Rebekah has worked 10 years in public libraries. They have recommended books to readers of all ages and hopes you'll enjoy her suggestions!
As with my hub, "3 Dragon Series to Read or Re-read" I chose my personal rankings based on particular criteria that reminds me of this theme:
A) the central character(s) is a powerful female, who is powerful in spite of and/or because of her perceived limitations as female, such as emotions or social constructs, B) she repeatedly proves herself as or more capable than her male counterparts, thereby spurring the need to be rescued by them, and C) romantic interest makes up no more than 50% or is not a detriment to either the female lead or the central plot.
I feel like 50% is still a huge part of the plot - but given the general romantic swing most female-led stories get, if only half the time is spent on romantic development, that's still pretty good. Besides, though I am not personally a fan of romantic stories or tropes, I do enjoy a good love story so long as it is not so integral to the plot that it feels like everything else is second. The idea of the romantic interest not being a weakness is key - which we'll get to later.
Bronze Medal: The Song of the Lioness (1983 - 1988) by Tamora Pierce
I did very much enjoy Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness and it stuck out in my mind as an exceptional coming-of-age, gender-norm-breaking, powerful female lead series. However, without these, it did not stick out in my mind as particularly unique story, either, and the reason why it takes bronze in this case is because of an unfortunately common trope when featuring strong female leads: pretending to be male.
Clearly, we see this as a common trope in lots of media. It was a common theme when I was younger, for example with Disney's Mulan (1998). These themes all have one particular issue in common: the woman is respected as a warrior only when she is disguised as a man. Once the disguise comes off, she must prove her worth again, because her value is tied to her prior masculinity. Now, this is certainly not entirely the case with Alanna, but it is still a large part of her character and story. Her femininity is never a weakness of Alanna's, but rather a weakness of how others perceive her. Even after she has proven herself a capable warrior, rumors and distrust follow her throughout her travels.
Song of the Lioness definitely does not focus on romance throughout the book, at least not for Alanna. It is certainly alluded to and is not hidden or shied away from; but what makes it so good is that Alanna does what she needs to do first - and only then does she get married. In this way, Song of the Lioness meets or exceeds the second two criteria I made above, and by a lot, and while the "dresses as a man" trope can be easily excused for its age (Alanna: The First Adventure was published in 1983 - seven years after Anne McCaffrey published Dragonsong, referenced in my other hub) it is still mildly frustrating by today's standards for that reason.
This does not make this series not worth reading - it absolutely is, and I implore you to re-read it if you once read it a long time ago.
Silver Medal: PrinceLess (2012 - ) by Jeremy Whitley
As you'll read further down, I had a hard time placing Gold and Silver in this list.
PrinceLess is the most recent publication in this list, and is very recent, with its newest volume 9, Love Yourself, having been released in 2019. The series began in 2012, though I did not hear about it until 2015. It has everything going for it - BIPOC representation, LGBT+ representation, and of course, strong female leads that don't need a man to save them (or at all!). All of this coming from a cis white male creator. Yes, you heard that right, and just to hit my feminist spiel quota for the year, this is what we say when we want allies! Whitley is white, and he writes strong Black characters. Whitley is male, and he writes strong female characters. Whitley is (assuming) straight, and he writes strong gay characters! And gives them space to be who they are.
Now, I'm not trying to make this a social statement, but quite frankly you cannot talk about PrinceLess without bringing this up, especially because just in the first few pages of volume one, Princess Adrienne calls out the BS of "fair lady" constructs in a witty comeback to a knight coming to save her. In fact, the entire series is full of Adrienne's absolute "done-with-this-crap" mentality when it comes to how women, particularly BIPOC women, are portrayed in other media forms. She and her best friend Bedelia (a red-headed white girl, in a refreshing reversal of the Black-girl-support-friend trope) have this discussion early on as well when Adrienne is looking for armor for herself, and is frustrated that all the women's armor is bikini-style, until Bedelia makes something just for her.
Now, with all this awesome representation, why is it only second place? As I said, it was very nearly first, and I think ultimately it is just as good as my first place choice here. In fact, it even does a little bit better because there is next to none in the love department - unless you're talking about Raven, the deliciously lesbian Pirate Princess. Comparatively speaking, PrinceLess hits as many or more checkboxes than Sailor Moon. Here is where personal taste unfortunately won out. I just did not enjoy PrinceLess as much, and it's because of the very thing that makes this series so great for most readers. After a while, the blatant call-outs to social constructs against women (and also BIPOC and LGBT+) began to take away from the story itself. The first several references were great, but eventually, once it's been said, I became frustrated, and ultimately did not finish or catch up to the most recent volume of this series (though it is on my TBR!).
As a female reader, who absolutely will recommend this series to any young girl I see, it still sometimes gets old to be reminded of the struggles. I absolutely do not speak for all female readers, and I certainly cannot speak for the BIPOC community, but for me personally I get frustrated with the arguments and prefer to see a story with a lead female who is strong and capable but isn't constantly fighting the system. It's great to mention, and even bring up regularly, but there came a point where I put the book down because I did not feel like I was enjoying the story anymore.
With that said - PrinceLess is absolutely a must-read for all the reasons I outlined above, and deserves all the awards it has received and more.
Gold Medal: Sailor Moon (1991 - 1997) by Naoko Takeuchi
I had a hard time ranking the Silver and Gold Medals. At first, Sailor Moon was Gold, hands down. But then I started thinking about it, and made it Silver. Then I started writing about it, and realized there is no possible way it could take #2 in this list.
Coming in about ten years later than Song of the Lioness, and twenty years before PrinceLess, Takeuchi's PGSM became a much bigger pop culture phenomenon than either of the other two series. To this day, thirty years after its publication this manga series is still going strong, and still one of the most highly referenced and beloved magical girl and strong-female-lead stories ever created. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that. I was watching the original run in elementary school, and it was one of the few anime that was deemed "cool" even by non-nerd or non-geek standards. Today, my teen and pre-teen little sisters love it (in its newer form, Sailor Moon Crystal, more so than its original) and even the teens I work with at the library not only know it but have seen it. If I were to ask any of these teens if they'd read Song of the Lioness or the next title, PrinceLess, I am quite certain the answer is no. Sailor Moon was almost Gold Medal for this popularity alone.
Sailor Moon is a chosen-one trope in which the princess of the ancient Moon Kingdom is reborn in modern-day earth and must protect the universe from alien threats. She herself, and her team of Sailor Senshi, are technically aliens who were reincarnated as humans. It sounds very sci-fi when you describe it this way, but it's mostly a fantasy/magical series than anything. Sailor Moon, or Usagi, is an emotional wreck - a crybaby, traditionally 'weak' in her femininity, and not very smart. She spends most of her time slacking off and daydreaming about love. In fact, a large chunk of Usagi's story is romance, mostly the reason this series was strongly considered for Silver Medal.
Here's the thing, though. Usagi is strong. She frequently proves herself, and is the one who always saves the day, saves her love interest more often than he saves her, and uses her femininity as her power. She is strong because of, and not in spite of, her womanhood. She is beautiful, and caring, and these are her truest strengths that make her the most powerful being in the series. She is surrounded by powerful women, and in fact, femininity is, in a way, the PGSM's universe's requirement for being strong in the first place. Most of the villains at the top are also female. One must be female in order to be a Sailor Guardian. Femininity is strength in this story.
The problem I have with this series in regards to my own criteria is that it is most definitely 50% romance, at the minimum, and probably much more. Usagi, especially once she regains her memories as Princess Serenity, pines for her lost love, and in her past life had even killed herself in a reverse Romeo-and-Juliet when she found Prince Endymion dead. What was meant to be a romantic tragedy is someone cringey by today's standards. However- despite romance and love interests being a critical part of the story, it is used by Usagi in the same way that her womanhood is - it is her strength, and at no point is her love interest a weakness, which is the problem with many female-led stories. Furthermore, romantic love is not the most prominent type of love, either. Usagi has a deep, platonic connection with her friends, they truly love each other for who they are, and so therefore the romantic love, not being more important than the protagonist's platonic love, does not contribute to weakness.
Honorable Mentions : more books or series you might really love
Enchanted Forest Chronicles (1985 - 1993) by Patricia C. Wrede
This series only 'won' an Honorable Mention here because it was already given the Rebekah Mabry Gold Medal in my previous top 3 hub - "Here There Be Dragons." It's a series that breaks down gender norms and celebrates platonic and romantic love. If you want a princess-saves-herself story that hits all the criteria above in the wittiest, most perfect way, you need to read this series!
Woven in Moonlight (2020) by Isabel Ibañez
Not exactly a princess-saves-herself tale, but this book is a fantastic story about a girl who risks everything for the greater good of her people. She is strong, resourceful, and smart, and she does not need a love interest to save the day - but it doesn't hurt, either! A rich and beautiful Bolivian fantasy, it is worth every moment.
A Little Princess (1905) by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Most of you will roll your eyes at this - and also probably complain about imperialism. Yes, this book, as with every book published, is a construct of its author's time. Are there problems with this book? Yes, I will not defend it. But this book is beautiful, too. Its main character is forced into all the social constructs of being a girl, and a child, and yet she overcomes these norms. She never discards her girlhood or femininity. Sara makes friends with people society tells her not to, encourages girls to be more than what society thinks them, and even looks at a mean, cruel woman and tells her she, too, is a princess, and deserving of love. If that isn't worth reading, then what is?
The Princess in Black (2014 - ) by Shannon Hale
A cute adventure series featuring a pretty little princess and her crime-fighting nightly persona. I gifted the first few of these to my little sister when she much littler than she is now, and she loved them. There's no deep message here, just a fun little series that shows even princesses can be heroes!
More from Rebekah
- There Be Dragons Here : 3 Dragon Series to Read or Re-read
What reader hasn't, at some point in their life, closed a book and said, "It would have been better with dragons." Honestly, what wouldn't be better with dragons? I compile here my gold, silver, and bronze medals for books that you've probably read,
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- Audiobook Review: "We Set the Dark On Fire" by Tehlor Kay Mejia
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Do you have favorite princess-warrior tales you want to share? Please let us know in the comments below!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
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