As I said in my review of Uprooted, one criticism of the book I don’t agree with, although it’s a fairly widespread one, is that Agnieszka is a “special snowflake.” That is, she’s soooo unbelievably awesome that it’s just unrealistic.
This threw me a little because the standard definition of “special snowflake” is someone who has an exaggerated view of their own amazingness. In real life, for example we have those anti-feminist women who simultaneously claim that women should all be subordinate to men … except for themselves. Or the Harvard law student who asserted that while some people might think environment influences success, her bloodline was so good that if her future kids were kidnapped and raised in rural Nigeria, they’d still be super-geniuses.
But clearly the reviewers were using “special snowflake” as something close to a “Mary Sue,” a character who’s just too good to be true (which is not the original definition of Mary Sue, but it’s a popular one, especially when female heroes are involved). Agnieszka’s an untrained mage who turns out to be the greatest sorcerer since Baba Yaga, with a totally new style of magic. When the Dragon isn’t available to make a rescue, she saves her entire village single-handed; she frees her best friend Kasia from the Wood’s control which is supposedly impossible; and still more awesomeness after that.
To which my response is “so?” Sure she’s doing the impossible, but heroes do that on a regular basis. The protagonist of NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms frees the gods the empire has enslaved for centuries. The protagonist of Joy Chant’s When Voiha Wakes is such an amazing musician, he’ll establish it as a serious art form (it’s considered pathetic compared to actually making something solid, like sculpture or fine pottery). Sherlock Holmes is, well, Holmes.
That’s not the only way to write heroes of course. A protagonist can be a tough cop, a good soldier, a determined reporter who performs heroically but isn’t doing anything another person couldn’t, at least in theory do. And it’s certainly true heroes can be absurdly over-awesome, but I didn’t find Agnieszka to be such. She has to really work at her magic, despite her natural gifts, and a lot of her accomplishments are done as part of a team, relying on either Kasia or the Dragon. To save the village, for example, Agnieszka uses up a couple of dozen potions the Dragon has stored up (and as he later tells her, will take years to replicate), and the help of her community — it’s not single-handed. If she were a man, would people still say she’s too awesome (some criticisms of Rey in Force Awakens are specifically that a woman can’t be that heroic)?
For me, a too-awesome hero is a problem if:
•He’s not awesome, everyone just says he is. A book I read years ago, At the Eye of the Ocean, constantly has characters discuss how the hero is “a young god.” I thought he was dull and unimpressive, so I couldn’t take the book seriously (I’ve discussed this problem previously).
•She doesn’t fit her universe. Part of the objection to Mary Sues is that they’re fan-fiction creations who can outperform characters established as the best-of-the-best—someone who can outthink Data, outfight Worf and understands people better than Troi.
•He’s a lousy character. The problem with many mighty-thewed Conan knockoffs is that their heroism is all in their muscles, where Conan often triumphs by sheer guts and determination. Countless Sherlock Holmes-wannabes of a century ago are forgotten because they have none of Holmes’ personality and flair. And there’s never a shortage of female leads whose only distinctive attribute is breathtaking beauty (one forgettable thriller started out by describing the lead as “only ordinarily beautiful, if not for her eyes.”)
Despite her penchant for loving her abuser (see the review), Agnieszka works for me as a character. Though obviously YMMV