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!).
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?