Warning: May contain Spoilers
When people talk about strong female characters in literature, the term “agency” is often used, so I thought I would talk about what this means. In fiction, the term refers to: “the ability for a person, or agent, to act for herself or himself. A person who is not allowed to act for her/himself is lacking in agency, or is said to have been denied agency.” Often, female characters lack more agency than their male counterparts.
Agency is central, not just for character development, but for a good story. No one wants to read about a character that just has things happen to them- we want to see characters make choices. So many times, however, characters are put in a position where they have little to no agency, not through their fault, but because of the author.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, the first book of the Grisha trilogy. Here’s the Goodreads summary, for those unfamiliar with the book:
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
For the most part, I loved this book. The worldbuilding is so different and interesting compared to the usual Western European based fantasy novels, the twist at the end was nicely set up (if a little too on the nose with the explanation), and I have a massive, everlasting crush on Genya Safin. However, it bugged me that the book wasn’t so much about Alina making choices, but rather being put into positions where she looked like she had agency, but didn’t really.
Let’s recap the major plot points of the book:
- Alina discovers she’s Grisha while saving the life of her best friend/love interest (Mal)
- Alina is taken away to train/study how to be a Grisha in the isolated and lavish Grisha palace
- It is revealed to Alina that there is a sinister plot going on and she must leave the palace
- Alina and Mal interest search for the Magical Artifact™ that will solve their problems
- Alina and Mal are captured, she is put under mind control and made to help in aforementioned sinister plot
- Alina finds the will to break free and runs away with Mal, while showing greater power than anyone imagined she had
Now, out of those 6 plot points, Alina gets to make a decision about one, and even that’s questionable. We are told explicitly that she did not consciously know she had powers, that she knew she was suppressing her powers, or that she was aware she was using her powers when she saved Mal. The scene after she uses her power for the first time proves that she is as confused and scared as everyone else. Even when she does learn to use her powers by the end of the book, it’s made clear that she doesn’t have a full grasp of how her powers work, and is mostly relying on instinct/luck/ the Magical Artifact™.
Alina also doesn’t get a choice in going to the Palace- she is placed in a situation where she has no control of what to wear, what to eat, what she studies and where she goes. Who she interacts with is also pretty heavily regulated, as we find out. Now, this is mostly due to the manipulations of the Darkling, who essentially rules the Grisha and the Palace, but I’m still going to count it as lack of female agency because Alina doesn’t get a choice in anything, from the way she eats to what she studies, and there’s not much room for her to make choices about her actions. She gets almost no agency to voice her concerns or wants, but is spoken for by the Darkling, essentially.
I would argue that Alina doesn’t get a choice in leaving the Palace-she is being manipulated and spoken for. It turns out that it’s all for a good reason, but the blatant manipulation and the position she was put in makes me seriously question if she really had a choice. Personally, I think it would have worked better if she had figured what was happening herself and then gone and looked for help or a way out, rather than being told and having everything organized for her.
As for tracking the Magical Artifact™ with Mal, there is a blatant lack of agency here. Alina wants to follow her original plan and get to safety, but Mal disagrees and wants to beat the antagonist to the Magical Artifact™. Mal is the only one that has all the skills needed to survive in the woods, and therefore is the only way to either safety or the artifact. Alina HAS to stick with him, or risk dying of exposure/starvation/being found by the wrong people. When someone with that much power over you decides that they’re going to do what they want, regardless of your feelings, that’s not choice, That’s coercion.
Through all this, it seems like Alina has an input in her actions- She deliberates on what is happening to her and is vocal about what she disagrees with, but it’s superficial as the major events of the plot are orchestrated by choices made for her or events that happen to her, rather than as consequences of her actions. This illusion is so problematic because it leads to arguments like “Well the female character chose this, so it can’t be sexist!”. No, you just put the female character in a position where she was being manipulated like a puppet by circumstances out of her control, and then told people she was pulling the strings. This is a trend that needs to stop in YA, and we need to start both giving female characters more agency in their plots and also recognizing when someone is writing something that leaves the decisions and consequences out of the protagonist’s power.