book recommendations

Trope Spotlight: When the Underdog MC Gets A Powerful Comeback and Shuts Up Their Bullies

Give me a good comeback story any day and watch me bawl in pride by the end of it. My absolute favorite story trope in the world is when the underdog main character gets a powerful comeback and shuts up their bullies–exactly how it is in the title. When I watch films, a series, or any type of storytelling content, that’s always something I wait for. That redeeming moment of power and growth. That in-your-face moment, basically. 😂

I thought it’d be fun to share some of my favorite fantasy books that I think satisfy the “underdog trope” in an entertaining and impactful way. And, if you’ve read a lot within this genre, you’d already know that that’s actually a very common trope in fantasy. Rightly so, too, since humble beginnings always make the most gratifying victories, in my opinion. These are just some titles that I think have GREAT underdog-comeback moments, with powerful scenes of slack-jawed bullies. Lol.

Flame in the Mist

flame in the mist cover

This duology by Renée Ahdieh is a Feudal Japan-inspired story that’s also a Mulan retelling. It follows a young woman named Mariko as she tries to investigate an attempted assassination on her life. On her way to her betrothed, her whole entourage was attacked, leaving her as the sole survivor in the dark forest, full of wild animals and dangerous bandits. She infiltrates the notorious Black Clan as a man, convinced that they’re the group behind the attack.

The underdog story in Flame in the Mist is fueled more so by sexism. In the way that Mariko has always been underestimated and undermined simply because she’s a woman. In the Black Clan, she founds a strange sense of belonging. But the only problem is, they think she’s a man.

There are a lot of moments in this duology where Mariko shocks the people around her, doing and knowing things “not befitting” of a woman. Honestly, as a young woman myself, that’s a big reason why this story holds such a special place in my heart. Mariko is an AWESOME female protagonist, with her smart mouth and witty brain. I loved seeing her prove others wrong in such satisfying ways.

Read full synopsis on Storygraph:

The Way of Kings

the way of kings cover

(Is it even a Skimming Spines recommendation if Brandon Sanderson isn’t on the list?)

I just love the Stormlight Archive. The first book, The Way of Kings, strongly sets the tone on character foundation, especially with its core underdog story. The series, in its entirety, follows different POVs from across the hierarchical pyramid, telling different stories of core characters in this universe. Its biggest plot thrust is that a great and mighty enemy is in the midst. But no one really fully understands the gravity of the situation. In fact, many don’t even know something’s brewing.

So we follow multiple POVs. Some just trying to survive at the lowest pits of the hierarchy, some political leaders seeking power, and some intellectuals trying to figure everything out. The first book impressively lays everything out as we begin this journey of great political and existential crisis – without really knowing what we’re up against in the grand scale of things. But each character’s individual story is so impactful to the story as a whole, that we’re a lot more focused on their motivations and challenges. At least, for the first book.

With all that being said, there is a specific underdog story here that, I guarantee, will wreck your heart. Kaladin, the surgeon turned soldier. And soldier turned.. Something else. Something I really don’t want to spoil here. 😅 But his character arc is SO powerful. And though we get a lot of in-your-face moments in Book 1, I’m so excited for even more in the following books. Especially with one particular bully…

Read full synopsis on Storygraph:

The Demon King

the demon king cover

Though The Demon King as the first book of Seven Realms didn’t meet my expectations, it does have a pretty solid underdog story at its core. Han’s character arc throughout the books is your typical “rags to riches” story, as he literally came from being a thief/thug barely scraping by, to one of the most powerful [blank] in the world.

It starts off with Han having a run-in with some powerful wizards, and unknowingly taking the son of the High Wizard’s amulet. The Bayars will stop at nothing to get it back from him. On the other side of this dual POV is Raisa, princess heir of the queendom, as she prepares for her coronation. As she struggles with her nearing eligibility for marriage, she tries to curb her curiosity for what’s out there while she still can. There, she stumbles upon Han, hiding from the Bayars’ influence and wrath.

I have a lot of complaints about the pacing of this whole series, to be completely honest. But its core story has always been spot-on. Han’s growth and journey throughout the books has been a satisfying ride of someone gradually going up the ranks with his power, skill, and wit. The first book serves more as a prequel, I think. But at the end there’s a pretty big bomb shell that rattles Han’s whole existence. This kicks off his real underdog story.

Read full synopsis on Storygraph:

The Sword of Kaigen

the sword of kaigen cover

Literally my most recent read. I’m still reeling from The Sword of Kaigen‘s exquisite writing and storytelling. 🙃

This stunning standalone fantasy story follows one of the most powerful warrior families in Kaigen, the Matsuda clan, whose sons have mastered their power over water. The core POVs we follow are Mariko, the mother with a fighter past she’s forced to hide. And Mamoru, her fourteen-year old and the oldest son of the latest Matsuda line. As Mamoru realizes truths and lies about his beliefs, Mariko’s past is forced to come out for her family’s survival.

I have a whole review about The Sword of Kaigen that you could check out. But really, the main thrust of this novel is its characterization and elemental magic combat. In terms of the underdog story with Mariko, though – what sets this apart from earlier titles above is the complex layers of the prejudices and abuse within Kaigen’s society that made Mariko feel so small.

As an outsider who married into this powerful family, she was pushed to hide her fighter instincts to “fit in” to this mountain. A mountain that’s very much set in their old ways of sexism. As the story unfolds, we get a lot of moments where Mariko’s true identity shines–and it was freaking glorious. I don’t want to say any more, but I’ll leave you guys with this. Mariko’s in-your-face moment alone with her husband deserves all the hype in the world.

Read full synopsis on Storygraph:

The Poppy War

the poppy war cover

I’ve only gotten through the first book in this series, but Rin’s underdog story is already on its way of being one of the most impactful I’ve read so far.

The Poppy War is somewhat divided into three parts. Rin as a poor village girl desperate to get into the Empire’s most prestigious military school; her training and education in a place where many believe she does NOT belong; and after.

A big part of the discrimination against Rin is down to the fact that she comes from one of the most rural areas in the Empire. While most, if not all, of her classmates are from elite and very important families. She was bullied for her dark skin, her dialect, and just for being who she is. Quickly into her academic life, she does everything in her power to rise through the ranks, whatever the cost. And, just a little trigger warning, the cost is pretty heavy.

What I really appreciate about Rin’s story in school is that her powerful moments are completely due to her abilities and perseverance to learn. She’s not the “Chosen One” or just incredibly powerful for some reason. It took a lot of time, hard work, and sacrifice to get some semblance of respect from her peers. So it feels a lot more earned. Then, later on in the story (as with any good underdog narrative), the things she was bullied for in school are also why she’s so powerful. I’ll leave it to you guys to find out why. 😉

Read full synopsis on Storygraph:

Let me know what you think about The Underdog Trope:

  • What’s a book that you recommend for this trope?
  • What’s a book that you recommend for your favorite trope?
  • Which do you prefer: The “Chosen One” story or just a normal character doing extraordinary things?

Featured image background: Unsplash image by Benjamin Davies

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