Today’s guest is novelist, poet, and short fiction writer Beth Cato! Three of the books in her steampunk fantasy series have received nominations for various awards: The Clockwork Dagger was a Locus finalist for Best First Novel, The Clockwork Crown was an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist, and the novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone is a 2015 Nebula nominee. Her third novel, Breath of Earth, will be released in August of this year (and it sounds fantastic!).
The Healer as a Fighter
By Beth Cato
If I’m asked what superpower I’d like to possess, I won’t hesitate with my answer: the power to heal. It’s been my fervent wish since I was eleven years old as my grandpa died from a prolonged, terminal illness.
His death left a gaping hole within my family. I coped by descending into fantasy role-playing video games. I suddenly had a new dream job: white wizard. I could cast curing spells, wield an awesome long bow, and take out evil dudes. I found fantasy novels and the glorious realms of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As I engaged in gaming campaigns with friends, I always played the high priestesses, the clerics, the ones who kept the party alive amidst rampant teenage-style stupidity.
I read and read more fantasy novels. They were my happiness, my escape, amid my very unhappy teen years. I always searched for strong women like the me I saw in my dreams: the capable healer who can hold her own in any fight. I didn’t find her in any existing literature. It took me years to realize why.
Fantasy books used healers as characters, sure, but they were almost always sidekicks. An accessory to keep the big, bold male heroes alive. They couldn’t be main characters—they weren’t “fighters.”
Just like in role-playing video games, the healers were stuck in the back row in a fight. Their physical attacks were puny. They wore robes while the main heroes wore plate armor. They were often women; they needed to be coddled to survive.
Well, phooey on that.
When I resolved to start writing again as an adult, I decided to write the kind of heroine I always hoped to find. I wanted to bust the trope of the weakling female healer. I looked at the real world as my example—World War I front line nurses. You think they were physically weak? Heck no. Doing the medical ward laundry alone would burn more calories than any P90X workout. You think they didn’t know how to fight? They looked Death in the eye most every single day.
Compassion is strength. A healer must be competent. They must keep their wits in a crisis. They need the strength to drag a comatose body off a battlefield. They need to think of strategy in terms of supplies and shelter and food—as battlefield commanders in their own little world.
Those are the traits of a lead character. That’s why I wrote Octavia Leander as I did in my Clockwork Dagger novels. She’s only twenty-two, but she has almost a decade of experience on the frontlines. She’s ignorant of the “real world,” sure, but she’s darn good at her job and can heal a person through magic or basic know-how.
In writing Octavia, I delved past my own Mary Sue healer fantasies to form a heroine who works miracles with a satchel of herbs and the power of faith. Octavia became a savvy fighter who doesn’t need plate mail and a big sword to take down the bad guys. She cares about people. She would save everyone, if she could. To me, that compassion is the greatest superpower anyone could wish for.
|Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.
She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE is a Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.