Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ladies of Epic Fantasy

When I think of Epic Fantasy, journeys, quests and magical lands come to mind. Again, I'm describing fantasy in a very basic way.  Most of the definitions for epic fantasy include phrases like:

-serious in tone
-struggle against supernatural forces
-includes coming-of-age themes
-set completely in an imaginary world
-sometimes has wizards or magicians

Most of the epic fantasy I remember reading did follow some of these conventions, with the added feature that most of the main characters were male.  Think about it: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings both had make lead protagonists- Bilbo and Frodo Baggins respectively.  The Chronicles of Prydain were really Taran's adventures and so on.  Maybe, I didn't read widely enough, but in my experience there were few female main characters.

However, when I was looking for books for this project, I kept coming across fantasy books where the main protagonist was female.  This made me stop and think.  Fantasy is still a male dominated genre, but the women are definitely catching up.

As you will see, the four fantasies I chose for this particular list all have female protagonists and have coming-of-age, or more specifically,  learning about yourself as one of the themes.  

The structure of the list is that first there will be a very brief summary, something that could be placed on a brochure or bookmark or could be used in a shelf or book talk.  Next, come my thoughts on each book.

Mistwood by Leah Cypess
Publisher:  Greenwillow Books
Publication Date: April 27, 2010

Brought to court from the Mistwood, Isabel is believed to be the shifter.  Sworn to protect the current prince and future king, she must learn the secrets behind her ability, while taking part in a very dangerous poltical game.

Isabel has so much on her plate - protecting Rokan and his family, trying to work out those that are loyal versus those that are plotting against them, figuring out how to control her shifting - yet she remains true to herself  (or at least the person everyone believes she is).  The world building is Mistwood is superb.  Ms Cypess gives the reader exactly what they need to become immersed in Isabel's world.  World building is so important to epic fantasy, because if the world is not developed enough and the reader cannot be transported into the where and when, the story does not work.  The setting has to be a complete and tangible where.  Ms Cypess does exactly that; in reading Mistwood, it was very easy to get lost in the story.  This was one book I was sad to see end.

Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: Egmont USA
Publication Date: March 23, 2010

A journey tale with dangerous magic and deadly wizard duels. When rain comes to Sydell Mirabil's parched town after a teen year drought, her life is changed in ways she never thought possible. With her country on the brink of a war no one saw coming, Sydelle, and the magician Wayland North, must reach the capital before the fighting begins.

Brightly Woven started out as a birthday present; what a lucky person to get Sydelle and North's adventures written for them.  Sydelle, a talented weaver, is essentially given to Wayland North after he brings rain to her parched town.  He also brings news of an impending war and the possibility that the king was murdered.  Sydelle and North must travel to the capital to essentially stop war.  And while the whys of the journey were important, what Sydelle learned about herself was really what drew me to this book.  Okay, North had a little to do with it too.  But, Sydelle experiences the most growth from the girl who was known for her weaving to the one with the power to bring together two nations.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Harcourt
Publication Date: October 1, 2008

In the Seven Kingdoms, some people are born with extreme and often feared skills called Graces.  Katsa must find a way to use her very particular Grace to save the inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms from a corrupt king.

In Graceling, Katsa's quest to learn about the king of Monsea becomes one of self discovery as she learns the full power of her grace. Another reason, I really liked Katsa is that she is one of those characters that is so complete in herself - she doesn't need a romantic interest to be happy, in fact she rejects quite a few would be suitors - but once she allows someone else in, she becomes even more sure of her grace and herself.  It's not because Katsa is lacking confidence, because that is not the case at all.  I think this is because, she has always been an oddity, used by her uncle for what she can do, but now she has found someone who loves and respects her her wholly, both Katsa as a person and her skill.  Plus, she is the one who runs the show really.

Fire by Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Dial
Publication Date: October 6, 2009

Fire is the last human shaped monster in the Dells.  Her unimaginable beauty and ability to control the minds of those around her, set her apart.  But when King Nash's family asks for help uncovering the plot against the king, Fire must travel far from home and far out of her comfort zone to learn exactly what she can accomplish with her particular gifts.

Fire takes place before Graceling, in a different part of the world Cashore created.  Fire is unique in so many aspects of herself that at first it was difficult to really connect with her as a character.  But, it soon became clear that she was really keeping herself at a distance from other people, especially those she cared about.  Once Fire is out of her comfort zone, she becomes more conscious of her role and exactly how her powers can be used to help the king and the country.  Although, I liked Fire better as a character, her story didn't resonate as much for me as Katsa's did.  Her road to self discovery felt very circular - like the same obstacles, in different guises, were put in her path repeatedly.  I wish there had been some variation there.  But, overall the themes of the different types of strength, acceptance and that family isn't only those that you're related to by blood fit very nicely into Fire's overall journey.

Now that you've seen my list, what other books would you add?


  1. Great post and great list. I haven't read any of the above books yet. I can't think of any others that come to mind. Most of the fantasy I've read has male characters as the protagonist.

  2. Oooo love the four from your list! I'm a huge fan of strong female protagonists in fantasy. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Some others I'd add to your list:

    Eddis and Attolia in the Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner
    Mel from Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
    Harry from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
    Aerin from Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
    Alanna from the Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce
    Aly from the Daughter of the Lioness Duology by Tamora Pierce
    Sorcha, Liadan and Clodagh from the Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marillier

    That's it for epic fantasy but if fairy tale retellings are included, I'd have to say Ella from Ella Enchanted and Isi from The Goose Girl. :)

  3. GREAT LIST! I could agree with it more! I have found myself craving to be back in the world(s) that Kristen Cashore creates!

    Also, I added Brightly Woven to my tbr list! It sounds absolutely captivating! :)

  4. I would add Ai Ling from Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon and Eona from Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. Both are heroines of epic Asian-inspired fantasy. I would also add Zira from Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Marriott.

  5. It seems like girls are definitely catching up, at least in YA. You mentioned some of my favorites already, but there's also:

    Lucy from C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia
    Lyra from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy

    I guess you could consider them "epic" fantasy, sort of.


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