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Today’s guests are Ana and Thea from The Book Smugglers! These two probably need no introduction from me, but I’ll give you three reasons why you should read their wonderful blog anyway:

  1. They post at least once a day so there is always something new and interesting to read on their site.
  2. Not only do they have a great quantity of posts, but they maintain great quality with their intelligent, funny reviews and articles.
  3. They have excellent taste in books and have introduced me to a great number of authors and books that I now love (including several of the ones they are talking about today).

I really respect and admire both Ana and Thea, and I am thrilled they took the time to be here today. I’m also happy they chose both to discuss the issue of female agency in SFF and recommend SFF books containing female characters with agency. Please welcome Ana and Thea!

The Book Smugglers Header

We’ve been thinking a lot about agency lately. Although this is a topic that has always been important to us as readers and reviewers, the subject has become increasingly present in our reviews as we read more Historical Fiction and YA (please bear with us, we will segue into SFF in a moment). The former, because more often than not, female characters are written to fit certain prescribed historical molds; the latter, because much of the YA we read is of the dystopian variety and character agency is hugely important in these types of worlds.

Perhaps we should rewind and start with a basic question: what is “agency”? How do we prescribe agency to characters in fiction? Basically, for a character to have agency, he or she must have the ability to act. Mind you: acting doesn’t necessarily mean doing huge, larger-than-life deeds. Merely being able to think is a form of action. And, needless to say, the concept of “choice” is intrinsically connected with agency, too.

In recent articles and discussion, we’ve noticed that many people appear to be under the impression that a character’s agency is inherently connected with their strength. This is usually based on a certain idea of “strength” that is connected with power and physical abilities – or more to the point, much of the time, a strong character is immediately thought to be “kick-ass”.

This is a fallacy. There are many different kinds of strength (Ana is particularly fond of the quiet type of strength), and a character’s strength is not necessarily tied to physical prowess. Rather, strength of a character is integrally tied to how well a character is written by his or her creator.

For a character to be written well, he or she has to have some form of agency.

Which brings us to the point of this post.

Female agency in SFF, or the lack of it, is a huge deal, and it has been so for years. Very recently – and prompted by this very celebratory month – blogger Justin at Staffer’s Musings has started a series of posts about character agency. Justin has invited authors from across the SF/F world to chime in, answer questions, and write posts on this very provocative topic.

The posts have been both fascinating and illuminating – particularly this post from author Michael Sullivan, who writes epic fantasy in a world that resembles Medieval Europe. In this post, Sullivan explains that in order to keep a sense of authenticity he has followed the social conventions of that age. He goes on to say:

In that context, women do indeed have fewer opportunities than men. Does this mean that I think women shouldn’t have agency? Not at all, and in fact I have a six book series where women break the bonds of convention and become as strong and independent as any of their male counterparts. It’s true that early in the series some women are portrayed as locked in established roles, but I did so to provide a contrast to what they develop into.

We don’t mean to pick on Mr Sullivan but his words are unfortunately representative of the frame of mind that usually accompanies female characters without agency in SFF, based on a dual fallacy. The first refers to the issue of authenticity in SFF and the other to the very notion of what exactly defines a true-to-life representation of said authenticity.

In our opinion, to call for authenticity in SFF when it comes to female character agency is completely bogus. If you have a made-up Fantasy world with dragons, with magic, and other fantastical elements, why in the world the ONLY thing that needs to be “authentic” is the lack of agency of women?

Not to mention, we completely disagree with the assumption that in lands like Medieval Europe women were not able to exert any kind of agency or power because of their restrictive environment. To assume this is to ignore the very human capacity for adaptability and strategy – not to mention the factual evidence that while medieval women certainly were far less empowered than modern women, these females were active, even leaders, in the commercial and political spheres. Author Kate Elliot wrote a post about this very topic a few days ago, and this excerpt below part is of particular interest:

Even in patriarchal societies of the past (and present!), women who might otherwise have been banned by custom or law from partaking in the public life of politics, power, learning, work and so on still had personalities. I can’t emphasize this enough. People–even women!–have personalities regardless of how much or how little political power they have. People can live a quiet life of daily work out of the public eye, and still have personalities. Really! They can still matter to those around them, they can matter to themselves, and they can influence events in orthogonal ways that any self respecting writer can easily dream up.

SO! All of this said, where can you turn for science fiction and fantasy that features female characters with agency? We call your attention to the following list as a starting point:

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy/Naamah’s Blessing Series

Jacqueline Carey writes female characters that are chock full of agency, that embody different kinds of power, that embrace different roles and explore issues of gender, sexuality, and politics. These books are AMAZING.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters Series

If you haven’t read Juliet Marillier yet, please, please rectify this huge gaping hole in your SFF reading. Marillier’s heroines are all so very different – some are curious and brash with power, some are quieter, subversive characters. They all, however, are brilliant.

Feed by Mira Grant

Mira Grant’s Feed

This first book, starring the cutting, exposition-laden (in a good way!) narration of a female character named George (for George A. Romero) is an unexpected mix of medical procedural, political thriller, and zombie awesomeness.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

The Incredible Assorted Works of Catherynne M. Valente (see: The Orphan’s Tales duology, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, A Dirge for Prester John)

No one can write effortless, lyrical tone as well as Cat Valente – add to this her beautifully complex, matryoshka-style of stories within stories within stories, and you have one of the best fantasy writers of our generation.

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson & Alpha & Omega series

Patty Briggs writes two very different types of heroines in these spinoff Urban Fantasy series’ – Mercy is capable, independent, no nonsense, and a refreshingly under-powered character in a sea of UF stereotypes that tend towards wearing black leather, trash talking and are immensely over-powered. Conversely, heroine Anna (of the A&O books) has lived through some terrible things and derives her power not from brute strength or badass attitude, but from her ability to calm those around her.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott’s Spirit Walker Trilogy

We love Kate Elliott’s heroines, Cat and Bea, and admire how different these characters are while still maintaining their own separate power. A fantastic fantasy series that we highly recommend.

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor and Barrayar collected together now in one ominbus called Cordelia’s Honor

While Miles Vorkosigan may be the star of her Vorkosigan saga, the books all began with one very memorable heroine in Cordelia. (And plenty of empowered female characters abound in this series, too.)

Thanks Kristen, for allowing us to blab about such a fascinating topic!