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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

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

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Marie Brennan! While I haven’t read any of her books or short fiction (yet), I’ve wanted to ever since hearing about Midnight Never Come, a fantasy set in Elizabethan England. Her newest book, A Natural History of Dragons, has a striking cover and some recent reviews have tempted me to start with this particular book when I do read one by her! Today she is discussing the complications of writing about sexism in fantasy settings.

Warrior by Marie Brennan Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

When I was writing historical fantasy, I decided to stick as closely as I could to documented reality, and slide my faeries and their actions into the shadows and the crack of what we know. That meant, of course, that I had to deal with the historical facts of prejudice: gender, race, religion, and so on. I had some wiggle room with the faeries, whose view of things might be different from that of mortal humans — and, of course, there’s a gap between how the characters perceive matters, and how I present them in the story — but I couldn’t simply handwave those issues out of existence. I wasn’t writing alternate history.

When you write a novel set in a secondary world, though, you can’t use historical reality as your reason for including those things. Not to the same extent, anyway. The setting of A Natural History of Dragons is based on the real nineteenth century, but the countries are Scirland and Vystrana and Chiavora rather than England and Romania and Italy. Which means that when my characters have problems with sexism, it’s because I decided they should — not because doing otherwise would be revisionist. I’m choosing which parts of my inspiration to keep, and which to toss out.

Why did I decide to include Victorian-type sexism in my story? It isn’t just a side note in the world; it’s a focus point in the story, one of the major issues in Isabella’s life, as she tries to pursue an unladylike career as a natural historian. Looking at reviews (yes, I look at my reviews), some readers have loved watching her achieve her dream, in the face of that prejudice . . . but others have not. They’re tired of that story, and tired of mentally inhabiting worlds with those kinds of problems. They’d rather a world where women can be awesome, without having to vault over hurdles along the way.

I can understand that, and I think there’s a place for that kind of story. (A place that is frequently “on my shelf.”) But the “natural historian” concept made me gravitate to the nineteenth century mode, which comes with a lot of baggage — and for me, at least, it feels a bit like a cop-out if I only take the shiny parts of that history and leave the bad stuff behind. A great deal of what makes the nineteenth century feel like the nineteenth century is its shortcomings, as well as its pretty side, and I need both. It’s the effect of writing that historical fantasy, I think: I feel like I’d be writing Disneyland Victoriana. A watered-down, blandly-flavored imitation of the real thing, without the complexity that makes the period problematic, but also interesting.

But that’s not a judgment against the readers who don’t like it. As I said, I understand where they’re coming from, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of books that play much looser with these issues. For me, a lot depends on how well the author understands the kind of prejudice they’re trying to depict. A caricature of sexism isn’t interesting to me, and a story about someone overcoming that caricature is unengaging. In those instances, I’d rather the whole mess got chucked out the window, in favor of the woman or girl just going ahead and doing whatever she pleases. Of course, there’s a fine line there; some stories have driven me away because they depicted prejudice and constraint too well, to the point where I felt miserable and trapped just reading them. And then sometimes a book that doesn’t put any kind of sexism in its heroine’s way feels unrealistic to me, because the open-mindedness comes across as an inconsistency in the setting.

So it isn’t simple. The only reliable answer I can give is that I, personally, want the full range of stories, the ones with sexism as well as the ones without. It’s clear there’s a desire for both: a triumph over prejudice wouldn’t speak to readers now if it weren’t still a problem in the world, but at the same time, reiterating the problem in fiction isn’t always what people want.

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of eight novels, including A Natural History of Dragons, the Onyx Court series, and the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. She has published more than forty short stories in venues such as On Spec, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix. More information can be found on her website: www.swantower.com.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today’s guest is fantasy author Courtney Schafer! Her first book just came out a couple of years ago, and there now two books in her Shattered Sigil series, The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, with another book forthcoming. Both books are enjoyable, but The Tainted City blew me away—it’s a phenomenal book and only a second novel! The characters and world were both fascinating and complex, and the story was so exciting I didn’t want to put the book down. Reading it put the third book in the series on my shortlist of books I can hardly wait for.

Since reading her books, I’ve also become a big fan of Courtney Schafer’s book recommendations on her own blog, so I was quite pleased she decided to write about some lesser known books from the 80s and 90s today (which sound spectacular and are now all on my wish list!).

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

I was so very lucky as a little girl.  Growing up in the 80s in northern Virginia, I didn’t have to hunt for female names on the spines of SFF novels in my local library.  I started out young with Diana Wynne Jones, Madeleine L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and many other excellent YA authors.  As I got older and ventured into the adult SFF stacks, I found they were also populated by a host of talented women.

Some of those women remain household names in SFF fandom: Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J. Cherryh.  Yet others, the authors of novels I devoured with equal delight, are not discussed nearly so often nowadays.  A shame, because it means new generations of readers may miss out on experiencing some terrific books.  So I’m happily taking the opportunity here at Fantasy Book Cafe to highlight a few of these lesser-known gems from the 1980s and 1990s – novels that influenced me deeply as an eager young SFF fan, that I delight in re-reading now.  Perhaps you, too, will find a book here to stretch your imagination and capture your heart.

Catspaw, Joan Vinge

Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge

Joan Vinge isn’t exactly unknown, especially among older SFF fans.  After all, she won the 1981 Hugo award for her SF novel The Snow Queen.  (A well-deserved win. The Snow Queen is a great book – though I’d say the sequel, The Summer Queen, was even better.)  But for all I love Vinge’s Snow Queen cycle books, it’s Catspaw, the second of her lesser-known Cat series, that is my favorite of her work.

The protagonist of the series is a half-human, half-alien telepath struggling to survive in a gritty, dystopian future – and oh, what an amazing job Vinge does with Cat’s character and voice!  I credit the first novel in the series, Psion, with instilling in me an abiding love of snarky, cynical first-person narration.  But Psion is a relatively simple tale; it’s in Catspaw that Vinge really pulls out all the stops, both with character development and plot.  Clever twists abound, her dystopian future is believable and well-realized, and the novel delves into the cyberpunk realm without ever bogging down in dated technobabble.  Best of all, Vinge doesn’t gloss over Cat’s flaws and prejudices, and she doesn’t shy away from following through on the consequences of his mistakes (of which he makes many, some of them quite serious).  Yet this isn’t an unremittingly bleak novel – there’s a welcome thread of hope woven throughout, as Cat finds friendships in unexpected places and undergoes real growth as a character.

There’s a third novel in the series, Dreamfall , also good – and I keep hoping that one day Vinge will write more.  (She took a long hiatus from writing after suffering significant injuries in a car crash back in 2002, but recently she published a tie-in novel.  My fingers are crossed for seeing more new work from her, of any variety!)

The True Game series, Sheri S. Tepper

The True Game by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper is an award-winning author who’s been writing steadily for years.  She’s perhaps best known for SF novels like The Gate to Women’s Country, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Grass.  But the books I return to again and again are those in her nine-book True Game series, a trilogy of trilogies.  (The trilogies are interrelated, but each set of books features a different protagonist.)  The True Game books may be more raw in quality than some of her later work, but the imagination and the sheer, wild sense of possibility in Tepper’s world have always awed me.

In the lands of the True Game, certain humans have developed powerful psychic talents, ranging from telepathy to beguilement to shapeshifting.  Over the years, a rigidly hierarchical society has developed, in which the talented compete for dominance in elaborate battle games, using the untalented as pawns.  Another author might well make the games the focus of the story.  Tepper takes a far different approach, using the games as a mere backdrop to a greater tale.  Her world is wide and varied, full of magic both older and wilder than any powers that humans might wield, and Tepper’s protagonists visit all manner of societies that challenge their assumptions.

Tepper has a particular gift for eerie imagery; certain scenes, particularly from the second of the trilogies, remain vivid in my head years after I first read them.  That second trilogy is in fact my favorite; the female protagonist, Mavin Manyshaped, is a headstrong, clever, brash shapeshifter whose curiosity leads her into all manner of strange lands and adventures (even as Tepper uses those adventures to explore deeper philosophical questions).

The first trilogy of the True Game books (the “Peter” series: King’s Blood Four, Necromancer Nine, and Wizard’s Eleven) are now in print again in omnibus form as The True Game.  Sadly, the rest of the books remain out of print, but they are very much worth the effort of finding them in libraries or used bookstores.

The Sword-Dancer Saga (Tiger and Del), Jennifer Roberson

The Novels of Tiger and Del Volume I by Jennifer Roberson

Jennifer Roberson’s Tiger and Del novels were my first introduction to the “sword and sorcery” subgenre – and a fine introduction it was!  The premise of the first book, Sword-Dancer, is simple: Tiger, a skilled swordfighter, is hired to guide a foreigner from the north – a woman named Del, a sword-dancer like himself – through the fierce desert of his homeland, so she can find and rescue her stolen young brother.  Adventure ensues.  The really interesting part is the risk Roberson takes with Tiger, the POV character…because frankly, he starts off as a total jerk.  Cocky, arrogant, deeply prejudiced, completely dismissive of women, the sort of guy you’re dying to punch in the face.  But as Tiger travels with Del, he’s forced to re-examine his beliefs, and Roberson handles his inner struggle and gradual change in a believable fashion.

Successive novels get more complex, both in terms of character and plot, and Roberson does a wonderful job of furthering the relationship between Tiger and Del without letting either character stagnate.  The series is perfect for anyone who likes fantasy with a nice mix of action and magic (plus an interesting desert setting, as opposed to the usual quasi-western-European locales).  The first six books (Sword-dancer, Sword-Singer, Sword-Maker, Sword-Breaker, Sword-Born, Sword-Sworn) were published between 1986 and 2002, and a seventh (Sword-Bound) was just published this February – I’m looking forward to reading it.

Saga of the Exiles, Julian May

The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May

If you love meaty, bold, colorful series with epic scope, a broad cast of well-developed characters, and clever re-workings of existing myths, then you must read Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles series.  The four books in the series – The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-born King, and The Adversary – form one long fascinating story that bursts with invention, combining SF and fantasy with gleeful abandon.  I’d love to discuss in more detail exactly why I love these books so much, but that would wander too far into spoiler territory – and I don’t want to ruin any of the delightful surprises May packs into the pages.  Suffice it to say the characters are memorable, the worldbuilding fascinating, the action spectacular, and the ending satisfying (or at least, I found it so).  If you enjoy the first four novels, good news: there are more!  A prequel (sort of!) set in quasi-modern times called Intervention, followed by another three books (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat) that further flesh out events referenced in the Exiles Saga and provide final closure to a certain character’s plotline.  Best of all, the formerly out-of-print Saga of the Exiles books were all recently re-released in ebook form, so if you haven’t read them, now’s the time to start.

The Windrose Chronicles, Barbara Hambly

The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly

Barbara Hambly is the best kind of author to discover: she’s astonishingly prolific and dependably entertaining.  These days she writes primarily historical mystery novels (the long-running Benjamin January series), but in the 1980s/1990s she produced a score of terrific fantasy novels, both standalones and series, covering everything from historical fantasy to epic fantasy to horror fantasy.  I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read from her, but my personal favorites are the three novels of The Windrose Chronicles: The Silent Tower, The Silicon Mage, and Dog Wizard.

The premise of the series might sound cheesy to modern readers: Joanna, a computer programmer living in LA, runs afoul of a mystery hacker late one night at work and is kidnapped and transported to an alternate world in which magic exists.  She escapes, and in the company of Antryg Windrose – a condemned wizard, the former apprentice of a viciously powerful mage who nearly conquered the world – she struggles both to find her way home and make sense of the dark magic that has begun to affect both worlds.

I’ll be the first to admit that the technology portion of the first two books’ plot hasn’t aged well, but the characters are so wonderful that I find they eclipse any such issues.  Joanna is a terrific female protagonist – strong, competent, clever, adaptable, without ever needing to be some kick-ass warrior.  Antryg is equally engaging, covering his own sharp intelligence and his emotional scars with a zany, disarming cheerfulness reminiscent of Tom Baker’s turn as the fourth Doctor.  The books are long out of print, but Hambly has released them as ebooks, and also recently e-published some short stories featuring Antryg and Joanna – something I’m absolutely delighted about, after years of wanting more of their tale.

Falcon, Emma Bull

Falcon by Emma Bull

Emma Bull has been quietly writing amazing, trend-setting novels for years (her War for the Oaks is often cited as one of the seminal works of modern urban fantasy).  She’s not as prolific as some authors; but she’s so good that the long waits between novels are worth it.  (And in the meantime, she’s the executive producer and a writer for Shadow Unit , a free online SF series.) Her debut novel, Falcon, an SF tale about the younger son of a planetary dynasty who becomes a starship pilot after a bloody revolution, is rarely mentioned – and oh, what a crime that is, because the book is such a wonderful read.  Every character in the novel is so sharply, vividly drawn – some books, the side characters fade from my memory, but not this one.

Bull took a lot of risks with the novel’s structure.   There’s a huge time jump midway through the story, along with an abrupt shift of POV characters.  Yet Bull’s sheer skill with prose and characterization makes the story work.  You get difficult family relationships, betrayals, reluctant friendships, surprising plot twists – and yes, space battles.  I once went on a 7-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada with three male engineer friends who rarely cracked open any book not required to solve a problem set.  Unable to fathom a week without reading, yet conscious of my pack weight, I brought only one book along: Falcon.  Around the third day of the trip, one of my friends asked to see the book, curious why I’d bothered to bring it.  He started to read…and didn’t stop until he finished, forgoing our planned hike up a side canyon the next day.  The other two guys were amazed.  One by one, they borrowed the book – and just like the first, spent long hours huddled over it, ignoring all the spectacular mountain scenery around us.  There is no better praise I can give a novel than that!