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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is Jenn Lyons! She was a finalist for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer both years she was eligible following the release of The Ruin of Kings, her epic fantasy debut novel and the first book in A Chorus of Dragons. The next three books in this series “about a long-lost royal whose fate is tied to the future of an empire”—The Name of All Things, The Memory of Souls, and The House of Always—are out now. The fifth and final book, The Discord of Gods, will be published next week—on April 26!

Cover of The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons Cover of The Discord of Gods by Jenn Lyons

Out of the Maze
By Jenn Lyons

Like so many girls of my generation (Gen X, to be specific), I grew up being told that I would need to be rescued. We were a generation that was starting to have some idea that this wasn’t true, mostly thanks to earlier feminist movements and our own mothers’ horror stories. But still, there was a lot of rescuing going on. The first two fantasies that I can distinctly remember as a child were Snow White (in illustrated book form) and Sleeping Beauty (the Disney animated movie) and both had a lasting impact on me. Even then as a child, I was starting to rebel from the messages presented therein. The idea that the Wicked Queen deserved to be literally tortured to death (yes, this was a version of the story where she’s forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes) was abhorrent. And Maleficent inspired in me an immediate and permanent love of dragons that has never faded to this day.

I felt little equivalent sense of connection to the princesses themselves.

I was too young, however (far too young) to have any idea why these stories didn’t quite mesh. Why I loved dragons but not unicorns. Why I was more interested in the ‘evil’ women who were out there scheming and acting than the ‘good’ girls who existed simply to have things done to them or for them. Cursed, rescued, married.

Then, I read one of those books that would change everything for me.

The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I had not yet read A Wizard of Earthsea, which in hindsight strikes me as almost miraculous in its own right given how I searched out books with dragons on the covers as a child (note: I confess I still do this). So I started out of order, with the second book in the series, with the book that so many others liked less because it stopped focusing on the main character they loved so much and instead focused on someone new, female, and perhaps not even that “likable.” (It was a sharp turn I would unintentionally echo with the second book in my own series, and with much the same reaction from readers.)

Tenar was imperfect and flawed, brittle and young, trapped in service to an evil god. In any piece of Western mythology, she would have been either a villain or the naive beauty seduced by the hero in order to escape. The story would never center on her. And yet, in this brilliant, miraculous story, it does. She is notably white, but that whiteness is not framed as a positive — something I had before that moment never encountered either.

Rather than seduce her physically, Ged encourages her to open her eyes and seek out the truth herself. He makes no move — none at all — to try to turn their relationship into a romantic one. (In much later books it will be revealed that this is less a testament to Ged’s gentlemanly nature than because he was essentially locked in a state of perpetual prepubescence, incapable of experiencing sexual interest. Rather than this being a statement of asexuality, it’s magical in origin, and when that block is removed much later in his life, he and Tenar do indeed turn their relationship into both a highly romantic and highly sexual one.)

But back to me, childhood, and how this book kicked over the first of the dominoes. The idea that Tenar might be the one with power, the idea that this power wouldn’t necessarily be a benevolent thing — that a woman with power might not necessarily be any better, gentler, or more perfect than a man with power — was heady stuff to a nine-year-old. It was a period in my life where I was being bullied, horribly bullied, and nursed a hatred for my tormentors that blazed with incandescent rage. I needed someone to tell me that I could still be in the wrong even if I had myself been wronged. I needed someone to point out that trauma in and of itself is neither entitling nor ennobling. Ursula K. Le Guin did that for me, even if it took decades before I fully understood the message.

It’s not as negative as it may sound. For, you see, if women are just as capable of men of being unworthy to give power, just as cruel, just as tyrannical, then it meant we were just as undeserving of rescuing, of pedestals, of towers. We didn’t need to be protected or coddled. Sometimes people need to be protected from us. If we’re like this, doesn’t that too mean that men can be kind, gentle, tender? That we are, in fact, equal?

I think of this every time someone suggests that SFF books don’t really matter, that SFF books by women, don’t really matter. How powerful it is to look at a book and for the first time see yourself reflected back as someone you would like to be, rather than as someone society has told you that you’re required to be.

It matters a lot.

Photo of Jenn Lyons
Photo Credit: Matthew & Nicole Nicholson, Dim Horizon Studio
Jenn Lyons lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, three cats and a nearly infinite number of opinions on anything from Sumerian mythology to the correct way to make a martini. Lyons traces her geek roots back to playing first edition Dungeons & Dragons in grade school and reading her way from A to Z in the school’s library. Formerly an art director and video game producer, she now spends her days writing fantasy. In 2020, she was nominated for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her five-book Chorus of Dragons fantasy series begins with The Ruin of Kings.