Fantasy with competent, proactive protagonists
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Competence-porn Fantasy, if you will.
I've come to dislike stories with hapless protagonists who mainly react to what's happening to them, stumbling from one plot point to another by virtue of their good-guy halo, while having no clue what's going on in general.
I'd like to read about people who have goals, in general know what they're doing, are informed or make good efforts to become informed if they aren't, and try to form plans that go beyond the next five minutes.
Let's see... I think The Drowning City and sequels should fit the bill. The main character is an agent of the crown, and though things do spiral rather out of control at times she's still very good at her job.
Wurts & Feist's Daughter of the Empire and sequels start off with the main character mostly reacting, but as she adapts she becomes more and more proactive; she stumbles and makes mistakes at times but she's clever, unorthodox and can be quite ruthless when backed into a corner.
Ghosts in the Snow and sequels are fantasy-mystery hybrids so there's a fair amount of "reacting" (because if they knew exactly what was going on it wouldn't be much of a mystery anymore), but the main fantasy-detective character is certainly competent and goal-oriented. The latter books start to get gory, though, just as a warning.
Legend of Nightfall is another one where at least one of the protagonists is competent and adaptable. The other protagonist is more the noble-intentions-no-common-sense type, but the competent one is the primary POV character (maybe only POV character, it's been a while since I last read it) and we basically see the bumbling hero through his eyes the whole time, which makes it a lot more interesting.
The Death of the Necromancer also fits the bill, IIRC. Lots of intrigue so there are certainly stretches where the protagonists don't quite know what's up, but they're very skilled, smart and proactive.
This may or may not be your cup of tea (no pun intended), but Gail Carriger's "The Parasol Protectorate" series (first book is Soulless) is all about a protagonist who is very competent at a time when women were not supposed to be such. They're really fun books.
I would recommend the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham beginning with A Shadow in Summer. For the most part, not only are most things done with purpose, (especially in the later books) but it also was something I had never seen before in a fantasy (Not specifically regarding the characters themselves or the setting, but the approach to the story and the consequences of the plot.) Forget planning in the next five minutes - the characters in this series have to think on a longer scale entirely (hence the 'long' in Long Price Quartet.)
It's hard to track down because although it is relatively recent it wasn't in print very long, but I believe there is a two volume omnibus edition by Orbit called Shadow and Betrayal and Seasons of War. It was one of the best things I have read in the past couple of years.
I'm thinking about the Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey (the first is Kushiel's dart). The main character, Phedre no Delaunay is trained as a courtesan-spy. The story starts out with her as a child, but once she's grown, she is definitely competent.
Another really good book is the steerswoman's road and sequels by Rosemary Kirstein. Strictly speaking it's not fantasy, but it does read like fantasy. The main character's distinguishing character trait is her reasoning ability (which makes her a steerswoman). From very little information she manages to reason out information about her world, including the fact that one of the wizards is destroying their society. Of course, she's not going to stand by idly...
>6 zjakkelien: Competent, maybe, but as far as I remember not proactive. Even once she was grown the plot was little more than a thinly veiled convenience to have her dragged from a sexual encounter to the next.
If you're not averse to somewhat-YA fantasy, the protagonists of Sabriel, and Lirael / Abhorsen would probably qualify.
Cazaril and Ista in The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of souls too.
In The Lies of Locke Lamora, the eponymous character is the schemer, mover and shaker, or aims to be until bigger fish try to hit his pond.
Most novels by Barbara Hambly have proactive protags. C. J. Cherryh - most of hers, particularly The Paladin, Gate of Ivrel - Morgaine definitely knows her way, and Vanye grows proactive as the books progress.
I have a sweet preference for this sort of book - if you don't mind a competent character thrown in over their head and becoming informed and proactive, I could lengthen the list a lot.
I'd strongy second Death of the Necromancer too, and the loose trilogy of sequels beginning with The Wizard Hunter, all by Martha Wells.
And I loved Steerswoman's Road. These books are the best kept secret, it's a terrible shame.
^7 I wonder how far you read in the Kushiel series? Phedre definitely is proactive, particularly in book 3.
God Save the Queen by Kate Locke? Xandra isn't completely aware of what's going on at the beginning of the book (her shifting perspective as she gains more information beyond her immediate experience is a big part of the book), but she always has goals that she's trying to do something about, and she's definitely competent at handling things on her own when she says she can.
"I have a sweet preference for this sort of book - if you don't mind a competent character thrown in over their head and becoming informed and proactive, I could lengthen the list a lot."
Yes, that would work too. So please share =)
I'm just a bit fed up with stories where everything contrives to *keep* the protagonists stumbling about in the dark for as long as possible.
As an aside, I find it noteworthy how many of the suggestions so far feature female protagonists.
>>7 Jarandel: I disagree. Phedre is proactive in every single book. In book 1, she's the one who talks Joscelin out of his resistance and gets him to live, she's the one who finds out Waldemar Selig's plans, she's the one who solves Elder brother's riddle, and she's the one who gets the Dalriada to ride. The same goes for the other books, in book 2 she's the one who goes hunting Melisande, in book 3, she's the one who decides to enter Darsanga and to go in search of the Name of God. Yes, there are plenty of sexual encounters in all of the books, but when someone creates this intricate a world and such detailed storylines, I think saying that her books are only about sex is taking it too far. I'm sure if that's what Jacqueline Carey wanted to do, she could have done it a lot faster...
I just started The Rook by Daniel O'Malley and I am really enjoying it so far. The protagonist is certainly competent, although she does stumble from situation to situation a bit. Good reason for that, though - she starts the book with no memory of who she is or anything about herself, probably because someone at work has tried to take her out. Work being an agency called the Checquy, which is "Her Majesty's Supernatural Service." Myfanwy Thomas knew in advance that she was going to lose her memory and left detailed notes and preparations for the person who would come after in her body. New-Myfanwy hasn't any of the emotional/psychological baggage that old-Myfanwy had - she's a lot more proactive and less shy, and between her instincts, intelligence, and the reams of notes left by Old-Myfanwy, she steps into Old-Myfanwy's role as a Rook for the Checquy to try and save her own life by tracking down the traitor, and from the look of things so far, foiling a supernatural invasion of Britain at the same time.
Here's a related thread in this group for convenience:
Fantasy with confident, angst-free protagonists
Sunshine would probably qualify. At the beginning the main character is dragged into a situation, but she's proactive throughout the rest of the book.
If you don't mind heading into steam-punk, Boneshaker would work. Basically, a teenage boy goes into a city full of zombies and poisonous gas to find out about his father, and his mother goes after him. Both of the characters have goals, even if only the mother has a good idea about what she's doing.
I'd recommend The Wee Free Men, as Tiffany Aching is certainly a competent and proactive protagonist. Really any of Terry Pratchett's witch books would work.
Even combined, the two threads you've started haven't yielded up much. I hope some other posters will be able to add on to the list.
Certainly by mid-way through the series, Tavi of Calderon in the Codex Alera is a very competent hero. In fact, he's been criticized for being TOO competent. He does have some angst issues early in the series, but he's on the way to being well over that.
Pyanfar Chanur in The Pride of Chanur certainly seems to know what she's doing at least 90% of the time.
Pratchett's Discworld series gives us Samuel Vimes, one of my favorite tough-talking, take-no-shit protagonists of all time. Except when he appears in books where he's not the protagonist (I don't think The Truth gives us the REAL Sam Vimes), he finds a way to gain the upper hand in almost every single conversation he has. Also, for a cynic, he sure has a way of standing firm for his ideals. Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, and Night Watch show him at his best. (I haven't read Snuff yet, and I was a little underwhelmed by Thud, though I did like it.)
I also enjoy competent and proactive protagonists, so I'm really enjoying this thread.
17> I just finished The Rook and it was terrific right to the end. I'm definitely buying it when it comes out in paperback and I'll be looking out for anything else that Daniel O'Malley writes!
I just have to pop in here and say how happy it makes me to see so many people praising The Rook! Dan and I are friends...we went to college together...and I'm just so happy and proud of him! Yay!
Almost everything in Lawrence Watt-Evans' Esthar series, except the one about dragon's blood. The Spell of the Black Dagger is particularly good, as the female protagonist is intelligent and capable, and things go wrong because she lacks information (which she couldn't have gotten) about the villain.
I'd second both the series by Amanda Downum and Daniel Abraham, both, apart from fitting your request, among the best Fantasy to have been released in recent years. And I'd add James Enge's Morlock Ambrosius series - after all, the protagonist is a Master Maker, surely it does not get any more competent than that?
In general, I'd say you'll have better luck with finding competent protagonists if you stick to Low Fantasy, as that tends to be free of hapless Chosen Ones and more likely to be populated with competent rogues. You might even consider checking out some Sword & Sorcery classics, like Robert E. Howard's Conan or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
I second all the Terry Pratchett recommendations for proactive protagonists. I don't think there have been any books of his which have featured hapless ones except for the Rincewind books and those are very much tongue in cheek for Pratchett to make fun of.
Other good fantasy I can think of with competent leads are
Robin Hobb's Assassin series. Fitz certainly does start out as hapless (a child of six) but grows to become truly monumental in terms of making the kingdom work and putting kings on the throne. I love this series. High fantasy at its best.
N.K. Jemisin writes very proactive leads too IMO but her stories are different. Not high fantasy for one thing. Very beautifully written for another.
If you don't mind urban fantasy, I love Ilona Andrews' Magic series. I would start with Magic Strikes though, I've had people (my best friend) complain about the first or the first two books. Her Edge series is more romance-y but with equally competent heroes.
I liked Patricia Briggs' early epic fantasy duologies (and The Hob's Bargain). Not so much the Mercy Thompson books which I can't stand. Someone might have already mentioned these though -- I thought I saw a Pat Briggs rec floating out there somewhere.
Will add any others I think of. :-)
Oooh, I have to add Wen Spencer's Tinker books to this list. Tinker is small, a mechanic and a scienc-y genius stranded with a large part of Pittsburgh on an alternate world called Elfhome. The elves are somewhat Tolkien-esque but ALSO somewhat Native American. In fact, Wen Spencer (whom I wrote to) told me the Wind clan elves were modeled on middle easterners like Armenians and the Earth clan was modeled on polynesian peoples. I *loved* that bit of diversity.
>>23 anatwork.k: I love the Assassin series as well. I just hesitated to mention it, because although Fitz is competent in the things he learns (well, except for the Skill), he tends to throw himself into situations without thinking it through, usually throwing his education out the window while doing it. The books are great though! I think Fitz is one of the most human characters in fantasy.
>>25 zjakkelien: I agree that he does tend to throw himself into situations (at least in the Assassin trilogy) but that can be argued to be a result of his age. By the time the Fool trilogy rolls around he is one of the most proactive characters I have seen in epic fantasy. I completely agree that Fitz is one of the most human characters in fantasy -- that is what made the books great for me. And the Fool. And Nighteyes. Sigh. :-)
On a side note, the liveship books are really good too (with the benefit of being a totally different epic fantasy world) and Malta Vestrit (whom we've mentioned in another thread in this forum) is one of protagonists with the *most* agency I have ever seen. Honestly, she has the best character arc in modern fantasy that I have read in forever. She starts out awful and ends up my favourite character from these books. Althea has a lot of agency too but I just felt bad for her. Such awful things happen to her!
>>26 anatwork.k: I have only read the Assassin trilogy so far, so I'm glad to hear he is a bit more mature in the Fool trilogy. Normally I wouldn't like a character who makes so many mistakes, but Hobb just makes it work. What he does feels completely natural, usually I wouldn't even realize he could have done something smarter until later in the book, when one of the other characters would tell him. I'm looking forward to reading the Fool books!
>>26 anatwork.k: - Actually, the Liveship Traders (like Hobb's current Rain Wild Chronicles) is set in the same world as the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, just farther down South (there is even some overlapping of characters). The only books by Robin Hobb that are not set in that world is the (much underrated, in my opinion) Soldier's Son trilogy.
Just finished The Iron Wyrm Affair. Now there's a proactive protagonist! She's terrific, as is the rest of the book.
>>27 zjakkelien: Oh the Fool books are great! You have a real treat waiting for you.
>>28 Larou: Yes, I realized later that I worded it a bit weirdly. What I meant was that the Liveship traders weren't set in the same European style medieval castles and swords and armies world. The rain wilds at least are a completely original fantasy world IMO. And beautifully done. And the fool is in all nine books. :-)
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