There’s a new trend in town for young adult fantasy lit., and it’s the opposite of your normal princess.
Long-time readers of young adult fantasy who’ve always loved strong female characters might not think this to be quite new. Many authors – for instance, Tamora Pierce – have made brilliants career out of writing childrens’ and teens’ lit with truly strong and capable girl protagonists. With the upsurge in the dystopian, girl-strong, love triangle trilogies, it’s gained more popularity than ever, more recently pushed to the forefront with the likes of Katniss and Tris. Occasionally, you even realize that your favorite strong women – Hermione Granger, for example – don’t have to be white. (Hello, West End’s Palace Theatre! Thank you for diversity!) It’s shocking to some, but a wonderful thing for literature.
Suddenly, we’re becoming introduced to “new” characters who aren’t solely defined by strength of character, darker skintone, or pagan goddesses; these girls are chubby. Perhaps even fat. They’re the second daughters, the outcast loners in the forest, the girls who have always been written about – but now we non-royal layperson types have another reason to relate to them. Maybe.
Two books I’ve recently read, Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, have this “thick-girl” protagonist. Not only do they have the same visual concept for a protagonist, both share strong similar major points in plot and concept. Both center on a girl thrust into royalty reluctantly. Both have glowing blue jewels that are central to the magic of the fantasy novel; both girls wildly unaware of the powers they may or may not have, nor how to use them. Both girls seem to have a love for pastries, and are emotional eaters at some point. There are love interests, similarly with the “wrong” boy, captors early on in the plots, sudden changes of scenery, and a strong religious component in each. Both girls LOSE A LOT OF WEIGHT, though quite differently, but it is brought to the readers’ attention. More on that later.
Beyond that – it seems like a lot – I promise you, they are as different as night and day.
Queen of the Tearling is the first in a proposed trilogy and an absolute marvel. A delight from the very beginning, the story focuses on Kelsea Glynn, a child of the Tear. She’s raised by caretakers, knowing that on her nineteenth birthday she will be taken by the Queen’s Guard to the capital and thrust into the role of queen. As the story unfolds, you find out why she was placed into hiding, and how – though well-read and well-educated – truly unprepared she is. Kelsea isn’t quite a bumbling, reluctant hero, but she’s certainly unaware of the state her kingdom’s in, and the treaties enacted to keep it safe. She has a strong moral compass (even though it is called into question occasionally) and makes some genuinely compassionate decisions throughout the book. Her characterization’s brilliant, as are the supporting role characters including the the evil Red Queen of Mortmense (the story’s antagonist), her fearsome and valiant captain of the guard known only as The Mace, and the complex outlaw The Fetch, who has very personal reasons for supporting (or possibly not supporting) Kelsea as queen and plans of his own.
Kelsea’s insecure of herself and her looks, feeling like she doesn’t resemble nor act enough like royalty (of course, this ends up benefiting her, as it should). She finds comfort in all sorts of literature, and books themselves become a major point in her ascent to leadership. You realize that you aren’t in the feudal past, but perhaps a not too-distant future – a few hundred years. Catholicism, while not the religion of the castle, is the main one of the kingdom. Kelsea, as queen, interacts with organized religion for the first time upon her appointment to royalty, and immediately you see that the church has become corrupt for power. Homophobia takes a surprising prominence with one priestly character, which is an interesting mention.
When Kelsea ends up losing weight, it seems both attributed to the stress of being thrust into queendom as well as a side-effect of her discovering the magic in her heirloom amulets. Magic isn’t prevalent in her own domain, but it is how the Red Queen rules hers; brilliantly, you see the Red Queen fear the source of her power, in a rather unexpected twist. This aspect of the story never becomes too bogged down in its own politics and stays beautifully clear enough to follow, which is lovely.
I’ve already read the second installment, The Invasion of the Tearling, and I can say it surprised me even more than the first. The pacing is wonderful in both, and I really enjoyed Johansen’s world-building. The concept becomes more and more incredulous, but in the best ways possible, as only a fantasy novel can. I highly recommend it not only for young adult readers but adult fantasy fans as well, if they’re willing to have a bit more adventure than they may be used to. My sole warning is that the topic of rape does come about and not in a glancing mention; I found it a little out of place, yet not completely without taste. It’s definitely a dark book.
Unfortunately, The Girl of Fire and Thorns didn’t pull me in with as much success. Also the first in a trilogy, it begins with 16-year-old Elisa, younger princess of Orovalle, trying to fit into her wedding dress. Her marriage to the king of the neighboring country isn’t a surprise in action, but has apparently come sooner than expected. The dress doesn’t fit, Elisa bursts into tears, and calls herself a sausage in a casing before running off to pastries in the kitchen.
After the wedding, Elisa’s carriage convoy to her new home in Joya d’Arena is ambushed and we get her first show of strength. I was overjoyed that she seemed to turn so suddenly into someone to be respected, but this unfortunately doesn’t last; local Contes and Contessas seem to whisper about her weight, and the king’s own son calls her fat. She wallows in self-pity the way Harry Potter does in Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, and it’s hard to take. You don’t relate to Elisa and her insecurities, you just want her to grow up and learn a little. A second quick change of scenery begins that hope anew as she treks across the desert for a month (a throwaway length of time, mentioned but once) and realizes on her arrival that her clothes are much too big, to which she cries with joy. Unfortunately, those that had already known her tease on, saying the weight will come back once she eats regularly again. You’re left unsure if it does or not.
Her responsibilities are twofold: not only does Elisa need to learn to rule, she’s in possession of a Godstone, a living (also blue) jewel in her navel that deigns her the vessel of prophecy. She doesn’t know what will fulfill that destiny precisely, but she’s sure it is the will of God. Earnest prayer sends physical warmth through her body, and proximity to the enemy throws her into fervent prayer to ward off the freezing cold. She’s in the minority as most of the kingdom she needs to rule has left the church by the wayside, only returning to see the new Princess from Orovalle and what she ‘s interested in.
There’s so much religion it practically preaches the power of prayer to literally change the world. I found it overwhelming and off-putting, with only a few revelations (one, honestly) where she realizes she’s on the invisible godly-path destined for her. Even as she gets more information, it only leads to more questions. At the climax of the novel, Elisa figures out how to save whom she needs to, but has no more knowledge of the power that resides literally as part of her body nor how it works. She’s not much more enlightened by the end of the novel, except to not be as childish, although you gather she hasn’t quite understood why yet.
Elisa is refreshing in that she’s a dark-skinned girl, not just chubby but incredibly overweight, and exists in a world heavily influenced by Spanish culture, which is lovely when in fantasy literature. However, remove a few descriptors or names and it could be anywhere that has desert right next to a fertile country. Her whining and self-depreciation don’t come off as humorous but rather self-destructive. She has no idea how to handle emotions, which is understandable if her “blossom into womanhood” is the topic, but it’s easily side-stepped. You get the impression that she not only can’t comprehend her own emotions, but those of others around her as well, even when it’s very clear to the reader how people feel both towards her and others.
That being said, if I can get the second two books in the trilogy on sale, I might follow through – it was just engaging enough to want to know where it goes. If you have to choose between the two, I much more highly recommend Queen of the Tearling and its sequel, Invasion of the Tearling. I’m currently eagerly awaiting the third book, pushed back to a publishing date sometime in November of 2016.
One final comment on this chubby-girl heroine trend: Why the weight loss? In the Tearling novels, it becomes a concern centered round Kelsea’s health and the strain on her mental capacities, which feels real and natural. Yet in The Girl of Fire and Thorns it seems only superficial, like the concept of her race and cultural influence. It doesn’t draw me to relate to her, and as a chubby girl myself I should be able to. I should be the target audience, and it missed the mark for me completely.
Truly, if we’re going to have a chubby-girl heroine, why can’t she stay chubby? Can she not grow in strength while staying curvaceous, learn the power in both of those things, and accept herself without dropping twenty pounds? It’s surely a start in terms of body-acceptance in young adult lit, but nowhere near finished.
Queen of the Tearling and Invasion of the Tearling are by Erika Johansen and published by Harper Collins; the first book’s been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros. with Emma Watson signed on as both the star and one of the executive producers. The Girl of Fire and Thorns and its two sequels, The Crown of Embers and The Bitter Kingdom, are by Rae Carson, and published by Green Willow Books (Harper Collins). I purchased both from Barnes & Noble for my Nook e-reader, and have not been compensated for this review.