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Today’s guest is Rachel Cotterill of Strange Charm! If you’re interested in discovering more science fiction and fantasy books written by women, you’ll want to check out Strange Charm: it’s dedicated to showcasing speculative fiction by women and often features books not being mentioned all over the blogosphere. Rachel and her co-blogger Joanna post new reviews and interviews on Mondays and Thursdays, and they also review some books based on fun themes. For instance, Rachel is reviewing some books with Foodie Magic, such as The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman, this spring. In addition to her work at Strange Charm, she also writes books herself and is the author of Watersmeet and the Chronicles of Charanthe.

Strange Charm

Idealism and Realism of Representation in SFF

Almost everyone agrees that increasing representation of minority and marginalised groups in fiction is a noble goal. If you’re reading this because you’re following the Women in SF&F Month, for example, you’re probably on board with the basic idea that it would be good to see more women in sci fi and fantasy. However, look a little closer, and there often emerge sharp divisions of opinion when it comes to the way this should be achieved.

The discourse of representation in SFF usually sees people taking up one of two positions, which for now I’ll term “realist” and “idealist”.

In the realist corner:

“It’s important that SFF reflects all the complexities and inequalities of human society.”

And in the idealist corner:

“You can imagine dragons and magic—why can’t you imagine social equality?”

What makes this interesting to me is that it’s an almost uniquely speculative problem. For contemporary and historical settings, this isn’t hypothetical. Authors can choose to brush over prejudice and inequality, or to reflect it in the background, or to place it front and centre as a primary theme, but for any real-world setting there’s some established ground to build on.

In secondary world fantasy, or an alien culture in a far-flung corner of the galaxy, there is no such context. Authors can do anything, which gives the idealist camp a position they couldn’t really take in other genres. Want women to be equal? Give them the same jobs and roles as the men in your story, have people treat each other the same regardless of gender, and eliminate sexist language from your (and your characters’) vocabulary. Want racial equality? Design society that way. Equality for queer folks, the disabled, the old? Just write it. And given that you can, why wouldn’t you?

Considering this dichotomy of approach in relation to the books I’ve been reading lately, I note that many of my personal favourites take an idealistic approach to some aspects of society, while leaving other areas unbalanced and available for a more nuanced exploration of social issues.

Take Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which famously sets up a society completely devoid of gender as a concept of identity or presentation or even linguistic distinction, thereby removing all gender politics in-world (though back in the real world, Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun caused no shortage of debate amongst literary critics and linguists alike). Yet the Radch is far from idealistic in other respects, presenting a sweeping study of ruthless colonisation which draws heavily on the empire-building philosophy of ancient Rome, applied on an interplanetary scale. The Radch takes indigenous cultures and absorbs them whether or not they wish to be absorbed, and murders those who dare to protest while claiming to be bringers of peace.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith

On the fantasy side, there are some distinctly idealist strains in A.F.E. Smith’s construction of the Darkhaven world. This is perhaps most obvious in the matter-of-fact inclusion of gay and lesbian couples: the LGB characters encounter and tackle plenty of interesting problems, just like everyone else, but never directly related to their sexuality. In Goldenfire (book two) there are characters who face the emotional complexities of adoption, and alcoholism, and mental health issues, all of which are integrated seamlessly into the story, and which are presented as internal struggles to be handled with the help and support of loved ones, rather than sources of ridicule or prejudice from others. And then there’s a disturbingly accurate portrait of a young woman determined to become a Helmsman. There are a lot of “sole female warrior” stories in fantasy, but Smith gives us a twist in the form of a second female student. By examining the competition and, yes, blatant sexism which can manifest between two women trying to carve out a shared space in a male-dominated field, this narrative captures elements of what it is to be a minority in a professional environment, in ways I’ve seldom seen explored in fiction of any genre (although XKCD has done quite a good job of capturing the root of the problem in two panels).

The deliberate construction of a more-idealised society can also be a narrative theme in itself. The Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman sees Queen Shulamit, a young woman new to her throne, take on the world as she grows into her power and tries to shape the society she wishes to live in. Her investment in change is deeply personal, as a lesbian in a world where non-heterosexuality is seldom acknowledged, and it’s fortunate that as Queen she’s in a position to challenge this directly—but Shula’s sense of justice reaches far beyond her personal concerns. In Climbing the Date Palm, the second volume in the series, two men from a neighbouring state are victimised for their love, and it’s down to Shula and her friends to save them, while averting a war and ensuring that a group of construction workers are fairly paid. The Mangoverse series also stands out as a rare example of Jewish culture in secondary world fantasy.

Climbing the Date Palm by Shira Glassman The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

To name but a few more examples: In “Flight Risk” by Talya Andor (one of five stories included in gay romance anthology Keep the Stars Running), gay relationships are normalised, but the couple in question must fight the stigma of disability to be together. The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black’s recent fairytale, gives us a gender-flipped take on some standard fairytale tropes: there’s a female knight, a male Sleeping Beauty, and a gay love story. Meanwhile, with these traditional elements quietly inverted, the focus of the story shifts from the classic battle of good and evil to a more subtle clash of wills. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson gives us a contemporary Islamic fantasy setting, featuring a genius computer hacker who is dreadfully sexist even when he’s trying hard to do better.

There’s another kind of social inequality narrative that’s limited to the speculative arena, and that’s the introduction of fantastical or alien analogues to real-world prejudice. This gives the opportunity for an extended social metaphor, of which the substitution of cross-species prejudice for racial prejudice is probably the most blatant and also the most common example.

In Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani, creatures known as Breathers are a kind of energy vampire that are generally reviled and feared; through the story, we see at least one example who is kind and considerate despite being widely hated. In Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey, it’s ghouls who are the social pariahs. Sometimes, as in Rabia Gale’s Rainbird, there are two communities living side by side in a broadly tolerant manner, but deliberately separated, with half-breeds excluded by both groups. Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet uses a range of alien species to explore issues of gender and race without being limited to the existing structures of human society or even human biology.

Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll

I suggested that contemporary settings could be excused from this discussion, but in a few rare cases, a speculative element allows for even present-day settings to be separated from their systemic prejudices. Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll is a case in point. The main cast of characters have returned from the faery realm without their memories, and their prejudices and biases have been erased along with their names and histories. This results in a mixed-race community, bound together by circumstance rather than heritage, all of whom are discovering and shaping their identities together. The resulting group has a higher than average number of non-straight, non-monogamous relationships, a significant proportion of trans and genderfluid characters, and almost no prejudice towards any of them, nor towards those who are struggling with mental health issues as a result of their trauma.

The realist argument usually stems from the idea that fiction should educate us as it entertains us, by giving us an imaginary background to some very real social struggles. But if I’ve learnt one thing from considering this question, it’s that idealist fiction can also be educational: set against the background of our own world, it’s in the differences that we see our flaws reflected. And the idealist vision can give us a glimmer of hope, and a sketch of something better to aspire to.

I don’t think there’s a single right answer, and I suspect those who take up these positions in debate don’t really think it’s all or nothing, either: they’re usually reacting to a perceived imbalance in the current state of things. The realists have seen too many decades of mainstream SF books where there are precious few women, fewer black people, no gay couples, and no recognition of the struggles that marginalised groups regularly face. The idealists have noticed trends that represent without empathy: tropes of slavery and dead lesbians, where the only available stories seem to be tragedies, or cases of tokenistic representation, cardboard stereotypes with only minor roles to play. Both groups challenge us to do better.

Rachel Cotterill Rachel Cotterill grew up hiding from the real world in a succession of imaginary lands, and still likes to spend her holidays there. She likes fast-paced plots, greyscale morality, and characters who remain believable when they find themselves in situations that are anything but. She’s always searching for her next favourite author, and is half of the feminist SFF book blog Strange Charm, which exists to showcase the best in speculative fiction by female authors. When she isn’t reading, Rachel is professionally and perpetually indecisive, splitting her time somewhat haphazardly between writing, computer science, linguistics, recipe development, and travel. Rachel’s third novel, Watersmeet, is a romantic and optimistic fantasy published in 2015.

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It’s that time again—time to announce this week’s Women in SF&F Month guests! But first, thank you to last week’s guests for another great week. In case you missed any of these articles, here’s what happened last week:

And now, the schedule for the following week, beginning tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month Week 3 Guests

April 17: Rachel Cotterill (Strange Charm, Watersmeet, Chronicles of Charanthe)
April 18: Susan Jane Bigelow (Extrahumans series, The Daughter Star)
April 19: Kari Sperring (Living with Ghosts, The Grass King’s Concubine)
April 20: Dina (SFF Book Reviews)
April 21: Janny Wurts (Wars of Light and Shadow, To Ride Hell’s Chasm)
April 22: TBD

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This week I’m giving away one book from the list of nearly 1500 recommended SFF books by women begun by Renay—which book is up to the winner! It can be any book on the list available on the Book Depository that doesn’t cost more than $15 (in US dollars). There are a lot of excellent books recommended that would apply, such as:

The Silvered by Tanya Huff My Soul To Keep by Tananarive Due Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • The Silvered by Tanya Huff
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • Both books from the previous giveaways, The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Fire by Kristin Cashore

If you want to enter, check out the list and see which book interests you the most! If you haven’t added some books to the list already this year and want to share some recommendations, we are also collecting more submissions to add to the list this April: 10 favorite science fiction and/or fantasy books written by women that you’ve read and loved in the last year (old or new books).

This giveaway is open internationally—anyone from a country qualifying for free shipping from The Book Depository is eligible. More details on the giveaway are below.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email with the book of your choice to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Book List Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from a country qualifying for free shipping from the Book Depository are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, April 22. The 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 winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.

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Today’s guest is novelist and poet Helen Lowe! Her debut novel Thornspell won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel – Young Adult, and the first two novels in her Wall of Night series were each honored by the Gemmell Awards: The Heir of Night won the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2012 and The Gathering of the Lost was on the Gemmell Legend Award shortlist the following year. Her recently released novel, Daughter of Blood, is the third book in this quartet.

Daughter of Blood US Cover Daughter of Blood UK Cover

Women As Leaders In Fantasy Fiction

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

During the course of writing Daughter of Blood, the recently published third novel in my epic fantasy quartet, The Wall of Night, I thought a great deal about leadership. This consideration took several turns, from what makes a leader in the first place, to how the form of leadership may vary depending on circumstances–as well as reflecting on some of the great examples of women leaders in Fantasy fiction. I would like to highlight some of those characters today and conclude by checking out where Malian of Night, the main character in The Wall of Night series, fits into their tradition.

Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurts and Raymond E. Feist

Mara of the Acoma
I don’t believe any discussion of women as leaders would be complete without Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist’s Mara of the Acoma, from the Empire series. Mara may have been born to greatness, as the daughter of a Kelewan ruling house, but she has leadership thrust upon her when her father and brother are slain in war. The treacherous circumstances surrounding their deaths mean that she assumes political leadership of her house when its security and fortunes are at their lowest ebb.

Throughout the three books, Mara is a political leader: she has no magic at her disposal and is not a warrior, although she has warriors who serve her. Her survival is a matter of intelligence, strategy, and judgement–and the courage to think outside the square and take bold political risks. As a ruler, Mara chiefly acts through others, whether her soldiers, her spies, or her advisors–yet there is absolutely no question that she is a compelling and powerful leader.

The Chronicles of Morgaine by C. J. Cherryh

Morgaine
Morgaine, in CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine series, is the classic Heroine Alone. She is also a leader–one who leads through the power of her personality and direct action, rather than presiding over a political enterprise in the way Mara does. In this sense she has also acquired her leader’s status over time: by surviving when her original companions fell and through ruthless pursuit of her quest.

This does not mean that Morgaine is incapable of political machinations or leading armies. She has done both in the past and will play politics again, but always as an individual with a higher cause rather than to gain political power for its own sake. Nonetheless, others are drawn to Morgaine and follow her, however reluctantly given that she is as uncompromising as she is effective. She is, therefore, as convincing a leader as Mara, only in a very different way.

The Princess of Flames by Ru Emerson

Elfrid
Elfrid, in Ru Emerson’s The Princess Of Flames, is definitely one of those who has leadership thrust upon her when she must stand in for her kinsman, Gespry of Rhames, as the general of a mercenary army. Like Mara, she has soldiers under her command–but unlike Mara she must both lead in the field and devise military tactics. Elfrid is a trained warrior and shares the same magical gifts as Gespry, so it’s not the fighting she finds challenging but the general’s personal contact with and responsibility for others’ lives.

A reserved personality herself, Elfrid frequently wonders how she can continue to convincingly emulate Gespry’s easy bonhomie and common touch. So she is an excellent example of a person who teaches herself to become what she naturally is not. In that context, not unlike Morgaine, Elfrid achieves leadership through her own hard work as well as having been thrust into the role.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Signy and Beatritz de Barbentain, and Ariane de Carenzu: A Concert of Leadership
These three women play vital leadership roles in Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Signy is the elderly Countess of Arbonne, although she has only ruled alone since the death of her husband. Her daughter, Beatritz, is a religious leader, the High Priestess of the goddess Rian, and as such also has political as well as spiritual power.

Ariane, however, is the Queen of the Court of Love, an unquestioned leader in her society, but whose power is solely that of influence and personality (but in a very different way to Morgaine). Yet as Ariane demonstrates through the story–and management studies in our more prosaic world have shown–influence and personality can count for a great deal.

I could have just made this segment about Ariane, but I wanted to mention spiritual leadership as well as the importance of influence. I also wanted to focus on the “concert”: that however powerful or important in their own right–and all three play vital parts in the story–it is by working in alliance with each other and others, that their individual contributions to Arbonne’s cause are most effective.

John Knox, of course would have apostrophised them as “this monstrous regiment of women”–a world view that is indirectly (vis-a-vis Knox) one of the themes of the book. But I prefer my “concert”, which exemplifies how cooperation can be as important an attribute in a leader, or leaders, as individual excellence.

The Heir of Night US Cover The Heir of Night UK Cover

Malian of Night
Although The Wall of Night series has a number of point-of-view characters, Malian of Night is the main protagonist. She is the Heir to the warrior House of Night and so born to both political and military leadership, but in the best epic Fantasy tradition she is also heir to a prophesied destiny and so has a very different form of greatness thrust upon her. Also, through the course of the series exile has forced Malian to rely more on personal influence, including the Heroine Alone’s power derived from personality, ability, and direct action–aka leadership by example.

One of the reasons that writing Daughter of Blood, in particular, obliged me to think about leadership, was because in it Malian has to consciously chart a course between her inheritance and her prophesied destiny. She must also consider whether it’s feasible to pursue the path of Heroine Alone, like Morgaine, or whether she must–emulating Elfrid–lead armies. Like the women leaders of Arbonne, Malian has already had to make alliances; as with Mara, political necessity and survival have forced her to think outside the square when considering available options.

In addition to Malian, the Wall series features a number of other women leaders. I will not enumerate their roles now–but like the choices Malian must make, I am glad the variety of leadership positions they occupy are part of such a great Fantasy tradition.

Helen Lowe Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, while the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three), was published January 26, 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, occasionally on SF Signal and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

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Today’s guest is Elizabeth Bonesteel, whose debut science fiction novel The Cold Between was just released last month. It sounds like a great read, and as such, was on my list of most anticipated books being published this year! The next book in this new series will soon follow: Remnants of Trust is scheduled for release in November 2016.

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel Remnants of Trust by Elizabeth Bonesteel

The Joy of Fighting Stereotypes

I ran across a blog post a few years back called something like “How to write male characters.” What the heck, I thought. I write a lot of men, so why not give it a read? I’m perfectly willing to believe there are subtleties I’m missing. After all, think of all the clunky female characters I’ve run into over my life; the last thing I’d want to do is have my male readers react like I did to those characters.

Alas, the post was nothing but a list of stereotypes, and as such was only useful as a reflection of the culture of the author (which was, as it happens, the same one I live in). Men are more visual. Men are less in touch with their feelings. Men are more likely to resort to violence. These are socially-accepted truisms, but as character points? Far too vague and too stark to be useful.

If you hang out on a writing group long enough, you’ll encounter someone asking the question “How do I write women?” This is almost always someone inexperienced and young, and pretty much always male. Responses range from helpful to annoyed, but the problem is that the question is almost always the wrong one. A writer who thinks to ask that question is probably looking at their characters not as people, but as stereotypes, and more often than not that’s going to result in some pretty clunky storytelling.

Stereotypes are useful as cultural signifiers, certainly—and to a certain extent, we can’t completely separate ourselves from our own perceptions. It’s the Margaret Mead problem: there’s only so much of the world we’ve built in our heads we can abstract ourselves away from. From that perspective, someone trying to learn about the cultural stereotypes of gender will probably come away from the discussion with useful information.

But what I find interesting about all of this is that nobody, not once, has ever asked me how I manage to write men.

I suspect there are a lot of reasons for this, but as a general rule, I don’t think women tend to worry that we might not be able to realistically understand the male point of view. The male point of view, as it happens, is all around us: in our literature, in what we’ve had to read and critique throughout our school years, in television, in films, all over the blogosphere. We’re comfortable with the idea of men being ordinary humans for the same reason that so many men aren’t comfortable with the reverse: it’s what we’re raised with.

Of course, that’s a trap, too, because it’s hard to escape what we’re raised with. I do have a male character who’s pretty emotionally repressed, and also has a tendency to punch things when he’s frustrated. But I’d argue that his emotional repression isn’t a “guy thing”—it’s because of his upbringing. And the scene where he hits a guy? That’s wish fulfillment, because in his shoes, I would have really, really wanted to hit that guy.

Am I writing a character? Or have I internalized the stereotypes of “guy things” to the point that it feels natural to make him punch someone when he’s pushed over the edge?

Yet he’s as much me as any of my female characters. In fact, I’d argue that the character least like me is Jessica, one of my female point-of-view characters. She’s an extrovert, and I’m not, and realistically I should probably get some extroverted beta readers, because I’m sure I’m getting a lot of that wrong.

The truth is, though, that characters have to be a little bit of everything, or they really are nothing but stereotypes, whether you’re writing someone who’s like you or not.

One pithy bit of advice you see sometimes is that female characters shouldn’t be “men who just happen to be women.” That advice makes me cringe for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally, it’s predicated on the idea that men are a known, stable, immutable norm that’s so different from anything identifiably female that none of the characteristics of a Real Man would work for a female character.

I’d actually argue the opposite—if you’ve written a three-dimensional, realistic male character, you could make him female and still have the character work. There might be necessary changes, based on the expectations of the culture you’re writing about, or any assumed physiological differences; but if you’ve got a solid character, I’d argue it wouldn’t matter much.

I’ve taken to doing this sometimes. If I’m creating a character—especially a secondary character that I might find myself neglecting if I feel rushed—I play with gender, and see what happens. The exercise will almost always expose where I’ve fallen back on lazy stereotypes. And often I’ll find the character seems much more three-dimensional to me if I cast them against my own first instinct. When I think about who they are, instead of just how they manifest in the world I’ve created for them, they feel more real, and they’re easier for me to write.

One of the strangest and most pleasurable things for me, as a writer, is creating characters that are different than I am. A lot of this, like my punching guy, is wish fulfillment, the ability to play any role I want in a universe of my own creation. But part of it is how much it makes me think and consider, and examine (and re-examine!) my own assumptions and biases. By definition, I’ll get a lot of it wrong, but I’ll never tire of learning and trying again.

And now, I’m off to find some extroverts!

Elizabeth Bonesteel Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She currently works as a software engineer, and lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, her daughter, and various cats. Massachusetts has been her home her whole life, and while she’s sure there are other lovely places to live, she’s quite happy there.

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Today’s guest is fantasy writer, poet, and blogger Sara Letourneau! I’ve enjoyed reading her thoughts on books on her website and blog, and as an added bonus, we seem to share similar taste in speculative fiction (she also had a high opinion of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, among other works I love). Because of that, I’m thrilled she’s here this month discussing some favorite fantasy heroines with a common character trait!

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Profiles of Courage: Compelling Female Characters in Fantasy Who Defy the “Strong Female Protagonist” Stereotype

I’ve grown disenchanted with the “strong female protagonist” concept as of late. It’s not a bad idea–in fact, it’s fun to see fictional women wielding weapons, summoning magic, and fighting with or against men. However, they pop up so often in science fiction and fantasy now that this type of character seems like a requirement, especially in YA fantasy.

So, does a female protagonist have to be bad-ass in order to be strong? Not at all. In fact, inner strength can make a female character (or any character, for that matter) more compelling and relatable to readers. This quality can also manifest in so many ways; and how it does so can help a character overcome her circumstances, reach her story goal, and grow as an individual.

Today I’d like to share some of my favorite female protagonists in fantasy literature who rely more on inner strength than physical abilities. And, in keeping with the spirit of Women in SF&F Month, all of the books I’ve selected are penned by female authors. See what you find as you read each character profile, and ask yourselves which female characters in fantasy (and other speculative genres) would be on your list.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Essun (N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season)

When readers first meet Essun, her son has been murdered and her daughter kidnapped–both by her husband, their father. What follows seems to be a quest to save what’s left of her family. However, The Fifth Season evolves into something more complex and profound. Through cleverly written, interwoven perspectives, it’s eventually clear that Essun’s life has been one dramatic upheaval after another. Yes, she has earth-warping abilities, and she’s potently angry at times. But Essun’s will to survive is what truly makes her who she is. She’s willing to do whatever she deems necessary to save her daughter and move on from each season of her life. And in a seismically active world like the Stillness, such adaptability isn’t priceless–it’s crucial.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire (Kristin Cashore’s Fire)

Graceling may be the best known of Kristin Cashore’s work, but I’ve always connected more with the protagonist from her second novel Fire. Half-human and half-monster, Fire is painfully aware of the effect her mind-reading abilities have on others. In fact, she’s afraid of manipulating and taking advantage of people with her powers. Some readers might see Fire as sensitive–but in a world where other characters are quick to hurt or control one another, her compassion is actually a strength. She’d rather help society at large and use her talents for good. Fire’s empathy also shows in her love for children and animals, and her willingness to tend to wounded soldiers and soothe them of their pain.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Sorcha (Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest)

Like Fire, Sorcha from Daughter of the Forest is a sweetheart. She’s nurturing, thoughtful, and spiritually connected to nature. Her greatest strengths, though, are persistence and her sense of family duty. When a sorceress turns Sorcha’s six older brothers into swans, Sorcha is determined to save them. The only way to break the curse? Make shirts for each brother using fibers from a nettle plant–and stay silent until her work is done. It’s a tedious, heart-wrenching task, and one that disfigures Sorcha’s hands terribly. Yet Sorcha never gives up, not even after she’s raped by neighbors, captured by the Britons, or tried as a witch. Her love and patience is a reminder of the lengths we’ll go to for the people we care about.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tenar (Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle)

Tenar first appears in the second Earthsea novel The Tombs of Atuan. (She’s also in Tehanu and The Other Wind.) As a child, she’s taken from her family, given a new name, and raised to become a High Priestess of the Nameless Ones, the unseen forces ruling the island of Atuan. Her life becomes one of servitude and solitude, and she believes she’s powerless to change it. One day, the wizard Ged Sparrowhawk enters the labyrinthine catacombs that Tenar oversees. And upon hearing Ged’s stories of the outside world, Tenar starts questioning everything that the priestesshood has taught her–and takes a leap of faith to make a new life for herself. It’s a terrifying choice that comes with steep costs, but thanks to her courage, Tenar finally becomes the master of her own fate.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Xhea and Shai (Karina Sumner-Smith’s Towers Trilogy)

Who says you can’t have two awesome heroines in one series? (*wink*) In the first Towers novel Radiant, Xhea is a homeless girl who has adapted to life on the streets. Her independence and resiliency make her seem tough next to the ghost Shai, a gentle and caring soul who’s preyed upon for her magical abilities. As the trilogy goes on, the girls become friends, and their different strengths rub off on one another. Xhea learns to trust and make sacrifices for others, while Shai finds confidence and purpose. And through their unshakable loyalty, they prove that friendship can change us for the better–and compel us to become something more than what we are alone.

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Yelena Zaltana (Maria V. Snyder’s Study Series)

Admittedly Yelena is a kick-ass heroine in the later Study novels. But when the first book Poison Study begins, she’s a confessed murderer on the brink of giving up. She’s then offered a reprieve from execution–to become a military commander’s food-taster. (*gulp*) Accepting that position, however, gives Yelena something to fight for. She soon longs for freedom and learns self-defense, lock-picking, and other skills that can help her reach her goal. She also volunteers for research and reconnaissance assignments to prove herself to the commander and her boss Valek. Because she’s given a second chance, Yelena regains her sense of motivation and her will to live. She also grows tremendously as a character, from a victim of abuse to a young woman with renewed self-worth.

Who are other female characters in SFF novels who have demonstrated inner strength over physical strength? How did they do this? What kinds of female characters (or characters in general) would you like to see more of in fantasy and science fiction?

Sara Letourneau Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to working on a YA epic fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a contributor at DIY MFA. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her website / blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.