Monday, April 18, 2011

I hate myself for loving you

Okay, so now that we've established that people of all sorts (including women) love reading fiction of all sorts (including epic fantasy), can we talk about how loving something does not mean we have to be blind to its faults?

I mean, I get that this is an awkward thing to bring up. We talk about how the geeks have inherited the earth, but we still get called fanboys. We feel grumpy because "our" books and authors don't get the big reviews, or nominated for the big awards. When we write a book about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies it's dismissed as derivative genre fluff, but when some refugee from the litfic camp wants to have a little fun, and writes about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies, they get a huge marketing campaign and a book tour, and praised for their blistering metaphorical examination of society, even though they had obviously never read anything about Unicorn Sparkle Zombies ever, and everyone knows Unicorn Sparkle Zombies burst into flame when they smell roses, they don't live in gardens, and by all the unholy elder gods, do some research, please!


Or something like that.

My point is, we know our genre in all of its permutations gets picked on. We all of us have always been the kid sitting alone at the lunch table. So we don't like to shine light in the dark corners  or ask where that funny smell is coming from because it feels like everyone else is doing that for us already, and we're tired, so tired, of just trying to be taken seriously.

But I love my genre, and I love the people who write in it. And I think we can do better.

I love epic fantasy. I always have. I started reading it because I read fast, and I didn't want to run out of things to read before the next trip to the library, so a big enormous doorstop of a book was exactly my kind of thing. Even better if there was a multibook series. But can anyone tell me any work of epic fantasy where the main character is a woman? (Seriously, can you? I might like to read it.)

Okay, so maybe not the main character. But how about a work where the women are actual characters that do things, that aren't just there to be the sex object, or love interest, or object of the quest, or the evil, seducing sorceress? There are some, if we broaden things that much, but not many. And certainly not equal to the amount of epic fantasy novels where there just aren't any female characters at all. (Note to writers: you have not actually created a female character if you've just slapped a woman's name on a body.)

And I wish I could say that this phenomenon was just some kind of manifestation of Sturgeon's Law, that there are real, active, women characters - sometimes even two or three! - in the good books. But I can't tell you how many times I've picked up the latest highly praised and award-nominated great new thing, and found that it's the old boys' club, all over again.

But, but... it's epic fantasy, you say. With you know, wars and medieval settings. Women weren't in wars! They barely existed in the medieval period! I'm just following the history. People say this, you know.

For those of you who say that, I have three words. Joan. Of. Arc.

Her life is the arc of the fantasy epic - nobody from nowhere who becomes the chosen savior of her people. With War! And History! A magic sword, even! (No, really.) (Joan was, until the nineteenth century, the most documented person in history.)

And it isn't just Joan. Women did things in the medieval era and before, up to and including fighting in wars, and leading their countries. Sure, not every woman did, but not every man did, either. Sure, a woman who did was exceptional, but  we don't write about people who aren't - the person who has a normal life, to who nothing ever happens, who never even hears of anything out of the ordinary? - we don't tell their story.

Moreover, you are writing fantasy. If you are trying to tell me you can imagine a wizard, but cannot conceive that a woman might be one, maybe the problem isn't with the source material. Maybe the problem is with you.

Women read epic fantasy. We love it. It would be nice if our genre loved us back.


  1. Women regularly cut their hair and went to war. In the case of Prince John's mother she didn't bother cutting her hair, she just went to war when husband got lax with his marital duties.

    I wonder how many women were edited out of history because they didn't fit someone's idea of proper behavior.

  2. I happen to be writing an epic fantasy series with a female main character. Maybe some day people might have a chance to read some of it.

    Loved this part: Note to writers: you have not actually created a female character if you've just slapped a woman's name on a body.

    Excellent post.

  3. Egads. I don't think I've ever given this proper thought. You are right.

    I can't think of an work of epic fantasy where a woman was the protagonist. I feel like I should be able to, Hmph.

    I'm going to link to your post tomorrow. Because this has made me think-y. (Totally not a word. But it should be.)

  4. Thanks, everyone. Glad you liked it, and I appreciate the thoughtful responses.

    M.J., Good luck with the series. I hope we get to read it, too.

  5. Great post, Kat! I think epic fantasy's lack of solid female protagonists lies behind the growth of the urban fantasy genre--it's packed to the gills with heroines who kick butt and crack wise.

    But now I think I need to go write an epic historical fantasy about Joan of Arc and her sword!

  6. Do, please! I love her so, and would love to see a really good fictionalization of her story from someone I respected.

  7. Yes, to all those things. We have a responsibility to *think* about the genres we read and write, and to do it from our insiders pov, so to speak.

    Also yes, once you scratch the surface, even I was amazed by how many badass women warriors, strategists, and soldiers have been consistantly overlooked. It's sheer laziness to claim otherwise.

    Personally, I've never gotten into epic fantasy, but it's a completely benign lack of interest. That said, have you read/heard of Gail Dayton's The Compass Rose? I haven't read it (yet) but it's been sitting on my shelf for a good while, after reading the Smart Bitches review --

    It was published and marketed as romance, but also seems to fit within the epic fantasy genre.


  8. I haven't read that one yet. When you do, I'd be interested to hear what you think.

    And yes, we do absolutely have a responsibility to think about what we read and write. Especially write, I think. All the parts of the story should be there for a reason.

  9. Two things have been brought to my attention. One is an author named Mercedes Lackey. I don't know anything about her novels. The second is an author named Anne McCaffrey. Again, I don't know anything about her, but I thought I'd pass along the info.

  10. I read a lot of Anne McCaffery -- particularly the Pern series -- when I was in high school... and while she does foreground female characters, there's a bit of unconscious... not full on *anti*feminism on her part, but there are some problems I missed as a kid. I think she recognized it too at some point and tried to correct it/explain/justify when she wrote the main prequel to the Pern series.

    She also seemed to have some odd ideas about gay relationships...

  11. C~

    Well, that is disappointing. Thanks for the heads up. :-) ~Ali

  12. James Enge's Morlock series has a male lead, but numerous female characters.

    And Charlie Stross' "Family Trade" novels feature a female lead. Although they aren't epic fantasy in the exact sense, because he turns them into SF when he gets to mechanics. Since they're modern analogs of Zelazny's Amber books, I count them as Fantasy.

  13. Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. I haven't read both of them yet, but she wrote it with a female protag.

    Although not really "epic" fantasy, but fantasy the Demon War series from R.A. Salvatore the female character seemed to take over in the second trilogy as the real protagonist. She evolved more than her male counterparts. Of course that was a long time ago, so memory may be skewed.

  14. Ah! Yes. Thank you for jogging my memory, Zombie Joe. I've even read the Jemisin books, and really liked them, especially Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

    (As a side note, I think I need to review the difference between "high" and "epic" fantasy, because I think I mentally slotted the Jemisin books, and some of the others that have been mentioned here into the first category.)

    So excited to see so many people talking about/ recommending books, too.

  15. Well, I had to do some research. Robert E. Howard wrote "The Shadow of the Vulture" ( and the Dark Afnes de Chatillon books (

    And there is the Jirel of Joiry series too (

    And it's not "epic" fantasy, but Lyra from Pullman's trilogy is a strong female lead charachter. Also stretching the limits of "epic fantasy" to include satyre, there's Polly Perks in Pratchett's "Monstrous regiment".

    Of course the fact that I have to research for obscure writings and/or accept a broader genre definition proves your point.

    I remember an interview with a comics publisher. He said that there wouldn't be strong, well-conceived female charachters unless women wrote, drew and bought their magazines. Maybe it's the same with fantasy. It's time to make yourself visible.

    Maybe one day you'll be able to apply Bechdel's Test to fantasy novels - and some of them will even pass the test!

  16. Marcos! Thanks for the research.

    And I agree with the interview you quote, as well as your statement "It's time to make yourself visible." I think it's tricky now, because things tend to be recursive - not everyone, but too many people think the lack of strong, well-conceived female characters means that books don't need them in order to succeed, so why push for them? Or the ugly converse - books with those characters *won't* succeed, so why publish them?

    But I also believe that the more of us who ask for those books, and who write them, the more people will realize there is an audience, and those stories will be told.

  17. Grrr! Blogger just sent my eloquent, incisive comment into the ether. I don't have the brains to be eloquent and incisive twice in one evening!

    Female-fronted fantasy:

    Laurie J Marks, the Elemental Logic series
    Barbara Ann Wright, The Pyramid Waltz

    The rest of my comment in note form:
    - internet + ebooks + easy self-publishing = more material for "niche" audiences
    - me = lesbian, likes scifi, fantasy
    - 20 years ago: no lesbian specFic (possible exception: some Jeanette Winterson)
    - now: loads of lesbian specfic
    - fan fiction and short stories
    - ebooks
    - quality varies but the same is true in mainstream published fic, plus tastes vary
    - 20+ books on my to-read list, can discard a book without worrying
    - result: happy me!