Last week I met a friend for drinks and, much to our mutual horror, we found ourselves discussing Twilight. Cards on the table: I’m not a Twilight fan. I read the first book and had no interest in continuing with the series. It’s not just the soppy, overwrought prose or the fact that Bella Swan is the least interesting protagonist ever. I think Twilight contains an extremely unhealthy model of romantic relationships. I would be more than a little disturbed to see my (hypothetical) teenage daughter reading a book in which the “hero” is basically stalking the heroine and is constantly tempted to hurt her because he “can’t help himself.”*
The conversation made me think about what books I would give to a teenager who had devoured the Twilight books, with the hopeful end goal of getting her to like books with better prose and more interesting heroines. Given my antipathy to the series I may not be the best person to evaluate what other books might appeal to a Twilight fanatic. Nonetheless I’m going to take a crack at it. I suspect that a big part of Twilight‘s appeal to teens is the fact that it treats Bella’s problems and her crush on Edward as life-and-death matters. I know teenagers also enjoy the romance. So I tried to think of YA fantasy novels that take teenagers and their emotions seriously and have a romantic storyline. Here’s what I came up with.
Warning: Possible spoilers ahead for Dealing with Dragons, The Hero and the Crown, Summers at Castle Auburn, and War for the Oaks
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede
Princess Cimorene of the Kingdom of Linderwall is tall, dark-haired, beautiful, and bored out of her mind with endless lessons on etiquette and embroidery. When her parents betroth her to the handsome but dull-witted Prince Therandil, Cimorene runs away and volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. Cimorene settles in nicely with her new roommate, the dragon Kazul. But soon she notices that something very suspicious is happening in the Mountains of Morning and it all seems to revolve around the oily wizard Zemenar. Can Cimorene unravel Zemenar’s plot? And can she prevent Therandil from “rescuing” her from Kazul’s cave?
I love this book but I have to admit I’m not 100% confident it will appeal to Twilight fans. Sixteen-year-old Cimorene is definitely a teenager to take seriously, but will teenage girls who identify with awkward, unhappy Bella Swan like capable, confident Cimorene? Dealing with Dragons also lacks a romance for its protagonist (although the next book, Searching for Dragons, delivers on that front), and its humorous take on fairy-tale cliches may not appeal to those who liked the deadly-serious tone of Twilight. This may be best for a teen girl who liked the fantasy elements in Twilight but thought Bella was boring.
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
Awkward, freckled Aerin is beloved by her father, the King of Damar, but she is an outcast in his court. Her late mother is said to have been a sorceress who seduced the King by witchcraft. Aerin can’t seem to work the unique magic, the Gift, that runs in the royal family’s veins. She has some talent for swordplay but, as the King’s only daughter, cannot be risked in battle. Most humiliatingly, Aerin accepts a malicious cousin’s dare to eat the leaves of a poisonous plant and becomes violently ill. During her recovery, Aerin begins trying to re-train her father’s wounded horse Talat–and begins experimenting to see if she can rediscover the lost formula for kenet, an ointment that can protect against fire.
I think Twilight fans will sympathize and identify with Aerin during the book’s early scenes, but Aerin goes through a lot more character growth than Bella does in Twilight. Furthermore, while Aerin does fall in love, I like that having a cute boy notice her doesn’t magically cure all of Aerin’s problems–nor is it the most important thing that happens to her in the book. That little synopsis above doesn’t scratch the surface of the things Aerin will accomplish in The Hero and the Crown. Watching the misfit princess grow into a legendary hero is, in a word, awesome.
The Hero and the Crown has a (loosely related) sequel, The Blue Sword, which is another worthy choice for a Twihard.
Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn
This charming fantasy novel is a beautiful coming-of-age story. Impulsive but principled teenager Corie is the bastard daughter of a prominent noble family. For three-quarters of the year Corie lives with her no-nonsense herbalist grandmother. In the summers, however, her grandmother has grudgingly agreed to let Corie’s uncle Jaxon bring Corie to the royal court, where Corie’s beloved half-sister Elisandra is Prince Bryan’s future wife. Watching Corie grow up, grow wiser, and yet still remain true to herself is a terrific pleasure. I think Corie’s worries about what she wants from life and the romances in the book might appeal to Twilight fans–and, from a life-lessons standpoint, I like that gorgeous Prince Bryan isn’t quite what Corie thinks he is.
Even though it’s not a YA novel and the heroine is not a teenager, I think War for the Oaks could be a hit with Twilight fans. As in Twilight, a human woman finds herself involved with a supernatural being whose primary desire is to protect her. War for the Oaks manages to avoid making it creepy, however, largely because Eddi’s immortal lover treats her like a partner instead of like a fragile nuisance who’s too delicate to deal with his world.
* Not that this couldn’t be a compelling setup for a dark novel about obsessive love. But Twilight wants us to think of Edward as the perfect boyfriend. Gross.