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Today’s guest is Teresa Frohock, author of my favorite debut novel from last year! Miserere: An Autumn Tale is a character-driven dark fantasy that I thought was very unique. I loved that the characters Lucian and Rachael were mature adults, and I was also fascinated by the world.

The more I hear about Teresa’s next book, The Garden, the more excited I am about that one as well. We talked about how it is a twist on “Beauty and the Beast” in an interview last year, and recently Teresa wrote a fantastic blog post on writing gay characters in her novel. She discussed the importance of discussions of issues like race and gender in literature since one such discussion had a huge impact on the way she wrote this character. I really enjoy her thoughtful blog posts such as this one in addition to her writing, so I was very glad when she accepted my invitation to write a post this month. Today she is talking about writing dark fantasy and strong female characters – including female villains!

I want to thank Kristen for asking me to be a part of her women in SFF month here on Fantasy Café. I have said this before and I will reiterate it here: people should read the books they enjoy reading, to do otherwise is a chore. Likewise, authors should write the stories they tell best; I write dark fantasy to honor my demons and give them voice.

Colin Nissan recently took a rather cheeky approach to this serious subject in his post, The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better than You Normally Do, when he advises authors to keep it together:

 

A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.

Treat your demons with respect.

I like that.

Gillian Flynn says it best when she tells us that “dark sides are important.” Federico García Lorca calls it duende, that strange dark spirit that seizes the souls of artist and audience alike to convey all the passions of grief and love and loss.

I remember reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and marveling at how Ms. Bradley never sugarcoated the harsher aspects of a woman’s life. Childbirth began and ended in blood, death and sorrow were elements of life, not to be ignored but to be embraced as part of a great cycle. What I loved the most was watching Morgaine adapt herself to each new challenge. Bradley didn’t shape the world to fit Morgaine; instead Morgaine was forced to shape herself to the world around her while holding firm to her own convictions of right and wrong.

She was a woman who embraced the darkness of her nature, nurtured it carefully, and when the time came for difficult decisions, Morgaine reached down into the coldest, darkest part of herself and she acted from the core of her convictions. That is strength.

Gillian Flynn bemoans the loss of female villains, and she’s right—women lose an important aspect our nature when we refuse to acknowledge the darkness within ourselves. Rather than honor our dark sides, we have shielded ourselves behind paroxysms of girl-power, swinging swords like pom-poms, and we justify these flimsy female characters by calling them strong—because they can fight, because they can fuck, because they can curse.

Tootsie Rolls, you see.

Back in the 80s, when I was young and really smart, I spoke to a friend and told her that I wanted to write a novel with a female villain. She hit the roof. She told me that I couldn’t do that, because to write a female villain would project a negative image of a woman, and sexists would seize that portrayal as an example of female evil.

Obviously, a lot of women felt like my friend did. Female villains didn’t die out of the genre, but they became scarce. Even now when female villains show up on the scene, authors find a way to justify their evil. The woman was abused, or the authors fall back on the ever popular rape scenario, or she suffers from a mental illness, which had it been diagnosed in time, none of these horrible things would have happened. Anything, anything, ANYTHING to turn our faces away from the fact that some women (like some men) are born without a conscience.

We gobble up Tootsie Rolls and stuff our demons deep within our psyches, never to see the light of day. We forget that we must vanquish the evil within before we can truly recognize and destroy the external demons that haunt our lives. We cannot defeat that which we will not acknowledge.

We skewer our own darkness and sacrifice it on the altar of popular opinion, because in spite of our brave words, we are afraid of how others perceive us, of how we shall be judged. We hide Hecate, Tanit, and Kali behind the frivolous maiden; we scream that patriarchal propaganda smeared their holy names. The archaeological evidence states otherwise: they were goddesses of death, of the hidden places and the crossroads where hard choices must be made. To deny our darkness is to deny a portion of our true nature, leaving us incomplete, ethereal as the shades of death we try so hard to deny.

I tell stories with black sounds, the sounds of the duende, and not in words to validate the reader’s egalitarian ideals of what the world should be like. To do so would be a betrayal of my craft. I want my readers to be uncomfortable, to think a little more deeply about themselves and how they treat others, but I can’t show them these things in the light. First we must descend, without fear, into the dark places, because it is in our greatest darkness that we find our truest light.

But only if we’re brave enough to look.

People should read what they want to read, but don’t be afraid to experiment— to step outside the comfort zone and see the world in shades of black. Honor those demons, give them back their voices, and let them make us whole again.

Walk with me and I will take you into the dark places. I will show you the truest light. I write dark fantasy; there are no pretty stories here.

Raised in a small town in North Carolina, Teresa Frohock learned to escape to other worlds through the fiction collection of her local library. Teresa is the author of the dark fantasy, Miserere: An Autumn Tale. She has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

You can find out more by visiting her at www.teresafrohock.com.

Miserere: An Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock

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Today’s guest is Angie from Angieville! Angie reviews all kinds of genres including SF&F, and one of her favorite genres is fantasy. She is one of my favorite bloggers because her enthusiasm for books is contagious and she gives amazing recommendations. I’ve also gained a much greater appreciation for young adult books from reading her blog and have learned not to judge books by that category largely because of her. With great recommendations like Kristin Cashore and Megan Whalen Turner, I discovered young adult does not mean there can’t be subtlety or darkness in a story – and I am grateful to her for helping me discover some fantastic young adult fantasy! Another reason I love Angie’s blog is that she also gives plenty of attention to older books with her Retro Fridays feature for talking about books that were not recently released that she loves like Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.

I hope you enjoy Angie’s post and recommended reading list as much as I did! As for me, I’m going to add every one of these books I haven’t read already to my wish list right now.

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I have always loved that quote by the wonderful playwright Tom Stoppard,

I’m going to be dead before I read the books I’m going to read.

It may be a bit perverse, but I find this conviction oddly comforting. For me it encompasses one of the driving forces of my life–the need to read–along with the knowledge that the duration of my single life will never stretch long enough to read all the books I want to. Yet somehow my acceptance of that truth never conflicts with my determination to do it anyway. To read them all. At the same time, I believe life’s too short to read bad books. It’s too short to read only the books you think you’re supposed to. It’s too short to be ashamed of the books you love and choose to read. And it is far too short to operate under silly misconceptions such as the notion that science fiction and fantasy (both book and blogwise) are male-dominated arenas. On the contrary, I’ve been reading both for a donkey’s age. I’ve been blogging about a wide range of speculative fiction for going on seven years now. And I can tell you one thing–I am not alone. The vast majority of speculative fiction books and blogs I read are written by women. Why? Because they’re me. In all their wondrous variety and diversity, they reflect back to me pieces of myself, and they show me a dizzying array of lives and possibilities. I marvel at their audacity, their bravery, their humor, and their endless, endless imaginations. And seeing them, immersing myself in their beautiful visions of this world and so many others, I am reminded that I am one of many, that I am not alone.

I spend a fair bit of time on my blog talking about under-the-radar books, little gems I’ve run across and want to share with other like minded readers. So today I figured I’d share a few of my very favorite, lesser-known SF&F books written by women.

Old School SF&F

The Crystal Gryphon The Wind Witch The Novels of Tiger and Del

The Warhorse of Esdragon trilogy by Susan Dexter

I am continually amazed that Susan Dexter’s books remain out of print. And so glad I bought my copies when I had the chance. This trilogy features three separate heroines and one fascinating warhorse. If pressed, I choose The Wind-Witch as my favorite, but they are each excellent and do not have to be read in order.

The Crystal Gryphon series by Andre Norton

Part of the famous Witch World series, these three are part of Norton’s High Hallack cycle, and they are my favorites of her long backlist. There’s a fair bit of gender role reversal here, and an eerie world full of cold magic and danger.This was also my first introduction to the notion of marriage by proxy. These three should be read in order.

The Tiger & Del series by Jennifer Roberson

Roberson has an impressively long resume, and I have read most of her books. This is the series I saved for last, and I was not disappointed. It is the story of a northern sword-singer named Del and a southern sword-dancer named Tiger. The two supremely unlikely companions are forced to journey together on various quests. Six books in the series and they only get better and better as they go.

YA SF&F

Girl in the Arena A Certain Slant of Light Song of the Sparrow

A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb

Part urban fantasy, part ghost story, part love letter to Emily Dickinson, this shockingly good debut novel makes for an excellent crossover, in my opinion. I return to it again and again for the beautiful writing, the themes of redemption, and the sweet love story.

Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

This one flew much further under the radar than I would have liked. Having suffered from an inescapable, but unfair comparison to The Hunger Games, I think it deserve to be read entirely on its own merits. I could not put this dystopian gladiator novel down. Bleak and disturbing, the novel and its protagonist Lyn manage to capture your attention and keep it.

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

I’ve talked a lot about this one and recently. So I’ll leave it at this: revisionist retelling of the Lady of Shallott in verse.

Recent SF&F

Heroes Adrift by Moira J. Moore Song of Scarabaeus by Sara Creasy Clockwork Heart

The Hero series by Moira Moore

Fun, character-driven fantasy with extremely thoughtful undertones and a world free of gender stereotypes. I’m basically of the opinion that too much praise cannot be lavished upon this series. I adore Lee and Taro, and I am always up for another adventure in their esteemed company. For the curious, be sure to read Moira’s contribution to SF&F month.

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti

A steampunk fantasy set in the world of Ondinium and featuring a metal-winged icarus as main character. This world is built on the carefully delineated contrast between humanity and technology, privilege and humility. I was utterly engrossed and cannot wait to read the sequel.

The Scarabaeus Duology by Sara Creasy

This duology is one of my favorite discoveries of the past year. True science fiction with an enticing hint of romance, these two books reminded me why I fell in love with the genre. The strong characters reeled me in, but I stayed for the detailed look at the ethics of exploration and the treatment of humankind on the grand scale as well as the organic worldbuilding.

On the Horizon

For Darkness Shows the Stars Nightshifted

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

In a world of series, here is a standalone to sate your appetite. This beautiful, beautiful book is a post-apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I know! The best part is, it kills it on every level. I am in deep smit with this book and am so looking forward to it hitting the shelves round about June 12th.

Nightshifted by Cassie Alexander

This debut urban fantasy lands on the raw side of the genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. Nurse Edie is all human. On the paranormal ward of the county hospital, this makes her fairly fragile. But she makes up for it with scrap and nerve. I suspect she may be hiding something, and I’m eager to find out what. Kudos to Ms. Alexander for providing me with my first zombie crush. Due out May 22nd.

And that’s it from me. Thanks for having me, Kristen!

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Week three of Women in SF&F Month is now over, and what a great week it was! Today I just want to put up links to last week’s posts in case you missed any and link to a couple of related articles. Of course, I also want to announce next week’s guests.

There was a giveaway last week, and if you entered to win a copy of Parable of the Sower, check your email since I notified the winner earlier.

Week In Review

Here’s what happened during week 3:

Thanks to everyone who stopped by this week for giving us lots to think about and keeping us from ever running out of books we want to read ever again. (My wish list has exploded this month.)

There were a few posts around the Internet I came across this week related to the topic of gender/women in SFF that I wanted to point out.

Helen Lowe, author of The Heir of Night, wrote a guest post at I Should Be Writing on writing strong women. It’s a great article, and I particularly liked this part:

 

I believe the key to writing women characters who are truly strong, regardless of whether they are warriors, mages, or accountants like Daniel Abraham’s Amat Kyaan, lies in the word “character.” As authors, if we want our stories to work we must focus on writing characters who are credible and live for the reader on the page. Female or male, we are primarily writing personalities (i.e. also recognizing that not all Fantasy characters are human) and to “work” these personalities must be believable emotionally and in terms of their motivations. Also, when it comes to writing personalities, whether strong or weak, venal or honorable, each character’s development will be shaped by a combination of factors, including disposition, events, and the mores and values of the societies within the world.

Justin at Staffer’s Musings has invited some guests to his blog to discuss agency. He’s asked a few authors to talk about the following:

  • What is agency?
  • Why is it important? 
  • Why do we find more male characters with agency in fantasy novels than females? 
  • Is it OK if a character doesn’t have it?
  • Can a character still be interesting if it lacks it? 
  • Can a book be good if none of the characters have it?

Guests so far have been Elizabeth Bear, Michael J. Sullivan, Mazarkis Williams, Kameron Hurley, Myke Cole, and Anne Lyle.

Shaun at The World in the Satin Bag wrote about some of his own thoughts about N. K. Jemisin’s article this week called “I Would Ride a Unicorn (Maybe Even in a Dress)” or “Hey, Gender Paradigms in SF/F!” He talks more about the assumptions of gendered identity and how foolish some of these assumptions are, and relates some of his personal experience. It’s a great article.

Week Four Guests

Guests for the fourth week are:

Angie from Angieville
Kate Elliott (Spiritwalker, Crown of Stars, Jaran, Crossroads)
Teresa Frohock (Miserere: An Autumn Tale)
Memory from Stella Matutina
Pamela from The Discriminating Fangirl
Ian Sales from  SF Mistressworks

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This week brought one of my most anticipated releases of the year as well as three other books. (The other books are all books 2 and 3 in series I haven’t read so my commentary will be limited but I’ll tell you what I can!)

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon (The Dreamblood #1) by N. K. Jemisin

Since I loved N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, I have been eagerly anticipating her Dreamblood duology. Fortunately, there is not a long wait in between books. The Killing Moon will be released on May 1 and The Shadowed Sun will follow on June 12. Both books will be available in trade paperback and ebook formats.

Chapter One and Chapter Two from The Killing Moon can be read online, and you can find information on both Dreamblood books here.

If you somehow missed it, N. K. Jemisin was a guest here this past week for Women in SF&F Month. She wrote an excellent post on an experience she had as an eleven-year-old girl involving a book that challenged her idea of “girliness” titled Don’t Fear the Unicorn. I highly recommend reading it as it’s a very thoughtful and well-written piece on an important subject.

Sorry to get sidetracked; I just really want everyone to read what she has to say! Anyway, back to her book. Here’s the description for The Killing Moon:

The city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon.

In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.

But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, Ehiru – the most famous of the city’s Gatherers – must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess’ name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh’s alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill – or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.

Rage of the Dragon by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Rage of the Dragon (Dragonships #3) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Rage of the Dragon follows Bones of the Dragon and Secret of the Dragon. It will be released in hardcover and ebook on April 24. There is an excerpt available on tor.com.

From New York Times bestselling authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman comes Rage of the Dragon, the action-packed third book in their Dragonships fantasy series.

Skylan Ivorson is the gods-chosen Chief of all Vindras clans. But the gods from whom the Vindrasi draw their earthdwelling power are besieged by a new generation of gods who are challenging them for the powers of creation. The only way to stop these brash interlopers lies within the Five Bones of the Vektia Dragon—the primal dragon forged during the creation of the world—which have been lost for generations.

With the Gods of the New Dawn amassing a vast army, Skylan finds allies in former enemies. Calling upon the ogres to fight their common foes, the Vindrasi soon find themselves in the middle of an even larger war. Skylan and his Vindrasi clan must sail the Sea of Tears into the heart of the Forbidden Empire of the Cyclops, to implement a cunning yet delicate plan that risks his life and leadership at every corner. But a new enemy lies deep in the sea, one who draws upon powers never harnessed by land dwellers.

Master world-builders Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, who have entertained generations of fans with the Dragonlance series and the Death Gate Cycle, prove they’re at the top of their game.

Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor

Ghost Key (The Hungry Ghosts #2) by Trish J. MacGregor

Ghost Key follows Esperanza, the first of The Hungry Ghosts. It will be released on August 21 in hardcover and ebook.

It’s probably a bit early for an excerpt from this one, but there is an excerpt from Esperanza.

Dominica and her tribe of hungry ghosts were driven from Esperanza, that magical city high in the Andes, but they were not all destroyed. As a last devastating blow against Tess Livingston, Dominica seized Tess’s niece Maddie as a host, and fled to the United States. The evil bruja has settled in a small resort town in Florida and is cementing her power over a new tribe of unquiet dead. But she will not be able to take over Cedar Key, not without arousing the suspicion of the US government. And not without attracting the attention of Wayra, her oldest lover and most bitter enemy.

Passion, terror, blood, and courage abound in this supernatural thriller that will take your breath away.

Shadow Blizzard by Alexey Pehov

Shadow Blizzard (The Chronicles of Siala #3) by Alexey Pehov

Shadow Blizzard is the final volume in the Chronicles of Siala, following Shadow Prowler and Shadow Chaser. It will be released in ebook, hardcover, and audiobook formats on April 24th. An excerpt is available online.

This series is a translation of a popular Russian fantasy series, which has received the Silver Kuduzei and sold over one million books.

Shadow Blizzard is the third book by the international bestselling fantasy author Alexey Pehov. Like Shadow Prowler and Shadow Chaser, Shadow Blizzard is epic fantasy at its best; this is the third book in a trilogy that follows Shadow Harold, Siala’s master thief, on his quest for the magic Horn that will restore peace to his world. After the loss of friends and comrades, after betrayal and battle, after capture by fearsome orcs, Harold finally reaches the dreaded Hrad Spein. But before he can complete his quest by stealing the magic horn, he will have to brave the most fearsome obstacles yet—obstacles that have destroyed everyone before him…and Harold must do so alone.

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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!

Lynn Flewelling

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 WarriorThe 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.

Casket of Souls by Lynn Flewelling The Bone Doll's Twin by Lynn Flewelling Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling

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Today’s guest is N. K. Jemisin, one of my favorite newer authors! Her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, put her on my list of authors whose books I definitely must read. The very first page grabbed my attention, and it kept my attention due to an absorbing storyline, a strong and engaging narrative voice, and interesting characters. I also loved that themes like race, gender, and religion were woven seamlessly into the story. Since then I’ve devoured the rest of her Inheritance trilogy and now I am eagerly anticipating the release of the first book in the Dreamblood duology, The Killing Moon. It’s coming out next month with the sequel, The Shadowed Sun, following close behind with only about a month in between.

I was very excited that N. K. Jemisin agreed to write a post for this month since I think her own blog posts are very thought-provoking and insightful. When I finished reading the guest post she sent me, I thought it was amazing and I’ve read it several times since then. I don’t think I can do it justice by trying to introduce it so I will just insist you read it!

N K Jemisin

Don’t Fear the Unicorn

Hi, my name is Nora, and I am sexist.

(Waits for fellow sexists to respond with “Hi, Nora.” Everyone reading this should be responding, BTW.)

I remember the day I first noticed my own sexism. I was eleven years old. I know this because it was 1983, the year Steven R. Boyett’s novel Ariel came out. I spent most summers in New York with my father back then, and while those were lovely, creativity-filled times — Dad’s a visual artist, I’m a writer; we’d spent entire days just sitting around making stuff up — I also loved to read. Dad would take me to the nearest bookstore and turn me loose, although with a strict limit in place because otherwise I would buy the store. Ariel was one of my first great finds.

I almost didn’t pick it up, though, for one reason: because the original cover had a unicorn on it. Unicorns, I was fairly certain at the time, were girly. They were horses with horns, after all, and I’d spent most of my childhood fighting the tyranny of girly horses. Relatives who’d heard I was into science fiction and fantasy gave me posters of shiny, sparkling horses draped in bright pastels; I hid them under the bed unopened. Teachers at school put sparkly horse stickers on the girls’ perfect attendance charts. (The boys got stickers of cars.) I hated this. At the time I was a dedicated tomboy, because that was the best way I could think of to stick it to all the people who seemed determined to shove me into a pink, sparkly-sticker-covered box labeled GIRL. My friends made cakes in their Holly Hobby ovens; I made mud pies and alchemical concoctions — mostly out of mud too — in my grandmother’s garden. Mom asked me if I wanted to take ballet; I asked for kung fu. (I got ballet.) I asked for a boa constrictor as a pet. I got a cat. (Okay, I liked the cat.)

But I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly. It was full of horses and sparkly stuff and frufru magicky shenanigans, not hard, rigorous science like FTL and Martians and alien planets that just happen to contain independently-evolved human life.* Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things.

Ariel by Steven Boyett

So I wasn’t going to pick up Ariel because OMG unicorn no. But there was something else on the cover of that book next to the unicorn: a boy.

I remember staring at that book for several seconds of full, total “does not compute” shutdown. My brain just couldn’t handle the paradox. Unicorns equalled girliness. Boys, however, signalled action and adventure and toughness and purpose. Boys don’t do unicorns. Girliness =/= purpose. Danger, Will Robinson, danger.

Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl.

And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.

By the way, yeah, it’s totally possible for an eleven-year-old girl to be sexist. You don’t have to be a man to hate women and fear all things feminine. You don’t even have to do it consciously. Living in a sexist society is kind of like living in a sewer; no matter how careful you are, you’re always gonna stink. Most people won’t notice the smell, though, because they’re covered in crap too.

This was my parents’ problem. They’d been trying all along to introduce me to aspects of girliness they felt were positive and empowering, and I’d rejected those. In an ideal world, they would’ve recognized that my own attempts to express my femininity were just as valid as the ones they valued. There’s no logical reason to think horses or cats are any more “for girls” than snakes, after all. But most of us never have that moment when we stop and look around and think about the irrational, hateful crap we’re swimming in.

Thinking is key. We can see the impact of unthinking, unquestioned sexism in every “best of” list that contains no women. In a logical world it would be poor judgment at best, utter stupidity at worst, for anyone to declare something “the best” if they’ve ignored half of what’s out there — but this happens all the time in the fiction world. Thoughtless, unquestioned sexism is also behind the bizarre dynamics of book reviews, which are dominated by men even though the majority of book buyers are women. It’s there whenever someone calls fantasy “soft” and science fiction “hard,” with the implication that these correspond somehow to intrinsic qualities of women and men. It’s there in every call for more “boy books” in children’s fiction to address the fact that boys won’t read books about girls… as if it’s right for boys to be so misogynistic, so young.

And girls, note. Girls also learn to hate and fear themselves, if we’re not careful.

So I bought Ariel, which turned out to be a magnificent book — kickass adventure, lots of purpose and toughness and swords and hang-gliding and postapocalyptic war. Yes, in a book with a unicorn on its cover. But it also contained an incredibly touching love story — yes, in a book with a boy on its cover.

This intrigued me. After that I went on to read other things that, once upon a time, I would never have touched. I read them consciously, intentionally, because it annoyed me that this bizarre fear of girliness had almost made me miss out on something good. Next came more sparkly horse books, like Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald-Mage trilogy. Science fiction written by women, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels and Jane Yolen’s Cards of Grief. (But the first McCaffrey I read was her short story collection called Get Off the Unicorn. Can you guess why?) Science fiction by men that was chock full of girliness (David R. Palmer’s Emergence is a fave). More fantasy novels, by women and by men, which defied my sexist expectations (like C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy and Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu trilogy). And more. For awhile I even went way to the other end of the continuum, avoiding books that fit my sexist expectations. Didn’t touch Tolkien ’til my mid-twenties, for example. I needed a little positive discrimination to find balance. Now in my doddering old age — as my eleven-year-old self would’ve considered the thirty-nine-year-old me — I’m moving toward the middle. Now I read books because they’re good, not because of who wrote them.

But since I’m still a sexist — hi — I have to be careful. There’s still something within me that equates “good books” with “written by men”. So whenever I acquire new books, I have to think about who wrote them. I have to ask myself whether a book is really good, or whether I’m giving it a pass because I think the author is male. I have to wonder whether I’m judging a bad book more harshly because I think the author is female. I have to stop myself when I pick up books by men, and ask myself when was the last time I read a woman.

And I have to make myself pick up that book with the sparkly unicorn on the cover. I have to remind myself that the unicorn will not hurt me. There is no reason to fear it. In fact, if I’m lucky, it might just turn out to be awesome.

*Sarcasm voice.

N. K. Jemisin is the author of the award-winning Inheritance Trilogy.  THE KILLING MOON, first of her new duology, is coming out in May 2012 from Orbit; read a sample here: http://nkjemisin.com/books/dreamblood/the-killing-moon/

To learn more about N. K. Jemisin, visit her website where you can also find her blog and other thoughtful posts like this one. You can also follow her on Twitter.

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin The Kingdom of Gods by N. K. Jemisin