Things I Would Like to See More of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 3

Heroic female dragons.

Not everyone likes dragons. They’ve fallen slightly out of favor of late, with a number of writers and readers pointing to them as the chief example of overused classic-fantasy stock characters that the genre as a whole should move beyond. That a fair number of fantasy writers are laying dragons aside and seeking out less well known yet no less fascinating mythical beasts to include can only help the genre stay fresh and inventive. Yet dragons aren’t going away anytime soon. They’ll be a fantasy staple as long as readers like me exist. I can sympathize with the reasoning of those who dislike dragons, but darn it, I love them. And while, with their great, strong wings and fiery breath, they make splendid villains, I have a soft spot for those who use their awesomeness for Good.

Yet I have a quibble. While heroic dragons are fairly plentiful in the current fantasy landscape, it seems at least 80% of those dragons are male.

Who are the most recognizable dragons in the Disney cinema canon? The big, clumsy, loyal, lovable male Elliott of Pete’s Dragon, who protects a young boy from danger, and the monstrously evil shapeshifted female Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty, who threatens to decimate a valiant hero. In her famous Temeraire series, Naomi Novik pits her magnificent though child-like dragon hero Temeraire against the vengeful dragon villainess Lien. In Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton’s The Elvenbane and Elvenblood, good-hearted male dragon Keman must do battle with his wicked sister, Myre, and has to goad his ice-cold mother into doing the right thing. Lackey’s series The Enduring Flame, co-written with James Mallory, also juxtaposes a heroic male dragon (or at least, an ally of the heroes) with a villainous female. Melanie Nilles does the same in her novel Legends. Diana Wynne Jones’ entertaining Dark Lord of Derkholm also features a male and female dragon, and again, the male plays a major heroic role, while the female, though not out-and-out evil, is depicted as vain and unlikable and gets very little page time.

Then, of course, we have quite a few paranormal romances that feature dragon shifters, as this Goodreads list makes clear. In at least nine out of every ten — probably even more than that — the shifter is male, and his love interest is a human woman. Then we have stories that leave female dragons out of the picture altogether. With only one exception I can think of, and that exception lamentably bad (the screen adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon), the “last dragon” in movies and television shows is invariably male. In George R.R. Martin’s famous saga A Song of Ice and Fire, all dragons are male, as if the very idea of the dragon were inherently masculine.

Where are the dragon heroines?

There are a few, but you have to sift through an ocean of heroic males in order to find them. Anne McCaffrey’s Ramoth (Dragonflight) and Zaranth (The Skies of Pern) certainly deserve mention. The most enjoyable is probably Kazul, the female who fights to claim the title of King (not Queen) of the Dragons, and proves a loyal friend to a wayward princess, in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles (beginning with Dealing with Dragons). E.E. Knight also presents readers with a dragon heroine, the complex Wistala, in his Age of Fire series. Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon Chronicles and Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters series also feature sympathetic female dragons, but unlike Ramoth, Zaranth, Kazul, and Wistala, they are strictly animal in intelligence. Saphira in Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle may be impressive, but Paolini’s work lacks the polished prose and the creative world-building that would draw me to it. Rachel Hartman does a better job in her YA novels Seraphina and Shadow Scale, particularly the latter, in which two dragon heroines play significant supporting roles. Kitten, the female dragonet who features in Tamora Pierce’s Immortals series, is also engaging. Yet despite good examples, dragon heroines are so vastly outnumbered by dragon heroes that they have a lot of catching up to do.

As a long-time dragon lover, I’m doing my part in my own writing, telling my own stories of dragon heroines. At DragonCon 2013, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company gave the premiere performance of my play In Need of a Bard, which features a female dragon in a heroic role; formerly a princess, she was bewitched into her current form by a jealous stepmother, but she loves the change, calling it the best thing ever to happen to her, since she can battle the evil forces that beset her world far more effectively than before. In “Firegale at the Festival,” my offering for Gilded Dragonfly BooksLegends of the Dragon, Vol. 1, the dragon heroine is tasked with learning everything humankind has to say about dragons, so every year she assumes human shape and goes to DragonCon. She may not battle evil on a large scale, but her generous spirit shines through as she takes a couple of Con-going newbies under her (ahem!) wing.

At a couple of points in her story, Firegale contemplates writing a novel. I think of my brand-spanking-new project All Color as the novel she might have written, the story of a dragon who loves humans (female) and a human who loves dragons (male), friends who must venture beyond their mutual comfort zone when the theft of a talisman traps the dragon in human form. I can’t say more, since I am just beginning the first draft and untold twists and turns may lie ahead. But I look forward to the time I’ll spend in my heroine’s head.

Interview with Brad Strickland

Today’s guest is acclaimed and prolific author Brad Strickland.

Brad has had quite an impact on me. It was he who first put into my head the idea of going to my first DragonCon in 2003, after which my life was never quite the same. He introduced me to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company and generously served as beta reader for a number of my plays for the group. He’s been kind, supportive, an all-around mensch, and I’m glad to have the chance to share some of his words with you.

Me: Biography/ work history?

Brad Strickland: I’m a native of New Holland, Georgia. It’s a mill village and I grew up there, though my maternal grandparents were farmers, and I spent lots of time on the farm with them, too. I have a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Georgia and did postdoctoral study in the literature of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For over 35 years I taught English, primarily at the University of North Georgia (formerly Gainesville State College). In 2014 I retired and my wife Barbara and I moved to Snellville, Georgia, to be closer to our first grandchild, Elora Sweeney. I began writing while still in high school and sold my first short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine when I was about sixteen. For a time I taught in Georgia’s annual Governor’s Honors Program, and a fellow teacher there–in science, not English–got me interested in writing science fiction. I sold a number of stories to the four big SF magazines of the day and as a result, an agent, Richard Curtis, got in touch with me and urged me to write a novel. I did, he sold it, and since then I’ve written eighty-odd in all, not all under my own name!

Me: As a writer and a reader, what is your favorite thing about speculative fiction?

Brad Strickland: The fantasist and mystery writer John Bellairs said it best: With this kind of writing, you can let your imagination run wild! I like the exciting “what ifs” about this kind of storytelling, but I also like the discipline that it takes to control a magical story. Magic has to have rules–if anything can happen in a story, then nothing much is interesting about it. There must be limits. As Robert Frost said about free verse, there’s no fun in playing tennis with the net down. So world-building, setting up a convincing society, creating defined technologies or systems of magic–this is all part of the creative process for speculative fiction. I stand in awe of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created a world, various races, and five or six languages–legitimate though imaginary languages, each with its own vocabulary and grammatical rules–before writing The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Me: Which of your works are you proudest of, and why?

Brad Strickland: My favorite book of my own doesn’t fall in the speculative fiction category. It’s When Mack Came Back, a historical YA novel about life on a North Georgia farm in the last year of World War II. I put a lot of my childhood memories in it–though I’m not quite that old–and the farmhouse is my grandpa’s farmhouse, the dog in it is one of his dogs, incidents in the book are based on ones that happened to me, and so on. I don’t think it’s nostalgic, but it does a good job, I think, of capturing the feel of a certain place and the people who inhabit it.

Another of my favorites is Wicked Will, a YA mystery in which a twelve-year-old William Shakespeare turns amateur detective to solve a murder that occurs in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had a lot of fun working echoes–or maybe foreshadowings–of a great many Shakespeare plays into that one.

Me: Who are some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy authors, and why?

Brad Strickland: Ray Bradbury, first of all, because he stirred my imagination when I was a kid. Loved The Martian Chronicles–science fantasy rather than strict science fiction–and even more Something Wicked this Way Comes. Bradbury had a poet’s ear and a reporter’s eye and the people in his stories take on a life of their own, with a style, a bounce, and depths that are hard to match.

For spooky stuff, Arthur Machen, whose tales evoke a sense of wonder–there’s a whole unsuspected universe whose laws are not our laws, just on the other side of a thin veil…and when the veil is parted, terrible things come through! To just a slightly lesser degree, H.P. Lovecraft, though his deliberately archaic prose style I find now less enthralling than it seemed when I was a teen.

Tolkien, of course, for the epic sweep of his stories, the sense of grandeur–anchored by the humble hobbits. Good lesson there–For all the magic and wonder you create, touch your foot to the earth now and again to remind us of the enduring human values.

Me: What would you like to see more of in speculative fiction?

Brad Strickland: Bigger paychecks for those of us who write it!
Oh–well, I’d like to see more optimism. I find too much fantasy cynical and dark these days. A little light would help, I think!
(I agree completely.)

Me: What would you like to see less of in speculative fiction?

Brad Strickland: Corollary of the above: I am sick and tired of vampires, whom I find boring. Vampire fiction feeds on itself–and the movies. Little if any of it takes any cognizance of the actual folklore about vampires; and if it did, we’d find they’re about as romantic as a rabid wolf. Lovecraft had an idea that writers should pursue–invent new creatures, new magics, alien and unknowable beings and realms.

Me: What advice would you give aspiring writers of science fiction and fantasy?

Brad Strickland: Don’t quit your day job–it’s very hard to break in.
Be true to your own vision and your own story. Don’t just imitate someone else–nobody but you can tell the story that you most want to read.
Avoid jumping on bandwagons. By the time you find a seat, the ride’s over; don’t write for trends. If baseball werewolves are big right now, by the time your book’s finished, the trend is over.
Don’t think editors are your natural enemies. You and an editor are on the same side: both of you are trying to get the best possible version of your story before the public.
As Sir Winston said, “Never give up. Never, never, never, never, never give up.”

Things I Would Like To See More of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 2

Villainesses who aren’t tall.

I never really paid much attention to people’s teeth until I got braces in the seventh grade, at which point I found I couldn’t stop noticing people’s teeth. Similarly, when Meliroc, my eight-foot heroine of The Nightmare Lullaby, rose in my mind to demand I bring her to life, I started to notice the treatment of height in fantasy characterization — specifically, how common it is for villainesses to be described as tall.

Most men are taller than most women, so tallness is coded as masculine. Pronounced height is practically a requirement for a hero involved in a romantic plot, Lois McMaster Bujold’s diminutive adventurer Miles Vorkosigan notwithstanding. Yet in a woman, tallness may be written as suspect, even scary. It seems almost obvious: how do you make a female character intimidating at first sight? Make her tall! Jadis the White Witch, from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, is described as breathtakingly beautiful but also seven feet tall, her height serving as a sign of her “unnaturalness” as a woman. Plenty of fantasy novelists follow Lewis’s example, using adjectives like “towering” and “statuesque” in their descriptions of femmes fatale. This turns up in quite a few stories I enjoy. The unsympathetic women of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, with one possible exception, are tall contrasts to the short, plucky heroine, the most nefarious of them all being another seven-footer.  In Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns, we have a wide range of female characters, but the most important ones we are clearly meant to like — the disguised soldier Winter, the active princess Raesinia, a Khandarai mage, and another disguised soldier — are all petite, while the tall women are, perhaps not out-and-out villainesses, but not quite trustworthy. The most evil of the women in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Cersei and Melisandre, are both described as tall, Melisandre unusually so; the big female knight Brienne at least gets to be heroic, but her height is presented as one of several factors that make her “freakish” and generally despised by most of the other characters with whom she comes into contact.

The contrast between the petite heroine (whose smallness automatically makes her an underdog to root for) and the statuesque villainess is also very common, and more literally visible, in movies and television: The Man from UNCLE, 50/50, Defiance, Galavant, Scandal, House of Cards (US version), Paddington, Tangled, Easter Parade, Singin’ in the Rain… there is scarcely a genre in which this doesn’t turn up. Even when the tall woman isn’t depicted as petty or evil (e.g. Sif in the Thor films), her loss in love to a smaller rival seems inevitable. The enduring omnipresence of the small heroine/ tall villainess contrast can have some interesting real-life ripple effects, as an article I read not long ago makes clear: when the defense attorney for accused child murderer Casey Anthony first met her, he was struck at once by how tiny she was, and he decided thereby that she could not possibly be guilty. So, apparently only a tall woman would murder her toddler daughter.

I am not calling for a decline in petite heroines. It’s wonderful to watch them decimate those who would dismiss them as “easy pickings,” as any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can attest. But for every petite girl who is tired of being underestimated, there is a tall girl who is tired of being perceived as “unfeminine” because she may have a few inches on many of the boys around her. In our understandable zeal to represent the former, how often do we ignore the latter? Perhaps we can do better by her if we break the knee-jerk association of female tallness with villainy and give petite ladies an occasional crack at being evil.

Tall heroines aren’t too hard to come by, especially if you’re a fan of Barbara Hambly, Patricia McKillip, and the great Kates, Elliott and Forsyth. Small villainesses are a bit trickier to find, but particularly good ones feature in Teresa Edgerton’s The Goblin Moon and The Gnome’s Engine, Zoe Marriott’s The Swan Kingdom, and Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, beginning with Range of Ghosts. The villainesses in these books are fun to watch because while they may appear delicately and harmlessly feminine, they use this perception to their advantage. Much like the petite heroines, these villainesses make their enemies regret underestimating them.

Things I’d Like to See More Often In Fantasy Fiction, Part 1

“Five Things I Love” will return, yet whenever I conduct an interview for this blog, one of my questions is always, “What would you like to see more of in fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction?” It’s only right and proper that I answer the same question, and here is the first of my replies.

Female leads who aren’t princesses.

What exactly is wrong with princesses? The biggest problem can be summed up in a single word: over-representation. Princesses are such a fantasy-fiction staple that it seems as if every other fantasy novel, or at least one of every three, features a princess as its most significant female character.

Sometimes a princess can indeed be a remarkable heroine. Two that stand out from my recent reading are Raesinia in Django Wexler’s The Shadow Throne and Ysandre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. Yet both these princesses are headed towards queenship. Knowledgeable and capable, they’re readying themselves to take hold of the reins of power, and much will depend on the wisdom of their decision-making. If this were more often the case, perhaps the overabundance of princesses would bother me a little less.

Yet most fantasy princesses aren’t preparing to rule as queens in their own right. Rather, they’re defined chiefly, if not exclusively, by their relationships to others — Kings’ daughters or Kings’ wives. Entirely too often, their main goal is to evade the politically advantageous matches into which their families would force them and find True Love far away from the houses of power. As in fairy tales, heroes’ bravery is rewarded with these princesses’ hands in marriage. They’re the door prize through which plucky commoners come up in the world. Great deeds are done in their names, yet they themselves do very little, serving as the passive embodiment of some ideal worth preserving or pursuing. It’s little wonder that the word “princess” itself conjures images of the helpless imperiled damsel with neither the wit nor the strength to act on her own — that, and flawlessly beautiful animated women in shiny voluminous ball gowns. Even take-charge heroines like Leia Organa from the original Star Wars trilogy can be diminished a little by that title.

Maybe princesses could become more interesting if they were fewer in number, and more of us fantasy novelists sought out other roles for heroines to play. I don’t propose “warrior” as the automatic alternative, even though I love a good warrior heroine. Between “warrior” at one extreme and “princess” at the other, there lies a wide spectrum of possibilities too rarely explored. Why, for instance, can’t we see a few female bards, minstrels, storytellers? Skilled healers are always welcome, as are artists, poets, scribes, herbalists, blacksmiths, cooks, weavers, seamstresses — characters who may not be as high-ranking as the princess but who actually do things. This web page is a possible resource for writers to consider when devising roles for their female characters, both major and minor. All I ask, as I’ve said before, is that whatever the heroine ends up doing, let her be good at it.

Five Things I Love about… Terry Pratchett

If we readers could have one wish, it might be that their favorite writers would always outlive them. We would love to enter our twilight years still eagerly expecting the next book in a really cool series we discovered fifty years ago. But of course that can’t happen. We’re bound to see authors we love pass on, and the stories of characters we love come to a permanent close. Now that Terry Pratchett has left us, and his final book, The Shepherd’s Crown, has appeared in bookstores, there will never be another novel of the Discworld. The regrettably mediocre Snuff is the last we’ll see of Sam Vimes, my favorite policeman in all literature. The last time I can recall being quite as sad about the departure of a pop culture icon was back in 1990, when pneumonia claimed the life of beloved Muppeteer Jim Henson.

Since Pratchett’s death, countless fantasy fans and fellow authors have paid tribute to the man and his work. Now I pay my own respects. Five things I love about Terry Pratchett:

His heroes are as interesting as his villains.

How many of us are tired as heck of the oft-repeated contrast between dishwater-dull heroes and charismatic, funny villains? (Raises hand) I suspect the difficulty a lot of fantasy writers have with bringing their good characters to vivid, complex life is partially responsible for the rise of Grimdark, a fantasy subgenre in which basically decent, admirable characters are left out of the story altogether. But you won’t find this irksome contrast in Pratchett’s best work. He doesn’t go for the anti-hero, like Mark Lawrence or Joe Abercrombie. Rather, he goes for the unexpected hero, the shlub we don’t see coming. Alcoholic misanthrope Sam Vimes will stand up for the mistreated and do the right thing even when he suspects it’s pointless. DEATH (if you don’t know why I’ve written it like that, please read Reaper Man and follow it up with Hogfather), in his efforts to comprehend humanity, becomes their champion as well. Those two make wonderful heroes precisely because they’re stuck in “dirty” jobs, and their efforts to do those jobs with integrity are a source of admiration as well as humor. Then we have the faultlessly pure-of-heart Captain Carrot, a staunch believer in the good in everyone. Plenty of comic writers would go for the easy laugh by holding him up to relentless ridicule and shattering his idealism again and again. Not Pratchett. He likes this character, and we like him too.

He writes splendid female characters.

I’ve only read two Pratchett novels — Moving Pictures and Pyramids — in which I didn’t love the heroine. Most of the time, his women are as quirky and complicated as his men. They’re funny in ways women don’t often get to be. His “Coven of Witches” series, beginning with Wyrd Sisters, features the formidable Granny Weatherwax, who would rather be a bad witch but turns out to be a good witch in spite of herself. (She’s as close as we get to a female Sam Vimes.) In the “Night’s Watch” series, starting with Men at Arms, we get Constable, later Sergeant, Angua, a werewolf who shows us that the monstrous feminine can also be the heroic feminine. In Guards! Guards!, really the first of the Night’s Watch novels, we meet Sybil Ramkin, a towering, big-boned woman who becomes Sam Vimes’s wife. (How awesome is it to see a big woman as a romantic heroine?) Sybil occupies a more “traditional” space than either Granny or Angua, yet she still surprises us with moments of awesomeness, proving as much a champion of the underdog, in her own big-hearted aristocratic way, as her husband; her simple but world-shaking actions at the end of Snuff actually make that distinctly-lesser-Discworld novel worth a read. These are just my three favorites. There’s also Eskarina Smith (Equal Rites), Renata Flitworth (Reaper Man), Susan Sto Helit (Soul Music, Hogfather, Thief of Time), Adora Belle Dearheart (Going Postal, Making Money), and most of the cast of Monstrous Regiment. Feet of Clay, the follow-up to Men at Arms, also features a wonderful female character that I can’t talk about because… Spoilers.

His Young Adult work is as funny and insightful as his work for adults.

In fact, it’s not all that easy to tell a clear difference between the YA novels that feature young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men, etc.) and the novels that center on Granny Weatherwax and her coven. Perhaps there’s less sexual innuendo, but that’s about it. In both his YA and his for-adults work, Pratchett respects his audience. The capable, hard-working Tiffany is ten times the heroine that any we’ll find in the pages of Twilight and its imitators could ever be. Also worthy of attention from readers of every age is The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a weird ribbing of the Pied Piper legend. It has a rat heroine! Of course I love that.

He played well with others.

By “others” I mean specifically Neil Gaiman, with whom he wrote Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. (Pratchett is one of the best at writing witches.) I put off reading this one because it isn’t set in the Discworld; it’s a contemporary fantasy, and I generally don’t care for those. A friend had to talk me into reading it, and for this he has my eternal gratitude. To give you an idea, Good Omens concerns an angel and a devil (who are besties), a witch, a witch-hunter, and a quartet of mischievous youths led by the Antichrist himself, who must find a way to stop the end of the world because humans are fun to have around. A funnier take on the Apocalypse has never been written and isn’t likely to be. It also features a car stereo that transforms any song into a hit by Queen. It makes sense when you read the book.

He blends satire with humanism.

Pratchett’s wit is razor sharp and his eye for the ridiculous nigh unmatched, but a nihilist he is not. You won’t find sentimentality in his work, but sentiment crops up in surprising places, and Pratchett understands the difference between those terms. His protagonists are characters, not one-joke caricatures, and their interactions with others are funny because they’re believable and believable because they’re funny. Human beings may be capable of great cruelty and even greater stupidity, but we also see their capacity for loyalty and love. Here’s a quote from Guards! Guards! in which Sam Vimes regards Lady Sybil Ramkin:

“She smiled at him. And then it arose and struck Vimes that, in her own special category, she was quite beautiful: this was the category of all the women, in his entire life, who had ever thought he was worth smiling at. She couldn’t do worse, but then, he couldn’t do better… She had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city.” (407)

That tells you much of what you need to know.

My favorite Pratchett novels:

Guards! Guards!, where we meet Vimes, Sybil, and Carrot.

Feet of Clay, in which the humanity of golems becomes an issue, and dwarf alchemist Cheery Littlebottom joins the Night’s Watch.

The Fifth Elephant, in which Sam and Sybil Vimes travel to the wilds of Uberwald, and werewolf cop Angua confronts her wild side.

Reaper Man, in which DEATH takes a holiday as hired hand for farmer Renata Flitworth, and we meet the zombie Reg Shoe, a Dead Rights activist who sports a “Glad to be Gray” badge.

Hogfather, in which DEATH plays Santa Claus, and his eminently practical and badass granddaughter Susan pursues an assassin.

Wyrd Sisters, in which Granny Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg, and Magrat Garlick take on Macbeth.

Good Omens, already discussed in some detail.

If you haven’t read these yet, what are you waiting for?

“Too Many Female Characters”

I’m currently in the midst of following a wonderful new second-world fantasy series, The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler. (Isn’t that the coolest name ever?) I raced through the first volume, The Thousand Names. I acquired the second book as quickly as I could, though I didn’t start to read it until the third book was safely released. Now I’m a third of the way through Book 2, The Shadow Throne.

There’s quite a bit to like about this series, and indeed I have plans to devote a “Five Things I Love” blog to it once I’ve finished Book 2. But my favorite thing, as those who know me well could easily guess, is its depiction of female characters. The Thousand Names features five women in important roles, three heroic and two villainous, all competent and intriguing individuals. One of them, disguised soldier Winter Ihernglass, has full-on protagonist status, and she’s very much a heroine to root for. In this novel we see both men and women kicking major butt alongside one another. It’s one of the clearest-cut examples of a book with cross-gender appeal I’ve seen in recent years.

The sequel, The Shadow Throne, turns female-character participation up to eleven, as the setting moves from a battlefield to a city where a mighty power struggle is underway. I’ve lost track of the number of female characters who have appeared in its pages so far. I’ll just say there are a lot of them, far more than I’m used to seeing in a second-world fantasy novel. Indeed, of the novels I’ve read in the past five years, only Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn and Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber match it for sheer quantity of female characters. In this case, quantity begets quality, as numbers lead to a pleasing diversity of personality among the cast of women. The central heroine, Winter, comes across as a unique and complex individual partly because she’s not called upon to stand alone as her gender’s sole representative.

It should have occurred to me that this might not be a good thing in the eyes of some fantasy fans. Yet I was taken by surprise when, in reading through some Goodreads reviews for the third book, The Price of Valor, one reviewer complained that it has “too many female characters.”

I only wish Saturday Night Live‘s Seth Meyer could have shown up at that moment. Really?!?! The reviewer, of course, was male, and I suppose he felt overwhelmed by all that estrogen. The presence of so many women made it hard for him to invest in the story, to “relate” to it. All I can say is he’s had a taste of what we female fans of epic and historical fantasy have had to put up with for years.

Fantasy fans who find the quantity of female characters in The Shadow Campaigns tough to take have plenty of other currently popular books and series to choose from, in which male characters dominate and women are few and far between. There’s Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. There’s Ryan’s Blood Song, McClelland’s Powder Mage trilogy, and Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. There’s Gwynne’s Malice and Liu’s The Grace of Kings. There’s anything written by K.J. Parker, Mark Lawrence, Paul S. Kemp, Barry Hughart, and R. Scott Bakker. And in case anyone thinks only male authors write male-driven fantasy novels, there’s Bear & Monette’s A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men, Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing, Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice trilogy, Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Some of these books might be quite good — The Goblin Emperor, in particular, has been highly praised by those whose opinion I trust — but about any one of them, a disaffected female reader might complain, “Too many male characters.” Even now, with both female authors and female fans more visible in the fantasy genre than ever, second-world fantasy novels in which the cast of characters, particularly important characters, is overwhelmingly male is still the rule, not the exception.

And maybe that’s the problem. Readers of fantasy have grown so used to stories in which male characters outnumber female characters, sometimes as much as fifteen to one, that a novel with a higher number of female characters feels “wrong.” If The Shadow Campaigns were the fantasy equivalent of Steel Magnolias, with male characters highly caricatured and shoved into the background, the reviewer’s complaint would carry substantial weight. But it isn’t. The men aren’t background noise. They have just as vital and interesting roles to play as do the women. Male and female characters both get to be awesome. How can that not be a good thing?

Don’t change a hair for me, Mr. Wexler. Keep right on turning out these riveting tales with “too many female characters.” In me you will find a fan for life.