Two words: time travel. You’re probably thinking Dr. Who, but I’m actually referring to German author Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red Trilogy—Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue, and Emerald Green. Ruby Red, the first novel in the series, was a best seller in Germany and is quickly gaining popularity in America, translated into English by Anthea Bell. It’s no surprise given the popularity of sci fi/fantasy YA novels featuring a female protagonist. But Grier’s Ruby Red stands apart from other YA novels because the heroine successfully fulfills the most important character trope of the YA heroine—she is both plainly normal and incredibly special.
Gwyneth Shepherd is the most normal heroine I’ve ever read about, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Gwyneth is the girl next door. She enjoys movie marathons with her best friend Lesley and playing with her younger brother and sister. She has no exceptional talents or interests. She is, in every way, normal. Her family, however, is anything but normal. The Montrose (her mother’s maiden name) family is the female line of time travelers, meaning that one girl in each generation carries the time traveling gene. The female time traveler works with the male time traveler, from the de Villiers family, traveling back and forth to different time periods under the instruction of the mysterious Count Saint-Germain. The girl time traveler from Gwyneth’s generation is supposed to be her cousin Charlotte. Charlotte’s spent her entire life studying languages, history, etiquette, and other similar subjects to prepare for traveling to other time periods, while Gwyneth has lived the life of a normal teenager. So it’s a big shock to everyone involved when it turns out that Gwyneth can travel back in time and Charlotte cannot.
Now Gwyneth is hardly normal—she’s a time traveler, and not just any time traveler, but the “ruby”, the last and most important traveler. Of course, Gwyneth is hardly prepared for everything expected of her, and it doesn’t help her that none of the Guardians, the time traveling inner circle, seem to trust her. Or tell her anything useful that could help her. All Gwyneth knows is that her cousin Lucy Montrose and Lucy’s husband Paul de Villiers stole the chronograph, the “time machine” per say, and are hiding in the past. Everyone seems intent on finding Lucy and Paul, and even more intent on “closing the circle”. But all Gwyneth has to go on are snippets of an old prophecy and the internet research of her best friend Lesley.
Much like in The Hunger Games, Twilight, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, Kiera Cass’ The Selection, and other YA novels, Ruby Red is about a normal girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances—Katniss into the Hunger Games, Bella into a world of vampires and werewolves, Alina into the Grisha, and America into the Selection. This is the foundational premise of YA novels targeted a female audience, and not without reason. Books like these promise girls who feel ordinary that they are indeed special and are capable of great things. It’s an important and valid message. The whole point is that the reader can relate to the heroine and identify with her, because the heroine is supposed to be every girl. But how relatable are some of these YA heroines? It’s hard to see Katniss as “every girl”. How many of us can identify with what she went through? And hopefully real girls are a little more interesting than Bella Swan. Not every heroine really seems to quite fit with the “every girl” trope of the YA heroine, which makes her difficult to relate to.
But Gwyneth is different, perfectly representing the dichotomy of normality and specialness of the heroine. She has common interests—movies, books, music. She has a normal girl’s life—friends, school, family. She leads a remarkably typical teenage girl’s story, boy problems included. This makes her an incredibly relatable character, which makes the time traveling adventure part of the story even more exciting. Unlike other YA heroines, Gwyneth fulfills her promise to her audience that even the most normal girl is in store for an exciting adventure and is capable of greatness and courage.
There are other wonderful aspects of Grier’s story. The love interest storyline is up and down, keeping it more original than most YA novels. And rather than focus on the romantic relationship, Grier places just as much emphasis on Gwyneth’s relationship with her best friend Lesley and her family. The series reads more like one big book than three books, and it is full of delightful twists and turns. Grier weaves together character, plot, themes, and setting in a beautiful way that makes Ruby Red a fantastic read. And the heroine shines out in a sea of YA characters female protagonists. Gwyneth is you. Gwyneth is me. If I may, she’s the Martin Freeman of YA heroines. She’s the most extraordinary normal girl you’ll ever meet.