Enough With the ‘Savages’

Anika Reads
5 min readAug 16, 2021

In which I get angry at Rae Carson, who tries to fix her errors, maybe too late

If you read any of my other reviews, you’ll see that I’m a glutton for punishment. Housebound by the pandemic, yearning to rediscover the escapism and wonder of being a dreamy teenager, I’ve gone through so many YA fantasy novels in the past year that I needed several spreadsheet tabs to keep track of them all. This also means that I’ve spent a lot of time being alternately moved and completely fucking frustrated. At their most generic, these novels star milquetoast teenage heroines, elevated not by personality or grit but rather by some strange quirk of fate or destiny, on a quest to save a random kingdom while getting with some equally lukewarm hero.

Case in point: Rae Carson’s “The Girl of Fire and Thorns,” a generally enjoyable and commercially successful YA fantasy that personifies the archetype. Besides being bookish, Brown and fat, Elisa is similar to hundreds of other YA fantasy heroines. She’s shunted off into an arranged marriage at age 16, then kidnapped and hoisted through the desert. She discovers that she faces a unique and special destiny that comes with unique and special magical powers, and eventually uses said powers to save her kingdom and find true love. If you have read any YA fantasy since about Tamora Pierce, you’ve read this book.

What you may or may not have read — and what I was frankly not ready for — is seven uses of the word “savage,” in book one alone, just about every one of them used to describe a human being. And not just any human being. A group of jungle-dwelling warriors who ambush Elisa when she’s on her way to her encounter with her super special destiny.

The painted bodies sense the kill. They begin an odd movement, like a dance. Squat, pivot, creep. They are like jungle cats, all wild grace and hunting fury.

I have rarely seen a single paragraph more thoroughly encompass every single atavistic tribal stereotype, pulled straight from spaghetti Westerns of yester century. At first, I thought that Elisa’s repeated reference to these “savage” warriors would prove to be a learning moment. Many talented writers — in the adult market, often but not always — have turned to harmful terms in order to either reclaim or contextualize a historically-inspired period (I say ‘inspired’ because, let’s be clear, this isn’t about accuracy: fantasy novels are not historical documents). At their best and most revelatory, fantasy novels that do use use terms like ‘savage’ do so to add stakes to a struggle, or to demonstrate a barrier that the hero/ine/x must confront. In that type of story, which centers a marginalized voice while using terms that once harmed marginalized people, I can understand the value of reprinting harmful terms.

But here? As all-but-atmospheric detail? Disney’s ‘Pocahontas’ poked fun at white settlers’ use of the term “savage” to describe indigenous people back in 1995 (and that film has not been celebrated for its progressive worldview). Which begs the question, not for the first time, of who exactly is in the room when these bestselling YA fantasy novels are being pitched, written and edited.

Fast forward another book, and Elisa and her crew are on their way to save her kingdom, when they come across the enslaved girl “Mula.” (Later named “Red.”) Y’all. I can barely even type all this out because it’s so incredibly crappy.

‘Why would someone name a child a word that means ‘mule’? Elisa wonders.

Elisa learns that “Mule” is the derogatory term used for mixed race people in her world. Instead of objecting to or being shocked by hearing people referred to in this way, Elisa sees the trees for the forest:

“Don’t you think it’s odd that, in spite of my royal education, no one ever told me about mules?” she muses.

Um, no, that’s not what I find odd in this situation.

The characters continue to use this derogatory term, without question or apparently any internal confusion, for pages. Finally, a few chapters in, one of the other characters mentions that he doesn’t feel comfortable with it. But his attack of empathy is an isolated incident. Honestly, the use of this language hit me like a punch to the gut: I was tempted to throw up. If you’re going to bring a cannon on stage, you have to fire it. If you’re going to use a racist, hideous set of terms that play on generations-old prejudices against mixed race people, you need to spend some time unpacking and reflecting on the harms that these terms cause.

Let me be clear: I’m not upset that the author used harmful terms: harmful terms are a part of our past and present as people, and part of fiction’s role is to explicate and expose harm. What bothers me is she used these terms blithely, and in seeming ignorance, and without offering any reflection in the text on what effect they might have. Gratuitous racism is, at the end of the day, like any other gratuitous violence.

But I kept reading. Underneath all these deep problems, Carson’s story is just enough of a cut above the usual YA fantasy that it held my interest.

Book Four leaves the somewhat tepid Elisa behind, focusing instead on the formerly enslaved Red. I don’t know if Rae Carson took a history class in between writing book three and book four, because Red’s story foregrounds the trauma of being mixed race in a world that makes little space for that identity. In this book, when Carson brings up the damaging words used for Red in the past, it’s through Red’s eyes, and to better explain the history that’s made Red who she is. While Red’s story has a whiff of the financial about it — Carson mentions in the Author’s Note that there was a strong business case for writing it because readers loved Red’s character so much — there are also minor revisions of narrative history that suggest the author might finally be aware of earlier shortcomings. For example, in Book Four, Red remembers Elisa telling her when they first met:

“Do you have a name besides Mula? I don’t want to call you that. No one should call anyone that.”

Reader: in this exact scene, one book earlier, Elisa never said those last few and arguably crucial words.

I don’t know if Carson herself recognized she needed to demonstrate more consideration. Maybe her incredibly intelligent and hopefully more empathetic readers — the same ones who wrote to her requesting Red’s story — demanded it of her. Either way, the end result is a fourth book that feels more modern and more interesting than its predecessors.



Anika Reads

Reader, gamer, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, reviewer. I love great stories, regardless of medium. This account is for honest reviews, observations, and critiques.