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alina starkov in netflix\'s shadow and bone
alina starkov in netflix\'s shadow and bone
Dávid Lukács/Netflix
Culture > Entertainment

BookTok Fans Have A Problem With This Fantasy Trope

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Strong female characters carry the fantasy genre. So why do so many stories end with the leading woman losing her powers? Powerless and finished with her epic battles, she goes home with her male counterpart (who gets to keep his magical skills) to live happily ever after. You’ve heard of the Bechdel Test: To pass the Bechdel Test, a work must feature at least two women, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must concern something other than a man. Maybe you’ve even heard of the Sexy Lamp Test: If you can replace the woman in the story with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story’s outcome, it fails.

But have you heard of the Action Figure Test? Along the same lines as the former media critiques, this asks if a female main character has agency. Agency means the capacity of an individual to have the power and resources to fulfill their potential. Plenty of high-stakes, widely-loved BookTok series star women who can take a hit then hit back, defend themselves, and even kill. But, at the end of the day, somehow, they end up with little more agency than a female character written to be rescued by a man after the plot calls for them to be stripped of their abilities. BookTok isn’t having it, and neither am I. Spoilers for Throne of Glass, A Court of Thorns and Roses, and Shadow and Bone follow. 

Aelin Galathynius in Throne Of Glass

Kingdom of Ash, the conclusion to the Throne of Glass series, ends with Aelin waking up next to Rowan. She’s been crowned queen and Rowan will rule by her side. After fighting her way across the continent, her reward is to lose her fire magic, water magic, wyrd magic, near-unlimited manipulation abilities, and to become full Fae. So now, she’s somehow below her lover’s level of magic and also lost her mortality in order to be by Rowan forever and maybe push out an heir someday. Awesome… totally what we all wanted from the end of Throne of Glass.

Nesta Archeon in A Court Of Thorns And Roses

Valkyrie. Witch. Lady Death. Queen of Queens. Sarah J. Maas’ more controversial character, Nesta, had undeniable power. 

To make a long list short, here’s a summary of everything Nesta could do: 

  • “Pure Death” (We don’t exactly know what that means.)
  • Sensed the Cauldron
  • Connected to the Mother
  • Linked to the Dread Trove

Fans of Nesta couldn’t get their hands on A Court of Silver Flames fast enough. SJM promised Nesta’s story was far from over and her insane wealth of powers would be explored. And after devouring the behemoth of a book, guess what fans got: powerless Nesta! But why did she lose her powers? She gave them up so that her sister, Feyre (our protagonist from the first three novels in the series), can have a baby. And yes, it is only because of the intervention of the Mother that Nesta didn’t lose her powers altogether. It’s unknown how much she lost and how much she kept, but she is still linked to the Dread Trove. 

But, for an extra annoying ending, we do get to find out that before she gave her powers up that she was more powerful than Rhysand. Not anymore, though. 

Alina Starkov in Shadow and Bone

Alina Starkov was the Sun Summoner, one of the most powerful Grisha who had ever lived, and the only one capable of destroying the volcra and the Shadow Fold. To accomplish such feats, she had to kill her lover, Mal, the third and final amplifier. When she pushed the knife through his chest, her powers left her and manifested in the people around her, giving them the numbers to defeat The Darkling and his army. 

She’s presumed a dead saint and spoken of as a martyr who died to rid the world of The Darkling. But, she’s not dead. She disappeared after the final battle in Ruin and Rising and married Mal. The pair then moved back to Keramzin to rebuild the orphanage her and Mal grew up in. Yeah, Mal got stabbed and died, but he’s totally fine. And now he gets to live his life with his awesome wife that conveniently doesn’t feel the need to run off and fight the good fight anymore. 

But, fans know the line from Ruin and Rising that devastated us all: “Sometimes he would find her standing by a window, fingers playing in the beams of sunlight that streamed through the glass, or sitting on the front steps of the orphanage, staring at the stump of the oak next to the drive.”

Alina never wanted to lose her abilities. Why did she have to?

This trope is angering readers who want FMCs to keep their agency and power.

We rarely see male characters lose their powers in stories like these. When we do, there isn’t a hidden benefit for their love interest. Aelin becoming immortal allows Rowan to spend the rest of his life with her, a major source of concern for him in former books. Nesta sacrificed her own magic to allow Feyre to give Rhysand a baby — and her prize for that selfless act is that she ended up with a reproductive system compatible with Cassian. Mal always wanted Alina to lose her powers so they could be together.

Each of these endings were written by women. Maas and Shadow and Bone author Leigh Bardugo haven’t given any explicit explanations behind their decisions to take away their protagonist’s powers. Nesta happened to lose her powers and gain a new reproduction system right around when Maas gave birth to her firstborn, and she has said that the bond Rhysand shares with Feyre is modeled after the bond she feels with her real-life husband. The most we can speculate is that perhaps they’re projecting their own life experiences and emotions into their characters, like all authors do in some capacity. But we can’t know for sure.

However you choose to interpret the decisions these authors made, no one can deny that readers have been taking issue with the strong female lead having to give up her strength. It hurts when we pick up a book thinking it will break out of the box and it pulls us right back to the 1950s with its conclusion. (Like actually, why did Nesta have to have her full uterus changed in order to get pregnant with Cassian’s babies? Nothing in the books has shown us she desires that. She even suggested Feyre get an abortion for her own safety.)

Plenty of female YA writers have created beautiful, intricate worlds where their girls keep their crowns at the end: Holly Black, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Victoria Aveyard, Sabba Tahir, Richelle Mead, Cassandra Clare, Marissa Meyer, and so many more. If you’re sick of FMCs trading the highground for a white-picket-fence life, pick up a novel by any of the authors I just listed. Stay critical of the reasons behind a woman’s loss of power or agency in stories; even if the text is written by a woman, that doesn’t mean sexism hasn’t seeped into the story. 

There is power in being a mother and a wife, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a fairy-tale love story. But we have a cornucopia of novels to pull from when we’re feeling like reading a story where the woman plays second fiddle to the men in her life. Very few narratives actually show a mother and wife as the main character who can go at it alone or successfully avoid robbing the woman of her agency.

Support women authors. If you’re sick of FMCs losing their power, spend your cash on other books and eventually the publishers will follow the money. Unfortunately, there are quite a few BookTok favorites that fall under this trope. Enough that people have noticed. And it’s not just books — it’s all media. Next time you watch a Marvel movie, take a second to think of all the female heroes who once flew into battle that have been permanently grounded. Never forget how they ended Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Joss Whedon is on seriously thin ice.) We need more women in media that get happily ever after and keep their power, too.

Emma Lingo is the senior editor at Her Campus’s University of Missouri chapter. She oversees the entertainment and culture verticals on the site, including television, movies, and book coverage. Beyond Her Campus, Emma works as a freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared in The List, The Missourian, Vox Magazine, Shifter Magazine and more. She will graduate with a major in journalism in Summer 2023 with an emphasis on reporting and writing. In her free time, Emma enjoys reading, journaling, and hanging out with her cat Tuna. She’s a certified Swiftie who has a major bone to pick with John Mayer and is always down to go from a drive and blast music.