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Best Action and Adventure Books (and Their Generic Problem)
Autumn is coming, my lads, and that means two things: it’s back-to-school season, and the weather won’t make your life easier. After lounging around the entire Summer, backpacking across beaches, and simply enjoying the art of doing nothing, it’s time to switch gears and get back into shape with your studies. Be it school, university, or work, the gloomy prospect of Autumn rains and chills might make you crawl into bed and let out wounded walrus sounds. Luckily for you, there is something that always gets everyone’s hearts racing – action and adventure books!
But what would those be? Isn’t every book about some sort of adventure? Except for those boring ones? You’ll be happy to know that even static books have a degree of adventure in them, although quite often internal. Still, I won’t try to sell you inner journeys for action and adventure today. Today is all about the real thing.
When we talk about the genre, action and adventure, strictly speaking, are two separate things. Action is on better terms with more violent scenarios, often in the context of crime fiction, gang wars, mafia, and that whole shebang around The Godfather. Adventure, on the other hand, involves a dangerous undertaking, a journey into another land (be that land real or fictional). It also comes with a good deal of danger and risk, but overall, it has more positive outcomes. Action doesn’t care for happy endings unless they concern the protagonist, so Steven Segal is perfectly free to off as many as his enemies. Adventure prefers more peaceful solutions.
The problem? Action and adventure tend to mix well to the point where nobody knows how to label them (without offending the other genre). Instead of dissecting every title ever written, let’s do our own brand of genre mixing and look at action-adventure titles together.
Action and Adventure Books – List of Common Tropes
A trope is a motif repeated so many times in various works of fiction that it becomes a recognisable pattern. For example, ‘the chosen one’, also known as the prophesised hero who is meant to save the world. Action and adventure books also love tropes – that’s what makes them spicy. Just because a work of fiction uses tropes, it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be predictable – especially not in this genre. But still, let’s have a look:
- Big one-on-one showdowns. At one point, the protagonist will have to face the enemy. Fireworks will follow.
- Last-second escape. No matter how much of a pickle the protagonist is in, they will pull some miraculous escape literally at the last moment. Explosions may or may not follow.
- Singular talent. Only that one character can wield the magical sword, ride that wild horse, or understand a ye olde language written on the walls in some cave. Ooohs and aaahs will most certainly ensue.
- Extreme dexterity. No matter whether the protagonist has ever wielded a sword, gun, or bow and arrow, they will outshine everyone else.
- After-action drama. First, there is a massive showdown. Then there is the healing drama where someone inevitably confesses their feelings, lots of apologies fly around, and overall even the hardest of hearts mellow.
- The mentor figure. There is a Gandalf in all of us … at least if we’re all characters in action and adventure books.
- Failed plan. Sometimes characters will plan out every single detail of their next venture. Of course, everything will go wrong. On the other hand, if they don’t plan, some divine force will keep them safe.
- Hey, you! The main villain is tapped on the shoulder and sucker-punched when he turns around. At this point, we all know he deserved it.
- Monumental damage. Just think about the poor people who have to clean up after all the damage caused by the hero.
- The hidden door. Always behind a bookshelf, innit?
Similar tropes include the man on fire, who almost always has to run through the scene, the ‘let’s get out of here’ one-liner, and, of course, the inexhaustible source of bullets or arrows. Still, as I said, tropes are a great thing when well-written. They serve as a familiarisation technique, and they simply work! Sure, there are bad ones, like invincible, bullet-proof heroes, but most of the time, they are fun to observe.
Best Action Books of All Time
Let’s start with hard-boiled action. There ain’t no magic carpets here, only magical guns that never miss and somehow can be loaded with approximately 337 bullets. To spare you the bad ones, here are the best action books of all time:
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. You didn’t really think that the movie was the original deal? Crichton was the first one to write about the amazing discovery that led to the cloning and recreation of dinosaurs from the Jurassic period. But was that such a good idea, and when will people finally listen to Jeff Goldblum?
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. You know what, just add the rest of the Robert Langdon series. I know that people have beef with Dan Brown – he’s not historically accurate, they say. Nonsense, I say, you people lack basic imagination. The Langdon books are jam-packed with action, mind-blowing discoveries, and narrow escapes – and they have a college professor at their heart rather than a professional hitman. You should definitely check them out.
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, followed by another five novels in the Millennium saga. After the disappearance of the wealthy scion of a famous Swedish tragedy, the uncle of the missing girl sets out to find her, helped by a surprisingly nifty Lisbeth Salander.
- The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. While there is some contention over whether Ludlum writes his own books, his worldwide phenomenon of Jason Bourne is one of the greatest action heroes. He’s only got one tiny problem – amnesia. Why are people trying to kill him? What’s all that money in his bank account? Guess you’ll have to read to find out.
- The Hunt for the Red October by Tom Clancy. And literally everything else by Mr Clancy. Massive conspiracies, high-profile criminals, and international intrigues plague this epic chase of the Red October in one of the greatest espionage stories of all time. So epic that the White House debriefed Clancy for fear of treason!
Bonus title: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa. This book is the multi-perspective portrait of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who held the Dominican Republic under his iron fist for decades. A mixture of fact and fiction, Llosa’s novel paints the intricacies of Trujillo’s inner circle, plans, and legacy in a page-turning action story.
Other exceptional action titles include:
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (which, btw, gave us the idea of a metaverse!)
- White Eagle: Awakening by Ellwood Cooper
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (not for the faint of heart)
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
And literally, anything written by Douglas Preston, Lee Child, Bret Easton Ellis, and John Grisham. And even if don’t feel like reading you can listen to those books instead on Audible.
Best Modern Adventure Novels
We all know about Alice and her little mishaps in Wonderland, but what are some newer adventure stories? Here are the classics:
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman. To quote the master himself, this literary classic is about ‘Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men’ and looooooots of adventure. And some metafiction, just for fun. Seriously, read it!
- The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez. The freshest addition to the adventure genre, this novel follows two shepherds – a former guard and an outcast – who have just freed an ancient goddess from her prison and are taking her across the country to save their people. From what you ask? Well, from spoiled menaces they have for kings! An absolute must-read!
- West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge. When Woodrow Wilson Nickel, an orphan named after the president, meets two giraffes on their way to San Diego Zoo, his life is suddenly changed – as if by magic. This heart-warming story of post-depression America follows the journey across the country which will leave no soul unchanged.
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. January Scaller is the much-protected and cherished resident of Mr Locke’s mansion. So much so that she feels like a piece of furniture used as decoration. That is until she finds a magical book that opens ten thousand doors into mysterious worlds. Does she dare to go?
- Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson. You know those captivating lovers-to-friends stories? If you’re a fan, this one’s for you. As Jase assumes the throne of Ballenger and extends his power over surrounding kingdoms, one queen decides she’s had enough. She sends a former street thief to investigate the situation, but she and Jase are soon pulled into a whirlwind adventure that brings them closer than they had ever thought possible.
Bonus title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. What’s better than a grumpy British person suddenly shipped off to space? Hardly anything!
Other notable titles include:
- The Olympians Saga by Rick Riordan (Otherwise known as the Percy Jackson series)
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- The Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
- A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
Put It All Together: Action and Adventure Books You Must Read!
As the title suggests, there are excellent mixtures of the two genres. Here are some of the absolute legends:
- The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. This series doesn’t get enough love. Thursday Next is a literary detective who has just noticed that someone is changing the endings of classical literature – from the inside! A love letter to books and a smashing action-adventure detective story, this book is as delightful as it is wacky! Did I mention it has a dodo in it? Plock!
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Henry has a problem. He only wishes it was alcohol, but no – he has a condition that sends him to random years of past or future. To make matters sweeter (and more complicated), his wife has to deal with it. A great love story filled with complications of time travel. If you like this one, you should check out Oona Out of Order.
- The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Few writers can illustrate the depths of human life in such a heartwarming way as Alexander McCall Smith. Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s leading detective who may have just ended up with too much on her plate. Tracking a missing husband, uncovering massive cons, and following a lost daughter – can anything else go wrong? Sure, but I won’t tell you, you’ll have to find out!
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel follows three vastly different characters tossed by the tide of change in 1960s Africa – just at the brink of the foundation of the independent state of Nigeria. This wonderful novel about the end of colonialism follows the three protagonists as they run for their lives … or from their own beliefs?
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Susan Collins. You know the story: Every year, two children from 12 districts of Panem are sent into an arena where they have to fight to the death. When Katniss Everdeen’s sister is picked, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Unbeknownst to her, she has just volunteered to lead the revolution!
Bonus title: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. If you’re tired of reading about heroes, you should ask yourself what happens to poor sods who are condemned to live in a world full of chosen ones, epic wars, and even more epic clean-up efforts. Well, Patrick Ness tells you 😉
Some honorary mentions:
- Eragon series by Christopher Paolini
- The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (if action-adventure had a face, it would be this novel)
- The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss (amazing books, but read at your own risk, the guy is not going anywhere fast with the last book in the series)
- Baking Bad by Kim M. Watt
- Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Mass
The most honorable mention, literally saving the best for last, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Look no further for storytelling genius that busts genres and borders and paints the most human and amazing characters of literature.
Children’s Action and Adventure Books – Just a Few More
There’s nothing more relaxing than a good children’s book. Not only does it bring you back to some better days, but it also wipes away any sorrows you may have. Everything is easier in children’s books, be it because of magic or kids’ relentless sincerity in communication. Whatever it is, you’re never too old for children’s action and adventure stories.
Check some of these titles out:
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
- Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
- Oracles of Delphi Keep by Victoria Laurie
- League of the Lost Fountain by Jason Born
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
- A Tale of Magic... by Chris Colfer (yes, the guy from Glee)
- The Mystwick School of Musicraft by Jessica Khoury
So, Where Do We Start With Action and Adventure Books?
I believe I have given you some reading material to keep your spirits up in the coming weeks or cosy up your evenings. If you’re wondering where to start, my gentle suggestion is somewhere around the adventure section to ease yourself into the more dramatic end of today’s spectrum.
Remember, there is no wrong time to read. Whether you’re coming back to books after a long hiatus or are simply looking for inspiration, reading is always the answer to many of life’s troubles – you’d be surprised at how many of those we share with literary characters. If you’re unsure about the target audience of the books listed here, stop worrying – books have no age, and they can be read at any point in your life! So children’s or young adult fiction – who cares, these are all wonderful novels.
Oh, and PS, once you’re done, you can check out our favourite LGBTQ+ books!