Spinning Silver and the Value of Women-Centered Fantasy Narratives

The good news first: the fantasy genre is more inclusive than ever before. While female authors have been a part of SFF since its inception, female protagonists have begun to appear in significant numbers only recently, say in the last four decades. Now, finally, writers and fans are realizing that one need not be male, white, and straight in order to be the hero of an epic fantasy tale. We are also, slowly but surely, moving away from the notion that SFF stories about men are better (more exciting, more thought-provoking and substantive) than stories about women; the back-to-back Hugo Award wins in the Best Novel category for Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky make me feel glad all over. We don’t have to make some false choice between quality and diversity. We can have both.

Yet as far as we’ve come, we still have a ways to go, and one of our biggest problems, as I’ve noted in the past, is visibility. The most popular books, the ones that get talked about again and again, are often not the most woman-friendly stories with a diverse set of characters. I recently went wading through reviews for some of the titles on Goodreads’ Top 50 Fantasy Books list, and for more than one of them, I found that most positive reviews praised male characters to the skies but rarely if ever mentioned female characters; only the negative reviews called attention to how the women were written. Here’s a sample:

“Women are shrews, fools, baby-machines or minxes. Every young girl we encounter flirts with [the hero]. The women are mostly concerned with babies.”

“There is a total of one main female character, and she’s stupid.”

“[The author] had a very subtle sort of misogyny in the book. [Female lead] was held up as this paragon of womanhood, yet she spends most of the book scolding men.”

“An author is able to create a fantasy world with a different map, magic system, religion, but can’t help himself and has to respect the status quo about sexism. . . We have a main ‘strong’ female character who spends a whole battle in a revealing dress that oh so conveniently splits open at the thigh.”

“The female characters in the book are there only to cry, and occasionally mother.”

“[Male hero] is the only real character in the book. . . The female characters in particular are badly portrayed.”

“[Female lead] seems a bit of a one-dimensional bitch.”

“I cannot think of a single female character in the entire series who isn’t either raped or threatened with rape.”

“The female characters in [author]’s story, while seeming to be empowered, are really just an exercise in misogyny disguised as misandry.”

One remotely interesting female character would have been fun. . . The women in this book have the depth of a puddle.”

These are from reviews of the top 50 fantasy books, mind you. If the reading public thinks books like this are what the fantasy genre is all about, it’s little wonder that myths like “women don’t write epic fantasy” persist even despite the success of the Hugo Award winners for Best Novel. Women may be winning the awards, but apparently men and man-centered narratives are still ahead in the “popular vote.” And since publishers naturally follow the money, for every Uprooted in which a female lead fights prejudice and defeats a haunted wood with resourcefulness and creative, unorthodox magic, we may have ten or more novels/series in which a man saves the day and only male characters accomplish anything of importance.

Perhaps the real heart of the issue is that idea of importance. Whose stories, and what sort of stories, deserve to be told? More and more I find that the books I love most aren’t the ones in which a singular woman fights to succeed in a “man’s world” at a “man’s game” (though I do enjoy those), but the ones that show the complexities of women’s lives in a variety of spheres and situations. I call them “women-centered fantasy narratives” — “women,” plural, because these stories eschew the Smurfette Principle. Often, though not always, they showcase a small set of characters and employ fairytale and folkloric motifs. In these stories, women have inner lives and a sense of purpose, and their courage, power, and skill may take a variety of forms; their relationships with other characters are also varied, far beyond an exclusive focus on the romantic. Such stories show there’s more than one way a woman can save herself and others. A few writers who specialize in women-centered fantasy narrative (and who consequently are among my favorites) are Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Kate Elliott, and Kate Forsyth.

A perfect example of  the women-centered fantasy narrative is my favorite read of 2018 so far, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver.

Spinning Silver cover

This novel is cast in a fairytale-retelling mold similar to Uprooted, yet while the prose is just as vivid and detailed as that earlier work, the narrative it weaves is much more complex. While Uprooted gives us one central female point-of-view figure, Spinning Silver gives us three, along with a few secondary-character perspectives. This brings a greater richness to the world and deepens our understanding of women’s place in it.

First we meet Miryem, the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders. Because her father is too compassionate to demand his debtors pay up, which brings the family close to ruin, Miryem steps into his place. She’s all too aware that moneylenders are almost always cast as storybook villains, but she sees a solid common-sense morality in her work, and soon she becomes so successful that people start to whisper of her knack for “turning silver into gold.” This word reaches the king of the Staryk (a sort of wintry elven-folk), who takes it literally and decides to take Miryem back to his kingdom, so she can convert his hoards of silver coins. Once in the Staryk otherworld, she discovers she can indeed transform silver into gold, and the unexpected friendships she finds there prove key to her growth and the stand she takes.

Among Miryem’s family’s debtors is a farmer with a daughter named Wanda. When the farmer can’t pay, Miryem suggests that the girl work off the debt in her household. Wanda, it turns out, is perfectly fine with this; her father is a drunken, abusive lout and she’s all too happy to get away from him. As she works for Miryem’s family, she discovers skills she didn’t know she had and steadily grows in confidence. She also bonds with Miryem’s parents (among the few examples of living and loving parents in the fantasy genre) and learns how it feels to be treated as a person of value. Through this experience she finds the strength to stand up for herself when others, especially her father, try to bully her.

The third female hero is Irina, a nobleman’s daughter forced into a loveless marriage with the handsome but arrogant and cold-hearted tsar. Irina has none of the beauty and meekness prized in noblewomen, but she does have intellect and powers of observation that help her protect herself and the elderly maidservant she loves from the threat of a demon who has inhabited and fed upon the tsar for years. As the threat grows, she decides she must put an end to it, not only for her own sake but for that of her people, for whom the tsar himself cares very little. Irina may be loved by neither father nor husband, but she knows how to value herself, and she speaks my favorite line of dialogue in the book: “My mother had enough magic to give me three blessings before she died. . . The first was wit; the second beauty, and the third — that fools should recognize neither” (277).

As their stories intertwine with and reflect each other, we see many instances of man’s inhumanity to woman, as both Irina and Miryem are trapped in marriages to cruel husbands and Wanda is nearly forced into one. But what stands out, for me, is their willingness to fight with what weapons they have, not only for their lives and their dignity but for those they love and/or for whom they feel responsible. It’s not enough for them merely to survive; they must change the world as they find it, and with their combined strengths they confront both the demon and the everlasting winter the Staryk have imposed on the mortal world. All three women are flawed, all three evolve, and all three prove heroes to root for.

With Spinning Silver, Novik clears the high bar she set with Uprooted. We’ll be hearing about this one again, I have no doubt, come next year’s Hugo Award nominations.

 

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DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 2

The most exciting thing that happened to me at this year’s DragonCon was seeing my new audio playscript, “The Dead-Watcher,” performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, as part of a triple bill with an episode of “Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope” and Elisabeth Allen’s sci-fi drama “A.L.I.C.E.” Sadly, I don’t have many photos to share of this event, but my wonderful husband did snap this picture on that momentous Friday night, with me and the director of my piece, Robert Drake:

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I spent the first panel hour on Saturday morning at the American Sci-Fi Classics Track again, with “Schoolhouse Rock: It’s What’s Happening.”

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There’s something special about sitting in a room full of enthusiastic adults enjoying a sing-along of “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction.” Songs like this can stay in one’s head for hours. The one I couldn’t stop singing to myself under my breath, which I found out is a lot of other people’s favorite as well, is this:

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Some of our audience got a little bit more into the spirit of the panel than others:

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Sadly, I didn’t get many more photos of panels after this, though I attended plenty of memorable ones. The Diversity Track offered a discussion of “Lead Female Characters,” and the High Fantasy Track hosted a look at upcoming TV adaptations. (I couldn’t help regretting that most of the shows in the works — The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time — are based on books by male authors, with male heroes. But I did get a thrill when I learned of TNT’s planned adaptation of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth.) But the next panel whose image I preserved came the following morning, an examination of “Myths and Retellings in YA,” hosted by the Young Adult Track.

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Left to right: Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund, E.K. Johnston, Lexa Hillyer, and Alexa Dunne. All the panelists made excellent points throughout, but I have to admit I was there to see Novik, because I was right in the midst of reading her Spinning Silver and swooning over its beauty. “I’m not interested in retellings,” she told us. “I’m interested in conversations.”

After the panel, Novik was gracious enough to render my copy of Spinning Silver something special for me to keep till I die:

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On Sunday and Monday, Matt and I spent some time at the ARTC sales table, helping to sell our CDs and also promoting my novels. Matt captured me in this environment:

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The ARTC sales table is near a platform where many of DragonCon’s musical guests perform. Not long before we left for home, we had a chance to hear a young woman named Erin Hill, whose beautiful voice is matched by her skill with the harp. She looks as if she’d just stepped out of one of the novel concepts I have yet to write, and if ever one of my stories were adapted for the screen, she’d be my ideal choice to do the soundtrack.

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But every Con must come to an end. We departed with our usual resolution to return next year and learn and explore even more. And it did help keep the melancholy at bay when we knew who would be there to welcome us home:

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DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 1

Pictures are a perfect way to share a wonderful experience, and for me, DragonCon nearly always qualifies. I can always find something there to love and/or to relish doing. Even if I can’t find a panel or a dealer I want to visit, simply being there, surrounded by people who love what you love, is a natural high.

Here are a few photographic mementos of DragonCon 2018.

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The view from our hotel room, by day and by night. The beauty of Atlanta, GA, seen from the twenty-eighth floor.

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I can’t go to DragonCon without indulging, at least once, in Caribou Coffee. (I had the Butterbeer Mocha.) Even if you don’t drink coffee, it’s hard not to love the way this establishment caters to the Con crowd.

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My first panel, Friday morning at 10 a.m.: “Classic Sci-Fi Musicals,” courtesy of the American Sci-Fi Classics Track. Pictured, l-r: Gary Mitchell (head of the track), Taylor Blumenberg, Kitty Chandler. Not pictured: Kathleen O’Shea David, Michael Williams. My favorite moment was Ms. David’s explanation of what appeals most to her about the theatrical community: “If you could do your bloody job, then you were accepted.” That’s right. That is exactly why I’ve loved theater for so long.

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Here’s a Friday panel at the British Media Track, or the Brit Track as it’s fondly known: “British Historical Roulette,” in which the panelists offer their take on current and upcoming British historical TV dramas/comedies, etc. I didn’t get an accurate recording of who’s sitting where, but the panelists were Heather Mbaye, Amanda-Rae Prescott, Kritsen McGeehee, Caro McCully (head of the track), and Angela Hartley.

The bottom pic is of Amanda-Rae Prescott, cosplaying as Elizabeth Warleggan from BBC/PBS’s Poldark (the show from which we took the names of our kittens). With her she has a knit figure of her husband George, the dastardly villain of the piece.

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Here’s the room for the High Fantasy Track, which hosted my next panel, “Intro to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.” Sadly I didn’t get the panelists’ names, but they were chock full of knowledge and opinions, and the room was happily packed with fellow Sanderson fans. I repeat, just knowing how many people love the same things you love is a thrill in and of itself.

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Last but far from least of my Friday panel-ing: “Female Writers: A Woman’s Perspective,” hosted by DraonCon’s brand new Diversity Track. Left to right: Anya Martin, Christine Taylor Butler, Seressia Glass, Janny Wurts, L.M. Davis. Not pictured: Aaron-Michael Hall.

Coming Next: Part 2.

How to Tell You’re In a Nan Monroe Novel

Recently I got some disappointing news. My publisher closed its doors. This means I’ll be hunting for a new publication home (be it indie, self, or traditional) for my existing works as well as my works in-progress and to come. As part of that process, I’m moved to consider my “brand.” So many, many writers, both published and aspiring, turn out new fantasy novels every day. What makes me and my work special?

When I heard the news, I made the choice to temporarily shelve a project I’d been working on for over a year, which formerly I’d felt obligated to finish. It should have been my dream novel, with a dragon shifted unwillingly into human as its female lead. Yet somehow I never could finish a draft of it. I’d stop somewhere in the middle of it and say to myself, “Oh, this is what it needs,” and then I’d go back to the beginning. Rinse and repeat. Just what was the problem? At one time I thought my heart was still too engaged by my previous work, Nightmare Lullaby, and if I could just force myself to commit to the new project, it would come out fine in the end. At another time I thought I just needed to change the characters’ names, to give the same story a different world and tone. Yet neither of these was the source of my difficulty. It wasn’t until a newer idea awoke and set my imagination singing that I realized what was wrong.

I was trying to be something I’m not.

As a reader I love nothing more than a good high fantasy series, a sweeping epic with a cast of hundreds in which the fate of nations is at stake. Political intrigue, battle sequences, mighty clashes of cultures — give me more of that wonderful stuff! Just as long as a woman appears at or at least near the center of the story, I’m happy. My project was a high fantasy involving high-stakes tension between religious, with my shifted dragon caught in the middle. Since I love such grand tales, I should be able to write one of my own, right?

Well… no. The story I wanted to tell needed a high fantasy author to tell it. Yet I kept on writing it like me.

As much I might love and admire high fantasy, I write low fantasy. I’m most at home with a smaller canvas, a smaller cast of characters with no more than four POVs. I can’t write a battle scene to save my life, and I much prefer to create characters affected indirectly by politics rather than the movers and shakers in the rooms where it happens. My bent is toward fairy-tale retellings, and I strive for a style that evokes both the light and the darkness of those old stories.

The world of the project I shelved felt alien to me; I struggled to visualize it, and so I could never manage to make it vivid on the page. The world of the project I’ve begun feels natural and right. It feels like me. A good friend and adviser of mine once identified my work as “cozy fantasy.” I’m good with that. There’s a place for fantasy that doesn’t involve kings, princes, and soldiers, and that’s the place where my work lives.

A few days ago, a question was making its way around my Twitter feed. Addressed specifically to authors, it asked us to point out how our readers can tell they’re in one of our novels. Rather than Tweet my answers, I figured I’d save them for a blog post. So, how can someone tell they’re in a Nan Monroe novel?

  1. The bulk of the action takes place in a small setting — an estate, as in Atterwald, or a small town, as in Nightmare Lullaby.
  2. The central character is female. At some point in the future I may try my hand at a male protagonist, but right now I’m busy writing the stories I didn’t get (or didn’t know about) when I was younger.
  3. The female lead is set apart from the Norm in some way, either a nonhuman or a human with unusual abilities. It’s left to other characters to represent the world’s version of “normal.”
  4. She has at least one woman in her support system (e.g. Ricarda in Atterwald, Valeraine and Mennieve in Nightmare Lullaby).
  5. She has at least one good non-romantic relationship with a male character (e.g. Ailbe in Atterwald, Pierpon in Nightmare Lullaby).
  6. She has a rich interior life and a strong imagination, though the ways in which she puts her imagination to use may vary.
  7. Music and the arts play a substantial role. My female lead is more likely to be Bard-Woman than Warrior-Woman.
  8. Fairy-tale elements are present, though their adaptation may be very loose indeed.

I want to thank all of you who follow my blog and who have read and supported my work. And if you’re anxious for my shifted dragon, don’t be. She’s still in my head, and one day she’ll make herself at home in a setting that’s just right for both of us.