“We’re to be friends, you and I.” So Pierpon, a nightmare pixie punished with corporeal form for not being frightening enough, tells Meliroc, an albino giantess geas-bound into servitude to a succession of sorcerer masters. In the opening chapter of The Nightmare Lullaby, my forthcoming follow-up to Atterwald, she rescues him from freezing to death in a snow-bank, and thereafter they become inseparable. Each is a bright spot in the other’s life; while she teaches him to love music, he opens her eyes to her own capacity for goodness. She falls in love with another character later in the story, but her friendship with Pierpon remains a vital element, just as crucial to her progress as the romance, if not more so. He is, as she says, “like foot or hand or eye… as agonizing to lose.”
The bond between tiny Pierpon and towering Meliroc is my effort to create something I always love to see, and don’t see nearly enough of, in fantasy fiction, or any kind of fiction for that matter: a genuine friendship between a male and a female character. Story after story seems bent on confirming Harry Burns’ (When Harry Met Sally) hypothesis that men and women can’t really be friends without “the sex part” getting in the way; men and women are shown as unable to relate to or interact with each other in any way other than sexually or romantically. Healthy relationships between fathers and daughters or brothers and sisters tend to be scarce. (Oddly enough, mother/son relationships turn up a bit more often, perhaps because so many stories are written by male authors who honor their mamas.) “Friendships” between unrelated male and female characters tend to be written as the first step on the road to romance, or suppressed sexual desire, or the unrequited-love relationship commonly called “friend-zoning” these days. With Meliroc/Pierpon, as well as with the bond Nichtel manages to forge with the stoic gardener Ailbe in Atterwald, I wanted to challenge the notion that male and female characters can be important to each other in only one way. Naturally I seek out other stories that present a similar challenge.
One of the best novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading on my Kindle in the two years I’ve owned it is Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber, which tells the story of a male protagonist on the verge of a crucial historical/magical discovery. He is protected by a troop of female soldiers, a refreshingly varied lot. Of course he eventually falls in love with one of them, but she’s not the only one who matters to him. The two relationships he forges that stand out as most important have no romantic aspect at all. One of the soldiers has a scholarly bent and would love to be a Scriber like the hero (who in the fullness of time does earn that term), and he takes it upon himself to mentor her. Another, the leader of the troop and the book’s female lead, starts out as a thorn in his side, but over the course of the story, she becomes his hero. Indeed, he learns the true meaning of heroism from her.
I’ve mentioned Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn in previous blogs because its heroine, Starhawk, is one of my favorite characters. Her “friendship” with her commander, Sun Wolf, is indeed the first step on the road to romance, but it is through an actual friendship with another woman, Sheera, that Sun Wolf realizes what Starhawk really means to him. At the book’s outset, Sun Wolf is much less sympathetic than Starhawk. In fact, he’s a bit of a jerk. But when he’s shanghaied by Sheera into training her and her fellow townswomen in the art of combat, so they may defend themselves against an invading army while their men are away, he’s wrenched out of his comfort zone. That, of course, is when he learns. A less interesting novel would have shown Sun Wolf and Sheera falling in love. Instead, as Sun Wolf comes to like and respect Sheera and her friends, he becomes the kind of man his real love, Starhawk, deserves.
Juliet Marillier’s most recent book, Dreamer’s Pool, tells the story of Blackthorn, a gifted healer embittered by brutal treatment at the hands of a powerful man. She’d rather go it completely alone, but in exchange for breaking her out of her unjust imprisonment, a fey exacts a promise from her that she will never refuse a cry for help. The first such cry she hears is from a fellow escapee, Grim, and the help he wants is her friendship. She accepts him grudgingly at first, but in time she comes to value his loyalty and his rough-hewn kindness, and eventually she sees him as indispensable. He can see her goodness when she herself is blind to it. Through him, she finds new faith in herself and in people in general. Theirs is a strong friendship that needs no romantic element to make it incredibly touching.
A few other stories I’ve enjoyed, in which a friendship between a male and female character plays a prominent role, include J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Lou Anders’ Frostborn, Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall of Pern series, Mark Anthony’s Beyond the Pale, and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
“Meliroc and Pierpon,” art by Kaysha Siemens