By Alex Houdeshell
As I got my hands on each new installment of Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, I went through the exact same speed-reading, can’t-put-it-down-until-I’m-finished, suspense-filled experience. Starting with The Cruel Prince and ending with Queen of Nothing (released last November) Holly Black kept my eyes glued to her pages with new plot twists, mysteries, and intricacies. Hers are the kind of books that pull in me and won’t let me go until I’ve started daydreaming about her world.
In addition to all that gushing, Holly Black’s main character for the series — conniving and cutthroat Jude Duarte — was the first of her kind I’ve run into.
It’s no secret that in a Tolkien-driven genre, fantasy novels have historically had no shortage of strong male leads while female characters got the short end of the stick (not to mention POC characters, who are even less represented). Not only do books like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have few female characters in general, but those they do feature rarely contribute anything interesting or exciting. Since J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1950s publications, things have definitely gotten better for women in the fantasy realm, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.
Black’s Jude Duarte is a fearsome, memorable, three-dimensional character. But the success of the series means that Duarte is in danger of becoming another cliched archetype for female characters in fantasy novels. In my experience reading fantasy since childhood, even authors who do include female characters — and even those who include interesting, plot-furthering female characters — follow patterns that become frustrating over time.
In my experience reading fantasy since childhood, even authors who do include female characters — and even those who include interesting, plot-furthering female characters — follow patterns that become frustrating over time.
Looking at my three favorite fantasy series from my childhood and their most prominent female characters we have Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Annabeth Chase from Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and Kendra Sorenson from Fablehaven. While nobody could deny that all three of these characters demonstrate bravery, intelligence, wit, friendship, and tons of other empowering and exciting traits for young girls to see in their role models, we also see three disappointingly similar characters. All three of these characters are typically seen for their brains over their brawn. To varying degrees, all three are rule followers. I don’t deny that each heroine fits the plot of her series well, but over and over again, these novels paint the picture that all girls must be good in the same way.
This smart sidekick chick (especially Hermione and Annabeth) is one example of a female archetype in fantasy, but there have been more since then, in both children’s novels and YA. We had a boom of characters like Bella from Twilight and Clary from Mortal Instruments, female main characters who definitely had interesting roles and traits, but who couldn’t defend themselves for crap in fantasy worlds dominated by fighting skills. Then we had a rash of revolutionary women who appear on page one with wickedly good fighting/magic/martial arts/etc. skills and a deep desire to overthrow their oppressors, like in Red Queen and Throne of Glass.
I’m not saying every novel featuring one of these archetypes is bad. Lord knows I’ve spent many an evening devouring these novels and absolutely loving them. However, I do think writers and readers should be cognizant of the boxes we put our female characters into. Either they’re all smart, or they’re all useless, or they’re all wickedly good at fighting. Yes, smart girls are good, but it’s also important to let girls know they can be valuable in other ways. Yes, some girls can’t throw a punch if their life depends on it, but their life also shouldn’t depend on the men around them. Yes, some girls are good at fighting, but they shouldn’t be given value purely by adopting traditionally masculine skills. What I’m saying is that more so than any new kind of kickass female character, we need variety.
When I read The Cruel Prince, I was blown away by Jude. She wanted what she wanted — she didn’t want to take down an evil emperor, or save her family from starvation, or anything else noble and overdone. She wanted things for herself: power, and renown, and a place in the world of Faerie. Yes, she was a victim, but instead of turning her into a vigilante, her experiences turned her into a player in a complicated game of chess. She had dreams that revolved far away from romance, but wasn’t opposed to a little loving.
By the time I was reading Queen of Nothing, Jude’s power complex was becoming a bit much. The fact that her elementary-aged brother had to remind her to be compassionate felt like a lesson that should have come earlier in the series. While her overarching aim had always been moral, there were few reminders of this in Queen of Nothing, where Jude’s actions often felt more self-serving than previous books in the series. I would have liked to see a more consistent and well-paced train of character development throughout the trilogy, but despite this, Jude still felt real to me in many ways.
The other day, I was browsing Goodreads looking for new YA fantasy to turn to (quarantine reading club anyone?) and found myself clicking on title after title with the word “Queen,” reading description after description of power struggle, line-of-succession, girl-going-for-the-crown plots.
To me, Jude felt new and fresh. I love clever books, and that’s exactly what The Folk of the Air trilogy was, thanks to Jude’s strong, guiding character. I just hope other authors don’t rely on this new archetype of ruthless, single-minded women to drive the next wave of the fantasy genre. Jude was fascinating to me because of her uniqueness and because of her realness. These are the things fantasy writers should be looking for as they write female characters. Instead of writing the same character over and over again and claiming she fills a much-needed and deep hole in the genre, we should work on filling many shallow holes, both in terms of female characters as well as LGBTQ and POC characters.
Go to 3:20 in this interview with Holly Black to hear more about Jude:
Alex Houdeshell is the Long River Review blog editor and a creative nonfiction panel reader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.