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Today’s guest is fantasy author Jenna Glass! She writes young adult speculative fiction (Nightstruck, Replica, Faeriewalker), urban fantasy (The Gifted, Nikki Glass, Morgan Kingsley), and paranormal romance (Guardians of the Night) as Jenna Black. Her newly released first epic fantasy novel, The Women’s War, is described as being set in a world in which “a revolutionary spell gives women the ability to control their own fertility—with consequences that rock their patriarchal society to its core.”


During Women’s History Month, I wrote this list of some of my favorite books with especially wonderful heroines. Each one is strong in her own way, even if she’s not the type to beat up the bad guys.

Mercy Thompson: Moon Called Cover Alpha and Omega: Cry Wolf Cover

I love both the Mercy Thompson and the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. There are a lot of strong female protagonists in urban fantasy, but what I love best about Mercy and Anna is that they manage to be heroic despite being physically outgunned practically all the time. They triumph through wit and strategy and courage rather than through brute force.

Archangel Cover

Archangel by Sharon Shinn. This is one of my all-time favorite books. I love that the heroine, Rachel, is a deeply flawed and damaged human being. It’s a difficult proposition in our culture to create a truly likeable, angry heroine, but Shinn manages to do that with Rachel. So many romantic stories feature tortured and angry heroes, but this one successfully flips that trope on its ear.

The Cruel Prince Cover The Wicked King Cover

The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King by Holly Black.
This is another series that does a great job of creating a flawed heroine and making it easy to root for her anyway. Jude is ambitious, which is a trait that is often made to seem unattractive in girls and women. There are times her ambition—and sense of self-preservation—cause her to make questionable decisions, but I love her anyway and can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Host Cover

The Host by Stephenie Meyer. In this one, you get two epic fantasy heroines in one body! Both Melanie (the human) and Wanda (the alien who inhabits her body) are epic in their own, beautifully contrasting ways. Melanie is bold and brave and physically heroic, while Wanda is submissive and compassionate and self-sacrificing. Together, they make a great (if uncomfortable) team.

The Shadowed Sun Cover

The Shadowed Sun by N. K. Jemisin. I love all of Jemisin’s books, but Hanani is probably my favorite heroine. I love watching her journey from timid and uncertain apprentice to strong, self-assured woman. I also love how she continually defies the roles society attempts to impose on her.


Jenna Glass Photo Jenna Glass wrote her first book—an “autobiography”—when she was in the fifth grade. She began writing in earnest while in college and proceeded to collect a dizzying array of rejections for her first seventeen novels. Nevertheless, she persisted, and her eighteenth novel became her first commercial sale. Within a few years, Glass became a full-time writer, and she has never looked back. She has published more than twenty novels under various names. The Women’s War marks her first foray into epic fantasy.

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Today’s guest is fantasy author Samantha Shannon! Her internationally bestselling debut novel, The Bone Season, is the first book in a series with the same name as its opening installment. Her latest book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is a New York Times bestselling standalone epic fantasy novel with dragons and one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve ever seen (also featuring dragons!).

The Priory of the Orange Tree Cover

Epic fantasy is the genre where everything plays out on the grandest of scales. This is a realm of sprawling lands, of ancient feuds, of conflicts that could save or end the world. In this genre, a writer needs to think big.

Yet a paracosm—an invented world—is something like a tapestry. No matter how vast it is, it’s made up of a multitude of threads. It’s in these threads—in the fine details—that a picture, or a story, comes to life. Even as we think big, we must also think small. With that in mind, I thought I’d share my inspirations for some of the little details in my latest novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree.


The sinister bird

One detail that crops up in Priory is the eerietale of the sorrower—a bird that makes a sound like a baby just as it begins to cry. Disgraced alchemist Niclays views the sorrower as a symbol of his life in exile: ‘The whisper that never quite turned into a scream. The wait for a blow that never came.’ Many people on the island of Seiiki believe these dark-winged birds to be possessed by the spirits of stillborn children, and fear that their song can bring on a miscarriage. This has caused the sorrower to be sporadically hunted throughout Seiikinese history. The hic-hic-hic is rumoured to have driven one empress mad with frustration as she searched for a baby she could never find. It’s a chilling story that would never have occurred to me without a real-life inspiration.

In July 2017, I visited Japan to conduct some on-site research for Priory, since Seiiki is loosely based on Edo Japan during its period of sakoku (鎖国 ‘chained country’). On the day I arrived, I decided to shake off the jetlag right away and visit Ōsaka Castle. As I walked back to my hotel through the heat of the summer afternoon, I passed a line of trees and heard a sound. To this day it remains difficult to describe, but the closest I can get to a comparison is the sound of a grizzling baby.

There was no baby to be seen on that street. No one around at all, in fact. A moment later, a dark-coloured bird fluttered past, and the sound ceased. Every hair on my arms stood on end.

To this day, I have no idea what species of bird flew past me, or if the sound even came from a bird. I’ve wondered if I experienced an auditory hallucination—acoustic aura has occasionally been reported in people who suffer from migraines, as I do. Whatever I heard in Ōsaka that day, I remembered to scribble a description of the sound in the notebook I’d brought with me to Japan, and as soon as I got back to London, I spun that strange experience into the story of the sorrower.


The cruel mountains

In the acknowledgements of The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thank my mum for inspiring me to build the world as high as it was wide. It’s because of her that The Priory of the Orange Tree has mountains with names and distinct characters.

About six months before I finished editing Priory, my mum became fascinated by Mount Everest. She gobbled up documentaries, films and books about the highest mountain on Earth and the people who have lost their lives on it. Once she’d exhausted every resource on Everest, she was on to learning about K2, Dhaulagiri, and the other Himalayan peaks that spear into the so-called Death Zone. Past 25000 feet, in freezing conditions and with limited oxygen, the human body starts to die. The blood runs thick, the heart struggles, and the mind clouds.

My mum’s interests tend to be catching. Before long, I was just as curious about these snow-capped peaks and the impossible risks people take to reach their summits. They seem undaunted by the deep-frozen bodies that have lain for years in the snow—bodies that serve as warnings, as reminders of the danger. ‘The mountains are calling and I must go,’ as John Muir once said. All this inspired me to introduce an event in the backstory of Tané of Ampiki, one of the four narrators in Priory.

Mount Tego, which most closely resembles K2 in terms of appearance and difficulty, is the tallest of the Seiikinese mountains. Steep and brutal, it has shaped and claimed many lives over thousands of years. Apprentices like Tané, who hope to be dragonriders, are challenged to climb to its summit. Should they succeed, they are said to be rewarded by the spirit of Kwiriki, the Great Dragon Elder, who will descend from the celestial plane to meet them.

A mountain climb made perfect sense to me as a test of endurance and commitment for prospective riders. It prompted me to consider the toll of dragonriding on the human body. During one journey, Tané eats cuts of ginger root to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness and suffers from the ‘sun quake’ when her dragon crosses a desert, leaving her exposed to the elements for days. I use her successful ascent of Mount Tego to demonstrate her sheer, bloody-minded determination to succeed in the face of incredible odds. Aged seventeen, Tané, ‘tattered and wind-torn’ and coughing up blood, places her hand on the summit. She is the only apprentice from the South House to do this. Despite being born in extreme poverty, orphaned as a child, and taunted for her background, she alone conquers the mountain.

My interest in the Death Zone also inspired me to create a mountain range called the Lords of Fallen Night, which marks the northern border of the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. Most of these mountains are at least as massive as Everest, and Brhazat—the queen of all mountains— is almost twice its size.


The witch’s lament

One of the characters in Priory is a mysterious enchantress named Kalyba, who originates in the mythos of Saint George and the Dragon. I re-imagine her as a more active and complicated figure in Priory, which approaches the legend from a feminist perspective. Around the middle of the book, Ead—another one of the narrators—pays a visit to the Bower of Eternity, where Kalyba resides, and hears the enchantress singing.

Min mayde of strore, I knut thu smal,
as lutil as mus in gul mede.
With thu in soyle, corn grewath tal.
In thu I hafde blowende sede.

In soyle I soweth mayde of strore
boute in belga bearn wil nat slepe.
Min wer is ut in wuda frore –
he huntath dama, nat for me.

The mayde of strore (‘maid of straw’) refers to the ancient practice of crafting corn mothers, or corn dollies. In pre-Christian Europe, these straw figures, which can take various shapes, were traditionally made from the last of the corn after a harvest. Once the crops had been reaped, the spirit of the corn, which was thought to reside in those crops, had nowhere to live for the winter. The corn dolly provided it with a home. This lovingly made idol would be kept safe until spring, when it would be returned to the soil.

In her song, Kalyba makes a corn dolly, but speaks of how a child will not sleep in her womb. Her backstory is deeply tied in to bloodlines, childbirth, and unrequited love. All of these themes appear in her lament.


Samantha Shannon Photo
Photo Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Samantha Shannon is the author of The Priory of the Orange Tree. She studied English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. The Bone Season, the first in a seven-book series, was a New York Times bestseller and the inaugural Today Book Club selection. Film and TV rights were acquired by the Imaginarium Studios. The Mime Order followed in 2015 and The Song Rising in 2017. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in London.

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer and Byzantine historian Arkady Martine! She has written short fiction and poetry for various publications such as Uncanny Magazine, Shimmer, and Mithila Review, including her stories “The Hydraulic Emperor,” “All the Colors You Thought Were Kings,” and “Ruin Marble.” And just a couple of weeks ago, her debut novel was released—A Memory Called Empire, a space opera and the first book in the Teixcalaan series!

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine Cover

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine—another woman with a debut science fiction novel coming out in the next year—spoke out on social media about the pernicious and awful reaction she’d had from some members in her community when she announced that she was pregnant: these people immediately asked her when she was planning on giving up her just-begun writing career. As if the very presence of a baby would automatically mean she wanted to stop writing. The righteous anger and the fear that I felt, when I read about her experience and her determination to be a mother and an author both, at the same time, has stuck with me. I keep thinking about how often women, especially creative women, especially creative women in a field which demands time commitment away from the realms of ‘day job’ and ‘housework’, are presented with this expectation that pregnancy and motherhood is a goal that wipes out all other goals. And about how that expectation both devalues creative work done by women—oh, it’s just a hobby, a little amusement before the proper work of being a mother begins—and devalues the work of motherhood, too. Because motherhood is work, and growing a human being inside a body is physical work of profound difficulty. The idea that all women are naturally—and please do imagine the scare-quotes around “naturally”—aspiring towards the ultimate state of pregnancy and motherhood, and that because it is ‘natural’ it is easy, is another kind of pernicious and awful.

I felt anger on my friend’s behalf, and on the behalf of every woman who decides to be a mother and a creator both: they deserve a better cultural narrative. And I also felt fear, because I am a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother…for many reasons, but amongst them is the terror of losing myself, my creative ability, my independence, and my physical health. This anger and this fear have been with me a long time. I found them as a young teenager, and I found them in science fiction, which is the genre I work in and the genre I read most often. Certainly, the genre that helped form my sense of narrative…including my narratives of motherhood. In my own recent debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, I found myself grappling with the problems of motherhood in science fiction, all despite my own intentions. I was writing a political thriller! My protagonist pretty much never thought about having a kid—she’s too busy trying to solve a murder and prevent the imperialist annexation of her home mining station! But so much of the novel turned on questions of inheritance—the inheritance of memory, of power, of culture, of genetics—that I quickly realized that I needed to think about parenthood. Of motherhood, specifically, because I was writing a culture where I wanted gender roles to be downplayed and mostly insignificant in terms of career paths and societal functioning.

And this meant I needed to think about pregnancy.

I think my first experience of motherhood narratives in science fiction was in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress—where I, age 12, was disturbed by how the heroine Wyoming Knott was so eager, at the end of the book, to have babies; as if she’d been waiting all along for the politics to be over so she could fulfil her deepest desires, hitherto mostly invisible to the reader, but somehow inevitable in the author’s imagination of How Women Worked. In general women in Heinlein novels have babies as often as they can, and they all like it, and they all find it easy, and they all want it as an end-state goal. Small me—queer, dubious about human beings, especially ones who you had to take care of all the time—found the whole concept profoundly alienating. If being one of Heinlein’s brilliant redheads meant desiring motherhood at a blood-deep level, then I wasn’t one, red hair and cleverness aside.

And then I found Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, and a whole different—if equally essentialist—conception of motherhood in science fiction. One which both made much more sense to me (of course if you could have a baby in an external womb you would! Pregnancy is hard, dangerous, and debilitating!) and kept bothering me…because, in the words of Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, in the universe Bujold has constructed, all wealth is biological. Having children—continuing lines of genetics, which create lines of loyalty, networks of cousins and family that span planets and can, at times, stop wars—is a primary and necessary form of doing politics. And because women (in the Vorkosiverse—it’s far more complex in the world out here) are the ones who biologically produce children, even if they’re grown externally, there is an explicit linkage between being a woman and being involved in producing biological wealth. And this, too, I found alien. Not the politics of genetics and loyalty, those made sense to teenage me…but the idea that this was what women were for.

And yet, children are something that many women—and men, and nonbinary people—want. The project of children, the project of raising a human being, of making one. And even though I still don’t want one myself, I want the choice to produce one, to devote some of one’s power to the project of motherhood, to be a choice, and thus a choice which can be valued, held up as an achievement, a brave, fascinating, interesting thing to do.

So when I came to write my own science fictional universe, I found myself writing a character, Five Agate, who had a very powerful position—she’s the chief analyst on the staff of one of the Emperor’s closest advisors—and a young child, six or so years old, who she is raising while continuing to be on call nearly twenty-four hours a day. And because in the universe I had built, I had also chosen to decouple the growth of fetuses from the bodies of people with uteruses—my universe has ubiquitous artificial wombs, crèche-style childcare, and universal contraception for everyone, no matter their gender—I wanted Five Agate’s choice to have a child to not only be a choice about work but a choice about her body.

So I had her carry her son in her own womb. Which, on Teixcalaan, is like choosing to run a marathon. No one does it without physical training and profound preparation! It’s considered a real and amazing feat, to carry a child to term and give birth to it! Five Agate trained for two years to get ready, and she is so proud of herself, and of her son. And people who run into her are as amazed at her accomplishment as people here on Earth are amazed at ultramarathoners.

Teixcalaan’s no paradise of genetic legacy, and it is full of problems relating to succession, families, and inheritance. But Five Agate is one part of that world: and through her, I wanted to write someone who could make my friends who have made the fascinating, brave, and interesting choice of having a child feel recognized and valued.

Arkady Martine Photo Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, was released in March 2019 from Tor Books, and is available here. Find Arkady online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer Marina J. Lostetter! She’s the author of several short stories, including those in the Lifeboat collection, “A Debt Repaid,” and “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us.” Noumenon, which was selected as one of the Best Books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, was her first novel. In late 2018, it was followed by another science fiction adventure, Noumenon Infinity.

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J Lostetter Cover Noumenon by Marina J Lostetter Cover

Learning to Feel the Shape of Stories
By Marina J. Lostetter

When I first attempted to write fiction professionally, I was desperate for any and all information I could find on how to write effectively. I enjoyed telling stories and people had told me I was a good writer—but love of a thing doesn’t automatically mean you’re good at a thing.

I had so many questions that I was sure had concrete answers. How do you create strong characters? How do you convey a theme? What’s the quantifiable difference between a boring story and an immersive story? What are people actually looking for when they read? When do you know a story has ended? How do you know where to begin?

When I started to break a story down into all of its components, I realized a lot goes into them. I could identify the parts, but I didn’t know how to piece them all together. I mean, I could try. I knew stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. I’d been consuming stories all my life. I knew what a story was (or, I thought I did), and I was fairly sure I could write something that resembled a professionally-told tale, but I knew I needed advice on how to actually get all of those story parts to work together in a way other people could connect with.

How do you actually write a story? What’s the secret?

On my epic quest to discover “the way,” I found all sorts of books on publishing, joined forums, and tracked well-known authors on social media, looking for little straws of knowledge that I could pick up and spin into story gold.

I glommed on to the “rules of writing.” Things like: Don’t use too many adverbs. Don’t use flowery language. You must include three try-fail cycles. You must put the speculative element in the first two paragraphs. You must write every day.

Solid pointers.

One day I stumbled across a piece of advice that I thought was the most flippant and useless thing a professional could tell an aspirant (and I’m paraphrasing): “It doesn’t matter how you do it. Do whatever works for you.”

Well that’s just ridiculous, I thought. At that point I’d met plenty of other writers trying to break into the industry, some of who’d been going at it for ten years. I knew it did matter how you did it. There was a difference between the way I told a story and the way my favorite authors told stories. How did I know? Because they were published and I was not.

Spoiler alert: I was right. And I was wrong.

At that point I began looking to my cohort for advice—those writing short stories (one of those straws-o-knowledge I found said if you want to be a novelist you have to write short stories first) and trying to break in alongside me. Once in a while, someone would do it. They’d sell a short story to a professional paying market. They were in! So, how’d they do it?

Inevitably, this person would start to hand out all kinds of advice. They’d give a six-point breakdown of the main components in their story. They’d explain why the main character they’d created was so relatable. They’d talk about the uniqueness of their idea and the straightforwardness of their writing style, or the flowy-ness of their words, or lyrical-ity of their voice or some such.

Basically, they’d bullshit about it until the cows came home. Cuz here’s the truth—when you sell your first short story (and no, you don’t have to write short stories first if you want to be a novelist), you don’t know why that one worked and the one you submitted before that didn’t. But you think you do. You think you’ve cracked the code. You think you’ve found the magic bullet, the mystical formula, the thing that worked.

And you want everyone to know how you did it.

I myself fell into the trap of spewing advice on my process not long after my first couple of sales (no, you don’t have to write shorts first if you want to be a novelist, but here’s the catch: it did work for me). I gave advice as a novice partially because I was proud of what I’d done, and partially because I knew how desperately I’d looked for those straws of knowledge myself. Maybe I could provide a little bit of insight to someone just like me, I thought, and it would spark something that would help their storytelling improve.

At this point, I was still gobbling up whatever pointers I could get. But I also started noticing a trend. Generally speaking, the more someone had published and the longer they’d been in the industry, the more vague their advice became. There were fewer “Three Steps to Guarantee Relatable Characters” articles, and more “This is Kind of What I Noticed About the Types of Characters I Write” articles.

And the longer I stayed in the industry, the more stories I had published, the less sure I became that I’d cracked any kind of code. I was becoming better and better at breaking down any story I consumed into its basic parts and analyzing what worked and what didn’t. The more contradictory advice I integrated into my overall arsenal of understanding, the better I became at sensing the flow of stories, of feeling when all the parts were working in tandem. And eventually that carried over from my analysis of other’s work to my own. I became better at noticing when my stories were broken—when they didn’t feel right.

I started to think of stories as shapes. Kind of like your classic story-arc depiction, with a timeline showing where the climax is and the act-two low point and the denouement, etc. But the shapes in my mind’s eye are more specific, and don’t have any labels. I can feel what unique shape each story is supposed to take, and can feel when they’re bulging or sagging in the wrong place. Sometimes I can fix the shape, sometimes I can’t.

But one thing is for certain: there is no piece of advice I could have ever stumbled upon that would have effectively conveyed to me that the way to write professionally is by feeling a story’s shape. Because this is just what works for me.

But, ironically, I don’t think I ever would have come full circle, to realizing that the advice I thought was so flippant was actually the truest truth, if I hadn’t first climbed the mountain of conflicting Don’ts and You Musts, and if I hadn’t given advice myself while digging for the secret to my own success. I needed that direction as a new writer, and that space to analyze my own work. I never would have gotten to a point where I could feel my stories if I hadn’t tried to build them a hundred different ways. If I hadn’t tried to fit in the misshapen brick of advice labeled “eliminate all passive voice,” then I never would have honed in on when passive voice is most effective and when it’s fighting with the reader’s ability to be in the moment.

I couldn’t simply begin at the end: “Do whatever works for you.” No matter how good that advice is, no matter how important it is that a writer not get too caught up in what someone else thinks they have to do to write professionally, it is not a starting point.

So, my advice to the new writers out there is this: There is no one way. Do what works for you. And the only way you’re going to figure out what works for you is to try a hundred different ways, or a thousand different ways, or maybe just one or two ways. But what’s important is your willingness to learn, to take in all advice, good and bad, and apply it and discard it in turn until something clicks. Until you feel the story’s shape—or whatever it ends up being for you.


Marina J Lostetter Photo Marina J. Lostetter’s short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Uncanny Magazine. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Her most recent novel, Noumenon Infinity, is an epic space adventure starring an empathetic AI, alien mega structures, and generations upon generations of clones. Marina tweets as @MarinaLostetter and her website can be found at www.lostetter.net.

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Today’s guest is Sam Hawke—whose recent debut novel, City of Lies, was one of my favorite books of 2018! This wonderful epic fantasy follows two siblings as they work to unravel mysteries surrounding their Chancellor’s murder and their city suddenly being under siege. Though it features poisonings, war, and betrayal, it is ultimately an optimistic book with main characters seeking to do the best they can in the face of difficult circumstances—and they and their stories are excellent!

City of Lies by Sam Hawke Cover Image

The Sewing Test

There is a particular kind of character in SFF. You know her. She’s smart and tough, determined, decisive, and she can kick the collective arses of any takers. She comes in a few varieties—in better stories she’s an Alanna of Trebond or a Brienne of Tarth, with depth and history and more than one dimension; in weaker ones she’s an empty Strong Female Character™ who has no real contribution to the plot other than Being Awesome While Female—but either way it’s her prowess at fighting, particularly against men, that sets her apart.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love to fight. I had no particular talent at any other sport, but fighting? That I was good at. Small and quick and tough, I sparred and wrestled with my older brother all throughout my childhood, and watched Jackie Chan movies and Royce Gracie dominating the original UFCs. I married my jujitsu training partner (our most beloved wedding photo is me accidentally ogoshi-ing him on the beach) and we teach a club together. My six year old did an escape from half guard last night at training that almost made us weep with pride. I bloody love fighting, is what I’m telling you. It seems a natural fit, when I went to write a big fat fantasy novel, to write my lead in that mould.

Instead, I wrote a woman, Kalina, with a chronic illness who couldn’t fight to save her life. Literally. I wrote a book in which the main characters’ problems couldn’t be solved by the strategic and entertaining use of violence even if they had the skills to deploy, and I did it purposefully. I did it in part in response to my own sewing test.

Let me explain.

The sewing test is failed when a book deploys a lazy code to tell me how much better, more interesting, more deserving, the female character is than those silly other women by making a point of having her hate sewing or embroidery or [insert other feminine-coded activity or trait of your choice—but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s sewing]. These days, if a book does this, I’m out. It’s not just lazy, it’s not just a cliché, it’s a statement by the author that I’m expected to cheer on one woman by disparaging the rest of them.

Listen, I was as much of a tomboy as anyone. I was a small, skinny, flat-chested teen with short hair I wouldn’t brush and bruises all up and down my shins and forearms from sparring. All of my close friends were boys. I liked martial arts, rock-climbing, SFF books, rock music. I wasn’t pretty, I didn’t own any makeup or heels, I was scrappy and smart-mouthed, and scornful of shopping and shoes. I was one of the top maths and science students in my school and I had no fucks to give for people who thought I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a girl. So stories of girls rejecting arranged marriages, seizing power, joining the army, outdoing their brothers and their fathers and the men who underestimated them, fighting, winning? These were my jam, they were made for me, they were my very lifeblood.

By their very nature these are often intended to be stories of rebellion and fortitude, stories about escaping the box that society has crammed you in. And there’s nothing wrong with that—don’t we all dream of escape, sometimes? Nor is there anything wrong with any of the traits that we see in these characters. It’s fine to be tough and smart mouthed, to be sexually aggressive, to be physical, to desire travel and adventure. It’s fine to be brash and practical and to bravely fight for what you believe in. Undoubtedly our cultural enjoyment of the tough tomboy who breaks free of her societal constraints has played its part in the positive change in the genre over time—why, it’s entirely possible now to fill your reading calendar exclusively with novels that do not solely centre men, in which women matter, without trying too hard—and I applaud her for that.

The danger, though, is a trend toward attaching our respect and enjoyment solely to those types of characters at the expense of other kinds of power and strength and importance.

Basically, there’s a nasty underbelly to over-reliance on this very limited model of ‘strength’, and it’s rooted in the same insidious patriarchal BS that gave us the old style women-as-objects-to-be-rescued stories: here are traits which are traditionally coded as masculine, which you have been taught are more valuable than traits which are coded as feminine. See how you should cheer on this woman because she’s different and better than those other women, who are weak and shallow and worthless. Reward her for those traits, and punish those who lack them. Applaud Arya Stark as she gets her bloody revenge, and make sure Sansa is dragged through the mud for her foolish hopes and desires and ambitions. Write a book that seems to be full of strong amazing women—but do it in a way that’s actually deeply contemptuous of them.

(It’s more than that, of course. It’s also a product of our cultural fascination with violence as a solution—our love affair with creative ways of inflicting harm on each other has led us, I think, to prioritise physical conflicts and solutions, and in so doing we lose precious opportunities to tell different kinds of stories and come up with creative methods of resolving those conflicts. But that’s another article.)

There are all kinds of strength. There’s valour in staying home and keeping it functioning while others are away at war. There’s strength in raising children, in caring for our elders. There’s as much grit in persevering through domestic hardships as in the trenches, as much intellect in managing emotional needs as broad scale strategic ones, and mastery with a sword is no more inherently impressive than mastery with a needle (again, this is another article, but historically sewing is one of the most important skills in a society). If you show me in your story that you don’t understand that… well, no hard feelings, but I’m moving on.

So, I wrote Kalina. She is kind, emotionally intuitive, clever, and psychologically if not physically resilient. She can’t run, she can’t fight, she needs a lot of rest. And I hope that readers will appreciate her strength and her skills as no less valuable than a warrior’s or an assassin’s or a Queen’s. I also hope that people—especially women—will see themselves in her in the way that I saw myself in the scrappy little Aryas of SFF.

She is fucking great at sewing.

Sam Hawke Photo
Photo Credit: Kris Arnold Photography
A black belt in jujitsu, Sam Hawke lives with her husband and children in Australia. CITY OF LIES is her first novel.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

I’m excited that the eighth annual Women in SF&F Month is underway. Thank you so much to last week’s guests!

All guest posts for April 2019 can be viewed here, and here’s a summary of last week in case you missed any of the essays:

And next week, there will be guest posts from:

Women in SF&F Month 2019 Schedule Graphic

April 8: Sam Hawke (City of Lies)
April 9: Marina J. Lostetter (Noumenon, Noumenon Infinity, Lifeboats)
April 10: Arkady Martine (A Memory Called Empire, “The Hydraulic Emperor”)
April 11: Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season, The Priory of the Orange Tree)
April 12: Jenna Glass (The Women’s War, Faeriewalker)