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.
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.