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Today I’m delighted to welcome Danya! She’s a librarian and a speculative fiction fan who writes book reviews on her excellent website, Fine Print. I really enjoy reading her thoughts on books and appreciate the way she dissects the books she reads—plus she has fantastic taste, as you can see from her coverage of Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerSeraphina by Rachel Hartman, The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, and Monstress Volume One by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda!

Fine Print

The Menstrual Menace: Periods in Fantasy Novels

As a dedicated reader and reviewer of fantasy novels, especially those that feature women in prominent roles, I’ve often wondered: what’s up with the representation of menstrual periods in fantasy fiction? We read descriptions of characters covered in grime, authors mention the stink of the road, and stories reference hunger pangs from limited rations as part of daily life in many fantasy novels, so the relative absence of periods shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant. Even more troubling is that when periods are mentioned in fantasy novels, they’re often linked to some extreme element of the magic system or the threat of sexual violence.

Although not all women menstruate and not all those who menstruate identify as women, menstruation plays an important role in the lives of real-life women and, when mentioned, in the lives of female characters in fantasy novels. Whether you’re looking at things from a biological perspective or a social one, the first menses is a significant and meaningful event for a young woman in fantasy: it can determine whether she’s of marriageable age, signify the awakening of her magic, and more often than not, menstrual periods coincide with dark and distressing aspects of the fantasy world.

Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey Fire by Kristin Cashore

I recently read Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey, a retelling of and prequel to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest that explores the relationship between Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban. In a very disturbing series of chapters, Prospero refuses to tell his daughter Miranda, raised in isolation on a desert island without any other women, what to expect when she “becomes a woman” and she’s thus totally blindsided by the pain and inconvenience her menses bring. Prospero then collects Miranda’s blood-soaked, makeshift sanitary cloths to use as a key ingredient in his shadowy alchemical works. Let’s just say that her menstrual blood isn’t exactly being used to conjure puppies and rainbows.

Similarly, Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy novel Fire presents menstruation as an extreme complicating factor for the protagonist, inextricably linked to violence and magic. Fantastical creatures called Monsters are drawn to the smell of half-human, half-Monster Fire’s blood, flocking to her in violent hordes. Whenever she’s on her period she must either be hidden away inside fortified walls or she has to be escorted by a fleet of armed guards to prevent her from being killed. So while Fire’s period is acknowledged—an important aspect of the story for many of the book’s fans, including myself—it’s not presented as a routine part of life as a young woman, but rather as an event that can literally get you killed.

First Test by Tamora Pierce Page by Tamora Pierce Squire by Tamora Pierce Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce

Although Miranda and Caliban and Fire are only two examples of novels that discuss periods, they’re pretty typical representations of how menstruation is incorporated into fantasy…if it’s incorporated at all. Those fantasy authors who do make an effort to present menstrual periods as noteworthy events without turning it into an overblown issue are the exception in my experience, not the rule. Tamora Pierce, who addresses menstruation in all of her Tortall universe books, takes an admirable approach to the topic in the Protector of the Small quartet: the protagonist Kel and her friend Lalasa discuss what to expect and how to deal with her first period when it arrives. Personally, I wish more fantasy authors took such an evenhanded approach to the topic of menstruation and would address it for what it is: a simple, if inconvenient, fact of life for many women.

Danya of Fine Print Danya is a librarian and blogger from Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Fine Print, a book review site where she shares her love of fantasy novels, kick ass ladies, and romance…not necessarily in that order. You can find her on Twitter as @danyafineprint.

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Today I am thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger! Her immensely entertaining Parasol Protectorate series, a comedy of manners set during an alternate Victorian era populated by werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural beings, follows the adventures of Alexia Tarabotti—who literally has no soul. Though this series is now complete, she’s expanded the world through other books, including those in Custard Protocol, an ongoing series set after the Parasol Protectorate; Supernatural Society, stand alone LGBTQ romance novellas; Finishing School, a young adult quartet; and more.

Imprudence by Gail Carriger Soulless by Gail Carriger

Got Queer Characters In Your Fantasy? Blame Mercedes Lackey

You know what I get asked a lot?

Why do you include gay characters in your books?

I find the question confusing. Like, Gail, why do you include food in your books? Or descriptions of dresses? Or fragment sentences? It’s part of my DNA as a writer. My world view. My world.

But that also seems to trivialize the whole darn thing.

I guess what I’m really being asked is…

Why did it never occur to you not to?

And to that I say: Blame Mercedes Lackey.

Back when I was first transitioning into reading adult books, it was pretty natural to cross from children’s fantasy (there was no YA as a category back then) into adult fantasy via Mercedes Lackey. (I still hold that Arrows is, in fact, YA. It simply has never been packaged that way. Silly marketing.)

For me that transition went pretty smoothly because, well… her books featured girls and soul bonded horses. I’ve always been one of those super girly girls (aside from being totally not squeamish about bugs and food and dirt and climbing anything that will stand still long enough for me to get up it and… where was I?) Oh yes, so child Gail began reading adult books because white horses with purple eyes on cover. Duh.

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey Knights of Ghosts and Shadows by Mercedes Lackey and Ellen Guon

Mercedes Lackey always inhabits her work with gay and lesbian characters. They are not always central characters, as they are in the Last Herald Mage series, but they are always there. (Keep reading Lackey and you end up with poly relationships. Gail, age 14 thought Knight of Ghosts and Shadows had the most romantic ending of any book EVER, and kinda still does.) All these relationships are presented in a supportive light. Which made perfect sense to child Gail with all her Berkeley and San Francisco poet, artist, dancer, musician aunties and uncles (and uncles who were also aunties).

Since then as a grown up professional authorbeast, I’m lucky enough to have socialized with Mercedes on a few occasions. She is just as warm and wonderful as you might hope. I’m afraid when I first met her, my author buddy Lauren Harris and I rather fan-girled all over her. Almost entirely because we wanted to impress upon her the fact that her books were so important because they gave us a model of fantasy that included alternate sexuality. As she went to pains to point out, there were other genre authors doing this before her. But those authors were generally less accessible to young women readers. Her books were/are important because in them queer wasn’t a big deal. It just was. And so when Lauren and I began to write it just was for us, too. In Lackey’s books queer was normal.

And normalization is a powerful instrument of change.

Gail Carriger
Photo Credit: J. Daniel Sawyer
Gail Carriger writes comedies of manners mixed with paranormal romance. Her steampunk books include the Parasol Protectorate, Custard Protocol, and Supernatural Society series for adults, and the Finishing School series for young adults. (All of them contain queer characters in a myriad of forms.) She is published in many languages and has over a dozen NYT bestsellers. She was once an archaeologist and is overly fond of shoes, octopuses, and tea.

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Thanks to last week’s guests, April is off to a great start! It’s time to announce the guests for this week, but first, here are last week’s articles in case you missed any of them:

And now, I’m excited to announce this week’s schedule of guest posts, beginning tomorrow.

Women in SF&F Month 2017 Guests

April 10: Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate, Finishing School, The Custard Protocol)
April 11: Danya (Fine Print)
April 12: S. Jae-Jones (Wintersong)
April 13: Yangsze Choo (The Ghost Bride)
April 14: Kat Howard (Roses and Rot, An Unkindness of Magicians—coming Fall 2017)

Since the beginning of 2016, I have been reading and reviewing one book a month based on the results of a poll on PatreonAll of these monthly reviews can be viewed here.

The April theme is Tiptree Award-recognized science fiction (written by women since it is Women in SF&F Month, after all!). As stated on their website, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award is “an award encouraging the exploration and expansion of gender.” There’s a handy database for viewing and searching the books that have won the award or been selected for the Honor List or Long List.

When I scoured my bookshelves for applicable books, I didn’t find that many Tiptree Award winners, especially considering I’ve already reviewed some of those I do have. However, I found several that had received honors so this month’s selections were books that received a Special Honor or a place on the Honors List:

The April book is…

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler

As the acclaimed Patternist science fiction series begins, two immortals meet in the long-ago past—and mankind’s destiny is changed forever.

For a thousand years, Doro has cultivated a small African village, carefully breeding its people in search of seemingly unattainable perfection. He survives through the centuries by stealing the bodies of others, a technique he has so thoroughly mastered that nothing on Earth can kill him. But when a gang of New World slavers destroys his village, ruining his grand experiment, Doro is forced to go west and begin anew.

He meets Anyanwu, a centuries-old woman whose means of immortality are as kind as his are cruel. She is a shapeshifter, capable of healing with a kiss, and she recognizes Doro as a tyrant. Though many humans have tried to kill them, these two demi-gods have never before met a rival. Now they begin a struggle that will last centuries and permanently alter the nature of humanity.

Hugo and Nebula award–winning author Octavia E. Butler’s sweeping cross-century epic places her “among the best of contemporary SF writers” (Houston Chronicle).

My version of the book is in the Patternist omnibus, but I’m planning to review the first book on its own since it sounds as though the individual novels are not very closely connected. I’m really looking forward to reading Wild Seed this month!

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Today I’m thrilled to welcome science fiction and fantasy author Cassandra Rose Clarke! Her latest novel, the space opera Star’s End, was just released late last month. She has also written The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, a Philip K. Dick Award finalist; Our Lady of the Ice, a RT Reviewer’s Choice Award finalist in the Science Fiction category; Magic of Blood and Sea, which contains both The Assassin’s Curse and The Pirate’s Wish; and more, including several short stories.

Star's End by Cassandra Rose Clarke Magic of Blood and Sea by Cassandra Rose Clarke

As a child, I was aggressively girlie. I went through a period when I refused to wear anything but dresses. My bedroom was painted pink at my insistence.  I hoarded Lisa Frank school supplies. I turned my nose up at what I considered “boy things,” like sports. (That being said, plenty of my interests, like Lego and shark documentaries, would have been called “boy things” by lots of people. Frankly, I just classified them as “girl things” because I, the girliest girl you could imagine, liked them.)

I was also a voracious reader. As you might expect, I had little to no interest in “boy books” (except for the ones I did, such as My Side of the Mountain, but again, I would never have considered it a “boy book,” because there is no logic when it comes to gendering objects or interests). Instead, I sought out any book that featured a girl as its main character. I devoured Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and Lurlene McDaniel books at a relentless speed, swapping out each cheap paperback I read with a new stack from the local used bookstore. As an adult, I recognize that many of my childhood favorites were pretty dubious in the feminist department—the Wakefield twins and their “perfect size six” (now four) bodies being a prime example—but as a kid most of it just washed over me. I wanted to read about girls. I didn’t care what they were doing. I just wanted girls. And here were books about girls.

I also loved horror. Horror writers like RL Stine, Christopher Pike, and, a little later, Stephen King are the writers I credit the most with sparking my interest in genre fiction. When I began tentatively writing out my own stories, they, without fail, ripped off one of two writers: Lurlene McDaniel if I was feeling weepy and RL Stine if I was not. I loved the weirdness of horror, the shivery feeling that someone’s watching you as you tear through the pages, the slow build of tension as you try to make it to the end. In elementary school, I didn’t read fantasy, and I rarely read science fiction. But I read a ton of horror.

Why? Well, the answer’s pretty obvious: girls. Horror books were just as likely to have girls as their main character as they were boys, something I didn’t realize at the time could be true of science fiction and fantasy. With horror, I could fill my craving for weird stuff with my love of reading about girls doing things, even if it was just running from a monster. Remember, I wasn’t picky about what my girl characters were up to. I just wanted to read about them. One of my absolute favorite books of this time period was a ghost story that’s also a close examination of the relationship between two sisters; I’m talking, of course, about Wait Till Helen Comes. I’m not sure there was ever a more perfect book for nine-year-old me to read.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

In junior high, the kids in my seventh-grade GT classes all became obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. It was one of those weird fads that sweeps through junior highs like a fast-moving plague. Two months earlier we’d all been whacking each other with slap bracelets; now we were tearing through Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time is the first book I remember reading that was both science fiction and about a girl. A girl who described herself as painfully ordinary and plain next to her mother, a girl who thought she didn’t have any true talents. What seventh grader, regardless of gender, doesn’t think that way about themself, deep down? I read through the entire series that year, marveling at the science fictional wonder of it all, and connecting deeply with Meg Murray as she grew from an awkward girl to a sophisticated, brilliant woman—giving me hope for myself.

Discovering A Wrinkle in Time threw open the floodgates. I began watching The X-Files religiously, utterly in awe of Dana Scully. I read through the Big Dystopias and discovered Margaret Atwood in high school; my life hasn’t been the same since.  The Star Wars prequels were released and I fell in love with Padmé Amidala, a terribly written character who nonetheless spoke to me as a fifteen-year-old girl who had come to see Episode One with her high school’s Latin Club (seriously). Here was a girl my age in my beloved Star Wars, a girl who could rule an entire planet while wearing the GREATEST DRESSES OF ALL TIME. Even now, more than fifteen years later, Padmé remains one of my favorite science fiction characters—not so much the character as written, but the promise of what she could be, the aggressively girlie, fashion-conscious, Rebellion-founding politician who fights for democracy in the galaxy.

Padmé Amidala

I feel like so many of the literacy narratives I’ve read about women and genre fiction move in a particular direction: reading about boys because the “girl books” weren’t interesting. But I came at it backwards, like I do most things. The “girl books” were most interesting to me because they were about girls. Science fiction and fantasy had to at least gesture at gender parity before they grabbed my interest. And once I found those lady-centered gems, I was hooked.

Cassandra Rose Clarke Cassandra Rose Clarke grew up in south Texas and currently lives in a suburb of Houston, where she writes and teaches composition at a pair of local colleges. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin, and in 2010 she attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. Her work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, and YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her latest novel is Star’s End, out now from Saga Press.

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Today I’m delighted to have a guest post by fantasy author Sarah Ash to share with you! Her novels include The Tears of Artamon trilogy (Lord of Snow and Shadows, Prisoner of the Iron Tower, and Children of the Serpent Gate), Songspinners, the Tide Dragons series (The Flood Dragon’s Sacrifice, Emperor of the Fireflies), and more. In addition to writing books, she’s an editor and reviewer for Anime UK News, and she hosts the ‘Nobody Knew She Was There’ blog series in which women who pen science fiction and fantasy discuss writing and the genre (it features some wonderful guest posts by some fantastic authors!).

The Flood Dragon's Sacrifice by Sarah Ash Songspinners by Sarah Ash

Liberating Grandmothers

I never really knew my paternal grandmother. But my maternal grandmother, Sarah Jessie Maude, was a great influence on me in so many ways. Obliged to finish her schooling early in her teens to work in her father’s grocery and wine shop, but always resourceful and imaginative, she was a source of captivating stories of her childhood—and an inspiration for me and my sister, fantasy writer Jessica Rydill. So it’s no surprise that many older women feature in my stories, although the antiquarian Jolaine Tredescar in Songspinners, Orial’s eccentric mentor and soul-guardian, and the intrepid Doctor Frieda Hildegarde from The Tears of Artamon who uncovers a highly significant lost text in a remote monastery are, I now see, a respectful nod to some of my teachers at school, formidable scholarly women who studied at Oxford in the early 1930s.

So, grandmothers…

The archetype in western legends and fairy tales is often not a proactive figure: in Red Riding Hood, bedridden and frail, Granny is used by the Wolf to deceive and entrap the heroine. Too often portrayed as gray-haired, stooped and very elderly, the stereotypes have been perpetuated in fiction, even though many of today’s grandmothers (myself included) are far from being in their dotage.

Or there’s the assumption over the ages that when a women becomes old, she also gains wisdom, that has somehow been warped in the depiction of the witch—the term rarely being used as a compliment and often as the excuse for inhuman treatment of an elderly person. Baba Yaga in Russian folklore is depicted as a predatory witch in some tales, while in others, she aids the protagonist. But she’s always described as hideous and skeletal, in spite of her considerable powers (and a flying mortar to take her wherever she wants to go!). Fast-forward to the 20th century where much-lauded children’s writer Roald Dahl obviously had issues with older women, although Grandmamma in The Witches is a rare example in his fiction of an older woman painted in a sympathetic light (although she’s 86, so surely a Great-Grandmamma?); the hideous cackling monster in George’s Marvellous Medicine is much closer to the typical Dahl caricature.

The Witches by Roald Dahl Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Two notable exceptions (because of the depth of characterization) are Terry Pratchett’s hard-headed, stern, no-nonsense (yet infinitely wise) Granny Weatherwax—and her jovial companion-in-witchcraft, Nanny Ogg. (I’m only omitting Magrat from the trio of three witches because she’s the youngest, and the Maiden in the triumvirate, so definitely not a grandmother.) From the glorious anarchy of Wyrd Sisters, through Equal Rites to the Tiffany Aching stories, Granny Weatherwax is not portrayed as having any grandchildren of her own, but her place in the Ramtops is that of the admired and respected older wise woman. Granny Weatherwax brought out some of Pratchett’s best writing and one can’t help but read significance into the fact that he gave her a good encounter with Death not long before he came to the far-too-soon end of his own life.

I never made a conscious decision that I was going to have a grandmother character in my fiction because I had ‘stuff to say about the role of the older woman in that particular society’; that’s just not the way I work. Characters present themselves, already fully-formed, and I take things on from there. (I have no agenda—except to tell a tale that demands to be told in the best way I possibly can.) So when (in Lord of Snow and Shadows) servant girl Kiukiu is turned out onto the snowy moors by acting mistress of the household, Lilias Arbelian, I was as surprised as she was when the wild-haired woman in the sleigh who comes to her rescue turns out to be her grandmother. Kiukiu’s family background is complicated, as she’s the lovechild of a forbidden relationship between members of two warring clans, so she’s never met her father’s mother, Malusha. And Malusha, the only surviving member of the rival clan lord’s household, has been living alone in the moors, mourning her lord and her dead son. It turns out that meeting her grandmother is the best—yet perhaps also the worst—thing that could happen to Kiukiu. At last she has an explanation for her troubling tendency to hear and see ghosts. For Malusha is a Spirit Singer, one who can summon the spirits of the dead through her singing and playing—and, if need be, lay them to rest—and Kiukiu has inherited her abilities. But when she takes Kiukiu into the Ways Beyond to meet her dead lord and master, Kiukiu realizes that she is being steered away from her mother’s clan and the man she has come to love, Gavril Nagarian. As Malusha learns more about her granddaughter and teaches her the skills of a Spirit Singer, the relationship between the older and the younger woman deepens and matures, even as the clash of conflicting clan loyalties threatens to drag them apart.

Lord of Snow and Shadows by Sarah Ash Prisoner of the Iron Tower by Sarah Ash Children of the Serpent Gate by Sarah Ash

I didn’t set out with an ‘Agenda’ to deliberately insert older women into my stories. It was inevitable, I suppose, that they would figure in my fiction—and, as I gain new perspectives from becoming an ‘older woman’ myself, that I would wish to portray believable older characters that are not one-dimensional stereotypes: grandmothers with rich lives of their own who are not merely plot devices to help—or hinder—the main protagonist on their journey.

(A little disclaimer by way of apology. I don’t read as much in the SFF fiction field as I used to five, ten, fifteen years ago. Why? First of all because I find it hard to read fiction and write at the same time; like many other writers, I just end up mentally editing the novel I’m reading and that’s no fun e.g. ‘Why must he use the word “smirked”? How could they have missed that glaring typo!’ etc. etc. Secondly, because I’m getting on a bit. And I’ve already read a great deal of SFF, good, bad and indifferent. So, if I’m going to spend time reading something new, it has to be rather special. And different. To be honest, I’ve never had the appetite for many of the long epic fantasy sagas—apart from Tolkien; I like quirky, unusual, even eccentric… But you, dear readers, will probably be able to think of SFF novels or stories that you’ve read recently which depict grandmothers—or older women—in a non-clichéd, relatable way. Please share your recommendations!)

Sarah AshSarah Ash has been writing since she was a child—but also spent many years teaching music. Creating fantasy novels has allowed her to explore her fascination with the way mythology and history overlap and interact (her second published novel Songspinners is set in an ‘alternate’ eighteenth century Bath, her home city). The five novels in the popular epic fantasy Artamon sequence (Penguin Random House) are also set in an alternate eighteenth century world—with daemons and dragons. Emperor of the Fireflies, the second book of the new Tide Dragons series, is now available as an e-book and was inspired by her love of all things Japanese (especially manga and anime which she regularly reviews). It’s an historical fantasy that draws on the ancient legend of the Tide Jewels and the lifestyle of the Heian imperial court. And of course, there are also secretive shinobi, wily fox spirits—and Tide Dragons.


Tide Dragon Cover/Graphic Credit: Marcelle Natisin