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Today I’m thrilled to welcome fantasy author Katherine Arden! Her debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, was released early this year and is absolutely fantastic: it’s atmospheric with lovely writing, and it has a compelling heroine at the center of it all. Since it’s my favorite 2017 release and one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, I’m incredibly excited that there will be two sequels—and the first of these, The Girl in the Tower, is scheduled for publication in January 2018!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

My first books were dusty, yellowed hardbacks with the pages stitched in, and one of my earliest memories is the smell of old paper. I started reading early, and once I got the hang of it, you could not pry books from my hands. I would finish one and reach for the next, as if they were Oreos. Old and dusty Oreos.

Why old and dusty? In those days before YA, there were not many options available for a precocious reader between books for children and books for adults. My parents, doing their desperate best to feed my book habit, started steering me toward novels written before 1930 or so; mostly, I think, because the romance in older books leans towards euphemism and not bodice-ripping.

I had a passion for adventures—fantasy, history, or science fiction, it didn’t matter. So I happily spent my childhood pinging from old copies of Treasure Island to The Three Musketeers to Dracula, Captain Blood, and Tarzan, barely aware that there were people today, right now, also writing books. Who cared? I had all the books I needed.

But in my middle school years, I began vaguely, and then painfully, to notice that the female characters in all my beloved books didn’t really do—anything. Mina and Lucy, Arabella Bishop, Constance Bonacieux and Jane Porter—they spent a lot of time getting rescued, or being beautifully helpless. However, none of them ever made a decision that drove the plot. Or even affected their own lives. That sort of thing was left to the hero.

It annoyed me. I always wanted to be Tarzan. I never cared about being Jane.

This irritation, the beginnings of youthful independence, and a very good local librarian, finally acquainted me with authors writing in my own decade. I was twelve or so when I discovered characters like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond, Robin McKinley’s Aerin Firehair, just two examples of many. I discovered young heroines who did things.

I still remember my delight when I saw the cover of Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, with an armored girl on a white horse, facing a dragon. I opened that book and started reading and after that Tarzan never had a chance.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

My particular conundrum is not one faced by young girls reading today. In 2017, girls have a legion of heroines for role models: powerful women, who create their own stories. We have come a long way since Dracula or Dumas. Passivity is not considered a prerequisite for femininity.

However nowadays it seems to me that young women reading face another problem. And that is that so many heroines are—perfect. This modern heroine is perfectly beautiful, of course, but also modestly unaware of her beauty. She must possess unusual if not superhuman skills, be chosen for a special destiny, and finally be utterly oblivious that every man in the entire book is madly in love with her.

Demanding perfection of women—even fictional ones—is in some ways the third cousin of the marble passivity of their 19th century forebears. It is just as impossible, just as unrealistic, just as restrictive.

I didn’t want to land in either extreme when I finally got around to trying my hand at a book—with a heroine—of my own. But when I started writing my own first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, I had no idea how to walk the line between passive and perfect, between flawed and extraordinary. How does a writer balance the desire to write someone remarkable, with the equally powerful desire to create a human being, not some paragon?

My book is set in 14th century Muscovy. How do you make a woman powerful, writing about an era when women were not allowed power?

My answer, for what it’s worth, was to try to give my heroine something that I had rarely encountered in any of my reading, recent or not.

I gave her self-acceptance.

Such a small thing, right? Well, in some ways yes. In other ways no. My main character, Vasilisa, is a strange girl; she sees the world differently than other people. But she refuses to be afraid, and she refuses to doubt her own senses. No matter who tells her otherwise (and at one point in the novel, pretty much everyone is telling her otherwise) she accepts herself and the world as it is.

That, I came to realize, was what I wanted most from a main character. I wanted to write about a person who, even when she is afraid, or lonely, never thinks—it literally never occurs to her—to be anything less than she is, or to live her life with anything less than integrity.

It seems to me that our heroines—even the brave ones, even the beautiful perfect ones, even the modern ones—are too often drenched in self-doubt.

It seems almost to be baked in the modern girl’s DNA. If you are extraordinary, of course you must long to be ordinary, to fit in, to be a normal girl with a normal life. But if you are ordinary, of course, then you berate yourself for not being beautiful enough, clever enough.

It’s a conundrum that we—and our heroines—just can’t win.

Except by being ourselves. Bravely. Unquestioningly. No matter how hard it is.

Katherine Arden Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.