Tough Travels: Non-Human Heroes

It’s the 1st of June, which means it’s Tough Travelling time once more! This is a feature hosted by Laura Hughes at Fantasy Faction (originally created by Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn). Every month, with the help of Diana Wynne Jones’s classic The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, it puts the spotlight on a particular fantasy trope, theme or cliché, and invites bloggers to list stand-out books related to that week’s theme.

This month’s theme is non-human heroes:

The Tough Guide assures us that HEROES are “mythical beings, often selected at birth, who perform amazing deeds of courage, strength and magical mayhem, usually against all odds.” Furthermore, “if you get to meet a so-called Hero, she/he always turns out to be just another human, with human failings, who has happened to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, more likely)”.

HOWEVER. For good or for evil, some of fantasy’s most memorable Heroes are not human at all. Some look human, but aren’t. Others may look monstrous, but be ‘human’ on the inside. Others still never pretend to be anything other than what they are – and why should they? In nearly all cases, we are likely to Learn Something from them – usually that appearances can be deceiving, or that the concepts of both ‘Human’ and ‘Hero’ are entirely subjective.

At first I thought I’d have trouble with this theme: so many of the heroes and heroines I remembered seemed to be plain old human. Sure, there were all sorts of fabulous magical beasts around them, but the actual point-of-view characters remained creatures of the more mundane variety. Then I thought harder about it, and realised I’d forgotten many great non-human heroes, simply because I’d found them so relatable that I’d thought of them as ‘human’ when they were clearly not. So here are my four favourites:

Strange the Dreamer

Book Cover: Strange the DreamerThis mesmerising fantasy novel puts non-humans centre-stage, and in particular, a blue-skinned magical “goddess” who wishes fervently to be human and lead a normal life. I’ll avoid saying more lest I spoil it for anyone, but suffice to say it was a beautifully written, spell-binding tale that had me hooked from start to finish, and is now an all-time favourite. I can also highly recommend the audiobook, which is beautifully read by Steve West.

Laini Taylor has also written another series with non-human heroes, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I’m choosing Strange the Dreamer here because I preferred it (though both are great!).

Perdido Street Station

Book Cover: Perdido Street StationAside from containing many weird, wonderful and nightmarish creatures, this book was remarkable in that it made me care for a character I initially found repulsive. Lin is a Khepri, which essentially means she has a human body with a beetle-like head (oh, and red skin). At first, references to her ‘carapace’ and ‘antennae’, not to mention descriptions of the human character being intimate with her, made me uncomfortable, but I soon came to really like and empathise with her, and was angry when she was treated cruelly or with prejudice by anyone else in the book.

The Hero of Ages (Mistborn #3)

Book Cover: The Hero of AgesThe Mistborn series features one of the most intriguing race of creatures I’ve ever encountered in fantasy: the Kandra. They are formless, shapeless creatures that take up the bones of other dead creatures and impersonate them. This particular book places one of them, TenSoon, in a key role. In a culture made stagnant by tradition, obedience and hierarchy, it’s up to him to force the rest of his kind to see the truth before it’s too late. I loved this character and the part he played. Indeed, I loved the whole book and the trilogy (well, initially it was just a trilogy) that it concluded.

Fire (Graceling Realm #2)

Book Cover: FireThe “monsters” in this book are not ugly. They are painfully beautiful – so beautiful they ensnare and control normal humans or creatures, or send them mad with desire. Monster versions of all kinds of animals exist, including “human monsters” like Fire, who is the last of her kind. She must constantly deal with the way her nature influences the reactions prejudices of normal humans, and resents what she is. This was an enchanting romance that explored what a curse it would actually be to be maddeningly beautiful.

Fire is technically the sequel to Graceling, which I mentioned last month, but the stories are only loosely connected and can be enjoyed independently.


For links to more Tough Travelling posts, or to join in yourself and see next month’s theme, check out the host page on Fantasy Faction!

< Last Month’s Tough Travels: ‘Assassins’

Next Month’s Tough Travels: ‘Adepts’ >

19 thoughts on “Tough Travels: Non-Human Heroes

  1. The first great heroes of human mythology were not exactly human themselves. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Huangdi were all semi-divine. In fact, in traditional myths (Beowulf seeming to be an exception) seem to suggest that in order to be a hero, a warrior must be more than just human. But I think it comes down to what definition of “human” we use–are we talking species, or temperament? In the latter case, Bilbo Baggins can be seen as very human. We related to him because his sentiments are just like ours. This is inspire of the book stating outright that humans are different, in biology and in character. The Baggins’s often seem like the most human characters in all of MiddleEarth. Based on what you’ve written here, I am definitely going to check out Laini Taylor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes true, mythological heroes are usually more than human – though I think half-human ones like Hercules were often the most popular, maybe because they straddled both worlds – the human and the divine – and were more relatable?

      And I agree, many non human characters do still end up being human in temperament – that’s probably why I often remember them as human even if they technically weren’t. E.g I have also often thought of Hobbits as the humans of middle earth, as their physiological differences are minimal and their behaviour very human!

      Liked by 1 person

        • True – it’s odd though because humans do exist in middle earth, yet the perspective we are given to identify with is more that of the hobbits. Perhaps it is the perspective of the small, good-hearted everyday person he is giving us? Or that of the small town outsider who hasn’t much explored their world and thus is discovering it all for the first time? Anyway, he was indeed a very smart man!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I really need to get back to reading Fire! It didn’t pull me in as much as Graceling did, so I kind of set it aside. But I really want to finish the series and after reading your thoughts on it, I feel like I just needed a little boost 🙂
    Thanks for that, and lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! That’s really interesting, I know other people who also weren’t as drawn in by Fire as they were by Graceling, but funnily enough I actually preferred Fire. I think it was probably the idea of those beautiful, deadly monsters that ensnared me, as well as the romance (though the romance doesn’t start till a ways in if I remember correctly). Anyway, I’m glad this inspired you to continue, and I hope you enjoy it when you do! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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