Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Top Ten Novels With Protagonists Who Are Scientists

So, I’m reading Laura Bickle’s Dark Alchemy, a contemporary fantasy with a weird west setting. It’s a title that’s been on my Kindle’s TBR pile for quite some time, but I thought of it recently and since I’m usually in the mood for a western setting, I actually started reading it.

Lots of creepy stuff going on. Dark Alchemy is right on the edge between fantasy and horror, which is fine – I don’t like real horror much, but this isn’t too horrific for me. Excellent, evocative description, which of course is an important component of building a creepy atmosphere. My favorite thing so far is the thing with the ravens. How do writers come up with these ideas?

Anyway, the protagonist of Dark Alchemy, Petra Dee, is a geologist. (Her father, missing for 20 years, was an alchemist, so one gathers the name Dee is not a coincidence.)

I do enjoy protagonists who are scientists! At one point fairly early on, Petra acquires a sample of blood that fluoresces in certain lighting conditions. Weird! she thinks, and immediately builds a homemade spectroscope to see what the sample actually contains.

My kind of protagonist, for sure. So I thought I’d come up with a list of science-y protagonists and fantasy novels that emphasize science. Let’s see if I can make it to ten without help!

1. Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle.

2. Land of the Burning Sands by yours truly. Of course Tehre thinks of what she does as a branch of natural philosophy, but science by any other name, right?

3. The Lindsey Chamberlain mystery series by Beverly Conner. Of course this is a departure from fantasy, but hey, I read them pretty recently, they’re fresh in my mind, and I really, really loved them and Lindsey, their archeologist protagonist.

4. The Martian by Andy Weir. Another departure from fantasy – sorry. Still, nothing like having to science the shit out of your disastrous situation. I’m sure there are a million SF novels with scientist protagonists, but this is the one that springs to my mind because the science was so central.

5. The Chronicles of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. Now, here’s a perfect example. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it at once. I love this series for its successful presentation of the Victorian naturalist frame of mind, just modified barely enough for the naturalist attitudes to be more or less palatable to a modern audience. And, of course, there are the dragons.

6. Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley also treats dragons in sort of the same way, as creatures that are the focus of scientific study, though I grant you the protagonist is not himself a scientist and doesn’t have a very scientific frame of mind.

7. A Thousand Nights by EK Johnston Not the protagonist at all, but in contrast to Dragonhaventhe Skeptics have a perfect scientific frame of mind in a nonscientific world:

“Could you not find out?” I asked of him. “I mean, revered Skeptic, if you took a ball and a lamp, could you not find out?”

He laughed then, and winked one eye at me. “I could,” he said to me. “And I have. Never tell the other Skeptics that, for they will think it blasphemous. They would rather argue about it forever.”

“But then how will they know?”

“They do know, more or less. But in arguing, they will ask and answer a dozen other questions.”

Great, eh? Also, thank heavens, Johnston does not present the Skeptics as opposed to the Priests. There’s a tiresomely common bullet, dodged.

8. Not a protagonist, but the Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas has got to be the only fantasy setting ever written where someone uses the word “stoichiometry” correctly. Very impressive.

9. Hellspark by Janet Kagan. Linguistics is not quite what I was thinking of as “science,” but the book was great, so it’ll do.

10. And … saving the very best for last … The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. Not just Rowan, but all the steerswomen – and the kid who’s singlehandedly inventing a science of explosives. An amazing job writing characters with a scientific mindset in a pre-science world.

There – ten! Some more arguable than others, I grant you.

How about you? Got a favorite novel where science is central, or the protagonist is a scientist, or both?

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10 Comments Top Ten Novels With Protagonists Who Are Scientists

  1. Elaine T.

    I just put down a sample where the POV character was set up as an inventor/creator/scientist type but aside from early mentions the sample portion didn’t DO anything with it. Which isn’t what you’re looking for, so… I did contrast his portrayal with your Tehre, when verbalizing why I wasn’t happy.

    Hambly’s protaganists tend to be logical and if not practicing scientists take that sort of line of thought: Gil in Darwath and both Ashers in Those Who Hunt and sequels.

    Elof in Rohan’s Winter of the World, is called a mage smith, but seems to work basically scientifically. Well- smithing, metals, metallurgy, that is science.

    I have a feeling there are more, but they aren’t bubbling to the top. And besides you covered a fair number I’d’ve mentioned.

  2. maria

    Kiram in Lord of the White Hell by Ginn Hale. He is young, a scholarship student in an elite church academy. The first from his minority (roughly the equivalent of medieval Jews). Wants to be a “mechanist” basically an engineer. The mechanisms he and one of the other characters build are really important to the story and also combine with magic. Well, at first he considers all magic and religion as superstition until he actually witnesses a couple of things… In the sequel he invents a new type of fire gun.

  3. Robert

    The Collapsium by Wil McCarthy. I remember this review from rec.arts.sf.written many moons ago. The protagonist is a Science Hero! Great fun!

    Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I’m not sure if the avout are considered scientists, but i’m not sure who else would qualify. Such a cool book.

  4. SarahZ

    William Ritter’s Jackaby books are sort of a ya fantasy Sherlock Holmes adaptation, where the Watson character is a female archaeologist.

    Do steampunk-y scientists count? They’re often not terribly scientific.

  5. Kim Aippersbach

    Not a protagonist, but I love the character of Delin in Martha Wells Raksuran books: anthropologist to the core, who is always “sketching furiously” even when everyone’s life (including his own) is in danger.

    And Learned Edmund in T. Kingfisher’s Clocktaur Wars subverts the trope of the naive, sheltered monk by having a rigorously scientific mind. I love that he gets a crush on a librarian because of her devotion to indexing. Not a protagonist either, though.

  6. Rachel

    Kim, I have really liked everything by T Kingfisher so far, so I look forward to Clocktaur Wars. Especially since Edmond sounds like a great character.

  7. Pete Mack

    I thought Tehre was an applied mathematician and (civil) engineer. But that is really nitpicking! She is just a wonderful character.

    And Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent (Natural History of Dragons) is a great character, though I got bogged down in later books.

  8. Allan Shampine

    I just read the first couple of Dark Alchemy novels, then was surprised to find there were no more. I thought I might try something else by the author, and she started a new series called Wildlands. When I looked at that, I realized that Wildlands = Dark Alchemy. I can’t recall having an author rebrand a series like that before. Maybe she or the publisher thought the new name would better tap into the urban fantasy fans?

  9. Rachel

    Allan, that’s very interesting. I don’t think I had realized that. It does seem rather strange. It sounds like the kind of inexplicable thing a publisher rather than an author would do, but who knows?

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