10 Novels to Read after the Handmaids Tale
Margaret Atwood’s classic novel A Handmaid’s Tale was thrust back into the spotlight when Hulu released a television series adapting the novel. While it took some liberties here and there, the series has been doing an amazing job of bringing Atwood’s patriarchal world of Gilead to life. The first season ended on a bit of a cliffhanger concerning the main character Offred, and it left fans feeling quite frustrated at having to wait another year to see where the story goes.
Obviously, fans of the series should read the Handmaid’s Tale novel, especially if they have never read it before. However, after that, those same fans may be wondering where they can get their particular dystopian fix. Fortunately, there are many novels that echo the themes, characters, and social concerns expressed in A Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, you could probably fill a library with texts inspired by Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel. Because of this, Handmaid fans may have trouble figuring out where they should start reading. Fortunately, we have put together a definitive guide to the 10 Best Novels to Read After A Handmaid’s Tale, and this list should keep you busy until the second season starts!
Part of what makes the world of The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is how much freedom has been taken from Offred. Her life is not her own, and she is instead forced to service the needs of others. The novel The Jewel by Amy Ewing has a similarly chilling concept: the protagonist, Violet, has been bred with the explicit purpose of providing offspring to the Jeweled Elite. At first, she is okay with her lot in life, but after she is purchased by a Duchess, she must wrestle with the secrets that she learns about her new life as well as her feelings for a boy who was also purchased by the Duchess.
For Handmaid’s Tale fans, there are enough parallels to keep you very interested. These features include a dystopian patriarchy, a sympathetic female protagonist, and a slowly-unraveling web of secrets and intrigue. And like Atwood’s amazing novel, Ewing does an impressive job of building up this alternative world, and each new page makes you feel like you are taking another step into a world that is simultaneously very different from our own but rooted in some chilling similarities. By the end, you not only want to see Violet escape from this world but also to ensure that your society never becomes too much like the dark mirror of this novel.
Oryx and Crake
Sometimes, it can be difficult to find another novel similar to one you have fallen in love with. However, those who loved Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale can make things easier for themselves by reading another amazing Atwood text, Oryx and Crake. The novel features a bleak world that has gone beyond dystopia and is now post-apocalyptic. The protagonist, Jimmy, is someone who may have played a role in what happened, and through a series of flashbacks, we see exactly what caused the end of the world as he knows it.
The flashback structure is a large part of what makes the novel so engaging. Unlike Handmaid’s Tale, which tells us about the past in dribs and drabs, Oryx and Crake allows us to see how one man can so drastically change the world. There are also some uncomfortable explorations of what could shape a man into a monster, including obsessions with online gaming and watching videos of animal torture and child pornography. Basically, Atwood shows us the worst case scenario for our own world, and how our obsession with things like genetic engineering and medicated bliss might be how we sign our own death warrants.
Part of what is fascinating about A Handmaid’s Tale is how different their world is from our own. Even though Margaret Atwood deliberately wrote the book as a cautionary tale of patriarchy out of control, it’s easy to imagine Offred’s world of Gilead as being on another planet entirely. In the young adult novel Glow, author Kathleen Ryan takes this concept quite literally and shows us some of those same Gilead dynamics taking place aboard a spaceship.
The setting of the novel is a colony ship that is heading to populate a different planet. Because of the great distance, it will take generations to reach the planet, so it is vital that the crew reproduce. However, when nobody on the crew is able to conceive a child, things start going sideways, and the increasingly unstable leadership is pressuring young girls to begin having children as soon as possible.
Our fifteen-year-old protagonist, Waverly, has a marriage proposal from a dashing ship captain, and much of the drama centers on the pressure to have children at all costs and her own desire to get more out of life than a handsome husband and pretty children. This novel embodies the best of what science fiction is uniquely suited to do, using unfamiliar settings and characters to force us to examine our preconceived notions about the role of women in society.
When She Woke
Another engaging aspect of A Handmaid’s Tale was how effortlessly it slipped into a literary tradition of examining society’s pressures on women. The novel’s emphasis on hierarchy is emphasized by specialized clothing that helped mark Offred by her role. This is very reminiscent, of course, of A Scarlet Letter, and Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke effectively merges these classic works into an exciting new story.
“When She Woke” is set in an America not too unfamiliar from our own except for the fact that it is in the future. This helps explain society’s ability and willingness to alter genes for cosmetic effect. This leads to a country that no longer tries to rehabilitate prisoners; instead, the state now changes prisoners’ skin color in a way that shows their crime to everyone. Our protagonist, Hannah, is a woman who gets an abortion and is branded a murderer by the religious forces that have taken control of the country. Her skin is dyed red, and she must now try to survive while also discovering a lot about her mind and body. The novel is ultimately a great homage to Atwood, providing a genuinely unsettling atmosphere of paranoia and the lingering fear that this particular dystopian future could happen in our lifetimes.
One of the most fascinating aspects of A Handmaid’s Tale is the motivations of our antagonists. From the perspective of Offred and the reader, these are cruel and evil people: a band of fascist, misogynistic rapists. However, these characters would claim that they created Gilead in an attempt to make the world better, and the pursuit of that dream made things so much worse. In broad strokes, this is what fuels the plot of Wither, a novel by Lauren DeStafano, in which genetic tampering has doomed humanity.
In the world of this novel, there was an attempt to perfect humanity through genetic engineering. This effort backfired in the most spectacular way, and as a result, all males live only twenty-five years and all females live only twenty years. Our protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl named Rhine Ellery who is trying to survive in the hellscape that her world has become. She endures kidnapping, forced marriage, and the scary fact that she has less than four years left to live. Like Offred, she must figure out if she can trust the other sister wives of her husband to escape and live the rest of her life in freedom. This novel takes the science fiction concept and gives it fresh life with a believable world, a sympathetic protagonist, and a tense pace that will keep you turning the pages late into the night.
Parable of the Sower
When it comes to awesome writers, Octavia Butler is right next to Margaret Atwood. One of Butler’s most fascinating reads is Parable of the Sower. More so than any other book on this list, Parable of the Sower is frighteningly realistic: it is set in 2026 (less than ten years from now), and it features America completely coming apart at the seams. Everything from global warming to poverty has brought havoc on the country, and the poor are virtually slaves to the wealthy.
Our protagonist is a woman named Lauren Olamina. She is an empath who is pretty literally thrown into this world when she loses both her home and her family and is forced to wander the country. And while it presents a bleak view of America’s future, the novel is ultimately hopeful, as Lauren has an idea called “Earthseed” through which she plans to unite humanity towards the goal of a better, brighter future. This novel has it all: an awesome main character, a riveting plot, and an eerie setting. Perhaps the scariest thing of all is how thoroughly Octavia Butler predicted the future: the novel was written in 1993, but it seems to have foreseen many of the tensions America now faces in 2017. To top it all off, the novel features a controversial president with a very familiar slogan: “make America great again.” Perhaps Octavia Butler will start getting a percentage of those red hat sales?
One of the marks of good science fiction is that it takes a concept you are already familiar with and does something daring and new with it. In the case of A Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood took numerous examples of real-world patriarchal oppression and wove them into a complex tapestry of a new world. In Ally Condie’s novel Matched, the author provides a dark spin on something many people consider just as sinister as Gilead: Tindr!
The premise of the novel is that the future is ruled by a mysterious group known as The Society, and they use technology to help “match” people with their perfect mate. Our protagonist, Cassia, starts out with full faith in the system, especially when the screen shows her the man she already felt destined to marry. However, when the screen briefly glitches, and she sees another man, she begins questioning not only her feelings but the entire world that The Society has created around her. The novel is an amazing read, as its bizarre premise is rooted in our very modern concerns about predictive software, our romantic feelings towards others, and the great irony that technology meant to bring us all closer together often makes us feel lonelier and more isolated than ever.
Most of the novels on this list pair well with A Handmaid’s Tale because they invite us to view a world in which patriarchal forces conspire to control the lives of women. However, in The Power, a novel by Naomi Alderman, the shoe is on the other foot: the plot involves teenage girls suddenly developing the ability to produce and control electricity. And almost overnight, centuries of gender dynamics have been swapped, as men are terrified of what women might do to them!
The book is recommended by Margaret Atwood herself, and she couldn’t resist a bit of humor in her blurb: “Electrifying! Shocking! Will knock your socks off! Then you’ll think twice, about everything.” It’s easy to see why: aside from the weird electric powers, the setting of London is exactly like our London. As you keep reading, it’s impossible to not think about how a single change could drastically change our world. And when you finish the book, you’ll look at our world with fresh eyes as you think about the various events that have led to the disparity in gender equality that we currently have.
The Children of Men
Aside from A Handmaid’s Tale, The Children of Men is likely the most recognizable title on this list. This is because it was adapted into a bleak and beautiful movie back in 2006. However, whether you watched the movie or not, you’ll find more than a few surprises in the novel, written by P.D. James in 1992. The general premise remains the same, focusing on a world which has been afflicted by mass infertility. However, unlike the movie, much of the book focuses on how the government has reacted to the impending extinction of mankind, with England falling under the sway of a complete despot.
Because of this, much of the plot concerns our protagonist, Theo Faron, and his efforts to coordinate with political dissidents in to change the tyrannical policies of the Warden of England. The book is notable for how fully realized its dark vision of England is, and it is made more so by the format of the book: it’s split between third- and first-person points of view and the first-person elements come in the form of excerpts from Theo’s journal. Through this, we get some amazing world-building, all while understanding the mentality of the man who becomes uniquely poised to change the course of his entire country.
Station Eleven: A Novel
One of the understandable threads that link all of these post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels is the focus on sheer survival. More often than not, the protagonist of these books and their allies simply want to survive and live a life free of oppression. However, the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel forces us to ask whether the people who focus only on survival in such a world are truly still alive.
The novel has different perspectives from different characters, and it jumps around between two points in time: before and after a devastating pandemic has affected seemingly all of the civilization. Now, characters as vastly different as a famous actor and a paramedic struggle to survive in this very different world, while a traveling symphony focuses on more than that. The symphony has dedicated themselves to preserving the last vestiges of art that humanity is left, believing that “survival is insufficient” to give people a true reason to live. Through the course of the novel, the author weaves the different threads together in exciting ways, and readers are forced to question whether they have found something profound to live for or, like the survivors of this pandemic, are just trying to survive from day to day.