When I tell people I write fantasy romance, I quite often get sniggery little responses like, “But isn’t all romance fantasy?” (Well, sunshine, if you’re what real life has to offer then yes, it is). Talk about women in fantasy and you get equally predictable responses about fantasy women. No, it’s not about whichever airbrushed babe currently floats your boat. It’s about women in fantasy fiction. Pay attention.
The first fantasy books I ever read—and still my favourites—are by Terry Pratchett. Pratchett writes great women. I defy anyone, male or female, to come up with a greater creation than Granny Weatherwax. He can write a hot babe like Angua, who’s feisty and smart and looks great in armour, but who has a slight problem with turning into a wolf at the full moon and is constantly battling the urge to be more like a dog and roll over to have her belly tickled by any alpha male she comes across.
And speaking of wolves, let’s talk about Game of Thrones (if you haven’t seen any of it, go back and watch from the start. Trust me. You haven’t a hope in hell of detangling what’s going on otherwise). Now, from one angle the series looks like typical fantasy, with lots of fighting and ‘my lord’ing left right and centre, and gorgeous chicks in medieval gowns with flowing hair and perfect complexions. But look a bit closer at those women. What do you see?
We’ll start with Daenerys. Gorgeous, often partially-clad Daenerys, who features in a helluva lot more posters than anyone else. Some people can’t stand her, but I don’t reckon ‘being too beautiful’ is a good reason to dislike anyone. To begin with, yes, Dany is a bit insipid. She’s a teenage girl (13 at the start of the first book, but aged up a bit for the TV series) who has spent her life in contradictions: being told that she’s a princess and people should worship her…but not actually having any people to do said worshipping.
She also suffers the fate of many royal women throughout history: there are a lot of comparisons drawn between Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses, which also featured as a main player one Margaret Beaufort, who was married at 12—yes, twelve—and a widow with a baby by 13. Like Margaret, Dany is basically a piece of property to be bargained over by her male relatives. Sold off to a barbarian king in return for the promise of an army. Poor Dany’s world view is coloured first by her (quite splendidly vile) brother, and then by her husband, who has a penchant for raping her in public. But then something interesting happens with Dany. Her husband might actually be a barbarian, but his people expect his wife to behave like a leader. They expect her to be fearsome. And Dany, who is after all just a teenage girl who’s always done what she’s told, does just that.
There’s been some condemnation for her Stockholm Syndrome behaviour with her husband—Dany asks a former pleasure slave to teach her how to please him–but really, what are her options? Leave him? Starved Dany, or possibly shot-in-the-back Dany. Fight him? Kill him? Dead Dany. Submit to him? Unhappy Dany. Teach him how to make love to her instead of raping her? Bingo. He’s a lot nicer to her, and his people start to respect her too. Clever Dany. It’s the first step on her road to becoming a very powerful woman indeed. Dany doesn’t give up, and she will do whatever she has to in order to secure her future: making bad bargains, threatening people with dragons, pretending to be a silly teenage girl, and thus vastly underestimated.
Note: this sort of thing is easier if you have your own dragons.
Then there’s Cersei Lannister. Oh, don’t we all love to hate Cersei? Evil Cersei who cheats on her husband, and pretends that her three children are his when it’s obvious they’re not. Evil! But okay, look. Cersei’s been married off (at a young age, which seems to be the fashion) to this great big boar of a man who makes no particular secret of the many other women he beds; or in fact the children he sires by them. So why should we condemn her for infidelity? All right, there’s the sticky subject of who she cheats with. There’s no getting round this one: an incestuous relationship with your own twin brother is really not going to look good, whatever light you paint it in. But as far as Cersei’s concerned she’s just keeping it in the family. She loves her brother, she loves her children, and she’ll do anything for them. And I mean anything.
Cersei has realised something very important. In a world where a woman’s place is in someone’s bed—whether it’s a four-poster in the king’s palace or a flea-infested straw bag in a whorehouse—her sexuality is the greatest weapon she has, and she has chosen how to wield it. She has taken control of it, just as Daenerys took control of hers. Every single woman in Game of Thrones is trying to survive in a man’s world, a world of war and cruelty and bloodshed, and the choices they face are unpalatable at best. Simply taking the moral high ground isn’t an option—look what happens to the brave and noble Stark family (I won’t spoil it for you, but here’s a heads-up: if you’re in any way decent in this world, you’re probably going to die).
As Cersei says: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
Kate Johnson’s new book, Impossible Things, is out now in ebook and paperback. It’s about a woman who is very much trapped in a man’s world, and how she comes to deal with that:
How many impossible things can you believe in?
Ishtaer is a mystery. A blind slave, beaten and broken by her sadistic mistress, with no memory of a time before her enslavement.
Kael Vapensigsson is one of the elite Chosen—a Warlord whose strength comes from the gods themselves. But despite all his power and prestige, he is plagued by a prophecy that threatens to destroy everything he loves.
When Kael summons Ishtaer to his room and discovers the marks of the Chosen on her body, including the revered mark of the Warrior, both Warlord and slave seem to have met their match.
But as their lives become increasingly entangled and endangered, Ishtaer is forced to test whether the Chosen ever have the ability to choose their own fate.
Kate Johnson is a prolific writer of romantic and paranormal fiction. Kate is Choc Lit’s youngest author and lives near Stansted, Essex. She is a self-confessed fan of Terry Pratchett, whose fantasy fiction has inspired her to write her own books. Kate worked in an airport and a laboratory before escaping to write fiction full time. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and has previously published short stories in the UK and romantic mysteries in the US. She’s a previous winner of the WisRWA’s Silver Quill and Passionate Ink’s Passionate Plume award.
Her first UK debut novel, The UnTied Kingdom was shortlisted for the Contemporary Romantic Novel Category Award in 2012. It also won an online Best Book Award.
3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Women in Fantasy by Kate Johnson”
Great post. I hadn’t thought about either Dany or Cersei in that way, but I think you’re right. Sansa Stark is also learning the Cersei way…. I do love GoT for giving us Arya too, who is one of my favourite characters, and the one if I had read this as a child (if it were suitable for children) I would have wanted to be, and still do. I like Catelyin Stark too, prepared to betray her son for love of her daughters. And Brienne, Brienne’s great!. Sooo many good strong female characers in this. And I totally agree about Granny Weatherwax and Terry Pratchett. There’s a line about the tedium of ironing in Monstrous Regiment which I wouldn’t have believed could have been written by a man…
Fantastic guest blog. It sold me on the book. I’m off to buy and add to my TBR pile.
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