Tag Archives: fantasy

Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics

From Anna by Jean LittleA couple of months ago, I wrote about strong female characters in SF and F. Today I’d like to revisit some of the characters who inspired me as a younger reader and writer. If you have a budding reader — of any age — to buy for this season, consider the following recommendations lists…

Middle Grade Novels

Amy from M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. Amy is a princess cursed to be “ordinary” – she’s not beautiful or good at embroidery or dancing like her sisters. But while lacking in traditional royal virtues, she has a wide independent streak. When her parents try to marry her off, she runs away into the forest to live on her own terms. No ass-kicking here, but plenty of resourcefulness and gentle humour, and an age-appropriate romance on her own terms.

Anna from Jean Little’s From Anna. Unlike most of the novels here, this one is historical fiction, following a German family who emigrates to Canada ahead of WWII. While the shadow of the Nazis lurks in the background, the plot rests solidly on the difficulty of fitting in to a new place. Anna is hampered by having bad eyes and poor English, but her stubborn streak may prove to be her greatest strength.

Cimorene from Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Like Amy, Cimorene is a princess who doesn’t want to be married off, so she runs away to cook and clean for dragons instead, and her life gets much more interesting from then on. Her employer, Kazul the King of the Dragons, is actually female, and she befriends a pretty awesome witch in the forest of the title. Even when she eventually does get married and have a child in subsequent books, her awesomeness is not diminished. (Fellow Turtleduck Press author Kit Campbell did a series of posts on these books, starting here.)

Nancy Blackett from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. In this series set (and written) in 1930s England, two groups of children sail small boats around a large lake and have adventures that include a strong dose of imagination. Nancy Blackett is the captain of the boat named Amazon, and she lives up to the name – she’s the ringleader of all the adventures, and a fearless pirate whose favourite expression is “Shiver me timbers”. Who says girls can’t be pirates? (Though you will notice her strength is fairly masculine in form.)

As a bonus, Nancy isn’t the only strong girl character in the series — Titty Walker from the Amazon‘s rival boat, the Swallow, is a thoughtful dreamer who gets her moments to shine, and a later heroine, Dorothea Callum, is a writer and storyteller to balance her scientific-minded brother Dick.

Ronia the Robber's Daughter by Astrid LindgrenRonia from Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Lindgren is better known for creating Pippi Longstocking, but I have just as much love for the less off-the-wall Ronia. She grows up in a castle in the woods, running wild among a band of robbers and befriending a boy from a rival band. Pure fantasy? Yes…but what’s wrong with that?

(I’m not going to list all the best-known classics about girls here, but I’ve mentioned some of my favourites over here.)

Young Adult Novels

Kim from Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward. In this Regency world with magic, Kim is a street urchin (masquerading as a boy to avoid the inevitable fate of a girl on the London streets) who’s hired to burgle the wagon of a performing illusionist. But his magic turns out to be real – he’s no circus hack, but a true magician who’s gone incognito after being framed. Soon she’s learning how to do magic herself while helping her new friend clear his name. There’s some romance, especially in the second book (which has more about London Society and less running around in a circus wagon), but the real fun in this duology is the madcap capers that ensue.

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffreyMenolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy. Forbidden to pursue the music she loves, Menolly runs away from home (sensing a theme here?), befriends some fire lizards (think tiny dragons – a more YA-friendly and more mellow version of Danaerys from Game of Thrones), and follows her dreams to Harper Hall. This series has been a gateway to adult SF&F for many a young reader, but beware — while the Harper Hall trilogy is safe, some of the other Pern books get pretty mature in their subject matter.

Vesper Holly from Lloyd Alexander’s Vesper Holly series. Think of Vesper Holly as a teenaged version of Amelia Peabody – a nineteenth-century adventuress who travels to exotic locations and solves mysteries. ‘Nuff said? (Lloyd Alexander is one of my all-time favourite MG/YA authors, and he has written a lot, so if you get someone hooked on him, he’ll keep them busy for a while!)

(This part of the list is shorter because when I was growing up, there wasn’t a Young Adult genre the way there is today. I went more or less straight from Anne of Green Gables to Anne McCaffrey, A.C. Crispin, Isaac Asimov, and other YA-friendly SF&F authors — and I think I’m pretty typical. But if you have more YA classics about girls that I’ve missed, please chime in!)

Picture Books

I also had a few favourite picture books about girls, both fairy tale retellings by Robin Muller. Tatterhood features a cursed but fearless princess who scours the world for her beloved sister, while Molly Whuppie and the Giant stars an equally fearless woodcutter’s daughter who rescues her two older siblings from certain death. Both of them got read to pieces in our house; they are utterly wonderful, if you can find them.

Your turn! What classic books about girls can you recommend for younger readers?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like one of the following:

Turtleduck Press Cover Reveal: Shards

I’m excited to unveil the new novel release from my indie publishing house, Turtleduck Press. Shards, by Kit Campbell, is an urban fantasy/paranormal romance featuring an inquisitive Latina university student and a handsome guy who’s keeping supernatural secrets…secrets that have to do with her, and with a past she doesn’t remember.

Intrigued? Here’s the cover:

Shards by Kit Campbell

Shards comes out on December 1, and Kit will be guest posting here that week. In the meantime, you can read more about Shards over at Kit’s website.

(Apologies for the brevity of this post. I’m deep in the throes of novel editing…)

YA Gothic Novels

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba BrayJane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. All classic Gothic stories from the nineteenth century. But Gothic has never really gone away…or if it has, it’s baaaack (dun dun dun). This week on the blog, we’re looking at recent Gothic novels in YA.

Gothic Tropes

To recap from last week’s post, here are the main Gothic tropes:

  • An old, decrepit mansion in the wilderness.
  • A mysterious, emotionally distant master of the house (or sometimes mistress, if it’s not a romance).
  • A young woman (such as a governess) who is new to the scene.
  • An orphaned/unwanted child or children living at the house.
  • A terrible secret (sometimes supernatural).
  • The mood of horror, usually related to a moral transgression (such as a murder).

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Libba Bray’s 2003 YA novel A Great and Terrible Beauty is a good example of all the main Gothic tropes.

The central character, Gemma, loses her mother early in the book (and her father is unable to care for her, so she’s essentially an orphan) and is sent away to a boarding school in the woods, run by a mysterious headmistress who knows more than she’s saying. There are secrets that Gemma must unravel, an old chapel, and supernatural goings-on. And there’s a mysterious, distant love interest.

There’s even a new teacher to stand in for the governess, although usually the governess is the POV character. In this case, being YA, the story focuses on the (quasi-)orphan instead.

Bray’s novel explicitly explores the theme of last week’s post, the Gothic and the feminine. In the story, Gemma and her friends discover a form of magic that stands in for, and ties in with, their chafing against the restrictions of Victorian society and their awakening as women. They’re curious about love and sexuality, but there’s no approved outlet; they’re desperate to control their own lives and feel empowered, but society won’t permit it. Magic gives them freedom — but with limits and dangers attached, because this is a Gothic novel, after all.

(I should point out that this is the first in a trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are titled Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing.)

A Gothic Reading List

Other recently published Gothic novels for YA readers include:

  • Sharon Cameron – The Dark Unwinding and A Spark Unseen (steampunk)
  • Leanna Renee Hieber – The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, and The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess (another boarding school story, or at least that’s where it starts…)
  • Kenneth Oppel – This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent (retelling of Frankenstein)

Your turn! Do you like Gothic stories? What do you like about them? What books can you add to the list?

Strong Female Characters: Many Ways of Being Strong

The Hunger Games movie posterI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of strong female characters. (Yes, I know, I’m late to the party.) What does “strong” mean? Which characters and traits qualify?

Kick-Ass Female Characters

A lot of “strong female characters” in the media are physically strong – kick-ass women who can fight and take names. Think of Mako Mori from Pacific Rim, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Buffy, Zoe from Firefly, Kira Nerys from Deep Space Nine. In books, you have Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and just about every urban fantasy heroine.

But that’s not the only kind of strength. In fact, it’s a masculine strength. Alanna is celebrated because she becomes a knight – she’s “as good as a boy” at masculine pursuits. One of the books in the series is even called The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Alanna, and I don’t mean to single out Tamora Pierce, who was writing girls in fantasy at a time when not many were.

Other Ways of Being Strong

Sansa Stark in "The North Remembers"But what about other ways of being strong?

Women and girls whose strength takes a different form — one might even say a non-masculine form — are often not seen as “strong characters”. For example – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – in A Game of Thrones, everyone loves Danaerys Targaryen and Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth, but who likes Sansa Stark? Not me.

Yet Sansa is learning to play the women’s role in the “game of thrones” better than any of the other young women whose POVs we get – and she’s learning from the best, Cersei Lannister and, in her own generation, Margaery Tyrell.

Maybe she deserves a second look.

(For a great article about Sansa, read In Defense of Sansa Stark. And another: Sansa Stark Does Not Kneel.)

Being Yourself

Pippi Longstocking coverI grew up reading girl characters, and you can probably guess some of them. Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking, Ramona Quimby, Trixie Belden, Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Each of these is quirky, unafraid to do her own thing, resourceful and clever, rebellious against society to some degree (although several of them “settle down” in the end, or show signs of heading that way), and often flawed (like, say, real women). Some of them are more “girly”, others are more “tomboyish”, but they all dance to their own drummer.

Notice something else? The only one in the above list who can literally kick ass is Pippi Longstocking, who is so strong she can lift her horse above her head. And that’s only one of her character traits. Her general quirkiness and independence are far more predominant. She’s not particularly feminine, but she’s not masculine either. She just is.

And that’s the way it should be.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend the following articles:

Women in SF and Fantasy – my own recommendations of female characters and writers. (YA version coming soon!)

I Hate Strong Female Characters – Sophia McDougall explains why the term itself is problematic.

On the Subject of the “Strong Female Character” – Chuck Wendig argues that strong just means “well-written”.

Strong? Weak? How About Women with Agency – Shoshana Kessock proposes a different measuring stick.

What’s in a “Strong Female Character”?” – Juliette Wade celebrates “feminine traits”.

Your turn! What’s your definition of a strong female character?

A Short Story Inspired by Thailand

This week I have a new fantasy story up at Turtleduck Press. It’s the third installment in “Still Waters Run Deep”, a serial story about a pedlar trying to solve a magical crisis that’s entwined with his own long-buried past. (The first installment is here.) His world is not our own, but it bears a more-than-passing resemblance to ours…specifically, some of the places I saw on my travels earlier this year.

If I were to illustrate the story so far with photos, here’s what I’d choose…

The floating market at the beginning of the story, and the pedlar’s boat:

Thonburi floating market(Thonburi floating market, Bangkok, Thailand)

The river and vegetation:

Longtail boat in Thonburi greenery(Longtail boat in Thonburi, Thailand)

The narrow streams where the pedlar prefers to trade:

Kerala backwaters(The “backwaters” near Kumarakom, Kerala, southern India)

More vegetation along the main river in the story:

Jungle view from boat(Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia)

The Grand Temple in the city:

Grand Palace(Grand Palace, Bangkok)

And from the latest installment…

 

…leaving extra space in case you want to avoid spoilers…

 

The Old Temple:

Wat Arun(Wat Arun, Bangkok)

The golden statue would be something like this, except sitting upright in the lotus position (I did see statues like that, but most temples prohibit photography, so this is one of the few I was able to snap):

Wat Pho Reclining Buddha(Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok)

With those visuals in mind…hope you enjoy the story!

Your turn! Did the photos add to or detract from your experience of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use photographs as inspiration?

Book Review: A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

I don’t usually do book reviews here, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I’m not up on the latest releases — I’m always scrambling along a couple of years behind. For another, it’s just easier to put out a list of books on a theme with short descriptions for each.

But I recently read one that I loved so much that…well, I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to start again. (I’ve only done that once before.) I’ve been avoiding writing this because it’s difficult to put into words why I loved it so much, but I have to try.

A Companion to Wolves coverThe book is A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Both of them are solo writers as well: Bear is a prolific writer of all sorts of speculative fiction, while (to date) Monette has published one four-book fantasy series and a couple of anthologies. I haven’t read all of their stuff, but I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who will listen.

With A Companion to Wolves, they take several well-worn fantasy tropes — telepathic animal companions, small groups of magic-users living apart from regular society, young protagonist drawn to magic despite disapproval from his family, society under siege from magical beings — and twist until the tropes are fresh again.

If you love these tropes, don’t worry. They’re not warped until they’re unrecognizable; rather, they’re treated with reverence. Monette and Bear clearly love these kinds of stories too. They just want to know what makes these tropes tick, what happens when they are really, thoroughly explored.

They’re also interested in running quickly through the obvious to get to the interesting stuff. So yes, the young protagonist — Isolfr — is drawn to the magical sub-society, leaves home, bonds with the coolest animal, and faces opposition from some of his new companions who have been there longer. That’s all a given. What about the real questions that arise from this setup?

For example, the telepathic animals in question are wolves. They live in a pack, they act like wolves (as opposed to humans in wolf form), and most pertinent to the themes of the story, they mate like wolves. Without going into detail, this isn’t an easy path for their human companions to walk, especially for Isolfr, who was raised to believe that the wolf-bonded men were unnatural in their inclinations, but who can’t bear to reject the she-wolf — the “queen wolf”, destined for leadership — who has chosen him as her own.

(Don’t worry. It’s not as unnatural as you might be thinking. Remember how telepathic animal bonding stories work?)

Against these themes of coming-of-age and questioning of sexual identity, the bigger story that plays out is the society-under-siege plot. In this case, the society is more or less pre-Christian Scandinavia, if you squint, and the danger — the reason the wolf-bonded men exist — is from marauding trolls and wyverns from the north. Winter encroaches, the danger grows more grave, and Isolfr is put to the test.

But there’s more. I won’t spoil it, but this is one twisty book, with some masterful plotting and worldbuilding. As a writer myself, I wish I knew how the authors pulled off some of what they did, because wow.

Monette and Bear also do a truly fabulous job of showing the close friendships that develop among the men, making the wolves feel like wolves (and, at the same time, companions worthy of love and respect), and differentiating among a large cast of characters. Their sentence-level writing is beautiful and evocative without calling too much attention to itself — unless, say, you happen to know a little something about this stuff, in which case you might want to drink it all in on multiple levels.

A Companion to Wolves is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book is called The Tempering of Men, and I’m saving it because sadly, the third book isn’t out yet. I wish it were. I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Mortal Instruments: City of Bones posterJust a quick post today, because it’s Labour Day (Labor Day for you Americans), and that means holiday!

I went to see The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones a few days ago. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much — I haven’t read the books, but the trailer looked pretty generic, and the Rotten Tomatoes rating was all of 12% — but I was in the mood for something light and fantasy-ish.

And I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, the plot elements and tropes are pretty standard. But they’re well done. Ordinary girl with ordinary life discovers that not only is there a secret world full of danger and magic right in her own city, but she’s not so ordinary after all. If this is your kind of story, you’ll like it, even if you’ve seen it before. The entry into the secret world is exciting, the stakes high (protagonist Clary’s mother is missing), the magical elements a nice blend of horror and wonder, the plot tight and coherent.

My main criticism is of the love triangle between Clary and two boys, one from the ordinary world and one from the magical world. I object not because it’s a love triangle, but because of all the angst surrounding it…including from the magical Shadowhunter, Jayce, who lives to fight demons and should therefore have better things to think about than whether Clary likes him.

Your turn! What did you think of the movie? If you’ve read the book, how does the movie compare?