I have a weird relationship with fantasy novels.
Usually, I don’t really like them. On the other hand, some of the most famous books in the fantasy genre are my favorite! Harry Potter (though their author is in my bogus bag and it is ziplock shut) . . . Lord of the Rings . . .A Song of Fire and Ice . . .
I think I preferred the genre more when I was younger than I do now; but, how sad is that? I grow up and get skeptical about magic?
I didn’t like that idea, so I decided to try to get back into the genre.
One such attempt was Green Rider by Kristen Britain. It’s my friend Laura’s favorite.
There were things I loved about it . . . and some things I didn’t love so much (sorry, Laura!).
Here’s what I liked about it.
The protagonist is female. A strong female. (It’s no surprise to you by now that Ms. G. likes a strong female lead in her stories.) Furthermore, there are female mentors, guides, and even antiheroes! One of my main complaints about fantasy novels is that there are too many dudes; when there are female characters, they tend to all be the same: angelic damsel-in-distress; the witty but always beautiful side-kick; the wise, but frightening and aloof queen; the evil temptress. Blah blah blah. The lack of variety bored me. Of course, male writers dominated the genre for a long while, so it doesn’t surprise me that two-dimensional female figures were the norm in fantasy novels.
The hero, Karigan G’ladheon (I wish fantasy novels came with pronunciation guides for their made-up words!), is on the run at the beginning of the story. She tussled with a spoiled brat, the rich son of a bigwig and her school expels her. As she makes her escape, she encounters a dying messenger, a Green Rider, F’ryan Coblebay. He charges Karigan with delivering a secret message to the capital, Sacor City, to either the captain of the Green Riders or, if at all possible, the king.
Karigan’s quest has all the familiar tropes of the hero’s journey, which should get boring, but it never does. Especially since Karigan is a protagonist with so much potential to be interesting. She can swordfight, ride horses, outsmart her enemies, and love fiercely. She is resourceful and intelligent. What I love most about her is that she looks to other strong women for guidance, even if that woman is at the other end of her sword.
“‘You ought to be settled into a life of ease and courting as with all girls your age. But I can see in you too much fire for such a life. Yours is an open road filled with excitement and, yes, perils. Never forget you are a creature of free will. Free will is everything. You may choose to abandon your mission. Choice, my child, is the world. If you carry that message against your will, then the mission will already have failed’”Britain 46-7
“She was self-possessed and unafraid”Britain 381
I also love that she has ambition. Can we please have more stories where the female characters are unapologetic about their ambition? That would be great, thanks.
I also enjoyed that the guides and mentors along Karigan’s quest are female. Listen, I love Dumbledore and Gandalf. The wise old white dude with a long beard trope isn’t going anywhere. But, I don’t think it is a requirement for a good fantasy novel. Britain more than succeeds at leaving this trope out of the plot.
“Am I my own friend in need? I can depend on myself? . . . She could depend on herself, yet hadn’t she been surrounded by friends the entire time? Friends who had helped her along in her journey or who tried to protect her? Where would she be without them?”Britain 363
The most memorable are the Berry sisters, two older women, sisters, maiden-aunt style — Miss Bayberry and Miss Bunchberry. First of all, they live in an eccentric house left to them by their father. They are wise and silly, kind but somewhat tragic, beautiful, and lonely.
“‘sometimes one must go beyond the bounds of propriety and speak her minds . . . Being polite and reserved is how we were raised, but we learned the hard way that the rest of the world isn’t that way’”Britain 65
They take Karigan in along her journey to fortify her, teach her, and arm her with the magical objects every hero needs to fulfill their quest.
They also arm Karigan with knowledge about magic and how it ought to work in their world.
“‘That is often the fault with magical devices, and even innate power. There is always some cost to use it, and for the trouble, it’s often not worthwhile’”Britain 44
“The more Karigan learned about magic, the less she liked it. It seemed to bring nothing but evil and grief”Britain 63
I felt seen by these ladies since my life seems to be taking the “maiden-aunt” route. I’m HERE for this representation in fantasy novels.
Captain Laren Mapstone becomes another mentor for Karigan. First of all, her name is Mapstone; I love a name like that. Secondly, the captain of the Green Riders isn’t male! Karigan will learn her trade from another woman. Their relationship brings to mind one of my favorite sayings, “Empowered women empower women.” I want to see more connections like that in books — not just fantasy books . . . all books.
Jendara is a Weapon to the jealous, vengeful Prince Amilton, who hopes to seize his brother’s, King Zachary’s, throne in a coup. Karigan encounters Jendara on the trail and narrowly escapes her many times. Despite Jendara’s antagonism towards Karigan, she is a warrior figure. She isn’t the Siren-like temptress we so often see as one of the monsters in the way of the hero; she’s a foil to the protagonist — a proper match and challenge for Karigan. Give me more characters like this, too!
Thematically, I adored the creed and community of the Green Riders themselves. Even though Karigan becomes a Green Rider by happenstance, she learns about their codes, ethics, and calling throughout the novel.
“Green Rider magic was true magic, not just something to perform after dinner for guests. Their magic was so taken for granted by the counselors that they forgot it was magic”Britain 268
She begins aimless: expelled, unsure of how to tell her father, not sure of what she wants out of life. Part of her quest is realizing her strengths and answering the call of the Green Riders. Every hero needs to figure something out about their identity; I like that for Karigan, it wasn’t about finding out her dad is (as it so often is in these stories). I like that her journey is one towards the self, towards her passion.
“‘I had hoped Karigan would find a talent for something, but I never expected the sword’”Britain 161
The book ends with Karigan returning with her father to become a merchant. Still, I feel she isn’t done with the Green Riders and that later books in the series will revolve around the pull she feels towards them. At least . . . I hope that’s the case.
“‘Whether you act as a Green Rider or not is up to you, but I’ll warn you now, that you will always hear the rhythm of hoofbeats in your dreams’”Britain 299
“Green Riders are a reckless lot, always galloping off into trouble. More or less it is true, and hopelessly so”Britain 461
The politics of the Green Rider universe are intriguing, too. Sometimes following the inner workings of a fantastical universe are difficult. I’m still unsure how magic fits into this universe, but Britain uses a great metaphor to describe its politics: game. In the universe of Green Rider, there is a chess-like game called Intrigue. That’s precisely how the enemies of Karigan, the Green Riders, and the kingdom itself operate — through savvy, manipulation, subversion, and intrigue. Karigan must become a master at this game to save the kingdom.
“There was always intrigue . . . . Intrigue was as much a game in real life as it was on a board”Britain 135
Another happy aspect of Green Rider is that the love stories fall into the background. I’m a romantic. I love a good love story. The hero getting the girl as some sort of prize for completing his quest is getting a bit dull; doing a gender reversal on that sounds trite. Even though Karigan has feelings for the king. a Green Rider has feelings for Karigan. The message she carries to the King appears to be a love letter from F’ryan to Lady Estora — the story’s romances are just rich texture to a much larger story about a woman coming into her own. They don’t overpower her victory, and there isn’t a “prize” element about them.
So what’s not to like about this novel?
Guys. There is so much sleeping.
I get it. Quests are exhausting, and heroes need their rest like everyone else. But I really don’t want to read about how they nod off to sleep in every chapter. Sometimes, Karigan waltzes off to sleep twice a chapter!
Editors of fantasy novels here is your new rule: only two to three mentions of falling asleep at the end of a long horse per novel. That’s it. I’m cutting you guys off. Enough with the camping and the sleeping.
My other recommendation for fantasy writing is to not make the universe the focus. In my opinion, fantasy writers spend a little too much time spinning the setting, that the story gets lost. It’s probably why their heroes fall asleep all over the place; they spend all their writing energy on the stage and don’t have the energy to think up anything new for the characters to do.
Even though the fantasy genre has the power to transport us to new worlds that engage our wildest imaginations, the story is still going to be what resonates with readers. Seeing themselves in the characters, empathizing with them, connecting with them.
This is why I believe Harry Potter was as successful as it was: yes, there were chocolate frogs, Polyjuice potions, hippogriffs, Triwizard Tournaments, invisibility cloaks, schools of witchcraft, and wizardry, dragons, and Horcruxes. But none of those things are what I like best about the Harry Potter novels. They’re colorful and memorable, but what I remember best about these novels is the friendships, the protagonist’s internal conflicts, the families, and the emotions, because those are the things I can most relate to.
Green Rider has some of that, indeed. But, I wanted more of it and less mere summary of what surrounds the story itself. Suppose I were to write my own fantasy novel. In that case, I’d meet my readers where they are at — in the real world — and slowly draw them in, introducing them one piece of the universe at a time, especially if I have a whole series in which to do so.
Despite my frustrations with its flaws, I plan to continue this series when I feel in the fantasy genre mood. I much prefer it to so many of my youth’s fantasy novels and can’t wait to share this series with my students!
Trigger Warnings: death (murder); manipulation; misogyny; violence