Witches are very on trend this season in SFF and YA, and there have been other trends in mermaids, gunslingers, and–obviously–vampires and werewolves. But let’s turn to less popular creatures: dryads, and others (mainly women) who transform into trees. There’s not a lot of call (yet) for characters whose main feature is an ability to be rooted in place, and to grow slowly, but that’s only an opportunity waiting to be (ahem) tapped. Here are five ways that authors have taken up the challenge in different ways.
- The Shapechanger’s Wife (Sharon Shinn) – A brief and lovely tale about a mage’s apprentice falling in love with his master’s wife. Lilith is mysterious and melancholy, but her green eyes communicate what she will not say: she is the result of unorthodox experiments. Aubrey develops a desperate fascination with this quiet, secretive woman, and soon begins collecting his own secrets. They both do their best to hide what they know from the glowering sorcerer Glyrenden, but eventually this vaguely oedipal tale comes to a dramatic showdown. It’s Sharon Shinn’s briefest and arguably most poignant work.
- The Vegetarian (Han Kang) – Spectacularly written and deeply unsettling, this book has been an award-winner and bestseller for a reason. A woman starts out with the simple desire to become a vegetarian despite the meat-heavy cuisine of modern Korea. But due to the increasingly abusive objections of her friends and family, she develops a sort of dendromania, tree-madness for which I can provide no analogue or explanation. Yet it’s a deeply psychological novel despite the fact that the protagonist is never the POV character: the titular vegetarian is only ever explained—or obscured—by those closest to her. If/when the Nobel Prize in Literature gets running again, expect to see Han Kang on shortlists.
- Women Without Men (Shahrnush Parsipur) – I picked this book up because it has the inverse title to Haruki Murakami’s stunning Men Without Women. And where Murakami paints a dismal picture of men left lonely, Parsipur has no such concerns. Women without men do just fine in her strange Tehran, even if someone does turn into a tree. Surrealist mysticism means that you may be perplexed by the turns these interlocking short stories take, but the compelling imagery and writing will leave the stories lingering in the best way.
- The Belgariad (David (and Leigh) Eddings) – The Eddings’ world has a number of major and minor dryad characters. Foremost among them is Ce’Nedra, who has always held a special place in my heart because her stature (very short) has always been the inverse of her demands. Though her greed is sometimes played for laughs, her shrewdness was always an asset in the end, and those who initially mocked her height ended up respecting her ferocity. Also, she once stole (“borrowed”) an army from her father with nothing but a speech and a bag of (also “borrowed”) gold coins.
- Uprooted (Naomi Novik) – I can’t say too much about tree-women without giving away some major spoilers, so suffice to say that the trees are hungry. The woods encroach further upon the villages every year, and the trees hunt and consume humans. Agnieszka finds a way of bringing a few stolen souls back, but they come back with woodsy powers. Do they also contain the evil of the forest? Or can there be something between woods and humans besides mutual antagonism? Finding harmony with nature—one’s own nature and the natural world both—is not easy in Polnya, but ultimately it’s the only way forward.
Bonus Blast from the Past: Wit’ch Fire (James Clemens) – Anyone remember these? They were sorta big in the 90’s, even though the unnecessary apostrophes drove what reviewers I remember crazy. Nee’lahn is a pretty great character, though, with a lute she fashioned from her own dying tree, which she plays to produce the last bits of magic of her dying race. Nostalgia inhibits any unbiased recommendation here, but I did like them very much as a kid until they stopped being so bloody and got romantic (twelve-year-old me: eww).