14 October 2015 - 5:42 pm

Review: The Heroine of the World by Tanith Lee

As a young reader, I loved Tanith Lee’s stories. I had come across her Unicorn series, which was strange and different, and quite beautiful in its own way. Her writing intrigued me.

Recently, I came across one of her adult fantasy books (that is, a book that wasn’t YA, not a raunchy-adult book), and wanted to see what it was like. I’ve heard lots of good stuff about her other work. I was curious about how different her writing was for different age ranges, and wanted to enjoy another intriguing story by her.

As it turned out, quite different. Here’s what I found.

In a nutshell

The Heroine of the World is the story of Aradia (or Ara, or several other derivations she has through the novel). A fortune teller prophesies that she will be a heroine of the world, setting her up for a great and important future. She lives through several wars, changes sides a few times, and winds up being a pawn of those in power in several different situations.

This is a story with huge potential: a rich, interesting world with politics and wars going on, and a skilful writer at the helm. Sadly, it doesn’t live up to that potential.

Star rating: 2/5


I’m going to be blunt: this is a book that doesn’t deliver on its promises. From the blurb on the back of the book and the enigmatic prophecy in the story, the reader is led to believe that Ara is important to the fate of nations, an element that can swing battles – wars, even – in and out of one’s favour, someone who can influence kings and princes.

None of this happens in the book. When reading it, I kept waiting for the ‘real’ plot to start, for Ara to move from being a young girl lost in wartorn circumstances and start being the heroine of the story (of any story). It didn’t come to pass. A lot of this is due to her character, her agency, and how it was presented and developed, so will be covered in the next section.

She does become a pawn in various power plays, but only in distant and circumstantial ways. She saves the life of a soldier who eventually helps to win a war, but this is an accidental outcome that she doesn’t discover until after it’s all done. She helps another man get into power by entering into a paper marriage, after which she promptly leaves and has nothing further to do with it. She doesn’t return to witness his rise to power, and hears about it only through the grapevine from a great distance.

At the same time, she can be a great hindrance to those around her. She ruins reputations and undermines plans, again completely by accident. She causes just as many problems as she helps solve; probably more. All of it without any agency or purpose whatsoever: she ricochets around the world like a pinball, rebounding off obstacles and careening through gates.

She isn’t what I would call a ‘heroine’ by any stretch (protagonist, yes, but that isn’t the same as being the heroine of a story) and her ‘world’-level influence is questionable. There’s as much argument for her being a villain as there is a heroine, given the outcome of her presence in most circumstances.

I was also expecting a fantasy book, but again, that wasn’t what was delivered. There is plenty of opportunity for magic and fantastical elements, but it never quite got there. (More on this in the writing section.) It is a different world with different geography, but it felt like it could have been set in medieval Europe with a few name changes (and no other changes) and the story would have spun out the same.


Ara is the crux of the book and, ultimately, its downfall for me. We see the whole story through her eyes (it’s written in first person POV), which nails us to her empty little head.

When I say ’empty’, I mean that we don’t get to see much of a character in there. The book begins when she’s 13 and her home country is invaded. She’s moved to where she will be out of the way, the city is occupied, her family all wind up dead, and she has no clue at all about what’s going on. That’s realistic for a 13-year-old (being bewildered by politics and ‘adult stuff’), but she also has no curiosity about what’s going on. She makes no attempt to gain an understanding about what’s happening in the world outside the house she’s living in, and in fact actively avoids doing so, despite being aware that it directly influences her own fate.

This, right here, is a symptom of what annoyed me so much when reading this book. I’ve seen some reviews of the book lauding it as an example of how the world happens to someone, not the other way around, and how much it sucks to be a female heroine in a fantasy novel. And while this may be true, that doesn’t make it fun to read, and this is hardly the only way to achieve those results.

A heroine to whom the world happened, who was a pawn in a game bigger than she could grasp, who was constantly disadvantaged by being female, could have also been many other things. Ara failed to be anything but those things. She’s a pale stereotype of all the ways being a female in a patriarchal society sucks, who is defined by her weaknesses, ignorance and failings, with nothing to redeem her.

She never attempts to understand the political and social tides that toss her around. She knows as much as she’s forced to know (by absolutely necessity or because it’s unavoidable). She doesn’t ever draw any real opinions about what’s going on outside of her own skin (and very few about what’s going on inside, too). Throughout the story, she’s a doll moving with the tide.

She doesn’t have any real goals, until partway through the book when she decides that seeing a certain man (Thenser) again is what she wants. She is largely passive, accepting the positions she is put in by whatever man has possession of her at the time, and making whatever choices are expected of her. She spends most of her time waiting for her man to come to her, not the other way around.

To be fair to little Ara, the only times she is proactive or tries to pursue her own desires, she’s punished for it. The most extreme example is when she tries to join her beloved (Thenser, whom she is not even certain actually loves her), attempts to travel across an island being invaded, is (predictably) robbed, nearly raped (again), and winds up in prison, destined to be executed.

It doesn’t help that she’s a stupid (and I mean that in the literal ‘not-smart’ sense), self-involved little girl who never grows into anything more. This is another part of the novel that is frustrating for me: she has no character arc. The story takes her from age 13 to 17, and while she gains some new experiences, skills, and information, she doesn’t grow as a person. The only real change is that she’s fixated on a man she believes she’s in love with; Thenser the only thing outside of herself that she has any interest in.

Her reaction to extreme situations is also frustrating, especially as a reader. Ara often winds up near battles or in volatile, dangerous situations, where she must act. These could have been her opportunity to be proactive, to find that strength that she otherwise lacks, and even be an avenue for growth. Instead, every single time she’s under threat, she becomes distant from the situation. Emotionally and mentally, explicitly stated in the narrative, she checks out and avoids engaging with what’s going on. The first couple of times would be understandable – she’s a young girl who has never encountered real violence before – but this happens every time. She doesn’t learn, change, or grow. She doesn’t learn how to cope under those circumstances. Her escapes are either reflex or luck, like the time she accidentally killed a man trying to rape her because she had no idea she was holding a blade.

It might be realistic, but that doesn’t make it something I want to read, and it doesn’t make her a heroine. I kept waiting for her to find some strength in herself; the one time it almost happens is when yet another man is trying to rape her and she winds up hitting him over the head with something heavy. She almost redeemed herself there, but the internal monologue that went with it completely undercut any sense of strength or growth in her, and the next time she was faced with a threatening situation, she went all distant and useless again.

I kept hoping to see her grow into a heroine, into a glimpse of the adult she would eventually become, but I was denied. The truth is that I can’t think of a single heroic thing she does through the whole story.

The only thing that comes close is that she saves the life of a man she knows by crossing his name off an execution list. He (Thenser) goes on to be important in the wars that are raging, and later she grows fixated on him and winds up building her life around him. Is that her heroic moment? Enabling the story’s true hero to live?

This happens fairly early in the story, and I hoped that it was a glimpse of the heroine she would become. For the first time, she showed a glimpse of a desire to help someone who was not herself, and risked herself to do it. She seemed to want to do the right thing, to fight the killing around her in a way she could achieve.

Sadly, that’s the only time she shows even a glimmer of that sort of thing. It’s as if she ticked a box and moved on, back into utter self-involvement. Or, possibly, she spends so long obsessing over whether she’ll get caught that I think she was too scared to risk it again. Even though absolutely no consequences came of it for her.

For a story called The Heroine of the World, our protagonist is utterly reliant on men. For everything. She is constantly being saved by one, or waiting for one to rescue her. When she doesn’t need saving, she’s relying on men to feed and clothe her, guide her, teach her, house her, transport her to someplace safe, tell her what to do. (There’s a brief respite where she’s mentored by a woman, but even then it’s so she can learn how to be around – and catch – men, because Ara can’t learn anything unless someone is purposefully teaching it to her.) What she gives them in return is sex. Even when she saves Thenser, her one moment of risk for another person, she’s only successful because she uses her vagina to distract the man who might catch her (she’s 14 years old at this point in the story). And yet she fails to have any real sexual awareness and doesn’t even manage to become a vixen, using sex to manipulate men. She has not a single feminine wile that she’s able to use.

The sexual politics in the book are realistic and brutal, and those likely to be sensitive to that sort of issue should be warned. Ara starts a sexual relationship with an adult man at age 14, and he is an acknowledged paedophile in the story. There are rapes and attempted rapes throughout the story, including what’s probably best classified as consensual rape (she’s too passive to say ‘no’ but also does not say ‘yes’).

What about other characters in the book? Honestly, a lot of them are more interesting, but pall because we only see them through Ara’s self-involved eyes. She has no curiosity and no insight, which doesn’t really help illuminate those around her for a reader.

One example of this is poor Thenser, the one character in the book who pops up throughout. He meets Ara as a child, then later as a more developed teenager, and eventually becomes her lover. (The paedophilic vibes in this book are squirmingly obvious.)

The ‘romance’ between Ara and Thenser is strange at best. It’s obvious how Ara convinces herself that she’s in love with him (this is exactly how it feels to me – she talks herself into it), but I am utterly bewildered by Thenser’s attitude towards her. He seems to vary between bewildered, put-upon, tolerant, and exasperated, and yet he keeps coming back to her.

She’s a complication and a thorn in his side at many turns; she’s a childish and costly burden to him at others. This is an adult man who is actively involved in the powerplays and wars being waged around them, who is a key player in many senses, putting up with a girl trying to have a teenage romance. He never finds out that she saved his life way back near the start of their story (she never bothers to tell him), so what reason does he have to have affection for her or continue to look after her? It seems a lot like obligation coupled with heaps of mind-blowing sex, which doesn’t really balance out just how much trouble she causes for him through the story.

There’s also a suggestion that his affection is linked to the fact that she looks like her (adult) aunt, whom he tried and failed to screw early in the story (before the aunt died). Not exactly a healthy place for this relationship to be built from.

Why, Thenser, why? Apart from putting up with Ara, he’s the best candidate for a hero this story has. He’s the only redeeming thing about her, and she’s the thing that brings him down (repeatedly).

I want to grab both of them and shake them hard. Ultimately, though, Ara feels like a heap of missed opportunities, representing all the worst stereotypes of useless teenage girls.


There is one reason this is not a one-star review: the writing in this novel is glorious. It is rich and skilful, winding in beautiful imagery and metaphor that carries us along. The language is simply gorgeous (and probably the only reason I made it to the end of the book). Lee’s descriptions are works of art.

This is the type of language that deserves to be studied in English Literature classes. Truly beautiful, clever, poetic prose.

It is such a shame that she didn’t do something better with it!

The writing leans heavily on metaphors, mixing up the description with fantastical elements so much that a lot of the novel takes on a dreamlike quality. Sadly, this is also what makes the fantasy/magical side of the story not work.

There are moments when I suspect we’re supposed to assume that something magical or goddess-driven is happening, but because even mundane scenery is given high-blown, mystical imagery, it comes off as just another clever metaphor. There’s no differentiation between what we’re supposed to take as literal description and what’s colourful metaphor. Ara is so ignorant and easily bewildered by ordinary things, it’s hard to tell if she is being affected by something mystical, or just having a turn because she’s a bit flighty in the head.

It’s possible that Lee has done this on purpose. It’s possible that she’s making a point here; after all, in a fantasy world, magic is not fantastical or out of the ordinary. As a reader, though, there is no real differentiation between what we consider to be ordinary and what we would recognise as not of our world.

Definitely language and imagery worth revelling, though, whichever way you want to read its metaphors.

Would I recommend it?

No. I found the novel extremely frustrating and I dislike books that don’t deliver on their promises. Subverting them is fine, surprising me is fine, but simply failing is different. This book fails in almost every way that matters to me.

A waste of wonderful writing.

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