Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Like Nancy Drew, if Nancy Drew had a sex life and impaled people.

My wife, who eats novels like Sweet-Tarts, has recently bored through several series of fantasy novels with female protagonists. The other day, while finishing rereading The Atrocity Archives, I realized I couldn't say the same - in fact, I couldn't think of any books I read recently with women as the main characters. I've read several written by women, but even those primarily starred men.

That really bothered me. For one thing, I realized it was kind of boring. So I asked Kitty to suggest something to me from her collection.

"I think you'd like this series," she said, handing me Alanna: The First Adventure, the first part of the Song of the Lioness quartet. It was the edition I show here.

I stared at it. For those of you that can't see, imagine a Random House art director said "okay... so we want a painting of a girl dressed like a page, and her horse, okay? But the book is for girls. Make the horse look as girly as you can possibly make a horse look. I want it to bleed pink and shit rainbows, do you understand me? And I want the girl to glow purple. That's right, glow."

"The cover's a bit... fluffy," my wife said. "But the book's not at all."

I read the back cover. It described a girl who wants to be a knight, so she pretends to be a boy. She befriends the Prince, is very special, etc.

"So, you're pretty sure I'll like this?" I asked dubiously.

"Yes. Why?"

"There's a prince...."

"It doesn't go where you think it will, at all. It's very good."

And she was right. I entered with visions of Mary Sue going to Knight-School, being a natural at everything and winning the love of the Prince. What I found was a honest and sometimes brutal story about a very determined person. It never strays outside the bounds of Young Adult fiction, mind you, but it certainly surprised me. Alanna gets her bones broken by boys more than twice her size, deals with hiding menstruation and binding her breasts, and befriends a man who keeps ears as trophies. She does excel at most everything, but not easily - she spends weeks training in secret with a too-heavy sword in her off hand so she can best the others at fencing.

I've read halfway though the series, now, and it's only gotten better. It's also not the only series Peirce has published. I'd consider her novels required reading for anyone that enjoys fantasy, not only because they're good but because they're one of all too few examples of real female protagonists in the genre.

If any of you just thought "Hey, what about Red Sonja!" please go to the nearest Home Depot, ask for the sledgehammers, take off your left shoe and drop the largest hammer in stock on your big toe. That pain you feel? That's why people wore clothing in melee combat. Red Sonja's preferred dress was a chainmail bikini, meaning at best her body should look like a roadmap of LA and at worse a very scantily-clad corpse.

Red Sonja was for sticky-fingered boys. Alanna is for people.

(also, there are several editions, especially in the UK, that have much better cover art)


  1. Robert Parker's Sonny Randall novels are pretty uniformally terrific. I've had several female friends tell me they were creeped out that a male writer could write a first person protagonist so well.

  2. In the realm of FANTASY, though, I found Philip Pullman's novels (both that "His Dark Materials" series and the Sally Lockheart novels, to be very good with very strong female leads.

    Red Sonja...eh, she was a comic book character that Conan's creator Robert E. Howard never really did much of anything with in actual fantasy fiction. But I hear that the new series that's being put out by Dynamite is actually really good. But she's still, you know, a scantily clad action hero. Like a proto-Xena.

  3. Yeah, my girlfriend is a big Tamora Pierce fan, going back to her voracious middle school novel consumption. I haven't read any, but I'll take this as a second recommendation for me to put them on my library queue.

  4. Howard didn't do anything with Red Sonja in fantasy fiction, because he didn't create Red Sonja in the first place. Sonja was the creation of Roy Thomas, and in her early appearances, she actually wore armour - more armour than most of the men in the comics did, Conan included. It's only when Esteban Maroto decided to give her the mail bikini that she really started to go downhill.

    Howard's Red Sonya (with a Y) was a Russian adventurer of the 16th Century who appeared in one story, "The Shadow of the Vulture." Aside from being a beautiful redhead with a fiery temper, she has little in common with Red Sonja: no rape origin, she wore sensible armour, she got her swordplay skills through hard work instead of magical blessing, she was as lusty and boorish as most of her male companions.

    In any case, criticizing the "scantily clad" nature of Sonja as being unprotective neglects the fact that most *men* in the comics are about as poorly armoured as Red herself is. Heck, she's probably better armoured: most of the men just wear tunics and loincloths, and maybe a helmet if they're lucky. Of course, this isn't consistent, so occasionally you'll see big Red in her mail bikini going up against metal-encased hordes, and that is rather silly.

    I recommend you try out the Jirel of Joiry stories by C.L. Moore: a woman as the protagonist who is pretty realistic, if still clearly heroic in scope. 70 years after her creation, she's still one of the best female action heroes in fantasy fiction.

  5. Taranaich: Yeah, I realize Sonja is from the comics (but I didn't know the earlier incarnation was better armored). Not blaming her on Howard - but she seems to leap to many minds when the subject of women in fantasy comes up.

    As for the nature of her armor, I feel perfectly justified criticizing it regardless of what the other characters wore. She's not better armored than anyone - two scraps of mail are pointless. She might as well have worn cloth, which actually would have been more functional. She's wearing Not-Armor, which is worse than no armor because it makes blatantly clear that it's purpose is to turn on male viewers, not protect a single bit of her body.

    There are reasons not to wear armor - flexibility and speed being two. Zena's (who, I'll point out, had a large female audience) was deliberately sexy, yeah, but it also made a kind of sense - it protected the core of her body while leaving her a full range of motion. I'd actually be tempted to accept Red Sonja more if she were topless like a lot of the male characters - she wouldn't be any worse of protection-wise - except any woman with B-cups or larger, let alone the double-Es Sonja sometimes sports, will tell you that a lot of vigorous movement without serious support is very, very painful. Ideally, Sonja would bind her breasts down tight before getting into the thick of things (and if I were Conan, I think I'd do the same under that loincloth).

    Everyone: Thanks for the recs. I'll check them out. One of the things that set me on this topic was realizing that, while I could rattle of some strong women in novels I'd read, they were usually written by men, whereas my favorite female authors mostly wrote men. What's up with that?