Welcome to today’s discussion post, in which I’ll be taking on the mentor figures of YA fiction. Remember when it used to be a cliché, at least in fantasy and dystopia, that every protagonist would be an orphan? Fortunately, that’s changed somewhat, and YA fiction now depicts the whole gamut of parent/guardian-child relationships from the heartwarming to the downright ugly.
Of course, mentor figures don’t always have to be parents, and the best mentor figures often have no blood relation to their protégés. The most interesting mentors aren’t necessarily the best ones, either–there are quite a few YA mentors who wind up clashing with their former students. Some of them are even revealed to be villains who’ve masterfully manipulated the protagonist, although I won’t say which ones (duh). Basically, like most characters in general, I rarely find a one-sided mentor as much fun to read as their flawed, morally dubious counterpart.
With that in mind, here are my favourite mentor figures from across YA novels:
5. Calista Harkness, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson
Mentor to: Tarc, and maybe Wren Silke
Who she is: Businesswoman and leader of the Judges, one of two factions in a centuries-old druid conflict
Why she’s great: I hesitate to include Cassa on this list, honestly. I’m not sure she even qualifies as a mentor–she spends most of the book as an antagonist whom the narrator Wren, an Augur, is supposed to spy on. However, The Wren Hunt being the magnificently subtle book that it is, we eventually see another side to the feared Cassa. She’s definitely a mentor to deuteragonist Tarc, a Judge, and comes to have some influence with and words of wisdom for Wren as well. Whether you fully consider her a mentor or not, I loved this character and am eager to read more of her in Mary Watson’s next novel.
4. Madoc, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Mentor to: Jude Duarte
Who he is: General to the High King of Faerie
Why he’s great: Madoc is not exactly a model mentor. He’s bloodthirsty, ruthless and proud, and oh yeah, he also murdered protagonist Jude Duarte’s parents before kidnapping her and her sisters and raising them as his own thanks to some weird faerie code of honour. Madoc treats them as well as you could imagine for their parents’ killer, teaching Jude elements of strategy and combat that come in very handy in The Cruel Prince. Jude’s respect for Madoc doesn’t extinguish old grudges, though, and the latent tensions between adoptive father and daughter flare up in deadly ways.
3. John Hunyadi, Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Mentor to: Lada Dracul
Who he is: Inspired by the historical figure, 1453 Hungary’s most brilliant military commander
Why he’s great: Lada, self-declared prince of Wallachia, doesn’t trust anyone. She certainly doesn’t trust John Hunyadi, who’s responsible for the deaths of her father and eldest brother. However, when they enter into an uneasy alliance, Lada realises that she can learn from Hunyadi as well as exploiting his troops and he realises that she’s valuable for more than a marriage alliance to his son. Sadly, as with most good things in the Conqueror’s Saga, it eventually goes down in tragedy–but not before Hunyadi leaves her with more ambition and greater resolve than ever before.
2. Jeremy Floyd, Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen
Mentor to: Sarah Goldstein
Who he is: British spy undercover in Nazi Germany
Why he’s great: When Captain Floyd first meets Sarah, she’s just witnessed him carry out an act of sabotage. He intends to kill her as a loose end but changes his mind when he sees her, and a couple days later, they’re basically best friends. If you’ve read my review of Orphan Monster Spy you already know how much I adore Sarah, whose natural instincts for espionage flourish under the Captain’s guidance. Ironically, in spite of their shaky start, this is the only mentor-protégée pair on the list who are unreservedly loyal to each other. There’s worse yet to come for the two of them–after all, the first book takes place at the very start of World War II–but if anyone can handle it, it’s this duo.
1. Natalia Arron, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
Mentor to: Queen Katharine
Who she is: Matriarch of House Arron and head of the Black Council
Why she’s great: As the leader of the poisoners, the faction currently occupying the throne of Fennbirn, Natalia is the island’s ruler in all but name. Her protégée is the timid Queen Katharine, whose poisoner gift has failed to manifest despite years of attempted training. While Natalia is a ruthless politician who does whatever it takes to stay in power, she’s unique in that we get chapters from her perspective, unlike the other four characters on this list. Those chapters humanise Natalia deeply and show that she does truly care for Katharine, and acts to some extent as a surrogate mother. When I was brainstorming mentors in YA fiction, my mind immediately came up with Natalia, and for good reason: She’s a fascinating character in her own right whose interactions with the protagonist reflect each of their development.
Arviragus and Sorcha, The Defiant by Lesley Livingston
Mama Agba, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Lachlan Agatta, This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada