To anyone familiar with the Graceling books, this post will feel like nothing new, because I’m sure there’s been a lot of discussion surrounding them. But when I think of heroines, these three characters immediately come to mind, and I thought that a celebration of female characters would be a fitting place to talk about the themes and messages of their stories.
In Graceling we meet Katsa. A girl in the cusp of womanhood who’s been trapped by her powerful gift and an uncle who uses her to commit murder and torture. She doesn’t own her body. She doesn’t own her life.
And then she meets a boy who offers her an out. But that out doesn’t come in the shape of love. What he does is show her that what she sees as the curse that enslaved her, is actually the gift that will free her. She takes that knowledge and uses it to her advance. And when love comes, she refuses to give in to it, because to her, love and marriage go together, and she doesn’t want to belong to anyone but herself.
Katsa wants absolute control over her body and life. Part of that control includes never getting married. She wants to have sex, but doesn’t want kids, so she does something to prevent pregnancy. She is physically superior to her partner, something he finds admirable. And although these aspects of her personality are organically interwoven into the overall story, nothing about them is subtle, which is fine, because some messages should be obvious, especially in books aimed to young audiences.
Fire, on the other hand, longs to be a mother and to take care of a home. But she’s half other, and that part of herself makes her an easy, incredibly appealing prey, but also gives her the power to control people. Her father used those powers and brought nothing but pain and suffering to a kingdom that was almost destroyed by it, so Fire fears and hates her own nature and hides from the world.
When I first read this book, I didn’t like its heroine very much. I thought she was passive and too much of a Mary Sue for my taste. It wasn’t until months later and after giving it more thought, that I realized the traits were the point. Fire’s desires and wants perfectly align with traditional gender roles, and although some would think that wanting to stay at home to take care of a family goes against the supposed feminist message of the story, we know that it all comes down to having the choice to do what makes us happy.
She doesn’t have a choice at first, but she fights for it. And sometimes, as Fire discovers, we have to make painful decisions, but that at least are ours to make. She gives up natural motherhood, but finds other ways to make that dream come true. She adapts, fights, and loves.
Bitterblue’s path is fraught with sacrifice. And the themes scattered throughout her book are both personal and communal.
She is a young woman in charge of a kingdom broken by tyranny. She has to put it together, but first has to put herself together, because she is another victim of the terrors her father inflicted on her people. She’s been lead blind by advisors whose allegiances are dubious. She is a queen, but has no agency.
Little by little Bitterble begins to test her boundaries, both as sovereign as a woman. She takes off the blindfold and comes in contact with the people and their needs. She discovers the power of oral tradition, folklore, literacy and education. She learns that knowledge is what tyranny fears the most, and becomes empowered and ready to take action. By the end of the book, Bitterblue is a different person, so when the time comes to accept that love doesn’t have the answers to all, and that at times duty must prevail above personal dreams, she doesn’t hesitate to make the right choice, even if it’s also the hardest.
Katsa, Fire and Bitterblue are three examples of feminist characters and messages. Their one common trait is their constant fight to claim ownership of their lives and bodies. They symbolize messages that are worth repeating and spreading. And above all, they are interesting, layered characters that enrich the Fantasy genre, YA literature and our reading experiences.