Today’s guest is Lynn Flewelling, author of the Nightrunner series and the Tamír trilogy! She has chosen to talk about a rather intriguing topic – women in military roles.
As I mentioned before, I invited some authors this month whose books I plan to read but haven’t yet been able to (sometimes I feel like I talk about the same authors a lot, but this month shouldn’t be limited to just my biases!). Sadly, I haven’t yet read Lynn Flewelling’s books even though many people I know with taste very similar to mine love them, including Memory from Stella Matutina. If Memory loves a book, there is an extremely good chance that I will too – so these are books I really should be reading!
Women and War In Fantasy
In both my Nightrunner Series and the Tamír trilogy, I put women in military roles, often as generals. The queen of the central country, Skala, is the commander-in-chief of the Skalan military, and leads in the field in time of war, which, in my books, is fairly often. Actually, I include powerful women in every level of society: merchants, wizards, nobility, courtesan businesswomen, artisans, horse traders—the list goes on. So it seemed only natural, especially in a society with a divinely ordained line of warrior queens, to include them in the military. While this is common in Skala, it is not in most other countries in my world. In that country equality between the sexes and races is the norm. Inequality comes in the form of classism.
In the Nightrunner series, much of military life is seen through the eyes of Beka Cavish, a young woman who secures a commission to an elite cavalry regiment as a “rider”, and through her bravery, intelligence, and prowess, rises through the ranks over the course of the series to a position of high command. While she is not the main character of the series, she is often a point-of-view character and strongly impacts the story lines. Early on she and the small unit she first commands gain a reputation as fearless behind-the-lines spies and raiders (based on Moseby’s Raiders in the American Civil War, actually.) Beka is an expert fighter, but often uses her intelligence and wits in equal measure to win the day or know when to retreat.
In my world, girls who aspire to a military career begin training very early, especially in riding, archery, and sword play. In the Tamír trilogy, the main character, a girl who’s transformed into a boy at birth and remains one until puberty, is the rightful but displaced heir to the Skalan throne. As a prince, she is rigorously trained in battle and diplomacy like any noble youth, so by the time she is transformed back into a teenaged girl, she is ready to fight for her birthright at the head of a small army of loyalists.
So, I have women with the same training, arms, armor, and skill set as men, but they are still women and face unique challenges. I must admit, I skim lightly over the issue of menstruation, though that’s certainly a factor for women of fighting age. I leave to the reader’s imagination the issues of cramps and pads. It’s really not the stuff of high fantasy. On the other hand, PMS might come in quite handy in battle. Mine would have.
More pressing is the issue of pregnancy. Women who want to avoid conscription can get pregnant and have a child. Women in battle chance rape by the enemy if captured (or, if you reference today’s military, by their brothers in arms.) And there is no prohibition against having lovers. After some research, I discovered something called a pessary, a hank of wool tied into a small bundle with ribbon or string and soaked in olive oil or some other historical spermicide or block. One medieval pessary recipe consisted of ground dates, acacia bark, and a touch of honey mixed into a paste. The wool or cloth was then soaked in the mixture and inserted. According the Kathleen London’s “The History of Birth Control “The pessary was the most effective contraceptive device used in ancient times and numerous recipes for pessaries from ancient times are known. Ingredients for pessaries included: a base of crocodile dung (dung was frequently a base), a mixture of honey and natural sodium carbonate forming a kind of gum. All were of a consistency which would melt at body temperature and form an impenetrable covering of the cervix. The use of oil was also suggested by Aristotle and advocated as late as 1931 by birth control advocate Marie Stopes.”
I’ve always wondered if dung as contraceptive was more of a deterrent to sex, rather than a prophylactic . . . But I digress. The bottom line in my world is that women have access to birth control, and it’s doubly important to female soldiers.
There are those who will argue that women aren’t emotionally suited to battle, and if you just pulled a milk maid off the farm and handed her a pike, then no, maybe not, but the same could be said of untrained men. My women soldiers are well trained and that comes up in the stories, as well. They do show compassion when they are able, but also have to make tough decisions, and aren’t above reprisals. They are battle trained and soon battle tested. Only the strong and skillful survive.
As with all my characters, I try not to make them anything but human. No Xena Warrior Princesses or Amazons cutting off a breast to improve their archery. They have families, friends, lovers. They get along with some of their male counterparts, and not others, just like in real life, though esprit de corps does play a role in how individual units interact. Male and female soldiers both know triumph and terrible loss, and how they deal with it shapes their character.
I’d just like to close by saying that I am not an advocate of war—quite the opposite—but it was a necessary element for the series. But I don’t glorify it. The characters may show great valor, honor, and deep camaraderie, but war itself is a dirty, brutal, bloody, tragic, business and I don’t gloss over that.
Lynn Flewelling is the author of the Tamir trilogy (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle’s Queen) and the Nightrunner series (Luck in the Shadows, Stalking Darkness, Traitor’s Moon, Shadows Return, The White Road). Casket of Souls, a new Nightrunner book, will be released on May 29. The first chapter from Casket of Souls is available on the author’s website. You can also read her LiveJournal and follow her on Twitter.