Our bodies are our own. We can mend, bend, and build them how we want. Personally, for me, I love a good workout and exercise session. It brings me into my body and allows me to move in ways I don’t normally get to. Plus, the endorphin boost is nice after long hours in front of a screen or at the crux of a book.
Even though I routinely exercise, the motivation isn’t so easy to come by. That’s why I tend to partner my training with someone else’s. And as a book nerd, that someone else is usually a fictional character from some page I crossed. It’s been helpful while spending time on my bike to read or listen through grander than life adventures of someone training, like me but not me. So, from me to you, here are some great books to help keep your motivation up while you hit the gym, trail, or whatever other method you use to exercise.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Touraine’s arms. Need I say more? If you haven’t seen Tommy Arnold’s rendition of Touraine, (Gideon the Ninth, Wizards of the Coast, etc.) C.L. Clark’s sapphic muscular main character’s arms, it’s worth studying. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone’s sent a picture of the buff hero to their personal trainer or group chat with the message, “I want those arms.”
The Unbroken depicts the battles, romances, and deceits between soldier Touraine and the Queen-to-be, Luca, who has tasked her and the rest of the indentured soldiers to squash an uprising in the land Touraine was stolen from as a child. Trained to be a killer and ripped like the fighter you’d want on your side in a tight spot, Touraine finds more than her home and Luca discovers that Touraine has more to offer than powerful arms.
The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon’s secondary world fantasy centering around the life of Paksenarrion—Paks—starts with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. Paks is a farmer’s daughter who has run away in search of a life of adventure to escape the boredom of her life on the farm. Joining up with a company of mercenaries, readers get to watch and train alongside Paks as she learns to become a soldier.
With Moon’s background as an active-duty marine, we get very detailed and realistic descriptions of the training and physical growth of the character. In some ways, this reads as military fantasy. There isn’t a detail missed when it comes to the transformation of Paks, inside or out. Because that’s what training can do, it can have an effect not just on our muscles but on our minds, our emotions, the way we connect with the world and see ourselves in it.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Another military fantasy in the epic historical sense, R.F. Kuang’s 2018 debut novel, part of The Poppy War series, catches Rin accepted into an elite military school. While there, she endures training and bullying to discover that she has some untapped power that sends her down a road of mastering her skills and saving her people. The book’s inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Rape of Nanking, so it covers dark ground while following Rin’s journey. It’s great to see a historical epic fantasy that shows the realities of strenuous mental and physical exercise, but the added benefit of this book being own voices is *chef’s kiss*.
In a lot of ways, it’s similar to both Moon and Clark’s books. Kuang too went the extra mile to turn The Poppy War’s fantasy worlds and characters into more than just adventures and events. These authors crafted people that readers could admire for their complexity and commitment, if not to themselves than to the act of growing, or well, more in line with the theme of this article, getting yoked.
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
The Lives of Tao is a great exercise companion because Tao, the alien in main character Roen’s brain, can be a quick standing for that encouraging, sometimes exuberant exercise voice that takes over after working out regularly. Paired with exciting and thrilling training montages, The Lives of Tao finds slacker Roen playing host to Tao who’s in the middle of a war with others like it and Roen. Together they’ll train and fight to protect not just each other but the whole human race. Unlike the other books on this list, The Lives of Tao reads like an action book, fast paced and sometimes pretty silly.
Chu’s experience as a stuntman allows for some standout training and fight scenes that, like Moon’s, creates a realistic experience for the reader. The relationship that forms between Tao and Roen reminds me of the best workout couples and groups where the banter and inspiration flows naturally. All and all, it’s a fun read to keep you motivated while training to fulfill your destiny or just achieve the look you want.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Ann Leckie’s 2013 Ancillary Justice about ancillary Breq seeking vengeance for the destruction of her starship is an odd one to find on this list, I will admit. Breq isn’t technically human and a lot of the book is spent with Breq not doing much of anything while she ruminates and remembers what led her to where she is and the justice she seeks. There are a few action scenes, but a lot of the book is leading up to something. So, why include it if it isn’t all brawn and glory, biceps and flexing?
Because it reflects that important moment or phase where we must think on what has led us to the choice to work out. What wars were waged against our bodies or psyches? What spurs us to take our bodies’ futures into our own hands? I feel like that’s at the heart of Ancillary Justice, just like it’s at the heart of all of these books. They just happen to have a bit more action with their reflection.
How we choose to present ourselves to the world and the reasons why are ours alone. Sometimes it’s because we want to feel good in our forms and other times it’s because we need to prepare for adventure, revenge, or some other destiny fulfilling event that we can’t quite control or understand.
Aigner Loren Wilson is a SFWA, HWA, and Codex writer who hails from the Lenapehoking coast. She writes poetry, nonfiction, in-game stories, and fiction. Aigner is an associate editor and copy editor for the award-winning magazine Strange Horizons and horror podcast Nightlight; a writer for Oly Arts, Discover Pods, and other publications; and a judge for the international writing contest NYC Midnight. She is an Otherwise Fellowship honorable mention for 2019, and her work appears in Arsenika, Terraform, Rue Morgue, and more. Her work has been called evocative, noteworthy, and imaginative. Currently, she is writing and editing for herself and others while working on the endless submission grind for her short and long works.