other has turned me into such a flaily, delighted DORK as Casey’s debut. The biracial son of the American president falls for a prince of Great Britain; what could go wrong? It’s warm and sweet, but not shallow; McQuiston has written a book that’s insightful, incisive, and rich with depth, balancing humour with so much emotion. If you need a book to make you smile??? This is it!
Empress of Timbra follows two half-siblings – illegitimate cousins of the empress – as they discover each other’s existence, and are eventually swept up into politics. Despite the ages of the characters, this is absolutely a book adult readers can enjoy; I’m 27, and it’s one of my dearest favourites. I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes me wriggle with happy!feels, because there’s plenty of intrigue and adventure going on – succession! magic! pirates! – all of which come with sneaky twists and turns and plot-bits that’ll make you anxious for the characters. And yet, this is a book I’ve come back to over and over again when I’m feeling low, because reading it just makes me so damn happy.
Listen, I will never stop raving about Dragon With a Chocolate Heart, okay? This book is a sweet and wickedly clever book about an arrogant young dragon who decides she’s going to be a chocolate-maker – or else. Burgis could have written it as a simple fluff-piece, and that would have been fine! But she didn’t; there’s layers and layers going on here, enough that there’s plenty for adult readers to chew on and marvel over. It’s an MG book that doesn’t talk down to kids, which makes it truly excellent, and it’s a warm, sweet story that is just perfect to curl up with. Don’t dismiss it because it’s written for younger readers; I promise, there’s so much to love here!
Sometimes you just want beautiful things and magic and romance, am I right? I’m totally right, and Thief of Songs is the perfect book to sate that craving. It’s about beauty and art and love, it’s queer, the stakes are low enough to prevent anxiety but high enough to be interesting, and the whole thing just glows. This is another superficially simple book that has layers – about colonialism and unification and the values of art, particularly music – which turns it from what might have been fluffy into something rich and perfect. And everything from the characters to the magic to the worldbuilding seems designed to bring a smile to your face. I can’t recommend this one more strongly!
I know, I know – at this point, everyone knows The Goblin Emperor is a book that will make you smile, right? Well, it will, and it deserves a spot on this list. When the exiled half-goblin heir to the throne unexpectedly ends up emperor, shenanigans ensue – and it’s not comedic, although I realise ‘shenanigans’ kind of implies hilarity. No, instead this is a really lush, deep book, thoughtful and rich and very clever. There’s lots of different threads to keep you interested, but ultimately, I’ve always found it kind of impossible to describe just why this book makes you hug it to your chest. It just does. Maybe because it’s about being good and doing good, even in a complicated system that doesn’t want you? I don’t know, but if by some strange change you missed out on all the hype around Goblin Emperor, you really, really need to pick it up soon!
Shalador’s Lady is the second part of a duet within the greater Black Jewels series, and I wouldn’t read this one without having read the previous book, Shadow Queen. In Shadow Queen, Cassidy, who belongs to the Queen caste of her society but isn’t very powerful magically and isn’t conventionally pretty, agrees to go to a Territory devastated by war to teach the people there how to make a new life. By Shalador’s Lady, she’s proved herself to most of her court and her new people – but not all of them, which becomes a problem when her opposition seeks to undermine her. I realise this all sounds very political, and I guess it is, but it’s also a character-driven story about recovering from centuries of oppression – it’s about hope and rebuilding and celebrating what makes us different and what makes us the same. It’s about friendship and loyalty and love, and recovering from your scars – or learning to live with them. And it has scelties, who are absolutely amazing psychic dogs you do not want to miss out on – trust me on this. Shalador’s Lady has been my go-to book whenever I’m stressed out or sad for years now, and I hope it can make some of you smile as well.
Okay, so no one can accuse Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell of being a quick read – depending on your edition, it’s around 1000 pages long. But don’t be put off! I picked this up on a whim to reread a while back when I was struggling with depression, and wow was it perfect. This huge book is hugely delightful, the story of two Distinguished Gentlemen bringing magic back to England, and it’s written in this incredible wry voice with snarky little footnotes all over the place. This book is just so much fun, and it reads so easily that honestly, you won’t even notice the page count – you’ll be finished before you can believe it. There’s so much going on, so many different plotlines, and the book itself takes place over years and years, and yet – every word of it is just right. It’s absolutely gorgeous and very definitely grin-inducing!
Listen. Listen. I shouldn’t need to tell you anything about this book at all – all you should need to hear is that incredible title. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. !!! Has there ever been a more inviting title in all the world??? NO THERE HAS NOT. (Unless, perhaps, one counts the titles of the sequels…but that’s for another time!) Doesn’t the title alone make you smile??? How can it not?
This is a portal fantasy like you’ve never seen before; a girl called September gets whisked away to Fairyland by the Green Wind and has absolutely marvelous adventures. And I mean really, really marvelous. Marvelous in the way that reaches down deep and burnishes your heart until it shines. This is another book that might be targeted at younger readers, but is meant for absolutely everyone. Please, please read this book if you haven’t already. Your smile will light up the room if you do.
Finally, I wanted to wrap up this list with a book I never see anyone talking about – A Brother’s Price! And that cover is very much an in-joke, because WOW is it misleading. In Price‘s world, men are born much more rarely than women – the ratio seems to be something like 1:10 – and thus are guarded and cossetted and highly prized. So the traditional gender roles we know are kind of flipped around here, is what I’m saying. The cover does depict a scene from the book, but like…it’s very misleading, okay? Even if Jerin – the main character – does rescue one of the princesses very early in the book, he’s the one who gets treated like a princess most of the time.
In a good way, I promise!
And like the best kind of princess, Jerin can do some of his own rescuing. Which is important, because…rescuing becomes necessary.
It’s a super fun adventure-romance story with group marriage and a matriarchal society, the worldbuilding is awesome, and I really wish Spencer would return to the world of this book someday. But even if she doesn’t, A Brother’s Price is a perfect standalone – it was clearly written to be one – and an excellent non-conventional smile book!
That’s it from me! What are your favourite smile books?