It’s that time of year again. Yes, International Ninja Day is back and that means you can indulge in your favorite ninja content from documentaries and action movies to learning ninjutsu (it’s a real thing, not just from Naruto) and more accessible jujutsu (grappling, select weapon training). It’s also a good time to practice your stealth, whether that’s creeping past the creaky boards in your house without a sound or learning how to manipulate your writing to punch your readers in the gut with some surprisingly heartfelt content.
Whether you’re practicing your own writing or interested in books that sneak up on you (like a well-trained ninja with a well-placed kunai to the throat) you’ll want to give these stories a try. Some have shocking twists, some tell you exactly what they’re about, but all leave you with some sort of feeling in your gut that you may not have seen coming.
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and art by J.M. Ken Nimura
Read online promotional material for Kelly and Nimura’s I Kill Giants and you’ll see the main character, Barbara, described as “a girl battling monsters both real and imagined.” That real monsters comes as no surprise as the comic (and its 2017 movie adaptation) follows a girl who protects her town from giants, keeping journals on how to track the different types and trap, repel, and kill them. It’s a coming-of-age story, so you know you’re in for some relatable adolescent themes like growing up and growing out of “childish fads” or what happens when you’re forced to grow up quicker than expected, but when you get down to the monsters “imagined,” even if you can guess what it’s about, the second half of the comic tackles this heavy theme with grace and attention that will resonate with both readers who can relate and those who can only imagine.
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A Monster Calls written by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, and illustrated by Jim Kay
Ness, Dowd, and Kay’s story (because man, Kay’s art sure adds a whole other experience to the book) is another story with “monsters both real and imagined,” but unlike I Kill Giants, you can tell what you’re in stored for from the first few pages. Connor is a young boy with a dying mother who’s visited at night by a giant tree-man of a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson in the 2016 movie adaptation). This monster tells Connor three stories, and he expects a story in return. Worst part is that the story needs to be Connor’s truth, and Connor’s terrified of his truth. When you go into a book knowing someone is going to die and various people are grieving in their own ways but the knowing doesn't take away from the palpable truth of the narrative and you’re left bawling, then that’s a whole other form of sneaky.
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My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
Horror fans know that there’s more to a spooky narrative than simple camp or gore or supernatural happenings. Many memorable horror stories juggle these subgenres with dramatic and impactful themes like self-identity, misogyny, and class differences. Grady Hendrix is one of those horror authors who reels you in with an eye-catching, '80s inspired book cover and a story pitched as a mix between Heathers and The Exorcist. It has skinny dipping, an E.T. themed ice-skating rink birthday party, and chapters titled after songs from that time, but it also has a more emotional punch in the form of Abby and Gretchen’s friendship that emphasizes the power of friendship but also introduces the idea of growing up and growing apart from those you still love. For those unfamiliar with Hendrix, who often balances campy horror with social commentary, picking up this book with its VHS-inspired design may prove to be, pleasantly, more than they expected.
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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time has been compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and other feminist dystopian/utopian works, which comes as no surprise as it’s one of those works that sits with you—not only for a week or so after reading, but years later, it may pop back into your mindspace and have you analyzing the society of then, now, and the future. Set in the 1970s, Piercy introduces us to Connie, a middle-aged woman who’s wrongly incarcerated in a New York mental facility, loosely based off of Bellevue. She ends up visiting a utopian future with sexual, racial, and class equality as well as a dystopian one that’s quite the opposite. The further you dive into the story, the closer you grow to those of the future and those in Connie’s present, but more than that it’s a story that settles in your bones and leaves you hoping for a better tomorrow and wondering if you’ll live long enough to see that better tomorrow.
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Hawkeye (2012-2015) by Matt Fraction and art by David Aja
When Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye run first came out, many veteran Marvel fans expected something entertaining, humorous, and maybe a bit cheesy. New Marvel comic fans, streaming in from the success of Avengers (2012), were looking for more content to expand on the snarky one-liners of the MCU’s lovable but under-utilized archer. Not many people expected this Eisner winning comic to jab you in the gut with some heavy themes of depression, hearing loss, childhood abuse, and self-deprecation to the point of purposeful self-destruction. But one of the most appealing things about Fraction’s writing (and Aja’s art and Hollingsworth’s coloring) is that it shows you a man, who despite facing down all this adversity, is placed on the road to healing by time and the love and patience of the people who care for him.
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Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel Shadow and Bone introduced the world to her fantastical Grishaverse with immersive world building, intriguing politics, and unforgettable characters. Her spin off duology, Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, builds off this already established world by focusing less on large-scale politics and more on a down-to-earth heist narrative. There’s a spy, convict, gambler and sharpshooter, master thief, runaway, and magic user which makes for a cool ensemble cast. For already established Bardugo fans, they know they’re in for some potent prose, swoon-worthy relationships, and high-stacks action. For newer fans, though, the attention given to the character’s individual struggles may come as a surprise, and when select themes of those like addiction, redemption and forgiveness, and trauma (physical, sexual, and situational) are included purposefully and with genuine care, you leave these books with a shocking amount of emotion swimming in your gut.
Buy the first book: