I read a series of books recently, the first three of Rachel E. Carter’s The Black Mage series. The books follow the story of Ryiah as she joins a school for wizards and goes through the incredibly tough training to become a combat mage. If you haven’t read them and care about spoilers, I suggest you stop here, but I’m mostly using these books as an excuse to talk about strong female protagonists in fantasy novels, the good, the bad and the utterly irritating.
Ryiah fits in the box of the “strong female lead” to the story, simply by virtue of facing adversity everywhere she goes and suffering through all sorts of injuries along the way. She’s also straightforwardly strong, a mage able to lift tonnes of stone with her mind. The first thing that bothered me in the books was that she pales in every way to her romantic counterpoint. Not only is he better than her at everything, she’s such an uninspiring hero compared to him. She’s easily discouraged, unimaginative and her heroic quality seems to be resistance to pain and common sense. Every initiative she takes comes from someone else hinting at her or directing her. In essence, the books tell her tale, but although she fits the stereotype of the strong female protagonist, she doesn’t feel like the driving force in her own story.
My impression at the end of the third book was that the author tried too hard to make her relatable, or perhaps lacked skill and imagination, and Ryiah almost reads like a 21st century american girl sent to another world. There is no foreignness to her that suggests she grew up in a brutal medieval world: she’s too unremarkable for her world and for ours. This isn’t an isolated issue: YA fantasy romance is full of uninspiring female leads that spend most of the story dancing to other people’s tune, perhaps replicating the situation and feelings of a modern teenager.
Obviously, these books fit into a marketable genre, and I’m sure Carter didn’t set out to start a revolution. I really like Vin of Mistborn fame, but she’s far less central to the narrative, as dozens of other characters take up screen time. The story isn’t told wholly through her impressions. Obviously, there’s a lot of other writers out there making fantastic female protagonists (and most of them are called Robin). However, the contrast that came to me was with Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen (AtoQ), one of many Valdemar books that I loved in my early teens and have come to respect more and more since then. In AotQ, the main character is brought up in a specific culture and gets skills in accordance with her childhood. She’s not the fearless, brawny hero stereotype; instead, the kingdom is in peril and needs her specific skills to survive a terrible crisis.
At first, when I started thinking about what makes a good “strong female protagonist”, my mind went to feminist empowerment and the likes of Robin McKinley. I think that’s missing the point: the general fantasy formula dictates that there is a hero and a task (or several). Sword-wielding, horse-riding heroines that out-male the men can be very fun to read, but I think the crucial point is consistent world building, a character which fits harmoniously with her world, and a task that showcases her strength. Don’t put nails all over your story before determining if your protagonist is a hammer.