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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author and editor Deborah J. Ross! She has written both short stories and novels, including Jaydium, Northlight, Collaborators, and some of the Darkover novels, continuing the series begun by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Her latest books are an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, comprised of The Seven-Petaled Shield, Shannivar, and The Heir of Khored (coming in June 2014)—and she is here today to talk about the heroic women in this series!

The Seven-Petaled Shield by Deborah J. Ross Shannivar by Deborah J. Ross

Women Heroes in The Seven-Petaled Shield
By Deborah J. Ross

My first professional short story sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the debut volume of Sword & Sorceress. When the anthology became an annual series, I kept submitting stories, and looking around for different cultures and historical times as background. For one of the later volumes (XIII), I wanted to explore the tensions between a nomadic horse people like the Scythians and a city-based culture like Rome, and their different values and forms of magic. I did not call them Romans and Scythians, of course, but these models were very much in my mind as I created Gelon and Azkhantia. As I delved further into my research, I learned that although Scythian women were definitely second-class citizens, the Sarmatian women rode to battle and were likely the origin of the “Amazons” of legend. What could be more perfect for a sword and sorcery story featuring a strong woman protagonist? Thus began a series of “Azkhantian tales,” and my exploration of a vastly complex, fascinating world.

From the very first “Azkhantian tale,” I set up different systems of magic and of spiritual beliefs in the various cultures, contrasting the pantheon of the empire-building, city-dwelling Gelon and the nomadic horse peoples of the steppe, loosely organized into clans (each named for a different totem animal), living in harmony with the land and its seasons. Their primary deities are, of course, the Mother of Horses and her consort.

For the first of these stories, I departed from the usual swordswoman or sorceress heroine: a woman who is young, physically fit, and unattached to family. I’ve often been astonished by the number of such protagonists who appear to be orphaned only children. In cultures like my Azkhantian nomads, however, family and clan form the core of an individual’s identity. I wanted the bonds between parent and child or between siblings to shape the adventure. A host of possibilities opened when I chose a point of view character who wasn’t physically involved in the battle, but was deeply emotionally involved. Hence, most of “The Spirit Arrow” was told from the perspective of an aging mother, linked to her warrior daughter by more than the natural enchantment of the heart.

These stories grew into not only a novel, but a trilogy. From the outset, I knew The Seven-Petaled Shield must be told primarily through the experiences of the women. The action begins with the armies of Gelon laying siege to the citadel of Meklavar, but I was more interested in what the women of the city were doing. For my initial viewpoint character, I created Tsorreh, the young second wife of the aged king. She’s inexperienced but neither helpless nor idle; she organizes medical care for the injured and housing for refugees from the lower city. She counsels her husband and treats his wounds, and she worries about her adolescent son in his first battle. All of these are traditional “female” roles. Because she is an educated person and a woman with initiative, however, she also takes it upon herself to save the library. Shortly after the city falls, she whisks her son to safety through the mountain tunnels, and she herself becomes the bearer of the mystical gem that will later play a pivotal role in defeating the incarnation of chaos in this world.

The second and equally important woman hero rides onto the pages of the next book, which is also her namesake: Shannivar. Shannivar is recognizably heroic; she’s a warrior of the Azkhantian steppe, skilled in archery and horsemanship, determined to accomplish great feats of valor. She’s the grandchild of the clan matriarch, a strong and self-reliant woman.

Shannivar and her best friend, Mirrimal, have reached the age when they are expected to choose husbands and retire from fighting the Gelon. Neither is happy about this – Shannivar because she refuses to surrender her dreams of glorious deeds, Mirrimal because marriage itself is abhorrent to her. Both women insist on their own self-determination, although with quite different results. Shannivar’s courage and quick-thinking place her in a succession of leadership roles, first of a war-party, then of a diplomatic mission, and finally of a expedition to trace the incursion of uncanny forces into her world.

In tales of fantasy as elsewhere, we have a tendency to measure heroes by their physical prowess instead of, for example, their foresight or moral authority. This approach inherently puts women in non-industrialized cultures at a disadvantage. Very few women are as physically strong as men or have the same mass, height, and reach. We can step outside the strength=heroism model if we consider that the differences can be minimized by training, appropriate weaponry, or other advantages. Shannivar is a superb horsewoman and archer. The height of her horse (and she has two wonderful horses that are heroes in their own rights) and the reach of her arrows mitigate her lesser muscular strength. More than that, she has the ability to see patterns in battle and to think in ways that use the assets of her riders – speed, maneuverability – to best advantage. She has a clear vision of her goals and does not let temper or ego get in her way, unlike her hotheaded cousin. This enhances her ability as a strategist and organizer.

All of these qualities can apply to male warriors as well. What then distinguishes Shannivar as a hero? The quality of her character, her vision, and her determination to defend her people against enemies human and supernatural, regardless of cost. Instead of being a handicap, her refusal to “settle for less” lifts her deeds to extraordinary – heroic – heights. Tsorreh is no less a hero, for her courage is of the heart and spirit, her quiet wisdom and compassion.

Deborah J. Ross

Deborah J. Ross writes and edits fantasy and science fiction. She’s a former SFWA Secretary and member of Book View Café. Her short fiction has appeared in F & SF, Asimov’s, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, Sword & Sorceress, and various other anthologies and magazines. Her most recent books include the Darkover novel, The Children of Kings (with Marion Zimmer Bradley, Amazon Barnes & Noble); Lambda Literary Award Finalist Collaborators, an occupation-and-resistance story with a gender-fluid alien race (as Deborah Wheeler, Amazon); and The Seven-Petaled Shield, an epic fantasy trilogy (Amazon Barnes & Noble.) She’s also the author of Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life (Book View Café Barnes & Noble).