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Today’s guest is novelist and poet Helen Lowe! Her debut novel Thornspell won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel – Young Adult, and the first two novels in her Wall of Night series were each honored by the Gemmell Awards: The Heir of Night won the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2012 and The Gathering of the Lost was on the Gemmell Legend Award shortlist the following year. Her recently released novel, Daughter of Blood, is the third book in this quartet.

Daughter of Blood US Cover Daughter of Blood UK Cover

Women As Leaders In Fantasy Fiction

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
~ William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

During the course of writing Daughter of Blood, the recently published third novel in my epic fantasy quartet, The Wall of Night, I thought a great deal about leadership. This consideration took several turns, from what makes a leader in the first place, to how the form of leadership may vary depending on circumstances–as well as reflecting on some of the great examples of women leaders in Fantasy fiction. I would like to highlight some of those characters today and conclude by checking out where Malian of Night, the main character in The Wall of Night series, fits into their tradition.

Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurts and Raymond E. Feist

Mara of the Acoma
I don’t believe any discussion of women as leaders would be complete without Janny Wurts and Raymond E Feist’s Mara of the Acoma, from the Empire series. Mara may have been born to greatness, as the daughter of a Kelewan ruling house, but she has leadership thrust upon her when her father and brother are slain in war. The treacherous circumstances surrounding their deaths mean that she assumes political leadership of her house when its security and fortunes are at their lowest ebb.

Throughout the three books, Mara is a political leader: she has no magic at her disposal and is not a warrior, although she has warriors who serve her. Her survival is a matter of intelligence, strategy, and judgement–and the courage to think outside the square and take bold political risks. As a ruler, Mara chiefly acts through others, whether her soldiers, her spies, or her advisors–yet there is absolutely no question that she is a compelling and powerful leader.

The Chronicles of Morgaine by C. J. Cherryh

Morgaine, in CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine series, is the classic Heroine Alone. She is also a leader–one who leads through the power of her personality and direct action, rather than presiding over a political enterprise in the way Mara does. In this sense she has also acquired her leader’s status over time: by surviving when her original companions fell and through ruthless pursuit of her quest.

This does not mean that Morgaine is incapable of political machinations or leading armies. She has done both in the past and will play politics again, but always as an individual with a higher cause rather than to gain political power for its own sake. Nonetheless, others are drawn to Morgaine and follow her, however reluctantly given that she is as uncompromising as she is effective. She is, therefore, as convincing a leader as Mara, only in a very different way.

The Princess of Flames by Ru Emerson

Elfrid, in Ru Emerson’s The Princess Of Flames, is definitely one of those who has leadership thrust upon her when she must stand in for her kinsman, Gespry of Rhames, as the general of a mercenary army. Like Mara, she has soldiers under her command–but unlike Mara she must both lead in the field and devise military tactics. Elfrid is a trained warrior and shares the same magical gifts as Gespry, so it’s not the fighting she finds challenging but the general’s personal contact with and responsibility for others’ lives.

A reserved personality herself, Elfrid frequently wonders how she can continue to convincingly emulate Gespry’s easy bonhomie and common touch. So she is an excellent example of a person who teaches herself to become what she naturally is not. In that context, not unlike Morgaine, Elfrid achieves leadership through her own hard work as well as having been thrust into the role.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Signy and Beatritz de Barbentain, and Ariane de Carenzu: A Concert of Leadership
These three women play vital leadership roles in Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Signy is the elderly Countess of Arbonne, although she has only ruled alone since the death of her husband. Her daughter, Beatritz, is a religious leader, the High Priestess of the goddess Rian, and as such also has political as well as spiritual power.

Ariane, however, is the Queen of the Court of Love, an unquestioned leader in her society, but whose power is solely that of influence and personality (but in a very different way to Morgaine). Yet as Ariane demonstrates through the story–and management studies in our more prosaic world have shown–influence and personality can count for a great deal.

I could have just made this segment about Ariane, but I wanted to mention spiritual leadership as well as the importance of influence. I also wanted to focus on the “concert”: that however powerful or important in their own right–and all three play vital parts in the story–it is by working in alliance with each other and others, that their individual contributions to Arbonne’s cause are most effective.

John Knox, of course would have apostrophised them as “this monstrous regiment of women”–a world view that is indirectly (vis-a-vis Knox) one of the themes of the book. But I prefer my “concert”, which exemplifies how cooperation can be as important an attribute in a leader, or leaders, as individual excellence.

The Heir of Night US Cover The Heir of Night UK Cover

Malian of Night
Although The Wall of Night series has a number of point-of-view characters, Malian of Night is the main protagonist. She is the Heir to the warrior House of Night and so born to both political and military leadership, but in the best epic Fantasy tradition she is also heir to a prophesied destiny and so has a very different form of greatness thrust upon her. Also, through the course of the series exile has forced Malian to rely more on personal influence, including the Heroine Alone’s power derived from personality, ability, and direct action–aka leadership by example.

One of the reasons that writing Daughter of Blood, in particular, obliged me to think about leadership, was because in it Malian has to consciously chart a course between her inheritance and her prophesied destiny. She must also consider whether it’s feasible to pursue the path of Heroine Alone, like Morgaine, or whether she must–emulating Elfrid–lead armies. Like the women leaders of Arbonne, Malian has already had to make alliances; as with Mara, political necessity and survival have forced her to think outside the square when considering available options.

In addition to Malian, the Wall series features a number of other women leaders. I will not enumerate their roles now–but like the choices Malian must make, I am glad the variety of leadership positions they occupy are part of such a great Fantasy tradition.

Helen Lowe Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, while the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three), was published January 26, 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, occasionally on SF Signal and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.