From my bookshelf: warrior heroines

One thing I have yet to do, that I would very much like to do before much longer in my career, is create a warrior heroine, a powerful, capable fighter who does not flinch in combat situations and is far more likely to rescue others from mortal peril than to be rescued herself. The reasons why I haven’t tried my hand at such a heroine already are twofold. First, I don’t know enough about fighting and combat techniques to give realistic detail about such a character. This problem I could (and intend to) solve with a little research. The second reason is a bit harder to work around: while I may have a vague idea of the warrior heroine I would like to create, I don’t yet have a plot in which to put her. To write about a warrior heroine, I would have to write about war, and right now I don’t have a war story strong in my head.

Warrior heroines have been getting a rough time lately, I’ve noticed. Critics and reviewers tend to be hard on them. They claim there are too many of them in the fantasy genre, so many that they supposedly drive other kinds of heroines underground and leave us with the general impression that the only way for female characters to be capable and impressive is to “act like men.” What does that even mean? Warrior heroines get accused of being “men with boobs.” I used to think this criticism held some validity, but now I’m ready to call BS on it. It smacks of what I’ve heard called “gender essentialism,” the idea that certain characteristics are essentially masculine or feminine and are shared, to varying degrees, by all men or all women. This concept goes against my grain of individualism, and it compromises writers’ efforts to create the kinds of individualist characters (male as well as female) that I love reading about. I may not have much of the warrior in me — when conflict rears its head, I’m more inclined to look for a table to hide under — yet I delight in stories of women who thrive in that role.

The operative word in my title is heroines. I like my warrior women to be good, or at least have something resembling a working moral compass, a line they won’t cross. Lately I’ve run across certain fantasy novels and series that present female warriors as creatures to be dreaded and/or despised. They’re not always, or necessarily, bad books. Late last year I read a very engaging middle-grade fantasy adventure, Lou Anders’ Frostborn, which I liked in almost every way, except that its villains include a race/nation of statuesque Amazons who fly into battle mounted on wyverns and who are determined to make life as miserable as possible for the story’s heroine, Thianna. (I may have to give this one a pass, though, since Thianna herself, who is half frost-giant, stands poised to become a formidable warrior heroine herself as she grows up.) The first two volumes of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive also gave me much pleasure, except for the fact that while the society our heroes fight for has very strict gender roles, while their enemies in war — who may not be evil, but who nonetheless are out to destroy our heroes — have both male and female soldiers in their ranks.* In John Gwynne’s old-fashioned epic fantasy adventure Malice, one of the sympathetic soldier heroes suspects that an army of allies is not to be trusted due to the “unnatural” presence of women in their ranks. One young woman on the side of Good does try, bless her heart, to be a warrior, and does have a rudimentary skill or two, but alas, she’s an incompetent screw-up, and as a reader I’m left with the impression that her failures are the very things that make her acceptable as a heroine. If she could actually hold her own in a fight, she’d be too scary.

Would an otherwise talented fantasy creator really feel moved to make a heroine less competent in order to make her more likable? Well, it’s happened before. When the late TV producer Glen A. Larson took creative control of the sci-fi adventure Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, he decided that the tough fighter Col. Wilma Deering wasn’t appealing enough. He “solved” the problem by transforming her into a glorified flight attendant. That’s why I want to write my own warrior heroine — to do my own small part to avenge Wilma Deering, and other fighting heroines who may find themselves “chickified” as their writers reduce their abilities in order to make them more “relatable.”

When I read books that cast warrior women in a negative or unsympathetic light, it helps me to remember the courage and confidence of my favorite fighting heroines. Here are a few I’ve loved getting to know: Starhawk in The Ladies of Mandrigyn et. seq.; Sulien in Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace; Dhulyn Wolfshead in Violette Malan’s sadly underrated Dhulyn and Parno series, starting with The Sleeping God; the towering Bryndine Errynson and her fearless troupe of female soldiers in Ben S. Dobson’s also criminally underrated Scriber; romantic sword-wielder Meguet in Patricia McKillip’s The Sorceress and the Cygnet and The Cygnet and the Firebird; Harry in Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and Aerin in her The Hero and the Crown; and Kerowyn in Mercdes Lackey’s By the Sword. Far from thinking there are too many warrior heroines in fantasy fiction, I believe we could always do with a few more women like these. They aren’t “men with boobs.” They are themselves.

*I may have issues with the depiction of female fighters in The Stormlight Archive as enemies/villains, but I have to give Mr. Sanderson his due, since he is one of today’s male fantasy writers whom I like a great deal. First, his Mistborn series does center on a warrior heroine. Also, Words of Radiance, the second volume in The Stormlight Archive, does include one of the most gratifyingly feminist statements I have ever read in fantasy fiction: “I say there is no role for women — there is, instead, a role for each woman, and she must make it for herself. . . A woman’s strength should not be in her role, whatever she chooses it to be, but in the power to choose that role” (772) Granted, this does come from the point of view of one of his characters, but if Sanderson himself really feels this way, he definitely belongs in my pantheon of heroes. Sanderson, Brandon. Words of Radiance: Book Two of The Stormlight Archive. NY: Tor, 2014.

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