How do you like your heroines? Scrappy or stunning? Do you care?
A couple of weeks ago I re-read Ilona Andrews’ Blood Heir. The book was indie published in January and became an immediate bestseller. It has nearly six thousand ratings on the US Amazon site, almost all five stars. I’d been counting the days to publication, bought it as soon as it was available, and read it right away.
I enjoyed it—Ilona and Gordon’s books are an auto-buy for me and I don’t see that changing —but I didn’t love it the way I expected to. I don’t think my reaction had anything to do with the writing. The book was set in a familiar fictional world, with a nice blend of old and new characters. All the usual elements were present—kindness, humor, adventure, action, mythology, community, and snappy dialogue. I think my problem (if you’d call it a problem) was in what I brought to the book as a reader.
The heroine of Blood Heir is an important character in the hugely successful Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy series. In that series she’s Julie Olsen, an orphaned, feral street kid who’s adopted by Kate. Julie gains a family and a community, finds trust, love, and protection in a dangerous world. She grows up and discovers her own considerable magical powers, but she remains scarred by the crucible that formed her. For example, she always carries food, even though she never goes hungry anymore, because she spent her childhood in a state of near starvation. Julie is pretty enough. She’s feisty, attitude-y, and independent, with some well-hidden vulnerabilities. I find her a relatable, fascinating character.
In Blood Heir Julie returns to Atlanta from her new home in California because a prophecy has revealed that an ancient and super-powerful Big Bad will try to kill Kate and destroy all that Julie loves. Except she’s not Julie now. She’s been re-born as Aurelia Ryder, a high princess of an ancient and powerful magical dynasty related to Kate. She has a new, flawless face and body, incredible superpowers, wealth, education, even a new scent. She can’t tell anyone she’s home, because if Kate finds out, Kate will face the Big Bad and die.
When I first read about this set-up, I was just super-excited to read a story about Julie. I speculated privately that maybe the new name, new face, no Kate setup might be somehow related to contractual publishing matters. Or alternatively that it might be a way to start a spinoff story without reinventing a super-successful series that had been drawn to a satisfying conclusion.
Blood Heir has a powerful emotional element. Julie/Aurelia is back in Atlanta, but isolated from the family she loves and the community she cares deeply about. She can’t tell anyone who she is, and she can’t go home. Add in the reappearance of a wolf shifter she’s had a lifelong crush on—he also has new name, a new pack and massively enhanced magical powers—and you have a heroine with material, magical, and physical advantages carrying a terrible emotional burden.
I’m sorry to say, I didn’t care about this as much as I should have, and I think it’s because I don’t find rich, beautiful, powerful Aurelia as relatable as scrappy fighter Julie. I suppose she’ll become more Julie-like over the series as her secret crumbles and her community re-establishes itself, but she still stuns men with her unearthly beauty, she’s described as ‘regal’, she lives in a tumbledown building that appears to be a hovel but is a hidden palace, and she can heal her worst wounds by dumping hundreds (thousands? I forget) of dollars-worth of magical flowers and herbs in her gigantic marble bathtub which is permanently full and always magically just the right temperature.
I’ve noticed the characters and world in other recent Ilona Andrews books (the latest Hidden Legacy urban fantasy ones) have also become more high-glamor. The covers and images are also ultra-luxe. I admire and respect the authors and find them both smart and savvy, so I doubt this is an accident. It’s either an unavoidable natural progression over the course of a series (one sister marries a billionaire, they’re a tight-knit family, and a rising tide lifts all boats), or it’s a story ingredient that many readers enjoy. Given the popularity of billionaire romances it could well be the latter.
As I said, I love the authors’ writing, so I’ll continue to buy and enjoy the books, but I do hanker after their early stories starring broke, edgy, hilarious swamp-dwelling, wisecracking feuding families.
How about you? Is high glamor and flawless beauty on your story id list?
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I definitely prefer underdog characters. The more resources a character has, the more foregone the conclusion.
I love underdog characters. Here I suppose the heroine and the Big Bad are well matched, and while there will be lots of monsters and fighting and whatnot, the story question is in the emotional arc, which is not a foregone conclusion. That should be right up my street, but apparently I’m having trouble identifying with a rich, beautiful, powerful protagonist.
I auto-reject “billionaire” storylines because I think it’s just too casual an approach—how many billionaires are there in the real world, anyway? Not that many. And what does it take to become one? Nothing good, I’m afraid. When I read, I suspend disbelief all over the place, but for some reason, billionaires are my sticking point.
That said, in the current trilogy, I made my hero rich, although not a billionaire, not even close. It’s true, money solves a lot of problems, and I needed him to have problems that money couldn’t solve. Interesting to see your reaction to this current series, though. I wonder how the writers will play it out? Usually one thinks of a natural story progression as characters start out broke and/or desperate, and then through their ingenuity, bravery, and hard work, they accumulate worldly goods and the HEA as their justified reward. Seems like in this series, the only way to go is backward. 🙂
I don’t go for billionaire stories either. In my case it’s because in my past professional life I worked closely with and for some very wealthy people. I know a fair bit about the nuts and bolts of that life and guess what? People are people, good and bad, talented and flawed. And it’s definitely not all froth and glamor. I don’t begrudge other readers the billionaire fairy tale, just that in that setting I struggle to suspend my disbelief 😉
In Blood Heir, I don’t think the only way to go is backward. I think the progression is emotional. It starts with the character isolated and desperate, and my guess at the story promise is that through ingenuity, bravery, honesty and trust they will build a new community and earn an HEA in true love, restored family, a tight community and a safe world. I’m anticipating a major arc, but none of it is material. I think I’m going to enjoy it, but I suspect I’ll still feel distanced.
I’m just wondering at myself, that the wealth, beauty and privilege of the new-minted heroine makes it difficult for me to put myself in her shoes, when (say) I’m perfectly happy to identify with the disowned widow of some chivalrous order of militaristic space vampires (Sweep of the Blade, from the Innkeeper series by the same authors). Kick-ass space swordfighting maven, I’m there. Kick-ass Helen of Troy in urban fantasy Atlanta, not so much.
Flawless beauty is not on my reading list. In part, I think it’s because the books I’ve read that focused on the beauty and/or privilege of the heroine (or hero) tend to fall short on character development and plot. Not particularly fun to read.
Like Kay, “billionaire” is an automatic “nope” for me. I don’t need fiction to be 100% realistic, but I prefer it to be at least somewhat plausible.