I’ve received some great recommendations and discovered some wonderful reads as part of my search for fantasy featuring strong female protagonists—the kind who are willing to take up a sword and fight as well as any of the male heroes that abound in fantasy fiction. It’s difficult finding these characters; though there are a lot of great fantasy novels, the genre really is dominated by male writers and male characters. That’s another of my requirements on this literary quest: I want my strong female characters to be written by strong female writers. I think Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown has become my touchstone when looking for books featuring (s)heroes. Aerin is such a strong character; she’s unconventional and knows what she wants, and that’s an important element, some of the best female heroines are those who know what they want and do their damnedest to get it. That said, the women in Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy and Katsa in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling most assuredly meet the mark.
Daughter of the Forest – Sorcha
Through a retelling of the story of “The Six Swans,” Juliet Marillier crafts a tale worthy of Irish folklore . Sorcha, the seventh child of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, becomes entangled in a prophecy with the power to alter the fate of Erin. Encountering the fabled Lady of the Forest, Sorcha is warned to stay true to her path despite the challenges that she will undoubtedly face. Blissful in her forest home and safe in the company of her six older brothers, Sorcha is unprepared for the danger that arises when her father is swayed by the powerful sorceress, Lady Oognah. Bearing the brunt of Lady Oognah’s malice, Lord Colum’s sons are transformed into six wild swans and Sorcha is charged with silence and the duty to craft six shirts from starwort, a vicious plant that poisons and pains, her success the only means of restoring her brothers to their human form. Difficulties abound as Sorcha struggles to complete her task, but her endurance belies her gentle nature and makes her the heroine of this tale.
Son of the Shadows – Liadan
Son of the Shadows continues the story of the people of Sevenwaters and the prophecy that marks their lives. Liadan, the youngest daughter of Sorcha, finds that she is not tied to the path that marks the lives of the other members of Sevenwaters. The fair folk cannot make sense of Liadan’s place in the prophecy, her birth was not foretold, nor is her path clear, but one thing is certain–Liadan makes her own destiny.
Graceling – Katsa
The Graces are marked by special talents… and the unusual color of their eyes. Katsa, orphaned niece of the wicked King Randa, comes into her Grace in the most violent of ways–she unwittingly kills her cousin when she resists his touch. For Randa, Katsa’s power is an opportunity, a perfect weapon. Marginalized because of her Grace and her unnerving eyes, Katsa has few friends and little reason to value her invincibility. But everything changes when she meets Po, Lienid Prince and fellow Graceling. Seeming the perfect fighter, Po is the only one able to reach out to Katsa, challenging her physically and emotionally. Setting out on a quest, Katsa finds that the real challenge is learning to accept herself and understanding the truth of her Grace.
I just started reading Child of the Prophecy, the third Sevenwaters book, so I will be reviewing that one soon. I thoroughly enjoyed Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows, and was pleased to find that the sequel was just as enjoyable as the first book. While Daughter of the Forest builds on the six swans tale, Son of the Shadows creates a legend all its own. In some ways, Liadan develops as a stronger character, but both she and Sorcha are powerful figures.
Graceling opens with an action-packed scene, but the pace quickly falls into a lull. I was tempted to put it down after a few chapters, but the novel seemed like a quick read and I was interested in learning how things would develop between Katsa and Po. I’m glad I kept reading, the story takes a turn after Po and Katsa become friends, and the plot comes together when Katsa starts to reflect on her Grace and the power it bestows. I prefer more plot development (at times it seemed that Katsa spent way too much time hunting and not enough doing… well… anything else), but the second half of the book made it worthwhile.