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Today’s guest is fantasy author Melissa Caruso! Her Venetian-inspired debut novel, The Tethered Mage, is the story of a young noblewoman who accidentally breaks the rules to save her city—and accidentally binds herself to a fire mage while doing so. It was one of my favorite books of 2017, largely due to these two women and the fantastic world, and I ended up staying up until 2:00 one morning finishing it since I could not put it down. The second book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Defiant Heir, will be released on April 24 (one week from today!) in the US and on April 26 in the UK—and it is absolutely wonderful!

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fighting in Ballgowns

The first time I fought in a fancy gown was an accident. My larp (live action roleplaying) character had just gotten married, and I hadn’t had time to change out of my wedding dress when undead attacked. I scooped up my sword and shield and leaped into the fray, and I made an incredible discovery: I could do battle in my gown just fine. It was so much fun that I fought in that dress all night, until it got too cold and I had to go put on something warmer.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that you could fight in a dress. After all, if you look at the warrior garb of various cultures and time periods throughout history, you see an awful lot of robes, skirts, long tunics, and big swishy pants. But I’d devoured fantasy stories with warrior heroines all through my childhood and teen years, and they’d pretty much all fought in trousers. Some of those characters had to disguise themselves as boys to be allowed to fight at all; some shunned dresses and traditionally girly things across the board. Others had nothing in particular against fancy gowns, but donned breeches for practical reasons.

I can think of only a few exceptions from that era. Princess Leia didn’t hesitate to wield her blaster in a dress, and She-Ra had that kind of Romanesque tennis skirt thing going on. But overwhelmingly, any female characters who were serious about fighting put away their dresses and pulled on the most boring-looking men’s clothes they could find—either that, or steel underwear.

I loved (and still love!) those characters, but as a kid I wanted to have it all. I drew women in gorgeous, flowing gowns with flaming swords. I dressed up my Barbies in their fanciest evening dresses and put them through imaginary adventures. The ongoing story I told myself at night before falling asleep featured a unicorn-riding, sword-wielding princess, and I assure you she was fabulously gowned throughout her various feats of daring and heroism. I didn’t care if it was realistic, because it was awesome.

And then I discovered it actually could be realistic, with the right dress.

Twenty years after that first time fighting in a dress, with much more experience in the subject, I posted a Twitter thread on what I’d found worked and what didn’t, using Disney princess dresses as examples. I fired off that thread on a whim, just for fun, since I’m the sort of person who spends time thinking about things like which Disney princess dresses are the most and least fightable. I didn’t expect it to go viral. But it did, because apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the idea of swordfights in ballgowns is pretty cool.

The fact is, there’s nothing about a dress that makes it inimical to badassery. Skirts can be a problem if they’re long enough to trip on, sure, but plenty aren’t. Despite what you might think from watching Pirates of the Caribbean, corsets are also fine, so long as you don’t lace them too tightly. The real key in battle gown selection is to avoid problematic sleeves: nothing too tight, too dangly, or off the shoulder, so you can have a free and full range of motion.

Okoye’s dress that she wears undercover at the club in Black Panther is a fantastic example of a gown that is both fabulous and fightable, and I’m sure it will surprise no one that I absolutely love that scene. Seeing her kicking butt in all that gorgeous, flowing fabric was just what I always wanted ever since I drew all those warrior princesses as a little girl. There are some other great examples of heroines who do battle in fancy dresses now that weren’t around when I was a kid, too, from Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books to Celaena Sardothien in Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series. I love that we’re seeing more characters who fight without rejecting everything feminine, and I hope their numbers continue to grow.

Even in some of these stories, however, I’m struck by the difference between the often solitary heroines and my experience as one of a large and ever-growing number of female and nonbinary fighters in my larp community. I’ve often sat in a room with friends chatting about what to wear to the upcoming ball, with all the exclaiming over embroidery and fabrics that might evoke scorn in a certain type of stereotypical warrior woman—except that we also discuss whether a sword belt will spoil the waistline, or if a skirt might need hemming to be combat-ready, or whether a bulky sleeve style will fit through a shield strap. I’d love to see more of that kind of scene in stories, where a combination of traditionally feminine things and adventure draws women together, instead of setting them apart from “other girls.”

There was never any reason we couldn’t have both. James Bond dresses up in a tux and gets into all kinds of scrapes; we can do the same in evening gowns. We can dance into the night in fabulous princess dresses and then, when the clock strikes twelve, fend off assassins with a rapier rather than taking the carriage home. You don’t have to dress like a boy to be the best knight in the land—though you can, of course, if you want to.

After all, I like a good badass pants-wearing heroine, too. In THE TETHERED MAGE and its sequels, one of my main characters prefers breeches and the other prefers skirts (though of course I couldn’t resist an action scene or two where they’re both in gowns for fancy occasions). Sometimes your character does need to dress like a man to break out of gender roles in a patriarchal society, or simply finds pants more comfortable. Heck, I wear them most of the time myself.

But other times, there is absolutely no reason not to have swordfights in ballgowns. Because Kid Me was right, and that’s awesome.

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Today, I am delighted to welcome R.F. Kuang to the blog! The Poppy War, her upcoming debut novel and the first book in a new trilogy, is epic military fantasy inspired by twentieth century Chinese history, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War. While waiting for The Poppy War to release in a couple of weeks—on May 1!—you can read the fantastic first chapter of the book on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, as well as R.F. Kuang’s essay below.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach

There’s a Chinese legend about the Moon Lady so ubiquitous that you must have heard it in some shape or form. Here is how it goes. Chang’e is a beautiful girl whose husband, the archer Hou Yi, shoots down the nine suns scorching the earth dry (just roll with it) until only one sun remains. The gods in their gratitude gift Hou Yi a peach of immortality, but Chang’e, wicked girl, steals the peach when her husband is away and devours the whole thing.

Alas, the peach was not meant for one mortal to consume alone. Its potency burns the mortality out of Chang’e’s body. She becomes a celestial spirit, too light to stay on our world, and she floats away until she lands on the moon where she’s trapped forever.

Chang’e was selfish. Chang’e wanted too much. So Chang’e is sentenced to an eternity in the cold and dark, alone with her misery.

This is the lesson meant for little Chinese girls. Because even if we’re about a hundred years out and a thousand miles away from the land of foot-binding and customs dictating daughters are worth less than suckling pigs, we’re still raised within a culture that praises filial piety, docility, and submissiveness. Play by the rules until you get a husband. Keep quiet, keep your eyes down, do your work, and obey. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be greedy. Don’t want too much.

It’s hard not to internalize these lessons when the only Asian girls you see reflected in books and shows are bland, lifeless caricatures with no internal drives of their own (because, of course, why would white creators give them that?). Consider Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon—oversexualized, dainty Oriental flowers who live and die for their white men. Consider Cho Chang—grief-stricken, hysterical, a pale imitation of a real person whose only purpose was to give Harry some kissing practice before he moved on to the white girl of his dreams. If the Asian girls in movies didn’t toe the docile, love-struck archetype, then they were cast as deviant Dragon Ladies—prostitutes, over-sexualized kung fu masters, the filthy dirty whores of the east.

Then there was Azula.


Azula, princess of the Fire Nation, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Ursa, maniacal bitch, conqueror of the world, my heart. Azula, whose hair and eyebrow game is always on fucking point; whose Ember Island outfit is such bikini goals that I’ve been searching for anything similar in stores for years; who, in Ty Lee’s words, is without sarcasm “the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world.”

Where have you been my whole life?

Azula gives no shits. Azula doesn’t care if you think she’s pretty. Azula wants the world and she’ll burn it down to make it hers. Azula claws her way to everything she wants. Azula is pure, unadulterated rage and ambition; she knows she’s a monster and she owns that.

(And twelve-year-old me resonated so deeply with how Azula, the second child, the girl, had to fight so hard for recognition in Zuko’s shadow. She was the obvious prodigy and still she had to constantly prove that she was stronger, better, faster, smarter. Do you know what it’s like to be a Chinese girl with an older brother? Your entire culture is wired to tell you you’re redundant, irrelevant. Azula approached Zuko with a murderous, jealous rage and boy, I felt that.)

Azula doesn’t win, of course. The narrative punishes her—not because she’s ambitious, but because she would honestly make a terrible ruler no matter how good she was at leading troops. But still we got to watch her wild climb to power over several delicious seasons, and wow, was that shit affirming.

Please understand how ground-shattering it is to tell an Asian girl: what if you took what you wanted?
What if you were selfish?
What if you raged, and left ashes in your wake?

The women of The Poppy War—Rin, Venka, Jima, Daji, Tearza—are not “strong” women. (Strong is such a boring adjective, and it’s usually code for men who gave a bland female character some nominal fighting skills and now want their feminism brownie points.) They are not pretty, they are not docile, they do not flutter their lashes to gain salvation from white soldiers.

They want power, they kick down doors to get it, and they are more than occasionally assholes. Radical, isn’t it?

There is a different, lesser-known version of the Moon Lady myth where Chang’e doesn’t eat the peach out of selfishness, but sacrifice. Her husband is a tyrant, a murderer. She’s terrified of him. She wants to save the world from the threat of Hou Yi’s immortal presence and the only way she can do it is to doom herself. In this supposedly feminist version, Chang’e is the hero and the martyr.

Should we prefer that version? I suppose it’s marginally better. But already we are brought up inside this culture that teaches us that pain and sacrifice make a woman, that the way we prove our virtue is to spill our own blood. And I have had enough of hurting to save others.

Here is the version I like best. Chang’e didn’t make a mistake. She knew that the peach was meant to be shared, that a half portion would grant immortal life, but a full portion would strip away her humanity.

She wasn’t interested in humanity. She wanted to be a goddess.

Now she rules the sky, and look—we worship her beauty every night.

That’s the lesson that little Chinese girls should learn. Take the peach. Shove it in your mouth—the whole thing. Let the juice drip down your lips and laugh as the mortal weight falls away from your bones. But don’t settle for the moon. Take the stars. They’re right there in front of you, and my God, they will burn so bright.

Rebecca F Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century and comes out with Harper Voyager in May. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.

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The first week is now over—thank you so much to all of last week’s guests! Here’s a summary of last week in case you missed any of their essays:

And now, I’m thrilled to announce this week’s guests:

Women in SF&F Month 2018 Schedule

April 16: R. F. Kuang (The Poppy War)
April 17: Melissa Caruso (The Tethered Mage, The Defiant Heir)
April 18: Ausma Zehanat Khan (The Bloodprint, The Black Khan)
April 19: Jeannette Ng (Under the Pendulum Sun)
April 20: Claire North (84K, Touch, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August)

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Today, I’m delighted to welcome Rowenna Miller! Torn, her recently-released debut novel and the first book in the Unraveled Kingdoms series, was largely inspired by her research on women’s fashion during the late eighteenth century, particularly apparel created in the midst of the French Revolution. It’s set in a historically-inspired fantasy world featuring a city on the brink of revolution—and a seamstress who literally sews magic into clothing!

Torn by Rowenna Miller

Women and the Authenticity Falsehood in Fantasy

Some people assume that there is a conflict between including strong, empowered, and diverse female characters in our work and retaining historical “authenticity” when writing fantasy. Readers seek “authentic” experiences and writers strive to provide them, and typically in a fantasy framework they are generally at least partially inspired by historical realities. But what do we mean by “authenticity”?

“Authenticity” is of course a moving target of perception—does this “feel” like the past? Much of what we assume we know about “the past” comes from a very narrow sliver of history, both chronologically and geographically.  When we begin to think about gender roles in history, our assumptions tend to emerge from European and American nineteenth century norms that were then challenged, re-established, and (partially) rejected in the twentieth century—and never existed in much of the rest of the world.  Though pervasive in our attitudes about gender roles, many of these norms were, in fact, specific to certain locations in the nineteenth century.

Yet writers who eschew assumptions about historical gender roles may be criticized on the basis that it doesn’t “feel authentic.” Why do we assume what we do about the historical roles of women?

Of course, when you’re writing fantasy, there is that whole worldbuilding aspect where, even though you’re inspired by or mirroring certain historical periods, you’re allowed to craft new social and cultural norms. You are allowed—encouraged, even—to make a world in which women hold positions that they didn’t in your historical cognates.  And if that isn’t enough permission, you can also certainly find examples in historical scholarship for a full range of real-life female involvement (thanks for already covering this one beautifully, Kate Elliott).

Prior to the age of industrialization, most Europeans worked in the same physical space that they lived, or very close to it.  Farmers are a clear example of this, but even tradespeople tended to work close to or in the spaces they lived.  This meant that tradesmen didn’t leave home to work, and women were not left alone to work in the home all day.  Breakdowns of tasks between housekeeping and trade/livelihood related tasks were often more fluid than “male” and “female” roles.  Both men and women participated in agrarian work or tending for animals.  Both men and women participated in trades.  Women were often silent partners in trade—which we know because widowed women were often “unsilenced” on the passing of their husbands, or worked in a trade on their own, including trades we often envision as strictly male, like shoemaking and blacksmithing.

When people began, however, to “go to work” outside the home more regularly in the wake of the industrial revolution, the dynamic changed.  The domestic sphere became more fully separated from the public one.  Suddenly we have very distinct roles and spaces for men and women—men in the public, commercial, occupational sphere, and women in the private, domestic, and familial sphere.  With this comes a lot of baggage—the concept of women as “the angel of the household” who provides not only household maintenance but nurturing and positive influence on men. She stays home, she delights in her household, she is a pillar of virtue for men to lean on.  This concept is reinforced in, for example, postwar twentieth century attitudes that cast Mrs. Cleavers as ideal and Lucy Ricardos as humorous deviations.

In short, the idea of women as cloistered domestic angels is inaccurate for most places in most periods of history. However, much of the media we consume—most of the “canon” of classic literature and film, as well as many contemporary works—is steeped in this tradition. We read, disproportionately, nineteenth century works when we read work produced in the past—our school curriculae and our general “well-read brownie points system” encourages this. This in turn becomes our touchstone for the past. When we think “historical” is it any wonder that the world of Little Women, Jane Eyre, or Great Expectations comes to mind?

What does this mean for fantasy writing? As we often tap our understanding of history to write believable fantasy, we often default to this understanding. This version of “authentic” follows us around like a persistent puppy, dogging our readings and whining when they challenge a particular perception, despite its limited roots in one particular historical reality.

In some ways, this is a very specific but particularly insidious version of The Tiffany Problem, where a reality doesn’t pass the sniff test of an “authenticity” seeking readership, thus is considered “unrealistic.”  (The Tiffany Problem gets its name because Tiffany, or variations thereof, is an actual medieval name, but anyone using the name for a medieval or medieval-inspired fantasy character would be laughed out of the room.)  Just as that medieval noblewoman might be a Tiffany, a seventeenth-century woman might be a blacksmith—yet the authenticity-radar blips for these violations of our incorrect understanding of the past.  Write a fantasy with a female blacksmith, and the reactions will include criticism of an unrealistic world and praise for a gutsy, inclusive challenge to the status quo—but acknowledgement that this isn’t really anything new is less likely.

They say that the past is a foreign country; in fact, it’s myriad foreign countries, and we could likely stand to earn a few more stamps on our passports when it comes to representation of women and women’s roles. In writing fantasy, we have the opportunity to play with our historical antecedents, but also to embrace them more fully in ways that reject monolithic representations of “authenticity.”

Rowenna Miller
Photo Credit: Heidi Hauck
Rowenna Miller grew up in a log cabin in Indiana and still lives in the Midwest with her husband and daughters, where she teaches English composition, trespasses while hiking, and spends too much time researching and recreating historical textiles.

RowennaMiller.com | @RowennaM

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It’s my pleasure to welcome Peng Shepherd to the blog today! The Book of M, her upcoming debut novel, is partially inspired by Zero Shadow Day, during which peoples’ shadows temporarily vanish in certain parts of the world due to a combination of the current angle of the sun and their latitudinal location. Though this absence of shadows usually lasts only a few minutes, The Book of M features a near-future scenario in which some mysteriously lose them for far longer and gain a power—but at the cost of their memories. I’m looking forward to The Book of M releasing on June 5!

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

The Time-Traveling Book That Made Me Love SFF

“There’s no time,” my mother said, flashing her ticket at me.

It was 1998 and I was eleven years old, all knees and elbows and braces, standing in the bookshop of the San Juan, Puerto Rico airport. My family was on its way to Tobago for spring break vacation, about to board the final leg of the flight. I edged deeper into the shop, racing the clock, searching desperately for something in English and for kids.

Then I saw it amid the cluttered stacks—not shelved properly, but tucked on top of a row of other paperbacks. The book looked old. Very old. As if it had been sitting there for decades. It had no price tag, and didn’t seem like something that was supposed to be there at all. The cover was faded blue, a pale clouded sky reflected against an ocean. In front hovered the face of a woman wearing some kind of steampunk helmet. Purple and white letters proclaimed, ‘Perchance: The Chronicles of Elsewhen, by Michael Kurland.’ It was a story about time travel and parallel universes.

My stepdad’s voice jolted me back to reality. “They’re closing the gate!”

I grabbed the book and dashed to the front of the shop, where my mother quickly fished some cash from her purse. Once squished into my window seat, I cracked the cover, drawing the irresistible musty scent of pages long unopened into my nose. The book already seemed important even then—the way I’d found it hidden backwards on the shelf, the lack of a sale sticker, the ancient smell of it. “Delbit grabbed hold of Exxa’s arm. ‘They’re coming up here. Take a deep breath and let’s go somewhere else,’” was the opening line.

I was hooked.

Perchance: The Chronicles of Elsewhen Cover

Perchance was the start of my love affair with science fiction and fantasy. I liked reading before, but my selection had been limited to whatever my parents bought for me. This was the first time I’d chosen a book myself, and it made me finally realize what kind of stories called to me, and what I wanted to do when I grew up. It was like magic.

Literally, actually.

I’d like to pause here on that note and say, yes, the title of this essay is written correctly. I didn’t mean the “time travel” book. I meant the “time-traveling” book.

A year later, my family moved across Phoenix, to the other side of the city. I’d since read everything I could get my hands on at the library, but Perchance still had a special place in my heart. I packed it into a box of books wrapped in paper towels, worried about it getting damaged, and taped the lid closed. But at the new house, when I opened the same box to unpack, somehow, Perchance wasn’t there.

I searched everywhere, but there was no book. My mother was skeptical, but I was sure I’d put it into the box, and the box had been still sealed when it arrived. For me, the explanation was clearly that Perchance disappeared itself. It was a book about just that very thing, after all.

I firmly believed it for a while, but eventually, the mysterious vanishing began to feel like a childish tale. Something I’d misremembered, or embellished. Magic wasn’t real, but grades were—and final exams, and SATs, and college applications. Like it does for so many of us at that age, my pleasure reading and writing took a back seat to course-mandated book lists. There was no place in serious literature for space ships or wizards, I was told. Then I graduated and got my first full-time job, where I read work emails all day, and wrote even more work emails all night. I had forgotten how much I loved the stories, loved discovering the worlds and cultures, loved the feeling of wonder. I had lost my imagination.

But a decade later, when I was moving from one apartment to another in Arlington, Virginia in my early twenties, my hands closed around the light blue cover of a weathered paperback novel. I pulled Perchance out of my suitcase and stared, awestruck.

It had come back to me, to prove magic was real.

I rediscovered my love of genre. I devoured novels by Ursula K Le Guin, China Miéville, Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson, Ted Chiang, N.K. Jemisin, Charles Yu, Jeff Vandermeer, and more. I began writing my own fiction again, passionately, obsessively. I felt alive again for the first time in a long time. I felt magical.

Even after more jobs, more years, I remembered what Perchance had taught me. I kept reading and writing, beginning a novel of my own. I moved to New York, hand-carrying the thing onto the plane, having learned my lesson with boxes. In that new apartment, I carefully, purposefully put Perchance on the top row of a yellow bookcase I’d bought off Craigslist, where I could see it whenever I came into the tiny living room. But I kid you not: one day, I went to retrieve Perchance from the shelf while jokingly telling a friend about “my time-traveling book”…


But this time, I wasn’t upset. If anything, it reminded me even more of how important these kinds of books are. Books that open your mind to new realities; books that bend the world, or do away with it for something completely new; books that tell deeper truths precisely because they are fantastical or unbelievable. Impossible or not, I wished Perchance well on its adventures, and believed I would see it again someday.

When I was nearly finished writing the manuscript that would become my first novel, The Book of M, it finally appeared again, as suddenly as it had vanished. I found it in another room entirely, in a stack of books I hadn’t touched in years.

These days, I keep Perchance next to my current writing desk. I check on it nearly every time I walk by—it’s almost subconscious at this point, a quick glance that doesn’t even slow my step—but every time it makes me smile to see it still there, still with me. Maybe this time it’ll stick around. But even if it doesn’t, good books never really leave you. That’s the magic of them.

Peng Shepherd
Photo Credit: Rachel Crittenden
Peng was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and has lived in Beijing, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The Book of M is her first novel.

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Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Kim Wilkins! She’s a five-time Aurealis Award–winning author, having received it for The Infernal (which won both Best Fantasy Novel and Best Horror Novel), The Resurrectionists, Angel of Ruin, and “The Year of Ancient Ghosts.” Several of her other works have also been finalists for this award, including Giants of the Frost and both currently published books in her Blood and Gold series. Daughters of the Storm, the first Blood and Gold novel, is an engaging, character-centric book focusing on a royal family with five sisters with very different personalities and interests at its heart—and it was just released in the United States for the first time last month!

Daughter of the Storm by Kim Wilkins Giants of the Frost by Kim Wilkins


How I loved Princess Leia.

When my brother and I played Star Wars games, the year the first movie was released, he was sometimes Han, sometimes Luke, sometimes my supervillain-nemesis Darth Vader. (The dog always had to be R2-D2, but was rarely compliant.) But I got to be Leia and that was great. Easy enough to pin my hair in buns over my ears. I asked a couple of times to be Han, but my brother was always clear on this: I was a girl. I had to be Leia.

When I was in junior high school I read Tolkien for the first time. The weird, cool new girl in class who introduced me to his books insisted I read The Hobbit first, which I did. When I said I liked it but why couldn’t at least one of those thirteen dwarves have been female, she said you just have to pretend. She handed me The Lord of the Rings and told me, “Merry and Pippin are girls.” You know what? LOTR works just fine if Merry and Pippin are female. In fact, so well that I was almost surprised to see them cast with male actors in the Peter Jackson film adaptation.

Predictably, I started writing my first epic fantasy around the time of my first encounter with Tolkien. It was a cheesy quest narrative called Trek Into Freedom, in which the lowly seamstress Kai-Ann joins with the defecting senator Tamerlan to form a group of assassins with the goal of taking out the evil queen Lavinga (jet black hair, widow’s peak, cape with a high collar, commanded an army of bats: you get the picture). Along the way, they picked up rebel leader and wayward daughter of a nobleman Hila, magician Antara, a farm-girl (whose name escapes me but was likely equally improbable) with big hands great for strangling wolves, and assorted other assassins with fantastic skills and powers: all but one of them female. My token male, Antara’s brother Akturan, existed solely to be Kai-Ann’s love interest. I was barely into my teens when I started writing this, so I was making it up as I went along. I had no idea what I was doing in terms of gender representation or class representation (I was from a poor part of town, so apart from Hila, everyone had grown up without shoes). I just knew I wanted a story about girls like me because I was a girl like me.

Sadly, after 200 typewritten pages, the Trek Into Freedom fizzled out about twenty miles from Lavinga’s castle. I was flooded with adolescent cynical hormones and put aside my epic fantasy story to take up cutting class and smoking on the jetty with my friends, but I look back now and feel proud to remember how that story allowed female characters to be defined as more than just “female”. It bucked the Smurfette trend of the 80s, where all the male smurfs were named for what they did, but Smurfette only got to be a girl.

There is a lot of talk about this idea of “strong female characters”, and too often it means characters that act in traditionally male roles. That can be awesome: we all loved seeing Wonder Woman cross no-man’s land deflecting bullets with her wrist bands. But it’s complex female characters I’m interested in. Female characters with agency who respond to that agency differently from each other. They can kick ass, sure; that’s never going to not be fun. Or they can be conflicted. Or sneaky. Or annoying. Or frightened. Or defiant. Or eccentric. Or think with their vaginas instead of their heads. Or too loyal. Or not loyal enough. Or, or, or…. You get the picture.

When my daughter was 10, I took her to see The Force Awakens. At the end of the movie I said to her, “Wasn’t it great to see a young female character in the main role, making stuff happen?” She gave me a look that said, “Well, of course.” She’s grown up on Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger and Tris Prior and Clary Fray, and all those books and films where there’s more than one woman (one Smurfette), and they all do cool stuff for different and complicated reasons. When she and her friends play, she has plenty of roles to choose from. It only took one generation.

I still love stories about women. It’s not that I don’t like men: I actually think they’re awesome. I like good characters across the board, but it’s women’s lives I’m most interested in. That’s why Daughters of the Storm has five female protagonists—all sisters, all different. I don’t play make-believe games anymore, but as a writer I still have to imagine what it’s like inside other people. And the best part of my job is having a cast of many complicated, conflicted, strong, weak, and in-between women to choose from.

Just like in real life.