Growing up as a fan of fantasy and science fiction novels I found it hard to find strong female characters to look up to. There were boy heroes who went on quests and saved the world but the girls tended to be relegated to more passive roles. Reading The Neverending Story (by Michael Ende) ten-year-old me didn't want to be the Childlike Empress who literally rules her kingdom from an ivory tower waiting for someone to come and save her and her people from certain doom. Instead I wanted to be Atreyu, the hero, who has a horse and a bow and goes on fantastic adventures. Where were the young heroines who battled evil and fought to protect their loved ones? Finding some took a bit more digging.
Thankfully, things seems to have changed in the past decade or so. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling all feature young women who are brave, intelligent and strong. This list is of some older, and perhaps lesser known, fantasy books featuring characters girls can look up to.
This is a fun, light-hearted take on the story of Cinderella. A fairy blessed the baby Ella with the gift of obedience. Ella finds it a curse rather than a gift since it leaves her vulnerable to unscrupulous people making her do whatever they want. Ella finds ways to get around the spell, wherever possible obeying the letter rather than the spirit of her instructions. Unlike Cinderella in the traditional fairytale, this Ella does not wait to be tracked down by the prince and rescued from her life of drudgery. Instead she runs away and uses her intelligence and her rebellious nature to fight off various dangers and ultimately break the curse, saving not only herself but the prince too.
Spindle's End] is an imaginative take on the story of Sleeping Beauty. The baby princess (later known as Rosie) is abducted by the fairy Katriona to keep her safe from the curse of the evil fairy Pernicia. Rosie grows up not knowing about her past, her magical gifts hidden carefully by her protective aunts, until the time comes to face the curse and decide her own future. Unlike Ella Enchanted, this fairy tale retelling is less about action and more about beautiful description. It's a strange, rambling book but personally I love all the strange little details about the kingdom the princess inhabits, such as toddlers being temporarily possessed of magic which makes them extremely dangerous to be around until they grow out of it and the necessity of periodically de-scaling the kettle to stop it producing random magical effects instead of tea. However, it is Rosie and her aunt Katriona's fierce personalities that really carry the book.
This is the second book of the Earthsea Trilogy (comprised of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore). It's a fabulous series about an archipelago full of people whose lives are surrounded by and often depend upon magic. This book is the story of a young peasant girl named Tenar who is believed to be the earthly incarnation of Arha, the priestess of the fierce and terrible gods known only as the Nameless Ones. She is taken from her family to serve in their temple where she is stripped of her name and former identity and never allowed to see her family again. She is powerful and respected within the temple compound and has all her physical needs met but is trapped within the compound walls and terribly lonely. One day a man (the wizard Ged, hero of the first book) appears in the labyrinth beneath her temple where no men are allowed to enter. He is there to steal a priceless treasure belonging to her people. Arha could have Ged killed or leave him there to die but hesitates because she is curious how and why he came to be there. She comes to question her faith and her role in her community and is given a choice to remain as she is or try to regain her lost identity and true name. Arha/Tenar is brave, clever and not to be messed with. Her story continues in The Farthest Shore.
Uglies (2007) by Scott Westerfeld This series (comprised of Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras) doesn't seem to have gotten the attention it deserves in Australia. It is exciting and fast paced and with all the racing around on hoverboards and leaping off buildings it would make an excellent film but, to paraphrase the author who was kind enough to sign my copy while visiting Australia a couple of years ago, it's hard to pitch a film about ugly people.
The series is set in the future where a man-made disaster has led the remnants of Earth's population to cluster together in a few huge cities surrounded by wilderness. On their sixteenth birthday all children are given an operation that transforms them from "Uglies" (ie. Ordinary people), into "Pretties" with perfect skin, hair and teeth who are then sent to live in a part of town with all the fine food, amusements and parties they could possibly want. Prejudice is supposedly a thing of the past since everybody looks more or less the same, but family resemblances and individuality are lost in the process and some young Uglies come to believe that there might be something more sinister behind the operation. Tally's best friend, Shay, decides avoid the operation, running away instead to a rumoured camp in the wilderness for Ugly rebels. Tally is given a choice- either track down and help recapture her friend or remain an Ugly forever.
I find it refreshing that the protagonist isn't the one who is trying to rebel against the status quo. Tally is dragged in to things and forced to try and cope as best she can using her own wits and courage. She is a flawed heroine who makes a lot of mistakes and continually beats herself up about them but her courage and determination more than redeems her.
The slang used by the teenage uglies and pretties gets annoying after a while (you will get sick of the words "bubbly" and "bogus", for example) but the story is worth it. Also, unlike many more recent books for teens there is very little violence in it.
This is a book which straddles the border between sci fi and fantasy. It is set on the moon, which in the far future has been terraformed into a habitable world, but the story reads more like a fairytale than a science fiction novel. Like The Tombs of Atuan, it is part of a trilogy (books two and three are called A Gathering of Gargoyles and The Pearl of the Soul of the World). It is the strange story of a slave girl named Aeriel whose mistress, Eoduin, is abducted by a vampire to be his bride. She embarks on a journey to find and kill the monster, who each year takes beautiful women as his wife and sucks the life out of her. The brides are not killed exactly but remain in the castle as wasted shadows of their former selves. In order to survive, Aeriel becomes the vampire's servant, assigned to take care of the brides. She hopes to eventually find the strength to kill the vampire despite his beauty and supernatural abilities but all is not as it appears. Aeriel comes up against many seemingly impossible challenges but faces them all boldly.
This one is a bit of a ringer since it's technically Historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it blends in elements of Greek mythology so I think it counts. It is the story of the young Helen of Troy, or Helen of Sparta as she was before the events of the Illiad. The princess Helen is bored witless by embroidery and wants to learn to fight with a sword like her brothers. She trains in secret, disguised as a boy and shows herself to be unafraid of hard work. Together with her brothers she accompanies her sister on the journey to another kingdom where she is to be married. There she meets many brave adventurers, including the legendary Atalanta, who teaches Helen to ride a horse and inspires her, showing her that women can be warriors. Helen is not always likeable but I found myself willing her to succeed.
If you enjoy this one you may also like its sequel, Nobody's Prize and Esther Frieser's other books about the young Nefertiti (Sphinx's Princess and Sphinx's Queen).
I would recommend any of these books to my daughter (once she's a bit older) because unlike in so many stories for girls these princesses can rescue themselves. If you have any suggestions of other books with great girl heroes, please add them in the comments.