Romance, Female Power, and Adventure in Young Adult Fantasy Novels

By Lena Herman, Oregon

Many teen girl readers love nothing more than an engrossing novel with a page-turning adventure, strong female lead, and a strapping love interest. Walk into the rose room at the famous Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and you will find nothing else! Try as you might you could most likely never read them all. But why are there so many? Why is this kind of fantasy novel so popular? Perhaps it is because these novels can be extremely entertaining and gripping, but we might also consider the fact that young women often feel misunderstood or even suppressed, so we look for relatable characters amongst the pages of our favorite books, written often by women authors. Almost every one of these books features a love interest, or maybe even two. Many adventure and fantasy novels incorporate love interests because this kind of romance plot can enrich or shed light on the personality of the protagonist -- simply too, of course, because they are entertaining.

I am interested in exploring how the love affair or love interest in these types of novels impacts the capacity of the female protagonist to carry out her adventure or heroic quest.

Romances in the fantasy genre may prove compelling to readers, but are they damaging or helpful to the protagonist and her quest to solve some large problem, or confront some significant collective danger?  What message does this send to the young girls reading about them? The bestselling fantasy series The Throne of Glass (2013) by Sarah J. Maas, sold 25 million copies and is widely considered to be one of the calling cards of the genre. The book follows an 18-year-old assassin, Celaena, as she works to defeat the cruel King of Adarlan. In the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight (2015), the male love interest, Chaol, learns about a death threat placed on Celaena’s best friend, Nehemia. Chaol decides he should not tell Celaena about the threat because he does not want her to worry; he will make sure nothing happens to her friend. He fails in his effort and Celaena’s friend is murdered. In this case the love interest is damaging to the protagonist for not only was Nehemiah Celaena’s best friend but also her co-conspirator against the king. Chaol broke Celaena’s heart by withholding the truth, jeopardized her mission, and she very nearly kills him for it. At one point while trying to kill Chaol, Celaena yells at him, “You will never be my friend. You will always be my enemy.” (235). These words demonstrate just how deeply Chaol’s actions shattered Celaena. As the novel continues Chaol’s betrayal weighs heavily on Celaena, and she becomes depressive to the point where she almost gives up on her mission to avenge her friend and conquer the king. Although Chaol betrayed Celaena, he did not mean to hurt her or get in the way of her completing her mission. In my extensive reading of fantasy novels I have yet to encounter a love interest who is purposefully derailing the attempts of their loved one to accomplish their mission. Often the male love interest will be worried about their beloved but rarely does this concern devolve into controlling or misogynistic actions. I suspect this is most likely because the authors of these novels are women whose writing aims to project powerful female characters whose trials and tribulations offer models of behavior and ethics to a largely female readership.

Another series, The Dark Artifices (2016) by Cassandra Clare, which has sold 600,000 copies, could be regarded as urban fantasy, a more modern version of the wider category of fantasy. In this series the protagonist Emma is trying to solve the mysterious murder of her parents that took place when she was a child. Emma has a magical bond with the love interest Julian with whom she has been living with since her parents passed. In Clare’s novel, it is not Julian as an individual who presents a hindrance to the completion of Emma’s quest, but the magical bond between them. In fact, Julian has always helped Emma try to solve the case of the murder. However with this rare bond Emma and Julian are sworn to be platonic best friends and protect each other as warriors. But of course, as the reader both predicts and hopes for, they fall in love; because who doesn’t love a forbidden romance!  To keep Julian safe from the consequences of their love and this bond, Emma is forced to pretend that she doesn't love Julian. To keep him safe she lies to him and says, “I do care about you, Jules, obviously I do. I even love you. I’ve loved you my whole life. But I don’t love you enough. It’s not enough” (663). In this case Julian never did anything wrong other than love Emma with all his heart. Emma’s forbidden love for Julian distresses her but it never stops her from working with Julian to avenge her parents. Although the last book in the trilogy has not yet been released I can only imagine that Julian will continue to help Emma on her quest. The messages these books send to the readers vary but mainly focus on how young women tackle serious obstacles by being strong, strategic, determined, self-sufficient, and bright. Another message the romance-fantasy plot often sends is that loving someone for all that they are is not a weakness, but a complex feeling that complicates how heroines have to deal with individual love and desire when they simultaneously have to accomplish tasks that can impact an entire community or environment. Contrary to this idea about finding strength in love, these books also often stress the importance of knowing when to let someone go in order to achieve one’s goals.

As I was researching these novels, looking for information about how questions of female power and agency are represented in the series by Maas and Clare, I came across an academic article, titled “Men are Stronger; Women Endure: A Critical Analysis of the Throne of Glass and The Mortal Instruments YA [Young Adult] Fantasy Series” in which Assistant Professor Katherine Cruger argues “despite often being written by women and about girls, the narratives found in YA often perpetuate internalized sexism, play into racist tropes, reduce heroines to love interests, romanticize unhealthy relationship, use rape as a plot device, and abuse characters’ reproductive abilities” (http://mediacritiques.net/index.php/jmc/article/view/141).  Whereas Cruger claims that “YA fantasy stories follow a generic form and pass off disempowering narratives as feminist epics,” I can vouch for the fact that this interpretation has not resonated with me or my experience of the novels. In fact, her reading of female disempowerment and subjugation in the books is so one sided that her article actually made me really mad.

I invite readers of Girltalk to explore these novels for themselves to see if they derive positive models of female bravery and power.