Happy Women’s History Month! While there are so many great literary heroines out there, I had to hold myself back. I could talk about this all the time, but I’m sure you had other plans for the day!
Without further delay, here are 3 heroines with some of the best character arcs that I can find. 3 who chose their own fates, defended those they love, and didn’t put down other women and girls to succeed. Enjoy!
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1. Fire from Fire
While Fire is the second book of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series, this story is much more of a prequel and can be read independently of Graceling.
Lady Fire is the last remaining human monster in the Dells where there are monster variations of everything from tigers to bugs. Monsters have brilliantly colored hair and pelts and mind control abilities which make them the perfect predator to humans and other non-monster animals. As a monster human, Fire is to humans what light is to moths. Most who merely look at Fire become obsessed with her against their will.
But all Fire wants is to be left alone.
Her father’s legacy is a shadow that she lives in every day of her life, despite Cansrel being dead for years now. When he was alive, he made the king of the Dells his puppet and committed atrocities that many would still blame Fire for.
You might think that an inhumanly attractive protagonist with the ability to read minds would be unrelatable. But Cashore uses the idea of the female seductress that’s pinned on women and girls and takes it to hyperbole in Fire. All Fire wants first is solitude and then to be seen as a person, not as a symbol of irresistible beauty. She hides herself from the world because she’s afraid of herself and the infringements she’s capable of committing by reading minds. When assassination attempts on the crown begin and war brews in the Dells, Fire is called upon to identify the enemy before it’s too late.
Over the course of the book, Fire grows into a heroine who uses her immense power for good rather than fearing her own capabilities. Something that I loved to see was that Fire stopped putting herself away into tinier and tinier boxes. By the end of the story, she has carved out a very visible place for herself in the world where she has support and a chosen family type of network. Additionally, she leaves behind a possessive, controlling relationship for a healthier one.
Just like in Graceling, Cashore paints a fantasy world that bucks traditions which have become ingrained in our world and so often sneak into fictional worlds by default. Characters freely have open relationships, periods and other realities of the body are real, and marriage isn’t the ultimate goal post for all female characters.
2. Theo from Ash Princess
I knew I had to review Ash Princess the second I put it down, so perhaps the best introduction to this book is that:
“I couldn’t get enough of this book. It blasted my expectations to smithereens! If you love impossible choices, chosen family, stories of justice and rising up, heroines who get angry, and perfect, riveting tension, read Ash Princess.
Theo is a prisoner in her own conquered kingdom. The ones who invaded her land and murdered her mother, the queen? They’re the people she lives around. Her love interest. Her closest friend.
But she’s done. She would rather risk her life spying on them than waste another second pretending they don’t have the blood of her people on their hands.
There was so much in here that was done well that it’s impossible to say what I liked best, so I’ll just pick one. It was delicious to see justice come to those deserving of it, and I’m excited to see how the rest of this story plays out in the next book.”My review on Goodreads
Theodosia’s arc to feminist heroine starts on a low point. She’s been prisoner to her land’s invaders for so long that the pieces of the girl she really is are buried under the facade that the Kaiser has forced her to wear for her survival. She has even accepted the new name they’ve given her, and her fear of the violent Kaiser runs so deep that she doesn’t even dare call herself Theo in her own thoughts.
When the last glimmer of hope is almost extinguished for her enslaved people, she decides to risk it all in a last attempt to defy her conqueror, the Kaiser, and become a spy and assassin.
But the road ahead isn’t so easy or clear. Theo must decide between her people and the lives of those around her–people she’s befriended and even loved despite their complicit involvement in her people’s oppression.
Ash Princess poses a delicious wealth of moral conundrums and questions that blend the lines of what it means to oppress/be oppressed. Above it all, Theo becomes a heroine who accepts herself and her background. Despite the events of the story, she grows into a kind hearted leader who is also allowed to be a complicated, fully dimensional character.
3. Éowyn from Lord of the Rings
I feel this article isn’t long enough to properly tackle this topic, but here goes nothing.
In one of the most memorable scenes in what is arguably the most famous of fantasy franchises, we have this iconic feminist moment:
But first, we need a little background. Éowyn is the adopted daughter of Théoden, Lord of Rohan, and for her first appearance in the story, she’s clearly being harassed by Gríma Wormtongue. We’re initially led to believe there’s little more to her character than her role as a victim and source of conflict/love interest for Aragorn.
Happily, we’re wrong.
Despite being expected to play the royal lady for the rest of her life who doesn’t dirty her hands, Éowyn wants battle. More than that though, she wants to defend her people and those she loves.
When her brother and Théoden leave with Aragorn and the rest of the assembled warriors to defend Middle Earth from evil, she knows she can’t stand by and allow them to die while she hides and does nothing.
She pulls a Mulan move and dresses as a man to join the other warriors from Rohan. She fights in the Battle of Pelennor Fields alongside her friend and hobbit, Merry.
Something I didn’t properly realize prior to writing this article is that Merry was only able to join the battle because Éowyn shared her horse with him. In The Return of the King, Théoden asks Merry to stay behind because none of the other riders could afford to carry such an extra burden. A mysterious man offers to share his horse and–you guessed it–that’s Éowyn. Even when this could jeopardize her secret identity and chance to fight, she extends a hand behind her.
You see, Rohan’s horses wouldn’t be able to support much weight outside that of an adult man’s and keep such a swift pace, but because they were both lighter than that, they could fight alongside each other on the same one.
While all this is cool, this isn’t enough to land her number one on this list.
While you might know of the prophecy of the Witch King that said he couldn’t be killed by men, you might not have known about the curse that afflicted any who tried to harm him. Those who did were said to be marked for death, and a quick but brutal sickness awaited any who tried.
I’ll set the scene. The Battle of Pelennor Fields has begun.
Still disguised as a man, Éowyn sees that the Witch King is about to kill her uncle and adopted father, Théoden. She knows she has to save him despite the horror of facing the living legend that is the Witch King. What is easily forgotten is the fact that she and Merry work together. He stabs him first which allows Éowyn to make that iconic stab to the face.
Despite the threat of the curse of the Witch King, they stand up for those they love and fight even after they’re told they would only be a burden and that their places are elsewhere.
Of course, there’s also the Witch King’s assumption of invincibility that came from only seeing men as a threat to him. While one can debate the semantics of what the Witch King meant, this scene is a satisfying subversion of the “I was expecting a man” situation so deeply rooted in sexism.
Éowyn’s place as a feminist heroine is only cemented further by the fact that she isn’t paired with Aragorn at the end of the story. While I love him, he’s decades older than her. Instead, Éowyn and Faramir seem to have a more equal partnership. I’m much more here for that.