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Today’s guest is urban fantasy, science fiction, and horror author Seanan McGuire! (You may also know her as Mira Grant.) Her debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was released in 2009. Since then, she’s won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, become a New York Times bestselling author, and set some records for Hugo Award nominations, including but not limited to becoming the first person to appear as a finalist 5 times in one year. She’s also won a Hugo for Best Fancast, and she’s released numerous novels and stories (if I’m counting correctly the two novels she has coming out later this year will be her twelfth and thirteenth). Basically, I am in awe of all that she has accomplished, and I am a huge fan of her books—especially her October Daye series, which is dark and humorous and just keeps getting better and better. Since I also love her blog, especially anything she writes about girl geek culture, I’m thrilled she’s here today to discuss the hurdles faced by geek girls!

Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire Midnight Blue-Light Special by Seanan McGuire Blackout by Mira Grant

Like many members of our strange and far-flung community, I wear my geeky heart upon my sleeve. Half my wardrobe is geeky T-shirts of one type or another (the other half is Old Navy tank tops in eye-burning colors). Looking at my backpack, right now, I find two buttons about Doctor Who, one button making a joke about zombies, a women’s flat track roller derby button, and pins advertising my love of Fringe, Ursula Vernon, jackalopes, Tesla Industries, and the Umbrella Corporation. The seal of the University of Gallifrey hangs on a chain around my neck. I am geek girl, hear me expound endlessly on my theories about the X-Men.


Less than a month ago, I was standing on the train platform, reading my book, wearing my Raccoon City Track Team T-shirt, when a man stepped up next to me. He gave fewer outward signs of helpless geekhood than I did; in fact, he had none. Yet he still looked me up and down, stopped at my franchise-branded breasts, and asked, “Do you even know what Resident Evil is?”

I stared at him blankly. I didn’t know what else to do. Because the first time someone asked me that question, or a cousin of that question (do you know what Doctor Who is can you name any X-Men can you name any X-Men who weren’t in the cartoon in the nineties can you prove yourself to me don’t you understand that you have to prove yourself to me when I command you to), I got angry. The second time, I got defensive. And by this point, I’m just…tired.

I’m tired of being told that being a woman means I can’t love the things I’ve loved for my entire life. I’m tired of being told that being a girl makes my opinions somehow less. I’m tired of receiving email asking me to prove that I did my own research for the books I write under the name “Mira Grant,” which involve a lot of science and ickiness. And I’m tired of feeling defensive. Even as I type this, I find myself searching for dates, for lists, for quantities that will somehow prove my right to love this genre and these worlds. Is starting Doctor Who at three enough? How about writing an essay demanding that my mother let me read Stephen King when I was nine? Or being on a first-name basis with everyone who’s worked at my preferred comic book store in the last fifteen years? When is it enough? When do I get my full citizenship in the Land of Geek, instead of being treated like a suspicious tourist?

The fake geek girl response terrifies and upsets me—and if “terrifies” seems a little strong, remember that “us vs. them” is a real thing that really happens. If every girl who says she likes the X-Men is lying, there’s no reason to listen to her, or let her be on your panels, or let her have a say in your franchise. If girls ruin everything, why let them into your genre? And if every time I try to engage with the wider fandom I get told “ew, you’re a girl, you can’t really like this stuff,” how long am I going to keep trying?

The answer, for me at least, is forever. I’m going to keep trying forever. And that’s where we need to have each other’s backs. If you hear someone saying “oh, she’s a fake geek girl, she’s wearing that costume for the attention,” call them on it. Good cosplay is an art form in and of itself. Those costumes can represent hundreds of hours of research and fabrication and effort, and that deserves our respect. Also, why should a girl being conventionally pretty mean she can’t be a geek? Remember that many of us fall in love with these genres during our awkward tween years, where no one is a contestant on America’s Next Top Hot Chick. Reading science fiction doesn’t change your DNA. Sadly. If you hear someone saying “girls don’t like zombies” or “girls hate superhero comics” or “girls don’t like horror movies,” tell them that they’re wrong. The internet is full of girls who love all those things. So is the real world.

Girls read and write science fiction and fantasy and horror and splatterpunk and cyberpunk and steampunk and everything else in the universe. Girls dream just as big as boys do. Dreams have no gender. Dreams are for everybody.

Don’t let anybody tell you different.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan writes things. Sometimes those things are science fiction or even horror, despite her having been a girl for as long as anyone remembers. Since she has regularly been reminded that girls don’t get to like science fiction or horror, she has thus determined that she must actually be the vanguard of an invading race of alien plant people. Prepare for conquest, meat creatures, and follow www.seananmcguire.com for invasion updates.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Freda Warrington! She’s written several books, but I discovered her work with the first of her stand alone Aetherial Tales novels and the first of her novels to be published here in the United States, Elfland. Character driven and beautifully written, it made me want to read everything she’d ever penned, a wish that has only grown stronger the more I read of her work. Her writing is elegant and effortless; her stories, myths, and characters are compelling. In particular, I find the inclusion of art in each of the three Aetherial Tales books an intriguing element, and I’m glad she is discussing the role it plays today—plus I am giving away two copies of the new novel, Grail of the Summer Stars (which I am currently reading and enjoying very much)!

Elfland by Freda Warrington Midsummer Night by Freda Warrington The Grail of the Summer Stars by Freda Warrington

Painting with Words

Hello, I’m Freda Warrington, author of numerous fantasy novels. I loved giving an interview to Fantasy Café a couple of years ago and I’m very delighted to be invited back for a guest blog spot. As my third Aetherial Tales novel GRAIL OF THE SUMMER STARS is published, I’ve been asked for my thoughts on the role of art in my novels. That’s a good question – why does art keep cropping up as a theme in my stories?

Or if not as a theme, at least as a plot mover. It isn’t always there: the primary concern of all my books is character and relationship. And conflict and struggle – without conflict, there isn’t much of a plot in which to test the characters! – and of course, landscape and atmosphere. That said, art plays a key part in my Aetherial Tales series. I didn’t plan it that way, it just sort of happened while I was writing.

The second book, Midsummer Night, centres around Juliana Flagg, a powerful grande dame of the art world who is a renowned sculptor, running an art course in her remote mansion. However, she has a secret – her own sculptures, which spring from her disturbing visions, have begun to frighten her to the extent that she dare not sell them, She faces bankruptcy as a result. So she’s caught between the real-world concerns of trying to make a living, and the intrusions of the Otherworld into her life and her subconscious.

Now, I had thought there was no art theme in the first book, Elfland. But now I come to think of it, oh yes there is. Rosie becomes a landscape gardener – another form of art. She is a sculptor of a different kind. While trying out ideas for gardens – with a long-term ambition of entering the Chelsea Flower Show! – she creates a mystical ‘spiral garden’ with a stone egg – an age-old symbol of rebirth – at the centre. And this garden comes to play a central role in the story. In my Aetherial world, where the Otherworld intersects with ours, to tread a spiral is to tread a magical pathway.

Then we come to the third and new book, Grail of the Summer Stars. Yes, here comes another visionary artist! Again, I didn’t plan this – I started writing, and then thought, “Ohh…” Stevie – herself an artist, in that she’s a talented jewel-smith and clockmaker – receives a strange painting from her old art college friend, Daniel. His thing is to paint weird subjects in the style of Russian icons. But this particular image shows something he could not possibly ever have seen – a scene from ancient Aetherial history. Apparently Daniel has picked up arcane knowledge from an unknown source, which makes him too dangerous to be let loose. When Stevie tries to find out why he’s sent her the painting, and what it means, Daniel has already gone missing. And other, sinister Aetherial folk are closing in on her, also eager to understand the message hidden in the image of a flamed-haired goddess – and to hide it from human eyes.

Thus the mystery of a single work of art takes Stevie on a convoluted, epic quest.

Why does art wind through my writing like this? Mainly because I am a frustrated artist, I believe! If I had the talent of, say, Anne Sudworth or Edmund Dulac or John William Waterhouse, I’d be creating my visions with pigment instead of words. Although I trained as a graphic designer, I was disappointed with my illustration skills. And yet, images have always inspired me as much as books. I only have to look at certain Pre-Raphaelite paintings and I’m carried into an enchanted world that makes me long to write stories. The work of Arthur Rackham, Dulac, Beardsley, the stunning visionary landscapes of John Martin, the surreal visions of Roger Dean on those evocative album covers – all made my creative fingers itch, so to speak. As a teenager, I had a couple of posters on my wall – one of a knight riding across an eerie landscape, the other a stunningly beautiful woman (meant to be Titania, queen of the fairies) – and although the posters are long-lost and I have no recollection of the artists, such images inspired scenes and characters in my early novels.

Recently the British fine artist Anne Sudworth and I were both guests-of-honour at the 2013 Eastercon. Although I’ve known Anne’s gorgeous work for years, it was only when we were on a panel together that I realized how similar some of our innermost ideas must be. She constantly paints magical paths that dwindle towards mysterious, just-beyond-the-horizon otherworlds. I constantly write about them! Here’s a difference, though – I feel the need to explore and explain those faerie realms. Anne doesn’t. To her, it’s enough that the magic simply is. And I love that.

I love landscapes and colours and atmospheres. Since I can’t draw them on paper, I paint them with words instead. Art and imagination and poetry and sculpture and nature and prose are not, to me, separate entities. They are all part of a single creative continuum.

Freda Warrington

FREDA WARRINGTON, who was born in and lives in Leicestershire, England, is the author of twenty novels. This is her third Aetherial Tales novel, her first series to be published in the United States. The first, Elfland, was named Best Fantasy of the Year by RT Book Reviews. For more information, please visit www.fredawarrington.com.

Courtesy of Tor, I have two copies of Grail of the Summer Stars to give away! (The giveaway is open to those with US and Canadian mailing addresses.)

About Grail of the Summer Stars:

The climactic concluding novel in the spellbinding magical contemporary fantasy Aetherial Tales trilogy

A painting, depicting haunting scenes of a ruined palace and a scarlet-haired goddess in front of a fiery city, arrives unheralded in an art gallery with a cryptic note saying, “The world needs to see this.” The painting begins to change the lives of the woman who is the gallery’s curator and that of an ancient man of the fey Aetherial folk who has mysteriously risen from the depths of the ocean. Neither human nor fairy knows how they are connected, but when the painting is stolen, both are compelled to discover the meaning behind the painting and the key it holds to their future.

In Grail of the Summer Stars, a haunting, powerful tale of two worlds and those caught between, Freda Warrington weaves an exciting story of suspense, adventure and danger that fulfills the promise of the Aetherial Tales as only she can.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Grail Giveaway.” One entry per person and two winners will be randomly selected. Only those with a mailing address in the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Wednesday, May 1. Each winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winners. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

(Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.)

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Today’s guest is historical fantasy author Juliet Marillier! While I have yet to read her books for myself, I’m looking forward to them since they are much loved around the book blogosphere. Daughter of the Forest and the rest of the Sevenwaters books in particular seem to be very highly recommended by a great number of the book bloggers whose sites I read. After reading what she has to say about the qualities that make a good heroine today, I’m even more excited to discover these books that are so often praised!

Juliet Marillier

What Makes a Good Heroine?

What do you look for in a female protagonist? Physical beauty? Kick-ass attitude? Moral fibre? Or simply someone with a journey to make, someone whose path you want to share?

I grew up on fairy tales, both the sanitised Victorian versions and the darker and grittier traditional ones. As a writer of historical fantasy, I’m heavily influenced by traditional stories and the women who appear in them, women who often play far more active parts than you’d think. For more on women in fairy tales, check out this perceptive blog by Katherine Langrish.

In creating the female protagonists of my novels, I’m also influenced by the books I read and loved when younger; old favourites I’ve now read over and over. The characters I was drawn to as a teenager had three notable characteristics:
- they showed courage in adversity
- at some point they took control of their destiny
- they stayed true to themselves

So who were they?

Jane Eyre made a huge impression on me when we studied the book in school –  I was around thirteen. The gothic romance was part of it, but I also loved Jane’s determination to be her own person, even though she lacked wealth, beauty and social status. That book may have been the one that started me off writing in first person, because Jane’s voice lets us in close, revealing what  a creature of passion she is beneath her mousy exterior.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Like many readers, I identified closely with Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels. Jo is creative, eccentric, passionate – she’s one of fiction’s most memorable characters. Her choices are daring for her time: not only pursuing a career as a writer, but also having the strength and good judgement to turn down the boy next door!

Then there was Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, set in Cornwall. The central character is Mary Yellan, a young woman who goes to live on the moors with her no-good bully of an uncle and her downtrodden aunt, and finds herself embroiled in a smuggling operation. Jamaica Inn is elegantly written, evocative and romantic in a way that completely avoids cliché. Mary is a strong, unconventional character, and when I first read the book I wanted to be her.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

And I adored Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, not just for its charismatic anti-hero, gripping drama and rich history, but also for Philippa Somerville, who over the course of six books grows from a feisty ten-year-old to a courageous, outspoken young woman of twenty. Perhaps ‘outspoken’ is the key. All of these characters know their own minds, or come to know them. All of them display courage. All of them meet their challenges and stand up to their persecutors. But not right away – each of them must first make a difficult journey. And that’s the key to drawing the reader in: creating a character who is so compelling that we want be with her every step of the way.

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

From more recent reading, the one character who sticks in my mind as comparable to those old favourites is Phèdre, the protagonist of Jacqueline Carey’s stunning epic fantasy Kushiel’s Dart and its sequels.  Phèdre is a submissive courtesan – but that most certainly does not make her powerless. She’s one of the strongest and most memorable characters in contemporary fantasy. The very distinctive voice of these novels – another first person narrative – draws the reader in from page one.

As a writer of historical fantasy, I work on keeping my female protagonists as true to their period and culture as I can while also creating a story that has relevance and meaning for the contemporary reader.  That can be a tricky balancing act, as most of my books are set in the early medieval period when societies were often paternalistic and women had limited choices (though in Ireland, where many of my novels are set, there were legal protections for women in matters such as inheritance and divorce.)

In an invented fantasy world, a writer can create whatever social structures she likes; she can allow her female characters as much freedom and power as she chooses to. In fantasy based on real world settings, the same degree of creative licence does not apply. Despite this, it’s possible to present a protagonist with challenges that are relevant to a contemporary reader, whether the novel is for adults or young adults (I write for both.)

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier

So, my characters face issues with parental control, social expectations, love/desire/loneliness, choices made under pressure. In some stories I’ve put my girls in situations where they feel powerless. In The Well of Shades, Eile is being abused by an older male relative, and her story shows how hard it is to break free when a person has an emotional hold over you, and the issues you’re likely to have with trust later. In Son of the Shadows there’s a pregnancy outside marriage, and a pair of sisters who receive very unequal treatment from their family. In my current Shadowfell series, of which the second book, Raven Flight, will be released this July, the story is based on a group of young rebels fighting for a near-impossible cause. The central dilemma of Shadowfell is whether it’s OK to perform acts of violence and deceit for the greater good, and what the personal cost of doing so may be.

Most of my protagonists are brave deep down. Most of them want to be good. Some of them face greater odds than the others, and some take longer to find that hidden courage. Some of them make a lot of mistakes. In the nineties I struggled with the sudden proliferation of kick-ass heroines, because those stories seemed to suggest that  a woman could not be a good protagonist unless she acted like a man (or in the way tradition suggests a man should act.) For years I actively avoided creating a ‘warrior girl’ character, thinking there were more than enough of those already. For me, women’s strength goes far deeper. It’s found not only in the soldier, the corporate executive, the elite sportswoman, but also in the stoic grandmother, the single parent shift-worker, the woman who cares for a disabled child or a frail parent. It’s there in all of us.

If I’ve learned anything from my favourite fiction, it’s that good storytelling often involves surprises. In my new book, Raven Flight, two young women with very little in common are thrown together on a long and gruelling journey. And yes, one of them is a warrior, complete with clan tattoos. Why did I finally do this? The character, who had made a brief appearance in Shadowfell, became very assertive about her role in the sequel. There simply was no refusing her. Call it taking control of her destiny.

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Starting week four today is fantasy and science fiction author Vera Nazarian! She’s written novels and shorter fiction and has been a Nebula finalist twice, once for her short story “The Story of Love” and the other time time for her novella “The Duke in His Castle.” My experience with her work so far is reading her novel Lords of Rainbow, a gorgeously written fantasy set in a world devoid of color. In particular, I enjoyed how authentic the main character came across as a female warrior, so I am delighted that she chose to discuss writing warrior women today!

Cobweb Bride by Vera Nazarian Dreams of the Compass Rose by Vera Nazarian Lords of Rainbow by Vera Nazarian

Writing Warrior Women

Ever since I was a kid growing up in Moscow, Russia, I remember wanting to be a warrior woman.

At the age of six, having just discovered Greek Mythology, I announced to my mother that I wanted to change my name to Athena, and then I carved spears and real functional bows out of ordinary wooden sticks found outside. (Yes, I was big on hands-on-crafts at a very early age.)

And then I ran around in the back yard of our large typical Moscow apartment complex, shooting the bow (that often broke, so I would carve another one, and notch it, and bend it like Odysseus, and tie the twine on it, while dreaming of gods and heroes) and throwing the spear like an Amazon, and making other kids play ancient battles and war games. Soon enough, many of them got sick of it, became annoyed with me, and went home to watch TV cartoons (“multiki”) instead. And so I was left alone in the yard, aiming at imaginary antique targets and pretending that Odysseus and Achilles were at my side and at my back, as I cast short light spears upon the wind (and fortunately missed hitting any “babuski” or grandmas).

This went on for months.

All along, I was dreaming of Penthesilea, and my secret dream lover was Achilles. I changed the grim tragic details of their story in my mind—a story that came to haunt me and was the true catalyst that inspired me to write, and tell stories of my own. These stories had different endings, dreamed up by a weird, precocious little girl.

Later on, I would rummage through books of world mythology and classics and art picture books, in search of sword wielding maidens, women knights and female warriors, and the tiniest mention of such would send my imagination into rapturous throes of excitement and self-affirmation. I knew in my gut they had to be out there, yes, and I looked for them everywhere. I combed volumes of fantasy and history in search of sparse droplets of Brunhilde, Penthesilea, Hippolyta, Bradamante, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare’s Viola, Fa Mu Lan, Atalanta, Gordafarid, Boudicca, Queen Tamara, Jirel of Joiry, Eowyn—their names whispered to me like hungry ghosts, and I could go on and on.  But sadly, it was always just droplets here and there, little sparse hints.  And it was never enough.

And so I obsessed over Bradamante from Song of Roland (Orlando Furioso), Brunhilde from Die Nibelungen (Ring Cycle), Russian female knight (bogotyr) Nastasia Vokhromeyevna from the Bilini (tales), Svetlana from the beloved Russian musical Ballad of the Hussars (Gusarskaya Ballada), Gordafarid the warrior maiden from Shah-Nameh (Persian Book of Kings), and the ancient wicked Georgian Queen Tamara who killed her lovers.

I sought out and proudly cherished each instance of female warriors and powerful women throughout history and myth and literature. And my own very first novel, War and Wisdom, an epic fantasy which was never finished but which pretty much taught me to write, all throughout elementary and junior high school, had a warrior woman for a heroine. She was Elzarán, a perfect Mary Sue character who was beautiful, intelligent, brave, proud, tall, swashbuckling and cocky like Errol Flynn, wonderful, noble, wielded a sword and all manner of weapons, rode a horse, dueled, fought in the Legion and rescued innocents, and made the hero and everyone else fall in love with her.

But such “perfection” got quite boring.

I am so relieved that this particular epic fantasy never saw the light of day in its superlative-ridden form (who knows, maybe one day I will re-write and finish it?), and instead taught me to do better. I’ve never committed another Mary Sue character since, because I think I got it all out of my system, thanks to Elzarán.

What I learned to do instead was write women warriors—or just women, because I believe that all women I write are “warriors” in some way or another—who are simply very human.

The many short stories and novels that followed, including all the pieces I wrote for Marion Zimmer Bradley’s various volumes of Sword and Sorceress, and my novels such as Dreams of the Compass Rose, and my most recent dark historical fantasy Cobweb Bride, all exemplify a different kind of female power.

My women warriors are humble, secret pillars of strength. Yet they are imperfect, vulnerable. Always self-aware, and wise enough to be able to laugh at themselves instead of others. They are self-effacing, world-weary, never cocky, and very much quietly heroic. They step out of the shadow, do what must be done, then step back.

They are also either plain or downright ugly.

And oh, how I reveled in the notion that they could find true love and form human bonds despite their unattractive or invisible outer shells. Indeed, how much more satisfying it is to write such stories….

The epitome of such humble warrior women is my personal favorite character, Ranhéas Ylir from my epic fantasy about a world without color, Lords of Rainbow—you might say it’s the original “fifty shades of grey.”

Ranhé is imperfect and yet relentless. She struggles, with all her being, for what she believes in. And it is what makes her a warrior.

She is my answer to a strong woman alone in a dangerous world—a human being with emotional and physical defects and a brave loyal heart. She has been formed, like a female goddess golem, out of clay and air and fire and longing. And she embodies, on some level, the elements of all the ideal warrior women and all my dreams of untapped female power that I’ve soaked in through my pores throughout my lifetime, and put through the transformative wringer of imagination and experience.

I pulled her, kicking and screaming, out of the most intimate depths of myself.

And yes, I wrote her in answer to all the cocky, “feisty,” selfish idiot females masquerading as warrior women, so often found in entertainment, and who annoy the crap out of me.

My Ranhé is real.


Vera Nazarian is a two-time Nebula Award Nominee, award-winning artist, and member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a writer with a penchant for moral fables and stories of intense wonder, true love, and intricacy.

She immigrated to the USA from the former USSR as a kid, sold her first story at the age of 17, and since then has published numerous works in anthologies and magazines, and has seen her fiction translated into eight languages.

She is the author of critically acclaimed novels Dreams of the Compass Rose and Lords of Rainbow, as well as the outrageous parodies Mansfield Park and Mummies and Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, and most recently, Pride and Platypus: Mr. Darcy’s Dreadful Secret in her humorous and surprisingly romantic Supernatural Jane Austen Series. Her latest novel, Cobweb Bride is coming in July 2013.

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…And that’s the end of week three! Thanks to all the contributors for their wonderful discussions and recommendations. Week four has another great lineup, but first, here’s what happened last week in case you missed any of it.

Week In Review

Here are the discussions from last week:

Also, Renay from Lady Business is compiling a list of awesome science fiction and fantasy books written by women. You can contribute by adding your own favorites.

Upcoming Guests: Week 4

I’m very excited about this week’s contributors and their wonderful guest posts! Here’s the schedule:

Women in SF&F Week 4

April 21: Vera Nazarian (Lords of Rainbow, Cobweb Bride)
April 22: Juliet Marillier (The Sevenwaters Series, Shadowfell, The Bridei Chronicles)
April 23: Freda Warrington (Aetherial Tales, A Taste of Blood Wine)
April 24: Seanan McGuire (October Daye, InCryptid, Newsflesh)
April 25: Heidi from Bunbury in the Stacks
April 26: Amanda Carlson (Full Blooded, Hot Blooded)
April 27: Sarah from Bookworm Blues

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Today’s guest is Elizabeth from DarkCargo! DarkCargo is a collaborative blog that discusses books, conventions, and assorted topics related to science fiction and fantasy fandom. Elizabeth, who also does digital book conversion through Antimatter ePress, is very friendly on Twitter and I’ve come to very much enjoy chatting books with her. She often recommends books I don’t know much about or haven’t even heard of before—and I know she has great taste based on the books and authors she’s enjoyed that I have read so I want to read all the books she recommends! That’s why I’m so glad she’s sharing some of her favorite heroines who are kickass in the different ways they use their wits and intelligence today (once again, making me want to read all the books!).

Dark Cargo and Antimatter Press

The Grand Dames of Kick-Assery

People say dumb things, but one gem sticks in my craw, overheard at a science fiction convention: “One of the reasons women tend to shy away from science fiction is because there aren’t very many good female characters in SF.” A huge part of me crawled off to die after hearing that, but in a great blaze of resurrected fury I sat quietly for three days and compiled a list to the contrary. So there, anonymous commenter. :P What follows is a list of some of the really fab characters I use as high-water-marks.

Some of the consistencies across all of these books, other than a female main character, are that

  • they were published pre-2005,
  • there is a romantic element to each of them (yay, kissin’!), but…
  • lots of not nice things happen in these stories—torture, terror, death;
  • other than Kindred which is very grim, these authors all sprinkle their writing with a bit of humor;
  • all but one is part of a multi-volume (and one is multi x 4!);
  • and their authors are absolutely legacy with-at minimum-a dozen books published.

There are some traits are true to all of these characters, as well. These women tell an interesting story because they are all smart, savvy, self-reliant, without being snarky smart-asses. They are not all violent, not all excellent fighters, they are not defined by their dismissal or avoidance of femininity. The problems they’re asked to solve are not resolved by barreling into a situation with all guns a-blazin’. To quote Mac, “I find a way around. Or more than one. Conflict isn’t my nature.” (Julie Czerneda)

All of these women are thinkers, and bring different elements of the intelligence equation to the table. Creativity, analytical thinking, self-knowledge, situational awareness, people-savvy, empathy, leadership, street smarts, athleticism, to name a few of the types of intelligence exhibited in these novels. Furthermore, the wisdom and knowledge of these characters are true to the character, not superficially imposed by the author to justify the character. In short, they are totally awesome role models. “What would Kerr/Mac/Livak/Dana/Del do?”

Oh. And the most important consistent criterion? Every one of these books has me up late reading into the wee hours, shouting and dancing around for the joy of a fab read. From one reader to another, I hope that you will accept my gift of this list of recommendations, and enjoy exploring these authors.

A Confederation of Valor by Tanya Huff The Heart of Valor by Tanya Huff Valor's Trial by Tanya Huff

Staff Seargent Torin Kerr from the Valor Series by Tanya Huff: Kerr’s kickassery resides in her interpersonal savvy and her insight into human nature. She’s the interface between the enlisted marines and the officers, in a future-earth scenario that includes several alien species intertwined into a confederation allied against The Others. Kerr knows her people’s limitations, fears, hopes, family news, personal likes and dislikes. She compiles, processes and re-focuses all this information into an arsenal she uses to keep her people alive in a fight they didn’t ask for.

What I particularly like about Huff’s writing is that these novels are approachable military SF. If you are reading this post at all, it’s likely that traditional Military SF puts you to sleep, too. But Huff’s fighting choreography, her straightforward and “need to know” descriptions of equipment and munitions make the military aspect of these novels part of the story, not the story. I love the banter between the marines, and the quirks that Huff chose to give to the aliens create a situational humor that is just plain funny. The di’Taykan for example, are required to wear a pheromone mask because the pheromones emitted by this species will make a human practically explode into a rutting lust…not a problem Kerr can afford in her tight-knit squad.

Tanya Huff, Valor’s Choice, first in the Valor series, first published 2000, DAW. (Though the later volumes in the series are available electronically, I cannot find an e-copy of Valor’s Choice or The Better Part of Valor. Appears to still be in print in an omnibus edition titled “A Confederation of Valor”.) Also available as audio books.


The Novels of Tiger and Del Volume I by Jennifer Roberson Tiger and Del Volume II by Jennifer Roberson Tiger and Del Volume III by Jennifer Roberson

Del from the Del and Tiger series by Jennifer Roberson: Del’s flat out able to kick the ass of any other sword fighter. From the deep desert to the snow-capped mountains, she’s the best Sword Dancer evah. Taciturn and humble, she employs the “speak softly and carry a big stick” attitude towards her goal, allowing her opponents to defeat themselves with their own prejudices and misconceptions.

Her brother was stolen into slavery and the best path for Del to find him was to train as a sword-dancer and fight her way into the Southlands. She hires a man known as the Sandtiger to guide her through the cultural and environmental dangers of the deepest desert. When she finds her brother, well, suffice it to say that happens in book one, I sobbed, and there are six more books in the series. Roberson has a mastery of emotional investment I don’t think I’ve read anywhere else. Del and Tiger are a team, and the books are as much his story as they are hers. An interesting twist to this series is that the books are narrated from Tiger’s POV!

Jennifer Roberson, Sword-Dancer, first in the Tiger and Del series, first published in 1986, DAW. Still in print in omnibus editions, available electronically.


Kindred by Octavia Butler

Dana from Kindred by Octavia Butler: Dana knows how to cede the battle for the sake of the war. She’s able to protect herself by holding on to her sense of self in a time that negates her humanity. If that kind of ragged survival isn’t kick-ass, I don’t know what is. Dana is a fairly unremarkable woman living her life, working a series of temp jobs, trying to justify her latest relationship to her family, you know, stuff…. In a blink, she’s whisked out of this mundane life and into her ancestral past, where she quickly assesses an odd situation and saves a boy from drowning. Flash! Back to her temp job and unpacking the new apartment. Flash! And she’s again swept off into some other time and this time she has to save that same boy from burning his house down. Flash! Back to breakfast, 1976. She’s repeatedly faced with a fate worse than death, and quickly learns to roll with the punches (or whip lashes, in this case) because she knows that her values have zero value here. Fighting, violence, bull-heading her way through, won’t solve the problem. She has to duck and roll, hunker down and protect the core of herself, survive, and keep this hateful boy alive long enough to sire an ancestor of hers.

Kindred, I think, is the perfect example of what speculative fiction can do. “What if something that we know is impossible were not?” Kindred asks the hardest questions we can ask of ourselves, about power and control and our incessant human desire for both of these. Are we truly self-made people or are we just battered into semblance of a self by time, place, skin color, class, history?

Octavia Butler, Kindred, first published 1976, still in print, available in audio. Personally, I got a lot out of an edition published by Beacon Press, which includes reader questions, selected bibliography, secondary sources and a critical essay.


The Thief's Gamble by Juliet E. McKenna The Swordsman's Oath by Juliet E. McKenna

Livak from The Tales of Einarinn by Juliet E. McKenna: Livak has accumulated such a wealth of experience with gambling and thieving, trickery and sleight-of-hand that she’s likely to steal your coffee money from your pocket while you read the book, and then have you conned into thinking you need to thank her for that. Livak’s able to assess a situation, seeing danger, money, exits or potential where others of her team see their next meal or a “doxy maid”. I love especially the scenes where McKenna puts Livak through her paces with her sneak-thievery. The house is dark, she has to work silently and quickly, and she knows exactly what she’s doing: Livak is very good at her job.

She and her buds are a bunch of thieves and con-artists, grubbing a living from Festival to Festival. Meanwhile there is Epic Magic afoot, the kind of magic and wizardry epic enough for 15 novels set in this universe. The wizards have a problem they’re researching, and Livak comes to the attention of these wizards through her fine skills at parting a fool and his money, realize that she’s the pro for the job. They need her to steal something, and offer her a choice she’s hard-pressed to refuse.

I find McKenna’s world-building to be immersive. Not only does McKenna render an entirely unique system of gods/goddesses, politics, calendar and holidays, as well as clichés, proverbs, and cusswords, but she drops in letters, poems, songs “written” by third party characters we never see. Lest I mislead you into believing that The Tales of Einarinn are focused on Livak, let me tell you that Livak is part of a team. The first and third novels are told from her point of view. In the other novels, we’re treated to the continuation of the story from the POV of another character.

Juliet E. McKenna, The Thief’s Gamble, first of The Tales of Einarinn (which is the first set of an additional three sets in the whole huge epic story arc) first published in Great Britain, 1999, available in print and also made available electronically from Wizard’s Tower Books and Weightless Books. I like these books so much I offered to scan and code them into ebooks for McKenna. We’ve been working together on this project and book #3 will be available soon. (for disclosure, this is done in the service of fandom, I receive no revenue from this work.)


Survival by Julie Czerneda Migration by Julie Czerneda Regeneration by Julie Czerneda

Mac from the Species Imperative series by Julie Czerneda: And now we get to the kick-ass scientist, analytical thinker and creative problem solver. Mackenzie Winifred Elizabeth Wright Connor, or “Mac” (of course), is an evolutionary geneticist and director of a research outpost hidden in an alcove in future earth’s British Columbia. Humans have made contact with aliens, but all that outer-space nonsense is neither here nor there when it comes to Mac’s research on “her” salmon…until a big blue rubbery alien sticks his big blue rubbery ass right in the middle of this season’s salmon run. Something is stripping planets of all organic molecules, and the trajectory of this devastation is headed for Sol system. Brymn of the rubbery blueness is an archaeologist and has come to ask Mac for her help identifying and defeating the mysterious plague.

The science here is biology. If you don’t read it for Mac, read it for the aliens. Her aliens aren’t humans in funny suits. They are not human, and a good portion of what we see Mac struggling with is wrapping her (and thereby, our) head around exactly how different an alien can truly be. This is a story about ecology, evolutionary pressures on a population, and genetic mutation.

Czerneda’s genius is often cited as the development of her aliens. And it is, but that’s only one part of her writing genius. Her ability to pace a novel is masterful. The first few pages of Survival are quiet…just like Mac’s life…counting salmon…. Later, we’re allowed to zoom into a scene in which Mac is basically waiting to die. Given a private berth on alien vessel, they’ve neglected to accommodate her different physiology. We count down her water bottles and protein bars, biting our nails and flipping the damn pages faster and faster: is she going to make it? In a frenzied, wild scene of shouting and pissed off people, she finds that her research team has devolved into infighting and bitter rivalry: she has to get them back on task and on target and she has to do it fast. In a terrifying scene, the spit…pop… of claws on the roof breaks the still night: this is an alien no human can see and they’re hunting her. An introspective, quiet moment, watching the sunlight warm her hands, thinking about the refractive quality of light and the possibility of invisible aliens, the peaceful lunchroom scene explodes into chaos…a page later the entire pod is destroyed and many of her research team has died. Woah! That was fast! What the heck just happened?

Julie Czerneda, Survival, first in the Species Imperative series, first published 2004, DAW, still in print, available electronically.

Here are five interesting characters and the excellent writers who birthed them. That appears to be a list of five books, but if you like them and follow the whole series, those five will bloom out suddenly into… 32! And if you go on to read more by these authors? hah! Happy TBR balancing!

These are just some of the fab novels out there that I’ve enjoyed, but to go on, I’d be chewing your ear off like Mac about her salmon. Others that just as easily could have been part of this list until I hit my 2000 word limit include Soz: Primary Inversion (1996), Catherine Asaro; Jenny Casey: Hammered (2004), Elizabeth Bear; Jamisia: This Alien Shore (1999), C.S. Friedman; Ti-Jeanne: Brown Girl in the Ring (1988), Nalo Hopkinson; Fool’s War (1987), Sarah Zettel; Gil, Time of the Dark (1983), Barbara Hambly; Kerrigan, Green Rider (2000), Kristen Britain.  

Who’s next on my TBR? Let’s see, I’m looking at Pamela Sargent, Lois McMaster Bujold, Linda Nagata, R. M. Meluch, Kay Kenyon and Tricia Sullivan. Who can you recommend for me?

Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro Hammered by Elizabeth Bear This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman