Celebrating Unlikely Heroes in Young Adult Fantasy Novels
As we edge closer into cooler weather, I think of the novels that are dramatic and exciting. It is in these winter months that I most gravitate towards epic adventures with fresh and new additions to my favorite stories. My favorite surprises in fiction are the focus on unlikely heroes, the departure from templates of generic main characters remains to be one of the most rewarding aspects of reading literature to me. Here is my unlikely heroes’ menagerie (thus far).
10. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Meet Blue Sargent
A story revolving around the search for a dead Welsh king, this quartet highlights the friendship between Richard Gansey III, Adam Parrish, Noah Czerny, Ronan Lynch, and Blue Sargent. Granted, there is also the unraveling of Blue Sargent’s curse where her love will die at her hand (or, rather, lips).
Everything about this story is unorthodox. Blue Sargent’s family deals with all things psychic. But, our heroine, Blue, does not have any powers of her own. Aside from glorious biting wit and sharp intelligence, Blue only acts as an amplifier to those with powers around her.
Blue: In the Midst of Magic
Rather than the typical heroine stumbles into a new world trope that is so common in young adult literature, Stiefvater connects characters who are already in the trenches of the supernatural. Romantic love is not at all the central focus of the story. Instead, it is the quest to find a dead Welsh king.
Here’s a taste of Blue Sargent, the magnificent and out of this world girl who is still very much a teenager. Stiefvater writes, “She felt one thousand years old. She also felt like maybe she was a condescending brat. She wanted her bike. She wanted her friends, who were also one-thousand-year-old condescending brats. She wanted to live in a world where she was surrounded by one-thousand-year-old condescending brats.”
Aside from eeriness and a dream-like quality to the story, these brats balance the teenage angst, humor, love, and heavy responsibility of being major players in a much bigger conflict.
9. Legend by Marie Lu
Meet Day and June
Lu centers the novel on a dual perspective cat-and-mouse chase between two vastly different people. June is the top student in a military-like school. In this dystopian setting, the Republic and the Colonies are at war. Part of the Republic’s police, June’s brother comes face to face with the top-wanted criminal, a mysterious young person named Day. After her brother’s demise, June, more than ever, is on the hunt to find Day to get her revenge.
Unlike most iconic female protagonists in the young adult genre, June is certain of who she is and what she values. She is not reliant on a significant other for praise or approval. If anything, June functions alone. Mostly friendless, June is on a solitary quest to find Day when she begins to uncover horrors of the Republic and those she considered trustworthy.
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What I love most is June and Day’s drive to survive. Marie Lu doesn’t coddle her characters. The world, the tension between these two different states, and thus the bigger tension between June and Day are all jagged and rough. It remains as a unique approach to a story of two opposing protégés colliding.
Here’s June, with her anger and determination to find Day, “I will hunt you down. I will scour the streets of Los Angeles for you. Search every street in the Republic if I have to. I will trick you and deceive you, lie, cheat and steal to find you, tempt you out of your hiding place, and chase you until you have nowhere else to run. I make you this promise: your life is mine.”
8. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Meet Simon and Baz
Rainbow Rowell is known for writing contemporary novels. Naturally, her deviation into the realm of fantasy novels highlighted unlikely characters. Set in Fangirl’s Cath’s fanfiction, Carry On features many characters caught in conflict with the ominous Hum Drum. Unlike Harry Potter, Simon Snow, our hero in this novel, is not exactly great at magic. Also, very differently from Potter, Snow actually has to make sacrifices to defend the Hum Drum.
In true Rowell fashion, the biggest surprise for me was not Simon. It’s Baz, his vampire roommate, who does have a crush on him as well.
Just listen to him snap at Simon, “Does it have to be fatal every time? The biting? Couldn't you just drink some of a person's blood, then walk away?"
"I can't believe you're asking me this, Snow. You, who can't walk away from half a sandwich.”
It’s what Ron and Hermoine should’ve sounded like as a couple— bickering but with affection.
7. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Speaking of unlikely heroes, this gem by Patrick Ness subverts the hero narrative by focusing on people with no supernatural powers. The story does not focus on the Chosen Ones. Instead, it’s all about the “average” person, navigating a world under attack by what they call the Immortals. Mikey, a high school senior, battles his OCD while also juggling friendships, romance, and an ongoing war between the Indie kids—those who are chosen to fight for their world and the Immortals. Deviating from the traditional Chosen One narratives, Ness showcases the beauty of friendship and the importance of confronting mental illness, no matter what may be going on from a larger context.
Mikey and Henna, his sister’s best friend, also explore whether or not physical intimacy can lead to romantic connections. Nathan and Jared (Mikey’s best friend) grapple with friends and sharing their relationship—despite Mikey’s dislike of Nathan.
Filled with genuine reflections on anxiety and OCD, this story speaks to the difficulty of living with mental illness. But, more than anything, it’s the biggest relief to read about characters who learn about how much of these illnesses shouldn’t be something to judge. Here is one of my favorite quotes from this novel, “Feelings don't try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You're responsible for its consequences, you're responsible for treating it. But...you're not responsible for causing it. You're not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”
6. A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess
Henrietta Howel is a heroine who combusts (literally). When she is taken to train with sorcerers, she has to unpack her mysterious heritage and discover her place in the bigger picture. Not only is she not like any other heroine readers would ever encounter, Cluess is sure to break hearts with the possible romances simmering while the plot progresses.
Easily one of the most powerful portrayals of women in a Victorian setting, A Shadow Bright and Burning highlights the difficulty of being a woman in fields dominated by men. In doing so, Cluess reflects on a reality for many women in modern society, not just in a distant past. With her trusty stove Porridge, Henrietta blasts through magician lore and societal norms regarding partnerships and romance.
Because most of my favorite quotes from this book include spoilers, I will continue on with the next book with unlikely heroes.
5. Gone by Michael Grant
Sam, Astrid, and Friends
While Michael Grant has said some problematic things on the Internet, I still think his work in this series expressed plenty of commentary on young adulthood and responsibility. The series begins with all adults disappearing. As each child nears the age of 15, they also disappear. With resources dwindling, several teens take center stage to create flawed leadership positions. Oh, and some people develop supernatural powers.
Very much in the vein of Lord of the Flies, Michael Grant includes multiple conflicts while the grim reality of these teens (and children) sets in. What was absolutely a key balance to strike: humor with the tragedy and horror that these characters process. Astrid the Genius and Sam who was once a surfer become two of the very few parental figures in this series.
Here is an example of their early encounters. ‘“That's your solution? Have a cookie?' Astrid asked. “No, my solution is to run down to the beach and hide out until this is all over,” Sam said. “But a cookie never hurts.”’
4. Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis
Mindy McGinnis does not write fluffy books. What she does write are shocking stories that lead readers to a more complicated view of humanity. I have talked about her A Madness So Discreet before, but let me tell you about this novel: Not a Drop to Drink is a dystopia revolving around the main character who has the lone lake with safe water to drink. The protagonist, Lynn, lives with her mother and learns the rules of fending off for herself. Her world is harrowing and dark.
When her mother is killed, Lynn must confront her heritage and the morals she was taught about survival and morality. If there’s one thing I have gathered from reading two McGinnis books so far, it’s that she will always surprise her readers with the depth of her exploration of grief and mourning.
What About You?
Do you think you'd be able to survive a dystopian society with only one source of water?
An engaging read all about humanity in a dystopian setting, Not a Drop to Drink will surprise readers with its deviation from traditional narrative discussions around morality in dangerous times. McGinnis strikes a balance between sensitive pain under the layers of defensive survivalist approaches that Lynn and her mother have.
A snippet from this moral predicament can be seen in this quote, “Regret was for people with nothing to defend, people who had no water.”
3. The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Holly Black, from my own experience, is one of the leaders in reinventing the faery mythology. Unlike many young adult novel writers, Black does not shy away from dark tones when it comes to relationships between humans and faeries. The more she writes about faeries, the more creative she gets with ways to explore conflicts between us the humans and the fae.
In this story, we focus on Jude, a human girl whose parents are murdered when she was seven years old. She and her sisters are whisked into the faery realm, where humans are looked down upon. Jude, however, is not demure. She is tough and ambitious. Rather than being daunted by the cruel Prince Cardan, she fearlessly challenges him.
“If I cannot be better than them, I will become so much worse.” --Jude (The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black)
Rich with political intrigue and a fresh twist on identity, The Cruel Prince is a promising beginning to a series that is bound to break hearts and stun readers. Please note: the main characters in this book (Cardan and Jude) can be unpleasant. It is unclear what the trajectory will be for them, but I can assure you that Holly Black has yet to disappoint me with a series (especially one around fae).
One of the most chilling moments of this book has to be whenever Jude revels in her plans to prove herself to the fae folk. This one, in particular, is a favorite, “If I cannot be better than them, I will become so much worse.”
2. The Falconer by Elizabeth May
One of the most underrated trilogies out there is The Falconer series by Elizabeth May. Easily one of the brightest lights on social media, May’s wit and humor echo in this surprising take on faeries. Aside from her dark and gritty tone in this series, it is a sensitive portrayal of trauma (be it from witnessing violence or being the target of the abuse). While it is set in the Regency era, there is a charming relatability as our heroine Aileana grapples with her grief over her mother’s murder.
Stranded with her fury, Aileana sets out to hunt down every faery until she quenches her thirst for revenge. But, things get more complicated when she encounters Kiaran, a mysterious faery who teaches her how to wipe out his own kind. Join this unlikely duo as faeries threaten Aileana’s world.
Without revealing the speaker in this quote, I want to give you a feel for what the characters in this series sound like. ‘“Well, I can safely say that I've never experienced a more exciting two days. I suppose I should send a note before seeing you again. 'Are you in the company of any creature liable to attack me unprovoked? I can visit later.”’
1. Soulless by Gail Carriger
Meet Alexia Tarabotti
Gail Carriger is a gem. I have only read Soulless by her and it was wildly funny. Set in the Victorian era, this story focuses on Alexia, who is Soulless. Soulless beings cancel out the powers of other mythical creatures if they touch them. Even though there are vampires and werewolves in this first book, Carriger never misses a beat in connecting her readers to Alexia. She is a curious and headstrong woman faced with a patriarchy.
The romance and tension between her and a certain werewolf will put a smile on readers’ faces. But, more than anything, Alexia’s adventures are just gripping enough to hook readers. The humor keeps the story easy. Prepare for a new take on heroines navigating her place among polite society (and mythological creatures).
Here is one of my favorite Soulless quotes. “A vampire, like a lady, never reveals his true age.”