Are you tired of seeing overdone female archetypes in media and literature like the Femme Fatale, the Mary Sue and even the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Are you longing to read about more dynamic and multidimensional female characters? Look no further because on this 13th volume of the Topiary Reading Club, we are featuring and discussing novels with nuanced, interesting and complex female protagonists with their own weaknesses and personalities, hopes and dreams, motivations and beliefs—heroines with real depth.

Circe by Madeline Miller

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”

Lush and star-bright, Circe is a subversive, feminist reimagining of the story of Circe herself, who, in Greek Mythology, is a witch infamous for changing men into swine. The novel spans centuries of Circe’s life—from her early years in the lonely and suffocating halls of her father, the Titan Helios, to her exile in the isle of Aiaia where she is able to hone her witchcraft, from her encounters with prominent figures of myth and legend like the Minotaur, Daedalus, Medea and Odysseus, to her tumultuous yet love-bellied experience with birthing and raising her child.

Miller is a painter with words, artfully crafting a lyrically detailed world, palpable emotions and sensations, and precise characterizations, spinning a narrative just as enchanting as Circe’s own spells. But despite all the magic and ethereal divinity, monsters and heroes, Miller manages to ground her characters, most especially with Circe, writing her as a rich and multifaceted female protagonist who feels tangible and almost human despite the ichor running through her veins. Circe is a broken yet courageous, strong-willed yet tender-hearted heroine that readers will find themselves relating to and rooting for all the way through as she attempts to carve out a space for herself in a world where she does not feel she belongs. It is a tale that bridges the distance between classic myth and contemporary reality, a tale of divinity and morality, of self-discovery and identity, of motherhood and womanhood, of love and loss, and ultimately, of transformation.

The Poppy War Trilogy by R.F. Kuang
“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

*** disclaimer: please search up the trigger warnings before reading the novels.*

The Poppy War Series is an epic military fantasy inspired by some of the darkest moments of 20th century China’s brutal history. The first novel opens with Rin, a war-orphaned peasant girl, attempting to escape her poverty and arranged marriage by passing the Empire-wide test that allows only the most brilliant youth to pursue higher education in the Academies. It comes as an immense surprise when Rin not only passes, but aces the test, gaining admission into Sinegard, the most elite military school of the Nikan Empire. In Sinegard, she faces discrimination from her peers because of her background, color and gender, however, it is also here that she learns she possesses a dangerous, otherworldly gift—the ability to channel a god in the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. But with the Nikan Empire’s old enemy looming nearby, threatening the nation’s already precarious peace, Rin’s time in school only marks the beginning of a whirlwind journey wrought with bloody battles, vengeance and betrayal, crazed divinity, and exhilarating adventure, the beginning of a war where Rin and those like her may be the only weapon that can save their country from destruction.

Kuang is a master storyteller, bringing to readers a potent blend of history, military strategy and geopolitical drama against a backdrop of a richly imagined world and magic system. Witnessing Rin’s arc unfold is akin to watching a train wreck that you simply cannot rip your gaze away from—gripping, devastating and almost perversely beautiful. Because Rin is no hero, and that is what makes her incredibly fascinating to read about. Rin is rough around the edges, sharpened by suffering and fiery rage, making her ruthless and single-mindedly determined. She is a wildfire, blazing and bright. But she is also flawed and painfully human—a girl at the risk of losing herself beneath the terrible weight of a nation’s survival and a costly, unimaginable power. The cast of characters around her are equally as compelling and complicated—no one is starkly good or bad, black or white, rather, all are painted in the shades of gray in-between. Cut-throat and intensely emotional, at its core, The Poppy War Trilogy is a story of the consequences and atrocities of war, and the ugliest, most fractured parts of humanity.

Thank you for reading, and we hope you embark on these journeys with these compelling and amazing heroines.