A Beginner’s Guide to the Dystopian Genre

Depending on how long you’ve been around, you may or may not know the true depths of my love for the dystopian genre. It’s my favorite for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it captures the essence of my absolute favorite trope: characters who won’t give up, even when they know that they have no chance of winning. I know that this trope appears in other genres, but I’ve found that it seems to reside the most in all of my favorite dystopian stories… The stories where friends fight for each other, even in the face of absolute death. The stories where family always fights for each other, no matter how badly they’ve messed up in the past or how hopeless things have become. Dystopias are where I find characters who are willing to punch through the impossible because they don’t know how to live with themselves if they don’t try. If they don’t at least do the next right thing. If they don’t cling to the speck of light in the eternal storms of darkness.

This is a very niche trope that I assume will always have my heart wrapped around it, but I know that not everyone is familiar with the dystopian genre as a whole. So, I wanted to put together a little guide for you—the voyager who wants to pick up a dystopia, but has no idea where to start or which ones are worth the hype.

I’ve structured this guide around books that will appeal readers who are looking for certain types of dystopias based on specific tropes, atmospheres, reading tastes, and general preferences. For each book, I’ve included the cover, Goodreads link, blurb, my thoughts, preferences that make you the perfect reader, and content warnings.

If you’re looking for a clean dystopia with faith themes and a love triangle…

Anomaly by Krista McGee

Thalli has fifteen minutes and twenty-three seconds left to live. The toxic gas that will complete her annihilation is invading her bloodstream. But she is not afraid.

Thalli is different than others in The State. She feels things. She asks questions. And in the State, this is not tolerated. The Ten scientists who survived the nuclear war that destroyed the world above believe that emotion was at the core of what went wrong—and they have genetically removed it from the citizens they have since created. Thalli has kept her malformation secret from those who have monitored her for most of her life, but when she receives an ancient piece of music to record as her community’s assigned musician, she can no longer keep her emotions secreted away.

Seen as a threat to the harmony of her Pod, Thalli is taken to the Scientists for immediate annihilation. But before that can happen, Berk—her former Pod mate who is being groomed as a Scientist—steps in and persuades the Scientists to keep Thalli alive as a test subject.

The more time she spends in the Scientist’s Pod, the clearer it becomes that things are not as simple as she was programmed to believe. She hears stories of a Designer—stories that fill her mind with more questions: Who can she trust? What is this emotion called love? And what if she isn’t just an anomaly, but part of a greater design?

This book is the first in a trilogy, and I really loved it as a teenager. It was a refreshing find in a time when so many dystopias were gritty, ultra dark, and just too mature for me. Anomaly is pretty much 100% clean, but it isn’t your typical cookie-cutter Christian fiction novel. It is well-written, has an intriguing concept, and the protagonist is relatable (at least to me). There are also a number of music references, so that’s a plus.

Perfect for fans of: Clean YA fiction, Christian themes, and love triangles.

For content warnings, check out this review on Goodreads.

If you’re looking for a gritty, violent, and morally questionable dystopia…

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Two teens are forced to murder—maybe each other—in the first in a chilling new series from Neal Shusterman, author of the New York Times bestselling Unwind dystology.

In a world where disease has been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed (“gleaned”) by professional reapers (“scythes”). Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythe’s apprentices, and—despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation—they must learn the art of killing and come to understand the necessity of what they do.

Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe’s apprentice. And when it becomes clear that the winning apprentice’s first task will be to glean the loser, Citra and Rowan are pitted against one another in a fight for their lives.

I love this novel. It’s also the first in a trilogy, but I never finished the second book, so I have no idea if the last two books are as good as this one. It is a pretty dark and violent story, so I wouldn’t recommend it if that isn’t your cup of tea. Personally, this was a twisty and generally disturbing book that went wonderfully with my love of twisty and disturbing things.

Perfect for fans of: Stabby characters, gritty YA, and thought-provoking quotes.

Content warnings: Death, murder, violence, suicide, child death, and blood.

If you’re looking for a dystopian classic with violence and romance…

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Could you survive on your own in the wild, with every one out to make sure you don’t live to see the morning?

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weight survival against humanity and life against love.

This is really The Classic of the dystopian genre. It’s the top-tier, never-gonna-go-out-of-style, OG favorite that most people love. It’s been around for a while, so there are TONS of reviews on it, but I highly recommend. It’s the first in a trilogy, but the last book is pretty mediocre, so I recommend reading the first one and then just watching the movies.

Perfect for fans of: Strong female protagonists, enemies-to-allies-to-maybe-lovers, and sassy mentors.

Content warnings: Death, violence, child death, death of a parent, cannibalism, and alcoholism. (I have no memory of any cannibalism scenes, so I have a feeling this isn’t very graphic. It’s probably just mentioned briefly).

If you’re looking for a weird dystopia with a lot of boys, betrayal, and fake swear words…

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

If you ain’t scared, you ain’t human.

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers—boys whose memories are also gone.

Nice to meet ya, shank. Welcome to the Glade.

Outside the towering stone walls that surround the Glade is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out—and no one’s ever made it through alive.

Everything is going to change.

Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying.

Remember. Survive. Run.

If you like the idea of a bunch of teenage boys being thrown into a world and forced to co-exist, then this is definitely your book. It’s the first in a trilogy + a prequel and a spinoff, but this whole bunch of books still holds up. I disliked the end of the third book, but it’s overall a pretty great series.

Perfect for fans of: Lord of the Flies, male protagonists, and immersive worldbuilding.

Content warnings: Death, child death, blood, violence, gore, vomit, and grief.

If you’re looking for a dystopia that started the trend of categorizing society…

Divergent by Veronica Roth

One choice can transform you.

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

This is the first of another trilogy, but I really recommend just reading the first book. The author gets lost in the third one, and the second book is pretty mediocre. The movies are a good alternative if you want to know what happens and not slog through the bad writing and plotting of the other two books. That being said, this first book is a really good book, so I recommend it.

Perfect for fans of: The Hunger Games, near-death situations, and slowburn romance.

Content warnings: Violence, death, gun violence, suicide, death of a parent, child abuse, and sexual assault (I don’t remember a sexual assault scene, and I’m pretty sensitive to those, so I don’t think it was very graphic).

If you’re looking for a disturbing dystopia with morally-gray characters…

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Connor, Risa, and Lev are running for their lives.

The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state, is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.

This book is not for the faint of heart. If you don’t want to read about seriously twisted morality, child abuse, and disturbing medical situations, please don’t read this book. If those things don’t dissuade you, however, I highly recommend this book series because I think it opens the door to some really big questions about morality, humans, and ultimately, what it means to be alive.

Perfect for fans of: Morally gray characters, scary what-if questions, and stories with twisted psychological/religious content.

Content warnings: Death, body horror, child death, violence, abortion, confinement, sexual harassment, and sexual assault (I don’t really remember a sexual assault and I’m pretty sensitive to those, so I don’t think it was very graphic).

If you’re looking for a clean dystopia with an unreliable narrator and faith elements…

The Girl Who Could See by Kara Swanson

All her life Fern has been told she is blind to reality—but what if she is the only one who can truly see?

Fern Johnson is crazy. At least, that’s what the doctors have claimed since her childhood. Now nineteen, and one step away from a psych ward, Fern struggles to survive in bustling Los Angeles. Desperate to appear “normal,” she represses the young man flickering at the edge of her awareness—a blond warrior only she can see.

Tristan was Fern’s childhood imaginary hero, saving her from monsters under her bed and outside her walls. As she grew up and his secret world continued to bleed into hers, however, it only caused catastrophe. But, when the city is rocked by the unexplainable, Fern is forced to consider the possibility that this young man isn’t a hallucination after all—and that the creature who decimated his world may be coming for hers.

I haven’t read this in a really long time, so it’s probably time for a reread, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s not very long, it’s relatively clean, and it’s a very poignant story about love, grief, and trauma. I remember that the characters were so loveable and…I just really love remembering how much this story made me feel and ache and become completely entrenched in Fern’s journey.

Perfect for fans of: Mental health/trauma representation, fantasy/contemporary crossovers, and clean romance.

Content warnings: Injury/injury details, child abuse, grief, medical trauma, death, drug use, and kidnapping.

If you’re looking for a dystopia where neither love interest in the love triangle is toxic…

Matched by Ally Condie

In the Society, Officials decide. Who you love. Where you work. When you die.

Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it’s a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she’s destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can’t stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society’s infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

I read this trilogy within the last few years, and it was so good. I struggled to read a dystopia book during the pandemic, but reading this trilogy felt so natural…almost like coming home (because this is my favorite genre). I really love that the love triangle isn’t so obvious. Typically, it’s really obvious who the protagonist should be with, but this trilogy flipped that cliché on its head because both Xander and Ky were healthy options. I genuinely loved this book, and I hope you do, too.

Perfect for fans of: Healthy love triangles, poetry, and covers with symbolic meaning.

Content warnings: Death, violence, death of a parent, child death, infidelity, panic attack/disorders, toxic relationship, fatphobia, and eating disorder (I have no memory of the last two points).

If you’re looking for an urban dystopia with faith, friendship, and fighting for what’s right…

How We Rise by Brooke Riley

When the truth gets you killed… will you still Rise?

Raegan MacArthur is content with her simple life. But lately, her life hasn’t been all that simple. She can’t drown out the screams in the night coming from the military base up the road. And she can’t ignore the truth behind them.

Peter Daniels thought moving back to Texas with his mom for senior year was a good thing. A chance to reconnect with old friends and finally feel at home again. But his life now can never be the same as it was six years ago.

Signs of government overreach are everywhere, and an unknown- yet familiar- enemy lurks in the shadows, watching their every move. The government is clamping down tighter and tighter on anyone who resists their ways. Raegan and Peter have to make the hardest decision they’ve ever faced: will they go quietly to save their lives… or will they rise?

This is a really fun and clean dystopian. I read it a few years ago and I finished it almost entirely in one day. So, if you’re looking for a contemporary dystopian that isn’t too dark, isn’t all about a romance, and features the best of friends, you should definitely pick this one up. Brooke Riley, the author, has also recently published the third book in the trilogy, so you don’t have to wait to finish the story.

Perfect for fans of: Best-friend-to-lovers, found family, and mental health representation.

Content warnings: Death, brief swearing, violence, kidnapping, and gun violence.

If you’re looking for an apocalyptic dystopia with aliens, romance, and a film adaptation…

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother-or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

This wasn’t my favorite dystopian trilogy, but it was a cool story. I really enjoyed the first book, but got kinda lost in the second one (like, I-didn’t-realize-there-was-a-sex-scene-until-it-was-relevant-for-the-third-book kind of confusing), and then by the time the third one came I out I just didn’t really care about most of the characters anymore. That being said, I do recommend the first book because it’s an interesting concept and who doesn’t love a dystopian with aliens???

Perfect for fans of: Unique plotlines, strong family bonds, and plot twists.

Content warnings: Death, violence, gun violence, child abuse, child death, gore, rape, sexual assault, and suicide (I don’t remember a rape scene, but this trilogy does have a lot more sexual content than I was used to, so proceed with caution for this one).

Let’s Talk!

Was this guide helpful? Which of these books have you already read? Which ones are you adding to your TBR? Should I make more bookish guides based on other genres? Let’s talk all things dystopian and book guides down in the comments!

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Bree Dawn is a voracious book dragon who believes in the power of stories. As a young girl, she always begged her parents to let her read “one more chapter” before bedtime. As an adult, she uses this same passion to craft dark stories with hopeful undertones for young adults who seek a glimmer of light in this dark world. Bree is currently working on her dystopian fantasy novel while consuming as many stories as possible.

9 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to the Dystopian Genre

  1. You are the first person I’ve EVER seen mention Anomaly!?!?!? That’s so cool. I picked it up by chance as a teen (when I just read EVERYTHING dystopian/YA that I could get my greedy little hands on) and it turned out to be one of those hidden gems?? Really really good from what I remember. So cool to see someone else knows about it!

    Liked by 1 person

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