About a year and a half ago, I started reading a lot of young adult fiction. I had an idea for a YA novel of my own, and I was looking for models. But I also wanted to read a few nice efficient narratives, something that developed interesting characters and took them on a journey in 150 or 200 pages instead of 400. Most of all, I wanted to read something magical. By that I don't mean something along the lines of Harry Potter, which to me is thoroughly mundane even if it does have a few spells and flying broomsticks thrown in. (The most mundane thing about it is its morality: deception and cheating are fine if Harry does it, because Harry is Good, while deception and cheating are wrong if Harry's foes do it, because Harry's foes are Bad, which is why they're Harry's foes.) No, I wanted to be transported to a world beyond this one.
I was thoroughly out of the YA fiction loop, so got recommendations from friends with kids in junior high; I read a few blogs to see what others liked; I checked out what was selling well on Amazon.com. And I also just went to the library and looked at books with interesting covers and enthusiastic, respectable blurbs on the back. Which is how I found the Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon.
I enjoyed this quartet--The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow and The Singing--so much when I read it in the spring of 2009 that I read it again this spring. Here's some of what makes it so good:
First off, I was immediately captivated by the main character, a young woman named Maerad. She's resourceful, interesting, intelligent, intuitive, flawed enough to make devastatingly tragic errors and moral enough to care and try to atone, so powerful that even her closest friends are sometimes afraid of her, and so loyal that she loves them anyway. Her challenge is to learn to understand and use her power in ways that enrich rather than imperil herself and the people and things she loves. She's a role model I could have really used when I was in junior high.
Given the attributes of the heroine, it's no surprise that the gender politics are thoroughly feminist. Women hold positions of power and authority. Women are not merely excellent teachers and dedicated students, but brilliant scholars, just rulers, brave warriors, revered poets and playwrights, skilled artisans, etc--in other words, they readily fill pretty much every role available to human beings, and their achievements are acknowledged and valued. This is presented quite matter-of-factly in most of the books, but misogyny is acknowledged as a real force: one subplot involves an attempt to have all women removed from positions of power and expelled from all schools, as both teachers and students. (It fails, of course, because the guy who heads it doesn't consider women worthy adversaries, and underestimates their powers.)
Love and romance are not irrelevant to women, but these are not their primary preoccupations--or occupations. This doesn't mean that female sexuality is ignored; there's a frank acknowledgment of menstruation as well as the danger of rape and sexual violence, and a particularly well-respected ruler has a handsome consort many years her junior. (She is also black, and he, as I remember, is white.)
That leads to another element I valued, which is characters with racial diversity. Races range from black to white, and none of them are vilified. It's true that the majority of characters are white or white-ish, but one of the most sympathetic of the main characters is black. Also, one of the books takes place primarily in an exceptionally beautiful, cultured city built and populated by people of color. But the fact that diversity is a given doesn't meant that racial tension is ignored: just like misogyny, racism is acknowledged as a real danger.
There's also a positive, matter-of-fact (albeit brief) portrayal of a same-sex relation, and an acknowledgment of bisexuality.
There's even a character with a disability. Granted, it's relatively minor, but it's there. And I had to pay attention to my own reaction: "Why would an author maim a main character like this?" I wondered at first. The answer of course is that an author would do it because people who consider themselves main characters in their own stories end up with disabilities, and because it's a situation worth exploring. Duh.
All of which is to say, it's completely and unapologetically PC, in some really great ways. And none of that feels tacked on or artificial or obligatory--it's all part of a really great story, and the consideration of these elements are part of what make it really great. They work together to create a strong narrative arc, an interesting and complex plot, deftly explored, and well-paced. (OK, I thought the third one dragged a little.)
On top of which, the prose is fabulous. Croggon is, according to her bio, "an award-winning Australian poet" and a librettist; her prose is very musical, her sentences well-crafted. She has a great vocabulary. I learned cool words from these books, like littoral and sough and sedge, and was pleased to encounter words I know but hardly ever see, like ostler. I'd quote a few sentences to show you how good they are, but I already returned the books to the library.
I wish with all my heart that I could have read these books when I was 13, but of course they were all published in the last few years. An acquaintance of mine is a junior high librarian; she says the books fly off the shelf, checked out over and over by girls who love good writing and strong female characters. If you know someone like that, you should turn her on to these books, or if you were ever such a creature yourself, you should read them for your own pleasure.