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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.

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Today’s guest is Ilana C. Myer, whose debut novel Last Song Before Night was released last year. I read this epic fantasy a few months ago and found it so absorbing I had difficulty putting it down for inconvenient necessities like laundry and sleep. In particular, I enjoyed following the various characters’ journeys, especially the heroines Lin and Rianna, and I’m very much looking forward to reading Ilana C. Myer’s next book!

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer

It turns out, when you publish a fantasy novel, you’re often asked about worldbuilding. One of the challenges of talking about a novel that took seven years to write and four more years to publish is that, sometimes, it’s hard to remember exactly what I was thinking when I was 23. There’s a great deal of layering that goes into the process of writing—at least for me—and those earliest layers, while foundational, might be obscured and changed by what comes next.

But I do remember one phase of the worldbuilding that was crucial. As with various aspects of Last Song Before Night, it combined artistic development with life changes…because this debut was, very much, a book that grew with me. Another thing that makes talking about the process of writing this book a challenge—I have no choice, it seems, but to get personal.

My first draft, which I wrote in my early twenties, was 100,000 words without an ending. I was three-quarters done but it wasn’t working, and I knew it. Rather than finish the draft, I decided to start over. But first I had to figure out what was wrong.

When I began writing the novel at 23, I was deeply—albeit painfully—religious. To detach myself from the concept of religion in order to create a fictitious religious system seemed impossible. It also seemed unnecessary—there is no system of religion in Tolkien, almost none in the Wheel of Time (just for example—I’m sure there are many more), and that sort of vast, mythic universe appealed to me. At the same time, I was skeptical of depictions of religion in fantasy. Often you could tell they’d been written by people who thought religion a silly pastime for silly people…and conflicted as I was, I had no choice but to know better than that. It was not silliness that had drawn me to pour out my heart—and tears—at the Western Wall many a time. It was not a triviality to rise at dawn on Yom Kippur to get a head start on the day’s prayers for repentance, redemption.

But I came to realize that the absence of a religious system in my book had made the world curiously flat. This ran alongside another realization: fantasies that reduce religious practice to shallow pieties and superstitious fears are missing something fundamental in their world creation. Belief systems traffic in the questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going—the most compelling questions there are. There can be no world without them. Certainly, there can be no story.

By this time I was 26, and could survey these questions with a cooler eye: my religious observance had grown complex. I was a long way from the girl who had poured out her heart at the Western Wall. This distance allowed me to take on the task of creating a belief system for my world with excitement instead of trepidation. At around the same time, I traveled to northern Greece and visited the ruins of Ancient Dion at the foot of Mount Olympus. It is a temple complex that seems to go on forever, grown over with flowers, serene under drifting clouds. I can’t say how that visit to Ancient Dion went into the religious system in the book—I only know that it did, and the book was transformed. Religion emerged to undermine or bolster the characters’ faith in themselves; to exercise tension against the older beliefs of myth and magic; and was responsible for the existence of heresies and persecuted minorities. My own transformations figured into it, too. They had to. Some books may be separate from their authors’ inner lives; I doubt I will ever write one of them.

Ilana C. Myer
Ilana C. Myer has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. Her debut epic fantasy, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor in October 2015.

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Today’s guest is Zen Cho, whose recent debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown was selected for several notable Best of 2015 lists, nominated for a RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and longlisted for both the BSFA Awards and the Tiptree Award. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtfully written story containing humor and insight, and I especially appreciated how it captured the complexities of human emotion through its two main protagonists. She is also the author of the Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and the editor of Cyberpunk: Malaysia and was a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2013.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”
– Joanna Russ

It was a woman who gave me Joanna Russ’s books, tatty mass market paperbacks with bizarre ’70s covers. I didn’t wholly understand them, but I was fascinated. What anger and what clarity.

It was through women’s voices that I got into science fiction and fantasy in the first place. Great British fantasists like Edith Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones, and science fiction writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin, were part of my gateway into the genre. So were the British and North American novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I read voraciously as a child in Malaysia. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Noel Streatfeild, L. M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Jean Webster–women living at times and places far removed from me–gave me a lasting taste for being immersed in foreign worlds using alien jargon, with curious social norms and novel technology.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones Dawn by Octavia E. Butler Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

And it was girls and women who told me I should write fiction; who encouraged me when I started; who read my work and told me they liked it. Women who taught me about craft and storytelling, who sent me calls for submissions, who put me in touch with agents and editors, who bought my stories.

So it’s strange that for several years, when I started writing seriously as a teenager, I wrote primarily about men. When I first read the quote by Russ above, I rang like a bell.

My development was a little different. I was younger and grew up in a world that hated women with slightly less open virulence. The stories I was writing as a teenager did push back at dominant narratives, to a certain extent. They were love stories about men in which men were losers.

But men were also winners. The fanfic I read and wrote consisted of stories about men, almost exclusively.

Yet I was growing hungry for something else–and it was in the pages of a manga by a man that I found it. I fell madly in love with shounen manga Bleach‘s Kuchiki Rukia, a funny, flawed, fascinating female character who was better than the narrative she was given.

Bleach Volume 2 Bleach Volume 54

Getting really into an adventure story for the sake of a woman seemed to unlock something in my head, even though the woman was really the loser in that particular story. (And even though I’m not even that keen on adventure stories–too much swashbuckling, not enough conversation.) Like most genres focused on the pleasure of the reader, anime/manga operates on identifiable tropes, and it’s often possible for a fan to work out the character who’s going to be their favourite before they even read or watch something. Mine was “the girl”.

It still took a few more years for me to work out how to write original fiction focused on girls and women like me. When you are from a background traditionally underrepresented in the fiction you consume, it takes a real leap of trust and imagination to believe that readers will want to hear about people like you. Even now I have to shout down the internal voice that insists nobody’s really interested in stories focusing on middle-class Malaysian girls and women. And that’s in the face of proof to the contrary–like the award given to my book of short stories about middle-class Malaysian girls and women by a panel of judges, none of whom belong to that category.

If you don’t have a model for telling your specific truth, it can be hard to work out how to express that. The women who came before opened the way for me. So it’s my job to lay the path for those who come after me. To make the next person, alien to herself, ring like a bell in recognition of an unlooked-for truth–something she’s always known, but hasn’t seen reflected back at her till now.

Zen Cho
Photo Credit: Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography
Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. She has been nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Pushcart Prize, and honour-listed for the Carl Brandon Society Awards, for her short fiction. Her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a historical fantasy trilogy published by Ace/Roc Books (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK and Commonwealth). She lives in London.

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The first full week of Women in SF&F Month has come and gone, and it was a great week thanks to last week’s guests! I’m also excited about next week, but before I announce the upcoming guests, here are links to last week’s essays and giveaway in case you missed them:

And now, it’s time to announce next week’s schedule, starting with tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month 2016 Guests

April 11: Zen Cho (Sorcerer to the Crown, Spirits Abroad, Cyberpunk: Malaysia)
April 12: Ilana C. Myer (Last Song Before Night)
April 13: Sara Letourneau (writer and reviewer, Official Website & Blog)
April 14: Elizabeth Bonesteel (The Cold Between)
April 15: Helen Lowe (Wall of Night Series, Thornspell)
April 16: Book Giveaway

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The book being given away this week is one of my personal favorites: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (who wrote a Women in SF&F Month post titled “Don’t Fear the Unicorn” in 2012). I’m far from the only one who loves this book—after the book recommendations from 2015 were added to the list of recommended SFF books by women begun by Renay, it became the single most recommended book with a total of 29 recommendations!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a special book to me for two reasons:

  1. It’s a wonderful book in its own right. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is entertaining from start to finish, and it also thoughtfully weaves themes of gender, race, and religion into the story. It stood out as different from a lot of the fantasy books I’ve read and has an engaging narrative voice, gods (I love books with gods!), and a main character I very much enjoyed following.
  2. N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel was the first book of hers I read. It made me want to read more by her, and she’s become one of my favorite authors since then because she keeps writing phenomenal books! As much as I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I actually loved The Killing Moon even more, and her most recent novel, The Fifth Season, is brilliant and unique.

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

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate – and gods and mortals – are bound inseparably together.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Hundred Thousand Kingdoms 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 15. 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: The form has been removed since the giveaway is over.

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Today’s guest is novelist, poet, and short fiction writer Beth Cato! Three of the books in her steampunk fantasy series have received nominations for various awards: The Clockwork Dagger was a Locus finalist for Best First Novel, The Clockwork Crown was an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist, and the novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone is a 2015 Nebula nominee. Her third novel, Breath of Earth, will be released in August of this year (and it sounds fantastic!).

Breath of Earth by Beth Cato Wings of Sorrow and Bone by Beth Cato

The Healer as a Fighter
By Beth Cato

If I’m asked what superpower I’d like to possess, I won’t hesitate with my answer: the power to heal. It’s been my fervent wish since I was eleven years old as my grandpa died from a prolonged, terminal illness.

His death left a gaping hole within my family. I coped by descending into fantasy role-playing video games. I suddenly had a new dream job: white wizard. I could cast curing spells, wield an awesome long bow, and take out evil dudes. I found fantasy novels and the glorious realms of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. As I engaged in gaming campaigns with friends, I always played the high priestesses, the clerics, the ones who kept the party alive amidst rampant teenage-style stupidity.

I read and read more fantasy novels. They were my happiness, my escape, amid my very unhappy teen years. I always searched for strong women like the me I saw in my dreams: the capable healer who can hold her own in any fight. I didn’t find her in any existing literature. It took me years to realize why.

Fantasy books used healers as characters, sure, but they were almost always sidekicks. An accessory to keep the big, bold male heroes alive. They couldn’t be main characters—they weren’t “fighters.”

Just like in role-playing video games, the healers were stuck in the back row in a fight. Their physical attacks were puny. They wore robes while the main heroes wore plate armor. They were often women; they needed to be coddled to survive.

Well, phooey on that.

TheClockworkDagger The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato

When I resolved to start writing again as an adult, I decided to write the kind of heroine I always hoped to find. I wanted to bust the trope of the weakling female healer. I looked at the real world as my example—World War I front line nurses. You think they were physically weak? Heck no. Doing the medical ward laundry alone would burn more calories than any P90X workout. You think they didn’t know how to fight? They looked Death in the eye most every single day.

Compassion is strength. A healer must be competent. They must keep their wits in a crisis. They need the strength to drag a comatose body off a battlefield. They need to think of strategy in terms of supplies and shelter and food—as battlefield commanders in their own little world.

Those are the traits of a lead character. That’s why I wrote Octavia Leander as I did in my Clockwork Dagger novels. She’s only twenty-two, but she has almost a decade of experience on the frontlines. She’s ignorant of the “real world,” sure, but she’s darn good at her job and can heal a person through magic or basic know-how.

In writing Octavia, I delved past my own Mary Sue healer fantasies to form a heroine who works miracles with a satchel of herbs and the power of faith. Octavia became a savvy fighter who doesn’t need plate mail and a big sword to take down the bad guys. She cares about people. She would save everyone, if she could. To me, that compassion is the greatest superpower anyone could wish for.

Beth Cato Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE is a Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.