“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.

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