There’s a large consortium now of web journalists that are quite fixated on pushing any work that might feature a female protagonist to the forefront of human awareness. This is a process with which I have no strong objections or opinions because I know better than to shake that hornet’s nest. Or even look at it really.
That being said, in the rush for the modern works with well-developed female characters, I think we’re not reflecting on past works that also have strong, well-written, female characters. If for nothing else then to appreciate that there is a legacy to this sort of thing.
In the spirit of that, if I had to pick just one book that had my favourite female character, then there’s only one choice.
No it isn’t The Last Unicorn.
Here we have an image from the internet as my copy is dog eared beyond belief.
Originally published in 1991, the Elvenbane was written by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey, two veteran writers in their own right. The premise is that humanity, in a fantasy setting of course, is ruled over by Elves who have since forced them into submission. As a result humans form little more than slaves living short, blunted lives in the wake of their Elven masters.
The story opens with one human slave, a concubine named Serina Daeth. As the favoured concubine of her particular master Lord Dryan we find her wandering a vast desert in an effort to survive. She’s run away because she’s recently become pregnant with her master’s child due to the sabotage of another concubine. Since half-elf children are, as you can imagine, not allowed Serina escaped her home to save her own life.
The opening uses Serina’s own flashbacks to help set the world as it’s ruled by the Elven courts as well as the politics and personalities within. Serina has nothing but disdain for her child throughout all of this and is simply planning for a way to get her life back. On her journey she catches the attention of a nearby female dragon named Alamarana. Alamarana manages to change her own appearance and assist Serina as she gives birth to a girl, though Serina does not survive childbirth herself.
Alamarana, Alara for short, decides to raise the child as her own rather than simply let the little girl die. Taking the child back to her home she’s met with opposition from other dragons. This is because they’ve chosen to live apart from the other races and fear what would happen if the child grew and eventually let the other species know that Dragons even exist. The matter is soon closed as Alara convinces the others to let her raise her new halfbreed daughter Lashana. Shana for short.
During this time we learn that there is a prophecy that a Halfblood will rise and become the symbol of liberty for all races against the Elven lords, a being known as the Elvenbane. In nearly the same page we also learn that it’s mostly used by dragons for their own amusement and revision, pulling a nice subversion on the idea of such prophecy. As Shana grows throughout her adventures in the book she quickly finds herself fulfilling that prophesied role.
I’ve enjoyed this book repeatedly throughout my life and it sits quite warmly in my top five books. Despite many of the more mature subjects covered in the novel it does strongly read like a young adult work.
In the several times I’ve reread it I found its two strengths are in the how distinct each character is and just how well the world is presented to the audience. Central to that is the character of Shana. Shana is perpetually depicted as an outcast in any situation she finds herself. I’ve always liked Shana for the sheer amount of mistakes she makes on her journey. I say that because the book openly acknowledges the consequences of what she’s done and she is forced to as well. There’s a great effort to show her growing up as a teenage girl in these circumstances and how such an experience develops her personality.
As the book progresses she finds herself commenting on differing lifestyles and we notice that among each of the races (dragons, elves and eventually half-breeds) there’s an issue of a sedentary lifestyle and becoming obsessed with one’s possessions and security over values. It’s the underlying commentary of the book in reality. It’s why the book appears to be a young adult novel at a glance. Despite the number of adults that sympathize and work with Shana, her and her adoptive brother Keman (a dragon) are clearly the focus and the book takes their perspective and side in most instances.
I’m at a loss to say how good the novel truly is in a timeless sense. The writing, character distinction and world building is absolutely flawless but I can appreciate where the focus on a youth’s perspective deters readers. I’ll certainly pass it on to my own children but I question that it would find as strong a purchase in an audience that’s already long past their own adolescence.
I suppose that’s why you loan books out.
So too does this work exist.