Today, we want to give a big welcome to Jia as our guest poster. Jia reviews for Dear Author, and reviews books in the Fantasy, Speculative Fiction and YA genre. Jia is a big fan of fantasy books, and today she’s writing about heroines in fantasy. To see Jia over at DA, please click on this link.
Heroines in Fantasy
As someone who spent large swaths of her childhood watching She-ra and Jem, it should come as a surprise to exactly no one that when I pick a book to read, 99% of the time it has a speculative element. Of the various speculative fiction genres, fantasy is my overall favorite and within that, traditional fantasy is where it’s at as far as I’m concerned. I guess that makes sense, considering the whole She-ra obsession as a little girl.
Compared to a lot of my peers, I discovered fantasy in relative isolation. My parents weren’t big readers so I never really learned the “canon” of science fiction and fantasy through them. No Asimov, no Heinlein, none of that. Not even Lord of the Rings. My exposure to these works came far later in life. It sounds strange but I’m grateful for that. I don’t think I would be the type of reader I am today, with the kind of interests I have today, if I had.
Instead I was introduced to the genre by my friends. When I was in middle school, the popular fantasy trope at the time was animal companion books. That meant Anne McCaffrey with her dragons and Mercedes Lackey with her telepathic white horses. I was never able to develop the love for the Pern books that my friends did but oh, how I loved the Valdemar books.
And for me, it wasn’t so much the animal companion trope. I could take that or leave it. It was the fact that in so many of Lackey’s books, the female character was the lead. She was awesome. She carried her own story. Then and now, the quickest way for me to pick up a fantasy book is to put a woman on the cover. Preferably fully clothed. Many of the Valdemar books did exactly that. That’s how I discovered Tarma, Kethry, and Kerowyn, who to this day remain some of my favorite female characters of fantasy.
From there it spiraled outwards to authors like Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Tanya Huff. Sure, I picked up some Dragonlance and David Eddings. I’d read those books, find myself more interested in the female supporting characters and invariably end up frustrated because we kept going back to the male lead and not spending time with the characters I was interested in.
It wasn’t until I was older that I made the connection and realized why. I’d been spoiled by She-ra. Here was a fantasy story featuring a female protagonist, who had a serious character arc. She used to be a bad guy! She became the leader of the rebellion against the tyrant she used to serve under! She drove the plot. Better still, she wasn’t the only female character. Most of the cast was female with only a few token guys. How’s that for a reversal?
Ironically, it wasn’t until college that I realized what a boys’ club the fantasy genre can be. I’d sadly outgrown the Valdemar books — I still read them for nostalgia, but it’s not the same as when I was 14, unfortunately. Melanie Rawn was in between books and in fact appeared to be struggling with the conclusion to her Exiles trilogy, The Captal’s Tower. (Little did I know that The Captal’s Tower would never come out and still has not to this day.) But I love fantasy and wasn’t about to give up on it, so I picked up some new-to-me authors to give them a try.
Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams… These authors excelled at the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. But it wasn’t the same. I still wanted that focus on the female characters. I wanted her fully fleshed out story. Not as the love interest, the damsel in distress, or the sidekick. I wanted her agency and goals, independent of the (typically) male protagonist. I wanted multiple female characters, not just the token woman who ends up having to represent the entire gender or worse, the polar opposites who hold up the Whore/Madonna Dichotomy.
It’s no coincidence that of the authors I discovered during that time period, the one I still love with no reservations is Michelle West. Her Sun Sword series showed me that epic fantasy could have its cast of thousands be populated with many strong, different women. That’s truly my favorite thing about her books: the variety of female characters. You can’t reduce them to the warrior, the princess, or the sorceress. Not really. They also proved the fact that you can be a powerful woman without having to lift a single finger in a fight. You can’t tell me that Teresa di’Marano and Diora en’Leonne are forces to be reckoned with, and those two were the epitome of femininity in the context of their world.
But the disparity in number of traditional fantasy novels about men and those focusing on women bummed me out. It’s not that all of those books that disappointed me were poorly written. They weren’t. They just didn’t have what I was looking for. In fact, there was a time when I considered giving up on the genre because I could not find what I wanted to read.
Luckily, that didn’t happen because I discovered Anne Bishop. And while I have some criticisms about her books, I’m glad I stumbled across the Black Jewels novels. They were different from the fantasy novels I’d been reading at the time. They reminded me that the story wasn’t always about the guys. It didn’t have to be. It didn’t need to be. Even if the POV character was a man, the focus could still be on a woman.
If there’s one thing I’m grateful to Anne Bishop for, it’s that her books kept me reading fantasy. If I had given up on that genre, I would have missed out on Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, which came out only three years after that. That would be a tragedy of epic proportions. Jacqueline Carey isn’t for everyone, but I love her books. Even when they don’t work for me, I enjoy what she does and how she plays with the established tropes of the genre.
In some ways, it’s tough to be a female reader of traditional fantasy who wants books focusing on female characters. Those books are often overshadowed by other titles that hold up the status quo. Don’t get me wrong. I think The Name of the Wind is an excellent book but there’s no getting around the fact that it is, essentially, a male adolescent power fantasy that doesn’t really do anything new with the genre.
Meanwhile, if a book focusing on a female character makes a big splash, there’s controversy and don’t be surprised if it polarizes the fantasy readership. If there’s a romantic subplot, forget it. It will get dismissed as “just” a romance, and don’t even get me started on how problematic that argument is. One only need look back at when Kushiel’s Dart was first published. While the BDSM and kink aspects did indeed polarize the readership, there was also a large amount of criticism about it being a glorified romance novel. It wasn’t and even if it were, I don’t see how that’s a problem. But these issues arise again and again within the genre and its readership.
Despite all that, I’m excited about the fantasy genre of today. We have authors like Amanda Downum and N.K. Jemisin to carry the torch and keep me interested. I also think the boom of urban fantasy featuring female protagonists has bled over in the traditional fantasy. Maybe more slowly than I’d like but the effect is there. There’s been a recent push to write about multicultural worlds and settings, to be more inclusive and go behind the faux-medieval Europe paradigm and as an Asian-American, I find that extremely exciting. I like to think that the popularity of modern YA, which has also begun to include more and more traditional fantasy itself, will have its effect upon the genre — streamlining narratives and quickening the pace. I can’t be the only one who thinks the leisurely, sometimes plodding pace of traditional epic fantasy often serves as a barrier to readers new to the genre. I love intricate, well-done worldbuilding but there can be such a thing as too much.
So while the genre isn’t without its flaws and there is definitely room for improvement, it remains my favorite for a reason. No other genre can bring me that sense of wonder, while also bringing the action and plot and romance. And while it can be hard to find that female-focused fantasy titles, featuring those amazing female protagonists, they do exist. You just have to know where to look. And maybe ignore those haters from the boys club along the way. There are plenty of people like me that you won’t need them.