Posts Tagged With: strong girl character

His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass

by Philip Pullman

The final book in the trilogy follows Will as he tries to find Lyra, who is being kept in a permanent state of sleep by Mrs Coulter. In her dream state, Lyra communicates with her dead friend Roger, and she forms a plan to travel with Will into the afterlife to help him. Meanwhile, Mary Malone has stumbled upon an opening into a fantastical world with strange creatures who take her in as their friend and maybe saviour. Lord Asriel continues his plot to undermine the Authority, and Mrs Coulter struggles with her newfound emotional attachment to her daughter. A lot happens.

You may have noticed that I stopped reviewing books for a while. That is because of this book. Even though I am a fast reader, it took me ages to finish this book. As much as I loved it, it was almost too creative to read. I would start reading it and then get distracted and have to go create something of my own or just stare into space contemplating love or the universe or something. In the His Dark Materials series, I felt the momentum stall in the second book with the introduction of Will, who I couldn’t bring myself to care about. Everything picked up in this book, though, and I became really invested in his character and his relationship with Lyra. I loved all of the characters, even if I felt nothing for them in the previous books. I can’t say enough about how wonderful the writing is. The descriptions of the action, the different worlds, and the different peoples are so vivid I felt like I was watching this book instead of reading it. This series is definitely going on my re-read shelf, even though I think it will take me forever to get through it all again.

Obviously recommended to people who have already read the first two books. To anyone who may have given up over the course of the series like I did, I urge you to read on because it’s definitely worth it.

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Almost Perfect

by Brian Katcher

Logan is still smarting from his break-up with Brenda, his chaste girlfriend of three years who cheated on him in the backseat of a car with some random dude. His friends try to convince him to ask out someone new, but he isn’t interested–until Sage Hendricks transfers to his school. She’s cute, she’s weird, and she seems really interested, but some secret from her past is keeping her from being anything more than friends with Logan. Everyone thinks they’re together, and Logan wishes they were… until he kisses Sage and she tells him her secret: she was assigned male at birth. Logan freaks out about what this means for him, but as Sage remains part of his life, he starts to think about what it means for her and what it doesn’t have to mean for them.

I’m really happy a book like this exists (even though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, which I’ll get into later). It’s not a great book for a trans person to read, because it is so much about the ungenerous things ignorant people think when they first encounter a trans woman, but it’s a great premise for a reader who still has a lot to ponder about trans issues. Logan is a hick, and his response to Sage’s revelation is horrible, but pretty realistic. He worries that it means he’s gay, he worries that others will think it means he’s gay, he thinks Sage tricked him, he grapples with the image he has of Sage’s body. He treats her like dirt, and I wanted something better for Sage, but I appreciated the realism. Logan evolves realistically over the course of the novel, but he’s still not perfect by the end, which I liked even though I still didn’t like him. I loved Sage and I thought she was a really well-rounded character, especially for a trans character in an issues book, since they usually treat “problem characters” like Sage as props for the “normal” main character’s emotional journey.

What I absolutely hated about the book was all the racism. Some of it was unnecessary characterization of Logan’s friends: Sam is a fat Japanese-American who is compared to Buddha more than once; Jack is a white kid whose favourite joke is an “Engrish” pun. But the worst instance of racism in the book was Logan’s description of going to a frat party:

Approaching Greek Town was like riding up to an encampment of angry Indians. I could hear their war cries long before I saw them.

None of these descriptions or characterizations are valuable in any way, and it frustrates me that they were not edited out of this otherwise valuable book. Yes, a lot of LGBT-themed YA books are about middle- or lower-class white teenagers, and as problematic as I find that I will still recommend those books to teens. I’m so desperate for good trans YA fiction that I probably would have still recommended this to teens with the racist characterizations of Sam and Jack. But the “encampment of angry Indians” bit is inexcusable.

With great regret, I have to say that I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

edit: Definitely did not think this review would ever find its way to Brian Katcher. He seems like a decent fellow and he took my criticism seriously, so I’d definitely give his next book a chance. I’ve removed a line I wrote about the award this book received, because while I still have problems with race issues being overlooked in LGBT book awards, it was a pretty mean thing to write.

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Chaos Walking: Monsters of Men

by Patrick Ness

In the final book of the Chaos Walking trilogy, a third narrator adds to the story. 1017 has compelled a Spackle army to attack New Prentisstown, and we get to see some of the events unfold from his perspective. Todd has released the Mayor in the hope that he will save humanity from the Spackle attack. He believes he can keep the Mayor in line with his newfound Noise talents. In return, the Mayor helps him make a few improvements on himself. Viola and Mistress Coyle both set up camp with the newly landed scout ship, but the people from the ship are unsure whether or not they should become involved in either of the wars they’ve stepped into. 1017 waits impatiently for the Spackle (or, the Land, as they call themselves) to help him enact vengeance on the Clearing (humans). He himself wants to kill the Knife (Todd), whom he despises not for his evil acts but for his wishy-washy attitude about committing atrocities he knows are wrong. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as Viola’s home ship prepares to land on New World in a matter of months. Every faction on New World has their own hopes about what kind of situation will greet the new settlers upon their arrival.

Again, a great depiction of egomaniacal politicians, this time with the complicated process of war and peace with an external enemy thrown in the mix. It was very frustrating to see Todd and the rest of New Prentisstown start to buy into the Mayor’s rhetoric yet again, but it wasn’t unrealistic. It felt like watching a politician known for his horrible past still win over the popular vote. I loved this series for capturing the short term memory of the general public. I was disappointed with some of the reveals at the end, which made the Mayor out to be more of a lone crazy evil guy, absolving everyone who was complicit with his crimes. It diminished what I thought was the whole meaning of the series, so it’s a pretty sizeable disappointment. Still, not everything was over-explained at the end, leaving readers to make their own conclusions about some of the events in New World’s history.

I think this book gives readers a lot to talk about in terms of politics, morality, etc. Questions about freedom fighting vs terrorism are still huge in this volume, although I felt like the main characters respond unfairly to Mistress Coyle throughout. I’m not sure if it was Ness’s intention to discredit her with some of her actions, but I still think she is the most reasonable character and I wish she had been given more attention or a better storyline. I would definitely read a prequel starring her. Overall, it was not everything I wanted it to be on the morals front–for a series that deals so much with people trying to do what’s right and feeling regret over their mistakes, the main character never takes any steps to make reparations for his actions.

On the action front, however, it was rockin’. So much happens! Characters are killed off or maimed, and not for meaningful literary or emotional purposes. The stupid love triangle set up in the second book comes to what I can only hope is a temporary conclusion. Not overly romantic for us romance-averse readers, and in my mind a ship full of new settlers will increase everyone’s options because nobody ends up with the person they liked when they were 14.

Despite the shortcomings of this volume, I would still recommend the whole series to teens and adults who are interested in dystopian settings, planetary colonization, gender wars, and books with complex conflicts. Must read the first and second books before this one.

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Protector of the Small: First Test

by Tamora Pierce

Keladry wants to be a knight. Fortunately, the page program for knights in training has been open to girls for the last ten years. Unfortunately, Kel is the first girl to enroll, and a lot of people want to stand in her way. It’s hard enough to get by with so many boys avoiding her or outright picking on her, but the training master has also put Kel on probation for her first year in order to voice his displeasure at having to admit a girl to the program. Having grown up with the stoic Yamani, Kel has learned to master her emotions and rise above such provocation. She is determined to show them all just what she can do.

Your basic girl power story, with a girl showing that she can excel among male peers. What I enjoyed about this one was that Kel made sure to not just behave like a boy in order to gain acceptance; although she never wears skirts or dresses at home, she wears them to dinners at training school to remind everyone that she is a girl. It’s rare to find a girl character who wants to do things boys do but doesn’t express a distaste for all things feminine, so I was pretty pleased with Kel as a character. As for the storyline, it’s is pretty obvious, and it gets really cheesy when these birds Kel feeds decide to follow her on a mission and help her out. It seems like the whole series will go on without anyone nice dying, which is always a bummer for me but it makes it a lot better for younger kids who just want an inspirational story.

I would definitely recommend this to kids nowadays, even though it seems like something written in the 80s (it was published in 1999). I think it’s pretty standard fare, and I’ve heard Pierce’s other Tortall stories are more original. It would still be enjoyed by a lot of kids who like the other series set in Tortall by Tamora Pierce, The Ranger’s Apprentice series, books with girl characters doing boy things, or castle fiction in general. Some book sites say this is for 12 and up, but it’s super tame so I would shift the age group to 8-12.

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Chaos Walking: The Ask and the Answer

by Patrick Ness

Book two in the Chaos Walking series continues where The Knife of Never Letting Go left off. Todd and Viola have made it to Haven only to find it completely empty save for Mayor Prentiss, who has taken over the town and become president. Viola and Todd are separated and both need to play by the Mayor’s rules in order to see each other again. Instead of being narrated completely by Todd as in the first book, this volume is narrated in turns by Viola and Todd. They are separated for most of the book, only able to contact each other a handful of times. As their time apart lengthens, they begin to wonder if they are on the same side anymore. Todd spends so much energy just getting by under the Mayor’s orders that he becomes complicit in his crimes. Viola finds herself working with a group of mostly female dissidents within Haven called the Answer, run by a morally questionable leader. How far will they both stray from their moral core to be together, and what will happen to New World when the war comes to a head?

Usually sequels lose momentum in the second book, but Patrick Ness keeps the story going at an even faster pace than the first book. The setting, the challenges, and even the characters we got to know in the first book have all changed. More questions about morality come up in this book, and I think it’s a really accurate depiction of how dictatorships start out. People just want to get by, and they compromise their morals to do it. Those who challenge malevolent rulers lose sympathy from regular citizens by making it harder to just get by. While I thought a lot of the tactics the Mayor and the Answer used were true to life, I had a hard time believing Todd’s character development in this book. I liked it as a plot point, but I think it would have taken a bit more to make him go as far as he did. I also thought that some of the crimes he ends up committing would drive more of a wedge between him and Viola, but maybe there will be more consequences in the next book. I do like that they are loyal to each other, and I really hope that they do not end up getting romantic in the next chapter of the story. Despite the somewhat unbelievable jumps in moral boundaries, I loved this book hard. I think it’s really important to show how human rights can be chipped away so easily in a fear-based culture, especially considering the current political war against women’s rights in the western world. That being said, this book isn’t didactic at all and leaves it up to the reader to draw comparisons between their own society and New World.

This book should be read after The Knife of Never Letting Go. See my review here.

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Huntress

by Malinda Lo

This story takes place long before the time period Ash is set in, and tells the story of the first King’s Huntress. Kaede is at the Academy, a place where many young people learn to be emotionless sages. She is not a good student. Not like Taisin, who shows incredible promise as a sage. When the king receives an invitation to visit the Queen of the Xi fairies, Taisin has a vision of a quest to the fairy land. But this vision is dark: Kaede is on a boat, heading toward an icy fortress where she is about to meet her death. Worse than the sight in the vision is the feeling Taisin has when she sees Kaede go. She doesn’t know Kaede at all, but in this vision of the future, she recognizes that she loves her. She does her best to stop the vision from happening, and to stop herself from feeling for Kaede. Kaede, meanwhile, knows she is along on the quest because Taisin saw her in it, but she has no idea that she is heading to her doom. And hey, Taisin’s pretty cute.

The story started out kind of slow, but I really got into it as it picked up. Although I was more into the concept behind Ash and I got into it right away, overall Huntress was a fuller, more sophisticated story. Ash is a good example of a familiar story where you substitute a queer character for a straight one, but I have never read another story like Huntress. I found it to be really realistic, perhaps a strange compliment for a fantasy but one I wish I could give to other books in the genre. It’s not like so many other quest-type stories where everyone learns to work together and they triumph over all the evil and maybe one person dies so that you feel sad; in this world, anyone can die and a happy outcome is not guaranteed. This book is some hardcore adventure stuff. I wish more quest-type books were like this. I also wish more books with queer characters were like this. No “coming out,” no labeling, no inner turmoil about liking someone of the same gender. The cultural blending was really appealing, too. Everyone’s descriptions made me picture them as Asian, but their names were mostly Irish Gaelic. I desperately want Malinda Lo to set a series of trends in YA fiction: imperfect questing outcomes, well-adjusted queers, and lead characters who aren’t necessarily white.

Huntress is a good pick for those who like any of the following (even if they don’t usually like all of these aspects): magical quests, cool fantasy worlds, queer romance, and/or strong female characters. It can be read before or after Ash because there are no character cross-overs and the time setting makes the worlds of the two books vastly different.

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Blood Red Road

by Moira Young

Saba is devoted to nothing more than her twin brother, Lugh. They live with their little sister Emmi and their pa out in the middle of nowhere with only one distant neighbour. Living conditions are getting worse and worse, and Pa can’t seem to read the stars right anymore so he doesn’t know when the next rain will come. Lugh says Pa could never read the stars, that there’s nothing to read, they’re just stars. But it seems the stars have told their pa something, because he knows before it happens that Lugh is going to being carried off by Tonton soldiers, that Saba will search for Lugh, and that he himself is going to die trying to stop the Tonton from leaving. After she sees the Tonton kill her father and ride off with her brother, Saba fuels her quest for Lugh with red hot hatred, letting her anger take control and guide her through each trial she encounters. Her singleminded pursuit of her brother becomes complicated when others want to get involved, and Saba must learn to feel more than anger and hatred in order to achieve her true heart’s desire.

This book is nearly 500 pages, but I blew through it in four days because I just couldn’t put it down. Saba is a very strong, stubborn character with a loud personality. She reminded me of Katsa from Graceling, because she was physically strong but had problems allowing herself to feel positive emotions. I love strong female characters, and any character that has a crow as a free pet gets bonus points for awesomeness. I wasn’t sure if I would like the writing style, since many words are written in a phonetic way, but it was consistent and definitely more intelligible than Trainspotting. First person narration can get awkward with action sequences, but Saba is a gripping narrator and the action reads like you’re watching it yourself. As always, I was frustrated when the focus shifted from action to romance, and I found it hard to believe that Saba’s real heart’s desire was not saving the life of her twin brother, but starting a romance with some annoyingly cocky dude she just met. I guess either way she lives entirely to be with one man or another, which is less feminist than I thought this book would be (not to mention less entertaining). Still, I really enjoyed the adventure in the story–if not the characters and their relationships–and I would read the next one to see how it goes and how Saba’s character continues to develop. I sincerely hope the Amazon-like Free Hawks get more page time in the next one–especially Maev–and I pray to Moira Young that it won’t involve anyone getting together with Lugh.

Of course a good read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games or other dystopian books with romance thrown in. The romance part is a bit of a dealbreaker for readers who just want a straight-up action adventure, though.

Question for other dystopia-loving readers: can you think of any physically strong female protagonists who do not get romantic with another character? I’d love to find something like that.

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Leviathan

by Scott Westerfeld

Alek is the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents have been murdered, his country is in turmoil, and his life is in danger. He has had a few lessons on how to operate a Stormwalker, a biology-inspired war machine, but he has to learn most of it while he is on the run from rebel forces who do not want him to ascend to the throne.

Meanwhile, in England, a tomboy named Deryn disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed to serve in the air forces. She earns a spot aboard the Leviathan, a whale-like airship woven from strands of animal DNA. As Deryn and the Leviathan make their way toward the Ottoman Empire to deliver a top-secret package, Alek and his Stormtrooper head toward neutral Switzerland for safety. Their meeting complicates everything.

This book is fantastic, even if it ends without resolving much (paving the way for a sequel). The narration switches perspectives depending on whether the focus of the chapter is on Alek or Deryn, which gets pretty neat when they meet and Alek believes Deryn to be a boy named Dylan and refers to her with male pronouns. Even though the characters were unoriginal (rebellious rich boy who has to learn about real life the hard way, daring common girl whose unexpected romantic feelings undermine her ‘masculine’ ambitions), it was overall an original read, and the characters develop a lot more in the sequels. Definitely one of the most imaginative steampunk stories I’ve read so far, and with beautiful illustrations.

A good read for anyone who is interested in steampunk, alternate history, books with a World War I setting, or plucky cross-dressers. Very similar story elements to Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, with a more complicated setting.

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The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay

by Suzanne Collins

Yes, everyone has already reviewed this. But I wanted my say too. I watched Battle Royale long before I read this book, and even though the concept is a pretty clear rip off, I still enjoyed Collins’s take on it. The games are brutal and are described brilliantly, and I appreciate a book that doesn’t shy away from the feel-bad vibes of killing a lovable character here and there. I’m a sucker for strong female characters and emotionally complex relationships, which is why I loved the first book when I read it. Katniss is described as having olive skin, which I read as her being mixed race or at least not explicitly white. I really appreciated it, and I think it is just more realistic in a story set in the future. As a side note, I felt really betrayed when I learned that the casting call for Katniss in the movie was explicitly for whites only. Read this for more thoughts on the race issues with the movie.

Before all this movie business came out, I read Catching Fire and I continued to enjoy Katniss’s rejection of all romantic attention directed toward her. The book was a pretty big copy/paste of the first book with a few tweaks here and there, but if I could enjoy The Hunger Games after Battle Royale, what was one more variation of the same story? The book annoyingly ended on a cliff-hanger, so I toiled and toiled until the third book came out….

All for nought. While The Hunger Games was one of the best books I read the year it came out, Mockingjay was one of the worst. It’s not even that bad if you compare it to other YA novels or even other dystopian novels, but I was comparing it to the first two novels in the series. It’s like Collins got wrapped up in the surge of feedback she was getting from teen fans online, and decided to make it about romance instead of about kicking oppressive government butt. Katniss spends most of the book nearly catatonic over who she will choose to be her boyfriend. I couldn’t be more disappointed if she ended up marrying a Mormon vampire. There is a tragic twist at the end that I found to be an emotional cheap shot, and the way Katniss makes her “big decision” (no, not about taking down the government–about who she will date, sillyhead!) is too convenient and predictable to give this book any compliments other than “great action sequences.” They are pretty good action sequences, though.

I recommend dystopia-lovers to read the first book. It stands alone quite nicely, and trust me when I tell you that it’s not worth it to read on.

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Graceling

by Kristin Cashore

In the Seven Kingdoms, everyone knows that those born with two differently coloured eyes are also born with a Grace–an extraordinary inborn talent for one thing or another. For some, it’s baking a mean mud pie, for others, it may be accounting. For Katsa, it’s being a brutal killing machine. Her talent is unmatched, and her role as the vengeful King Randa’s goon has made her feared throughout the kingdoms. Frustrated at her negative role in life, Katsa takes part in a secret society that tries to do good. It is on one of their missions that she meets a boy who seems to have an identical Grace and who may be part of a larger conspiracy to throw the Seven Kingdoms into turmoil. Brute strength alone won’t fix this problem, and Katsa has to figure out who and how to trust when so much is at stake.

Vancouver KidsBooks started recommending Graceling to young girls who came in to buy Twilight. It is a fantasy novel with romance, mystery, action, and supernatural abilities. There are many differences between this book and the Twilight series, but the most profound contrasts are that this book is socially responsible and incredibly well written. Not an insignificant difference, but a unique one as far as supernatural teen fiction goes. Katsa does not want to get married, can physically overpower all of the males in the book, will not sacrifice her values for romance, and is a natural leader. The male lead is respectful of women, cooperative in heroic situations, and shows no evidence of the creepy controlling-man syndrome seen in Stephenie Meyer’s books. Awesome values aside, this book was exciting and surprising, and I would love to read it again.

Even though Graceling is about a girl, I really hope book hawkers everywhere talk it up to boys as well as girls. It’s got a lot of action, bad-ass characters, surprising twists, and a nice absence of gushy romantic feelings (even if it is slightly romantic). A good book for teens of all ages who like castle fiction or supernatural action. Read before Fire!

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