Often, how much I enjoy a good SFF adventure will have a lot to do with whether the female lead “saves the day” — that is, how instrumental a role she plays in solving the book’s central problems. Where is she at the climax, and what is she doing? Is she off stage, tucked away in a place of safety? Is she passive, observing the crucial events from a distance? Is she incapacitated and rendered helpless? Or is she in the thick of the action, mixing it up with the bad guys in some form or fashion? So many novels have been ruined for me by a heroine’s ineffectuality or even irrelevance at crunch time. Likewise, I’ve found myself on the fence about some novels, only to become their champion when the heroines prove their worth at the climax.
Two recent reads, each brilliant in its own way, have brought this issue to the forefront of my mind.
Stiletto (Daniel O’Malley)
The Rook, the first volume of O’Malley’s “Checquy Files” series, overcame my usual dislike of contemporary fantasy to the point of becoming one of my favorite reads of 2013. It has quite a few of my favorite elements to recommend it, among them a writing style that deftly mixes humor and horror and eschews urban fantasy’s usual “noir” shtick, an unlikely and resourceful female protagonist, and a welcome emphasis on supportive relationships between women. These ingredients are still present in its sequel, Stiletto, a longer and more complicated book featuring not one female protagonist but two.
The Rook introduces us to the Checquy, a London-based organization of mutants whose aim is to neutralize eruptions of the paranormal. By the end, our heroic mutant bureaucrat, Myfanwy Thomas, has thwarted a takeover by the Checquy’s enemies, the Grafters, a group of Continental Europeans who have given themselves special abilities through technology, and she has brokered a cessation of hostilities between the two. Peace is in the offing. Happy ending, right? Not so fast. Hatred and suspicion between the Checquy and the Grafters runs deep, and many doubt that the two can coexist, let alone cooperate. In Stiletto, it’s up to a Checquy pawn, Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon, Odette Liefeld, to ensure the future of cooperation and stop a murderous conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the treaty.
Giving us the points of view of both Checquy and Grafter heroines is a master stroke, as we see how even fundamentally decent people can fall prey to a hatred with centuries behind it. Felicity and Odette, much like Elphaba and Galinda from the musical Wicked, loathe each other on sight, expecting the worst of each other and, at first, getting it. Yet over time, as they work toward their common goal, they come to tolerate, appreciate, and even like each other. Since we like them both, we’re thrilled to see this happen.
Yet as I was enjoying the novel, I hit a wall at the climax. Though our heroines do a good job at figuring out the villains’ identity and tracking them down, they end up captured, and they’re saved less through their own skills and competence than through luck and the foresight of Odette’s male cousin, who inserted a fail-safe device into her without her knowledge. All those moments showcasing the ladies’ courage and ingenuity were leading up to this? Seems a bit of a let-down, especially considering how active Myfanwy is at the climax of the previous book — until I consider that O’Malley might be putting to the test our common notions of “saving the day.”
What is, after all, the central problem of the book? The age-old hostility between Checquy and Grafters, and the attitude that the two groups cannot be expected to work together. Considering this, I can see that Felicity and Odette actually do save the day, through becoming friends. Together they embody the hopeful future their leaders are working toward, and it’s fitting that the book’s final scene shows them chatting and joking with each other as friends do. Through them, we see that old hatreds can indeed be overcome.
The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin)
In this, my first experience with acclaimed novelist Jemisin, the question of whether the female lead saves they day has a less ambiguous answer. Yes, she does. Hanani is, without question, a female hero, and her triumph makes an often troubling, tough-meat novel a hopeful read.
The Shadowed Sun is actually the second volume in a duology, the first of which establishes the struggle for power and territory between two peoples with deeply conflicting ideas about religion and culture. I chose to read the second volume first after it was recommended in response to my request for sympathetic portrayals of clergywomen in SFF (since the novel I’m working on will include such characters). I was told I would have little trouble catching up, and once I had absorbed the world-building details, I was able to connect with Hanani’s story without much difficulty. She is the first ever woman of the Hetawa, her people’s religious leaders, since her healing powers are undeniable. But she’s not exactly made to feel welcome, and her superiors send her and her mentor on a dangerous diplomatic mission without caring much whether she makes it out alive. Yet it turns out that Hanani, the disregarded and undervalued, has both the skills and the heart required to save her people from a psychic plague foisted on them by a monstrous man, who has turned his abused and mentally damaged daughter into a weaponized nightmare. The hero’s courage and compassion overcome the darkness.
Then comes the part that at first disappointed me. After having more than proved her right and her fitness to belong to the Hetawa, she turns her back on it and walks away, leaving the Hetawa a boys’ club once again. Yet as I reflect, I can see that this too serves as a sign of why Jemisin has such renown as a strong feminist writer. Hanani abandons the Hetawa because — once again I’m reminded of Wicked — she’s “tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.” With the strength she has gained on her journey, she’s ready to live life on her own terms, both as a healer and as a lover. And rather than regressing, the Hetaway has realized at last that it needs to change, thanks to her.
On the surface, Stiletto and The Shadowed Sun couldn’t be more different. Yet both offer the same hopeful thesis — there are many ways in which a woman can be a hero.