The YA steampunk novel from Martha Wells (Books of the Raksura), published by Strange Chemistry, does something that nowadays is absolutely extraordinary: its main character, a teenage girl, does not have a love interest.
I repeat: This is a YA fantasy without a romance.
Where’s the confetti? This deserves confetti!
And I for one welcome this brave new foray into YA for young adults.
What happened? When did it become the norm for YA to have a love story, or more specifically a love triangle with the girl at the apex? Now, some are actually good — the Hunger Games and the Iron Fey series come to mind (you-know-what will not be mentioned by name in this post) — so it’s not that. It’s just that it has become so formulaic. It was as if a girl couldn’t have an adventure unless she had a boyfriend.
See, I think girls in real life are smarter and more adventurous than that. I know girls who are athletes and scholars and rock climbers and volunteer in their community and play in bands and make art. So why are girls in fantasy literature unable to go off on an adventure without having a crush on a boy to guide their choices? And that’s the crux — the romance is the chief conflict, rather than the story, and it drives the girl’s action. Why can’t she make decisions based on other factors?
As it happens, romantic relationships are just one kind of relationship. Fantasy of all genres should be willing to explore all sorts of connections that people have. One of the biggest failures of the book that shall not be named is the way friendship between girls is portrayed. It’s false, competitive, and ugly and so completely unlike any real friendships real teens actually have.
Now, this is not to say that fantasy YA should absolutely portray normal girls in normal conflicts having normal lives — for one thing, even mainstream YA shouldn’t do that, and fantasy YA by definition is going to have more excitement and boldness, in which personal relationships are not going to be portrayed in muted color, in which magic and adventure and passion are all going to be present and accounted for.
And maybe there is romance. Maybe the fun and excitement of first love and new love should be part of a new world where magic is part of everyday. But it shouldn’t have to be.
So here’s to more Emilies. They harken back to an earlier time of girls lit, when books for girls were about relationships but they were also about honor, family, duty, goodness — you know, the stuff we don’t mention anymore. Anne Shirley, Jo March, so many fantastic girls who have lived on for a hundred years or more. Maybe there’s a new age of YA fantasy dawning, in which girls could have adventures and find their talents and make steadfast friends and save the world — and they wouldn’t have to have a wedding at the end of it.
That would be pretty magical, wouldn’t it?
Emilie and the Hollow World, by Martha Wells
Published by Strange Chemistry