In my adolescence, I made two huge back-to-back mistakes. When I was twelve, I quit the piano, and when I was fifteen, I gave up the flute. At the time I could come up with ample reasons for both, but I will never fail to feel a pang of regret at what those decisions cost me. I can sing, and thus give voice to other people’s music. But when I gave up my instruments, I lost the means to find my own tunes.
That’s a big part of why I’m moved to write stories about heroines who are gifted musical instrumentalists. When I read the Russian folktale “The Tsaritsa Harpist,” I seized the chance to turn it into the ARTC play “Sarabande for a Condemned Man,” which I’m now in the admittedly slow process of turning into a novel. In Atterwald, Nichtel can weave magical visions through the music of her violin. In my prospective follow-up The Nightmare Lullaby, Meliroc discovers vital truths about the nature of life and love as she composes melodies on a xylophone-like graft from a magical carillon. Music and magic are strongly linked, as music taps into the listener’s soul in a way no other art form can quite manage.
I’m far from the only writer who has discovered this. I’m stepping in the large footprints of some very gifted story-smiths. Here are some of my favorite books which feature musical heroines:
1. Elizabeth Haydon, The Symphony of the Ages series: Rhapsody, Prophecy, Destiny
In a sequence from Prophecy, heroine Rhapsody seeks martial training from a warrior mentor, Oelendra. This mentor seizes Rhapsody’s lute and throws it on the fire, calling it a “distraction” from the vital work of learning swordplay. Neither exploding in rage nor letting her get away with it, Rhapsody explains in clear terms why music is essential to her being, her weapon of choice. For one of the few times in the fantasy genre, the master apologizes to her pupil. The series has its flaws, but this scene will always be special to me. (Fortunately the lute is not Rhapsody’s only instrument.)
2. Anne McCaffrey, The Harper Hall of Pern series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums
Intense, gifted, and regrettably unloved, young Menolly finds her only joy in music. After a time of struggle, her talent leads her to a new home where she can thrive and to a far better family than the one she was born into. Menolly is a gifted composer as well as instrumentalist, and McCaffrey provides us with plenty of examples of the lyrics she writes.
3. Allison Croggon, The Books of Pellinor series: The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow, The Singing
Young Maerad’s musical talent is merely the first sign of her immense power. Here, magical music is a means to heal the world, and despite obstacles the reader might think insurmountable, Maerad finds a way to make it.
4. Emma Bull, The War for the Oaks
This is one of the few works of contemporary fantasy that I actually enjoy, and for me its biggest selling point is its heroine, the unstoppable rock musician Eddi McCandry. Not a glitzy, overproduced puppet of image consultants, Eddi plays the guitar and composes her own songs. Her musical gifts prove crucial when she must take a stand against malevolent elves.
5. Rachel Hartman, Seraphina and Shadow Scale
A half-dragon caught in the middle as tensions between humans and shape-shifting dragons escalate in her home kingdom of Goredd, court musician Seraphina has her hands full. Yet even with the fate of two races riding on her shoulders, she still manages to find time to exercise her musical gifts. Like Menolly and Eddi, she is a composer, and in one beautiful sequence from Seraphina, she uses music to clear her vision and put her confused heart in order. (These two books may be the best pieces of YA fantasy fiction written this decade, for more reasons than this. Highly, highly recommended.)
6. Michelle West, The Broken Crown
This is only the first volume of The Sun Sword, a sprawling epic fantasy with a huge cast of characters, but in this one, the musical abilities of Diora, one of several heroines, are among the focus points. Diora lives in a country where women are denied any overt form of social or political power. Her magnificent voice and her skills as a harper are her only means of creative expression and self-assertion. Over the course of the novel, she slowly but surely comes to understand the power she can wield. I look forward to seeing where it takes her as the series goes on.