Monday, October 15, 2012

Fresh Females of Fantasy

I work in a school library serving girls between the ages of 12 and 18.  While I think that many outside the worlds of youth services and young adult literature continue to associate the genre of fantasy, especially 'high fantasy,' with a male rather than a female readership.  But as a long time fantasy reader,  I have always known this perception to be false.  And now that I work with teenage girls on a daily basis, I know that I am not an exception to a rule in this area.  It's true that large portion of my middle school students continue to demand more dystopian fiction (or as they say: "Do you have something else like the Hunger Games?") and realistic fiction;  I see a distinct growth of interest in realistic fiction, especially with romance as a key aspect or focus, among 8th graders.  High schoolers scatter into an even wider range of interests, including both dystopian fiction, realistic teen fiction, a variety of adult fiction, and non fiction.  But a voracious and vocal group of fantasy fans remains in my middle school and high school populations;  in fact, many of my most demanding and committed readers are among that group.

But also, the fantasy fiction that remains most popular among my students can fit into a more distinct sub-group;  they like to read stories with strong, complex female protagonists.  So I am always on the look out for fresh new fantasy novels featuring richly imagined worlds, exciting plots, and fierce heroines.  And this past year has been a fabulous year for fantasy books featuring girls who kick butt! Here are a few of my favorites:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza has grown up knowing that she is the chosen one—marked for some great destiny since birth as the bearer of the Godstone, embedded in her navel.  But so far, Elisa only seems remarkable for how very un-remarkable she is.  She is the younger, less attractive, and more ignored of two princesses; she can’t fit into the royal role or the royal attire like her slender and elegant sister can. She can't imagine ever doing anything remotely special.  Then, on her sixteenth birthday, Elisa is secretly married to a handsome king desperate for the political alliance and potential power that she can bring.  Suddenly, Elisa is traveling far from home into an unknown country on the edge of war and quickly finds herself tangled in a dangerous adventure of political intrigue and magical battles.  Now, Elisa must find her confidence and learn to understand the power within her in time to save a nation and its people, risking both her life and her heart in process.

There is nothing better than discovering a new voice in young adult literature through the publication of a fierce, unique, and fabulous debut novel.  I had heard good buzz about this novel and the jacket flap sounded promising so I snagged our copy when it came in last year and read it in about 48 hours.  It has everything I love in a fantasy novel--and a novel in general.  There's a rich and refreshing world, based more on Spanish history than on the more familiar Northern European cultures usually mined for fantasy world building.  The plot is action-packed but thought-provoking, incorporating realistic questions about religion, politics, cultural clashes, and war into a thrilling adventure.  Elisa is also one absolutely fantastic protagonist.  She starts the novel as an unsure and sheltered young woman; she isn't good at being a royal figure and she turns to food for comfort.  She hopes that her new husband will have some kind of physical flaw so that he won't be too disappointed that he's marrying an overweight and nervous 16 year old.  But thrown into the fire of political games, national unrest, and a possible civil war, Elisa discovers that she has strengths and abilities; when pushed into uncertain circumstances, she struggles but rises to the challenge.  I had this one off to all my fans of Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore with great success!   

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
It's been eight years since the violent and sadistic psychopath  King Leck was killed by the powerful Gracelings Katsa and Po and so permanently removed from the throne of Monsea.  His ten year old daughter survived and became queen.  Now, at eighteen, Bitterblue is still trying figure out how to rule a long-tramatised and still broken nation.  Suspecting that her advisors have been shielding her from the real problems in Monsea, Bitterblue begins sneaking out of the palace at night, disguised as an ordinary citizen.  In the evening streets of her own city, Bitterblue discovers a whole new world and begins to realize that eight years has not been nearly long enough for her country to escape Leck's grip.  Soon the young queen must risk her life, her heart, and her sanity to unravel her father's twisted secrets and send her nation--and herself-- on the path to true healing.

To be perfectly frank,  I must state openly that I am a MASSIVE fan of Kristin Cashore.  So when I heard that she was publishing her third novel, especially one that revisits the characters from her brilliant debut Graceling, I might have done a fairly embarrassing dance of joy.  Maybe.  The best part?  Bitterblue completely lived up to my expectations.  It is long and less obviously action packed that Cashore's either novels.  But it is just as beautifully composed and elegantly constructed as both Graceling and Fire.  Bitterblue is a rich, multi-dimensional young woman struggling to come to terms with her potentially powerful role in the world, her horrific parentage, and her identity as a woman and a leader.  The story twists and turns and spirals in intricate and elegantly plotted mysteries.  The novel explores the difficult realities of grief, recovery, and healing for both individuals and a nation following a horrific experience.  We get to see familiar beloved characters and discover exciting new characters to love--especially Bitterblue herself.  

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Despite forty years of peace, the kingdom of Goredd exists as a divided land; dragons and humans continue to distrust each other and the tension between the two groups remains high.  Dragons fold themselves into human shapes to act as ambassadors and scholars in the human world, lending their superior rational and mathematical skills to the businesses of government and education.  Now, with the anniversary of the monumental treaty between dragons and humans approaching, the capital is buzzing with anticipation--both positive and negative.  Seraphina Dombegh, a brilliant young musician recently hired to work at the royal court, has several reasons to worry in particular--and most of them have very little to do with her new, higher profile job and much more to do with her own deeply hidden secrets.  When a member of the royal family is killed and the evidence appears to point to a dragon as the murderer, Seraphina becomes involved in the investigation alongside the Captain of the Queen's Guard, Prince Lucian.  But will the investigation lead Seraphina too close to the truth behind her extraordinary musical talents--exposing the secrets and past she has tried so long to bury? 

I read this one as an e-galley through Netgalley last spring and I loved it so much that I bought my own, old fashioned hardcover copy as soon as I could!  Dragons have been a standard in fantasy novels for generations and they have been reinvented over and over again in new and exciting ways.  But Seraphina stands out to me as one of the most original conceptions of dragons I've encountered in recent years.  The dragons here can become human in form--yet they remain distinctly draconian in a variety of ways.  Seraphina, as a musical prodigy of sorts, has had extra positive contact with dragons, whose mathematical abilities frequently give them a special gift with music; she has developed a close relationship with her dragon tutor and musical mentor at the university--or as close to a true emotional bond as can be developed with a highly rational dragon.  For this, and other reasons I will not reveal here, Seraphina exists in a confusing and awkward position between the dragon and human worlds. On top of the interesting discussion of prejudice and cultural & racial conflicts, the novel also offers readers a wonderfully complex characterization of Seraphina, a longing-filled romance in the making, a fascinating mystery, and slowly revealed family secrets.  What more could you ask for?              

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Every October, the capaill uisce--water horses with taste for flesh--begin to emerge from the sea surrounding the island of Thisby.  Then every November, the Scorpio Races take place.  Riders attempt to control their recently captured, deadly mounts long enough to cross the finish line.  Some succeed.  Others die.  Only one wins.  Both Puck Connolly and Sean Kendrick are desperate to win this year.  Quiet and solitary 19 year old Sean is the current champion but this year he has to win or he'll lose his chance to keep his beloved water horse.  Puck Connolly never planned to take part in the races but her older brother wants to leave Thisby and since her parents's death, her two brothers are all that Puck has left.  So, determined to prove herself and gain the rewards that might convince her brother to stay, Puck and her cherished land horse begin training to become the only female rider and normal horse to enter the races.  But the race is only part of Sean and Puck's interconnected journeys towards finding independence and a true sense of home.      

I was privileged enough to hear Maggie Stiefvater talk about this thrilling novel during an event at Politics and Prose here in DC.  I have always liked Maggie Stiefvater's work and after hearing her person (twice now), I also like her.  She did a great job describing the origins of this particular novel and, after reading it, I also found that she was especially good at pinpointing the novel's unique aspects.  She stated that she'd wanted to write about the carnivorous water horses in Celtic mythology since childhood but had failed for years.  With this novel, she found herself focusing on the island and its people rather than on the water horses--and as a result, it finally clicked.  And it's true--while the capaill uisce are fabulous, supernatural creatures and a great selling point, the novel is truly about Thisby, its people, and its unique rhythms.  Sean and Puck are great characters; their growing connection with each other and Puck's relationships with her brothers all resonate with emotional realism and sincerity.  And Thisby has become one of my top fictional destinations.  A wondrous new land to lose yourself in and characters you will cheer for from the first page.    

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