Female Mentors and Female Heroes

(SPOILERS for Ralph Breaks the Internet)


Disney’s new animated-sequel blockbuster Ralph Breaks the Internet may not be a perfect film, but it has one element that wins my heart completely: the bond of friendship that springs up between the spunky racer Vanellope von Schweetz and Shank, the key player in the wild, gritty RPG Slaughter Race. Originally Vanellope wanted to steal Shank’s car so she and Ralph can pay for a steering wheel to fix her own outdated arcade game, Sugar Rush. But as the two engage in a hair-raising chase, each racer realizes just how cool the other one is. Afterward, Shank offers herself as a mentor to Vanellope. My favorite scene in the movie isn’t the famous one in which Vanellope encounters all the Disney princesses, but the one that shows her sitting with Shank on the hood of Shank’s awesome car and confiding in her new mentor her hopes and fears about the future. It’s been a while — too long by half — since I’ve seen two female characters from a family film have a conversation quite like that.

I’m not the only one delighted by this relationship. A recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour focused on the movie, and while opinions on the movie itself may have been mixed, two of the panelists singled out Vanellope’s friendship with Shank as a refreshing but sadly rare example of a relationship between an older and younger female character that isn’t a rivalry.

That got me thinking. Just how rare is this kind of relationship? And why should it be rare?

Rivalries between old and younger female characters of fiction since ancient times, when Venus sought to destroy a girl who had been proclaimed more beautiful than herself, only to get stuck with her as a daughter-in-law instead. Venus isn’t the only older woman has it in for poor Psyche; her older sisters, too, are driven by envy when they attempt to sabotage her relationship with her mysterious but obviously wealthy and powerful husband. (In fact, they hope to get her killed.) We see this again with Beauty’s older sisters in Leprince de Beaumont, while Venus provides a prototype for Cinderella’s and Snow White’s cruel stepmothers. Women’s jealousy of each other is so baked into our folklore that we keep re-introducing it into new stories, and so we keep feeding the idea that relationships between women are innately hostile.

Yet what of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and the multitude of helpful fairies that populate the contes de fee of France’s Ancien Regime? What of the mysterious but kindly crones like the Grimm brothers’ Mother Holle, who help persecuted girls on their way to fortune? These figures are part of our folklore as well, yet for some reason, writers of subsequent generations haven’t been quite as keen to reproduce them. Sometimes they’re written out of the stories altogether, and at other times they’re changed beyond recognition. For example, in my favorite screen adaptation of “Cinderella,” Ever After, the fairy godmother’s role is filled by Leonardo da Vinci, a sign of a general preference for male mentors even in female heroes’ stories.

Consider some of the most popular leads in SFF fiction: Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Lyra (His Dark Materials), Vin (Mistborn), Phedre (Kushiel’s Dart), Sonea (The Black Magician Trilogy), Yelena (Poison Study), Lucy (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Maerad (The Books of Pellinor), Thirrin (The Cry of the Icemark), Althea (The Liveship Traders), Seraphina (Seraphina and Shadow Scale). With these belong the female leads in some of my personal favorite books of the last few years: Isabelle des Zephyrs (An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors), Essun and Nassun (The Broken Earth Trilogy), Hanani (The Shadowed Sun), Agniezska (Uprooted), Daleina (The Queen of Blood), Winter Ihernglass (The Shadow Campaigns), Shai (The Emperor’s Soul). What do all these characters have in common? Male mentors — as if somehow it makes more narrative sense for men to guide them on their journey. In movies and television, the preference for male mentors is even clearer. Where would Buffy be without Giles? (Female mentors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer come in two kinds: evil and doomed.) Or Daisy Johnson without Agent Coulson? Or Alex Danvers without Jonn J’onzz? Or Rey without Han (The Force Awakens) or Luke (The Last Jedi)?

Interesting, when sympathetic female mentors do appear — say, Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Polgara in The Belgariad, Moiraine in The Wheel of Time, Sybel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as well as characters from more recent books/series such as Spellslinger, Age of Assassins, and Monster Blood Tattoo and movies such as Doctor Strange — they’re mentoring male heroes. Women may be wise enough to serve as guides and helpers, yet still, more often than not, older woman + younger woman = rivalry.

So when a story comes along that defies that equation, I’m primed to embrace it unless it has unquestionably deal-breaking flaws. Here are some of my favorite stories to include female mentors who offer help to female heroes:

Wise Child (Monica Furlong). Juniper, a young wise woman, saves the child of the title from her abusive mother and nurtures her latent magical talent. Short, underrated, and lovely.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett). The cynical, practical-to-a-fault witch Granny Weatherwax recognizes a kindred spirit in the no-nonsense youngster Tiffany Aching after the latter dispatches an evil river-sprite with a frying pan.

Feet of Clay (also Pratchett). To say too much about this installment in the “Night’s Watch” sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld may constitute a Spoiler. I’ll just note that werewolf police offer Angua turns out to be the ideal person to show an eager young newcomer the ropes.

The Witches of Eileanan (Kate Forsyth). Aged, powerful witch Meghan of the Beasts is first shown mentoring apprentice witch Isabeau, but as the book and the series proceed, she ends up giving guidance to just about every confused young person she comes across, including Isabeau’s fierce twin sister Iseult.

The Tethered Mage (Melissa Caruso). Here, Lady Amalia COrnaro is mentored in the arts of politics and persuasion by her intimidating but loving mother, the Contessa. In the sequel, The Defiant Heir, the Contessa has far less page time, yet she remains a powerful presence in her daughter’s life.

Age of Myth and Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan). Injured Fhrey (elf) Arion loathes being indebted to the humans who are caring for her, but when she sees the magic brimming in the “wild girl” Suri, she realizes that everything the Fhrey have always thought about humans is wrong. By the second book, Arion is Suri’s friend and protector as well as teacher. Human leader Persephone also plays an important role in mentoring the girl, so Suri is twice blessed.



The “Meh-ing” of American Animation

The 1966 television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a masterpiece, and one of the elements that makes it work so beautifully is the narration by silken-voiced baritone horror icon Boris Karloff (who also voices the Grinch). This voice work is as strong a testimony to Karloff’s legendary talent as his star-making turn in 1931’s Frankenstein. Cast your mind back to the special’s beginning, after the charming Whos have sung their opening carol and the narration kicks in:

“Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot,” says Boris in his softest, most genial voice. “But the Grinch…” Here his voice drops an octave and his tone grows rich with menace. “…Who lived just north of Who-ville…” The menace grows as we understand this close proximity to the cheerful creatures who were singing a minute ago. “did NOT!” The stamp is sealed. From this moment we know, if we didn’t know already, we’re about to experience something awesome.

Some years later Hollywood made a live-action version for public consumption, a remake whose existence I steadfastly deny. Yet at least (from what I’ve heard) Jim Carrey made some attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to match Karloff’s deep, dark tones. The new animated remake from Illumination Studios makes very different choices. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch. Okay. He’s British and baritone, like Karloff. Yet someone at the studio advised him to flatten and Americanize his voice, apparently to erase any aural resemblance to the horror icon. As for the narration, that’s supplied by Pharrell Williams, the pop star best known for the peppy anthem (and theme from Despicable Me 2) “Happy,” about as far a cry from my beloved Boris as one can get. These changes were made, perhaps, to render the remake more distinctive from the original, more its own creature. That I can understand, sort of. Yet these particular changes still strike me as an attempt to substitute nonthreatening blandness for true excitement, to create a movie that will please children but offer little to parents or to adult animation fans.

I cannot see why a studio would remake a property for which they apparently have little affection. But then, the sad truth is that Illumination Studios has never made what I would call a good movie. The first Despicable Me is pleasant and amusing, but offers little to thrill or stir the heart; there are no “wow!” moments. The sequels, I’m told (I never bothered to watch), are even less inspiring. Nothing in Sing! or The Secret Life of Pets excited my interest enough to lure me into the theater, and the very trailer for Minions made me want to destroy something. Yet all these movies made the studio a tidy sum. The people there may not be geniuses at storytelling, but they know what sells. Why take the time and trouble to make good films when well-marketed mediocrity will make the green?

Illumination is only one part of a disheartening trend I’ve come to call the “meh-ing” of mainstream American animation, a genre I’ve loved a long time. I can remember when Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana thrilled me one at a time back in 2016. Sadly, I haven’t felt quite that level of excitement since, and the lack, for me, has two main sources.

The first will surprise no one who knows me: the disheartening lack of female protagonists since Moana. Last year, among American animation’s mainstream releases, only Coco generated an unquestioned positive response, and to no one’s astonishment, it took the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yet I could never muster much interest in seeing it, as it struck me as very much one for the boys, with its misunderstood boy hero going on an afterlife adventure with the only ones who really get him, his male dog and his male guide through the land of the dead. The other nominees, with the exception of the non-mainstream The Breadwinner, were likewise male-centered. Things have gotten no better since then. This year’s front-runner is Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, with a boy protagonist surrounded by a squad of seven canines, all male. Why do writers insist on making all their important animal characters male when they could just as easily have been female without any change to plot or theme??

Next year we have The LEGO Movie 2 (Emmett Must Save Wyldstyle from Straw Feminists), Laika’s Missing Link (Bromance With Female Third Wheel), Spies in Disguise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which, okay, I do want to see), The Secret Life of Pets 2, Toy Story 4, Playmobil: The Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Abominable, Sonic the Hedgehog — a whole lot of guy-driven movies. (I do have my eye on a couple of potential bright spots: Wonder Park and Ugly Dolls. If only they turn out to be good.)

Some of you may be thinking: there’s always Frozen 2, right? And aren’t I forgetting this year’s The Incredibles 2, which shows Elastigirl finally getting her share of the heroics? I won’t lie: I liked The Incredibles 2 quite a bit, and I delighted in seeing Elastigirl in action, just as I’m keen to see tough smart-aleck racer Vanellope thrown back into adventure in Ralph Breaks the Internet (Matt wants to see this one opening night, actually). But my joy in them is tempered, in that they can’t offer me what Zootopia, Kubo, and Moana gave me in spades: the thrill of discovery of a completely new world and the chance to fall in love with a new set of characters.

This brings me to my second point of dissatisfaction: everything — or at least 80% of what we’re seeing — is a sequel to something else or an adaptation of some already established character/world. This isn’t to say that sequels can’t be good; I actually liked the second and third of the Kung Fu Panda films much better than the original. But after we’ve traveled to the same destination three or even four times, no matter how much we may love the place, don’t we start to hanker for something we haven’t seen before? If an animation studio were to present us with something fresh and different, wouldn’t we embrace it? Coco may not have been my tipple, but in it Pixar at least gave us something original, which they haven’t done this year and don’t plan to do next.

I’ve painted Illumination as the chief bad guy in this situation, yet it may not be the greatest offender. Those we love have the greatest power to hurt us, and I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a studio whose work I generally admire than I was when I learned Disney had decided to shelve their project Gigantic — a potentially delightful take on “Jack and the Beanstalk” — and then read their lineup of forthcoming releases, a long string of live-action remakes of their old classics with only a couple of animated features, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen 2, thrown in. How depressingly, cynically safe.

There’s the heart of both my problems. Mainstream American animation’s big-screen output reveals a staunch dedication to playing it safe, banking on our collective desire to seek comfort in the familiar (and not hurt their bottom line). How long will it be before fans start to become bored, and the studios realize they might need to start taking a few risks in order to reinvigorate the genre and reignite audience interest?

May that day come soon.

The Ongoing Trouble With “Powered” Women

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I never hit it off, since I bounced hard off world-building that included the ethos “Weak is women’s magic/ Wicked is women’s magic.” While the former precept bothered me, the latter angered me, because it matched so well with the way magical women had been portrayed in the stories I’d read and seen up to that point (that is, the late ’80s). L. Frank Baum’s Glinda the Good notwithstanding, the magical women I was familiar with always seemed to be manipulative, untrustworthy, and/or downright evil.

I grew up with the stories of King Arthur. I saw Excalibur multiple times. I read The Once and Future King and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. I learned pretty quickly, though it only came to bother me as I grew older, that while magical men could serve as mentors for heroes, magical women invariably used their powers to deceive and ensnare men, even to the point of threatening their very lives. Only men could wield magic safely and wisely. While a few revisionist retellings such as Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon have popped up, plenty of recent retellings, including the BBC’s Merlin, adhere to the old prescription of “sorcerer good, sorceress bad” — which would explain why I bailed on Merlin around five episodes in.

Then we have the persistently popular The Chronicles of Narnia. I admit I enjoyed the most recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a pity the sequels weren’t better) largely because I find “Queen Lucy the Valiant” an endearing heroine. Yet I’ve never been altogether happy with C.S. Lewis’s depiction of the Ultimate Evil as feminine. In Narnia, as in Arthur’s Camelot, what good magic there is comes from men, or at least male characters; female magic is entirely malevolent. This is why I’m not excited that Netflix is planning a fresh television adaptation of the series. I’ve seen it. I’m not sure I need to see it again.

These are old stories, true, but many storytellers can’t seem to get past the tendency to link female power with evil. I’d been planning to watch Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, having heard the show praised for its feminism, but after reading the following piece by Sonia Saraiya in Vanity Fair, I’m not sure I’ll bother. It may be as brilliant as a lot of people claim, but it’s not the kind of thing I need just now. I’ve read and seen my share of “power makes girls/women evil” stories already, stories that tell us that if you’re female you can be either good or powerful — but not both.

How many times must we see this false choice played out?

It’s true that Sabrina inhabits the same television space as Jessica Jones and Supergirl, both shows that depict powerful women using their gifts in heroic ways. This is a sign of progress, to be sure. Yet along with these shows, we also have The Gifted, set in the X-Men Universe. The heroes are the Mutant Underground, who hope to achieve some sort of peaceful coexistence with their human neighbors; while this group includes men and women, the men get the proverbial lion’s share of the attention and always seem to be out in front in leadership roles. However, the villainous gang of mutant separatists (villains by virtue of their comfort with the concept of collateral damage) is overwhelmingly female. It doesn’t help at all when we hear the telepathic Triplets of Evil say, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” a disquieting hint of straw feminism. Next year on the big screen, this same universe is serving up Dark Phoenix, the best-known girl-can’t-handle-her-powers story in recent memory. The trailer gives an idea of how this is likely to go. One woman is corrupted by her power. Another woman leads her down the dark path. Who will save the day (as always, in the X-Men franchise)? Men.

And so the ambivalent attitudes toward female power have continued into the present and will most likely persist into the future. Yet whenever I’m made aware of stories that present women’s power, particularly women’s magic, as inherently bad, I turn to antidotes to this attitude. By and large the most effective of these antidotes come not from Hollywood but from the world of print fiction, which has given us a delightful share of badass good witches. Here’s a Goodreads list devoted to such.

To prepare for this post, I asked my followers on Twitter to cite some of their favorite examples of heroic female magic in the fantasy genre. Some mentioned characters: Morwen from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles; Maskelle from Wheel of the Infinite; Sirronde from Diane Duane’s “Parting Gifts”; Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, and Steelflower, all created by Lilith Saintcrow; the heroes of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword; Raederle from the Riddle-Master trilogy; Katsa from Graceling. Others mentioned book/series titles: Winter Tide, In the Vanisher’s Palace, Daughter of Mystery, The Queen of Blood, Iron Cast, Of Sorrow and Such. All these are excellent examples.

Yet I have my own personal favorites among fantasy’s magical women:

Agnieszka, from Novik’s Uprooted; Samarkar, from Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Senneth, from Shinn’s Twelve Houses (Mystic and Rider et. seq.); Sybel, from McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Ista, from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; Eleanor, from Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes, and Elena, from her Fairy Godmother, both Cinderella stories with a twist; Sunny, from Okorafor’s Akata Witch; Anyanwu, from Butler’s Wild Seed; Prunella, from Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

If you, like me, find yourself frustrated on occasion with stories that cling to outdated distrustful tropes regarding women’s power, check out some of the books cited here. They’re well worth it.


A Brief Word Before Election Day

I have tried, for the most part, to keep politics out of my blog. But today I want to offer a well-wish to all those going out to vote tomorrow. As you cast your ballots and consider what you want the character of our country to be, keep in mind what makes us, as human beings, special.

It isn’t the color of our skin.

It isn’t the faith in which we were raised.

It isn’t the language we speak, or the place where we had the luck (good or bad) to be born.

It isn’t our gender.

It isn’t whom we’re attracted to, or whether we’re attracted to anyone at all.

It isn’t any part of the hand we’re dealt at birth.

It’s our capacity to think, dream, create, and love.

This is what makes a person great, and each of us can aspire to and cultivate this greatness. It isn’t limited to those who look, talk, and act like us.

Let’s show we believe that.

Book Report: Recent Reads

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

If social media is anything to judge by, zombies are everyone’s least favorite supernatural menace. I happen to adore iZombie‘s brain-eating clairvoyant detective Liv Moore and Discworld‘s Dead Rights activist-cum-Night Watch constable Reg Shoe (because honestly, why wouldn’t you love a zombie who sports a “Glad to be Gray” badge?), but it seems that in general, zombies try our collective patience, since we tend to think of them as the mindless, murderous hordes that populate the land on The Walking Dead. They’re not clever or calculating. They don’t have poisonous ambitions for world conquest. And Warm Bodies notwithstanding, they don’t work well as potential love interests or sexy seducers. There just isn’t much one can expect from them.

But if general zombie behavior can be a bit on the predictable side, they can have a sizable impact on history. Let us say, for instance, that during the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, the dead rose from their graves to attack the living, whereupon the war came to an abrupt end as both sides came together to fight the common enemy. The living have been trying to hold off the advancing undead ever since. It’s the 1870s, and two distinct philosophies have arisen to answer the question of why the dead awakened. One claims this “shambler” apocalypse is a punishment for the evil of slavery, and Americans must build a better, more just society. The other insists that the shamblers are a punishment for the war itself, in which brother fought brother, and the pre-war social structure which placed African-Americans at the very bottom must be preserved. Those who hold the latter view are keen to use African-Americans as shambler fodder to keep whites safe, for such is the duty of slaves, after all.

This is the context in which Justina Ireland’s YA fantasy adventure novel Dread Nation is set. We see this world through the eyes of Jane McKeene, who believes herself to be the daughter of a plantation mistress and a black man, and who is studying, along with a number of other African-American girls, to be an “Attendant” — a shambler-slaying protector and companion to a white lady. When it comes to killing shamblers, Jane is second to none, but in the course of the novel, she’s confronted by some painful and horrifying truths about the system in which she is caught.

Jane is the novel’s chief selling point, a smart, brave, resourceful heroine who takes no BS from anyone. When others try to strip her of her power and indeed her very personhood, she fights back with all her will and holds tight to her belief in herself. When she makes mistakes, she learns from them, and when she faces heartache, she keeps moving forward. Ireland uses first-person POV to bring her to life, and while many a first-person narrator in YA fiction may come across as shallow and generic, Jane’s voice is richly distinct. Hers is a unique and individual mindset, brash and acerbic yet ever keen to see justice done.

Another point in the novel’s favor is its prioritizing of friendship over romance. We do get glimpses of Jane’s attraction to a rakish acquaintance, but she’s too busy battling shamblers and the corrupt leaders of a Western settlement to lose herself in love. Her most important relationship is with Katherine, a fellow academy student who, when we first meet her, has all the earmarks of an archetypal Mean Girl. Because Katherine is Jane’s pet aversion, we’re inclined to judge her harshly at first. Yet it turns out that underestimating and undervaluing her beautiful acquaintance is Jane’s biggest mistake. Slowly but surely, step by step, a bond forms between the two girls, and by the end they’re in the adventure together, trusting and supporting one another. I look forward to seeing how their relationship progresses in the next book.

This novel, along with Children of Blood and Bone, has me excited about the future of YA fantasy fiction.





What’s Making Me Angry: September/October 2018

I will post again, before long, about the things that are making me happy despite all the world’s bad news. This is not that post. I’m angry, and I’m going to say it.

I’m angry because convicted rapist Brock Turner, despite being let off with a wrist-slap, still believes he’s being unfairly persecuted and is appealing his conviction. Evidence against him is overwhelming, he hasn’t been punished nearly as harshly as he deserves to be, yet somehow he feels victimized — no doubt a by-product of being raised by a father who refers to the rape as “twenty minutes of action” that shouldn’t spoil his son’s bright future.

I’m angry because even though two football players in Steubenville, OH filmed their sexual assault on an intoxicated girl and posted their video on social media — pretty damning evidence, nay? — people in their community still found a way to blame their victim, i.e. if she hadn’t been so drunk, the boys would never have given in to the temptation to assault her (an assault that included urinating on her!). I’m angry because when news outlets reported on the boys’ sentencing, they expressed far more sympathy for the rapists than for the victim.

I’m angry because after serial rapist Bill Cosby’s conviction and sentencing, his publicist has the almighty nerve to call his infamous client the victim of a “sex war” and even to compare him to Jesus Christ.

I’m angry because TV writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s article in the Hollywood Reporter, describing accused sexual harasser Les Moonves’ vendetta against her, offers an illustration of the power of predatory men to silence women’s creative voices. A similar article by Cassandra Smolcic in Variety details how her “dream job” at Pixar Studios quickly turned into a nightmare when she realized head honcho John Lasseter was apparently incapable of treating female colleagues and employees with respect and unwilling to let them make any real creative contribution.

And finally, I’m angry because I’ve learned that something called the “Renate Alumni” existed once at Georgetown Prep. This may not serve as conclusive evidence that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is guilty of rape — some family members are fully convinced the allegations against him are false — but this and other yearbook references do offer some strong evidence of Charlie-Sheening. Charlie-Sheening may not be against the law, yet I would argue it is an evil in itself, malum in se, because at its root lies the idea that girls and women aren’t people whose thoughts and feelings matter. Instead, they’re things, life-sized dolls who exist for the benefit and the pleasure of boys and men.

And there it is — the blindness at the heart of all that’s making me angry. All these stories together add up to one thing: girls and women don’t matter. They’re not important. Their value is less than the hopes and dreams of a Brock Turner or a pair of Steubenville, OH football players. It’s gotten so bad that some have even started suggesting that boys, particularly of high school age, are natural sexual predators, that when a boy snaps a girl’s bra while she’s putting her books away in her locker he’s just “being a boy” and it’s pointless to expect better behavior from him. The onus isn’t on boys to shape up; it’s on girls to smile and put up with them.

But are we really prepared to accept that treating girls like objects is “normal” behavior for boys? Honestly, what does that say about boys, and by extension the men they become? That they’re naturally beyond the reach of common decency once hormones get involved? If I were a man I’d be outraged by these assumptions. I’ve known many gentlemen of honor in my life. One raised me. Another married me. I’ve been friends with many of them. I know what good men are like. They’re comfortable enough in their own skin to resist any and all pressure to prove themselves “manly.” They don’t feel the need to make themselves strong by rendering someone else weak. They keep their expectations high, both of themselves and others.

If we expect less and less of each other,that’s just what we’ll get.

And that’s why I’m angry. It’s why a lot of people are angry.

But now comes the question: what are we going to do about it? Anger can be the most useful feeling in the world if it leads us in constructive, not destructive, directions. But if we let it fester and turn inward, we’re lost.

If we want things to change, if we don’t accept that How Things Are Now is the natural order,  first we need to figure out where the problem comes from. In this case, I’m very much afraid there is no quick fix. It’s not simply a matter of changing a law here or there, but of changing, over time, the way we think and perceive each other. Attitudes may be so ingrained that today could be a lost cause. Tomorrow is all we have. We need to think about what we want our tomorrow to look like.

A future where men and women like each other, respect each other, work well together and value each other’s contributions, and see each other as distinct individuals rather than as part of a monolithic, incomprehensible Plural, is good for everyone. Male, female, nonbinary, straight, queer, cis, trans, white, black, brown, theist, atheist, liberal, conservative — everyone. To achieve that highly desirable end, we need to build up future generations’ capacity for empathy, and one of the ways we develop empathy is to practice looking at the world through the eyes of people who are “not like us.” The clearest and most obvious way to gain that experience is to read. The link between reading imaginative literature and developing empathy once moved Percy Byssche Shelley to name poets (and by extension, all writers of imaginative literature) “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A Defence of Poetry).

Our hopes for future generations, then, ride on whether, and what, they grow up reading.

Acclaimed fantasy author Shannon Hale recently Tweeted that when she gave a reading from one of her Princess in Black books, she was asked, in all seriousness, “When are you going to write books for boys?” — the implication being that because most of her work features female protagonists, boys couldn’t or wouldn’t enjoy it. (My husband read Hale’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World- a novelization of SG’s origin story before I did, and laughed long and hard as he followed the adventures of superheroine Doreen Green. Trust me. I was there.) There it is again, the same sad song: “stories about boys are for everyone, but stories about girls are for girls only.” This supposed truism has always bothered me, and I’ve railed against it in previous blog posts. But recently, since I’ve been angry, I’ve seen even more clearly how much is riding on our willingness to move beyond that idea.

When we read from the perspective of a character in a well-written short story or novel, as we share that character’s experience, we come to know and understand that character as a person with a mind and heart. Even if we dislike that character and/or disagree with their actions, for a little while we’ve felt what it’s like to be them. If boys routinely avoid all fiction that asks them to share a girl’s perspective, wouldn’t this compromise their learning to perceive girls as people with stories and journeys that matter?

Every time a parent tells a librarian or bookseller, “He won’t read books about girls,” or “He won’t like it if it has a girl on the cover,” the likelihood goes up that Charlie-Sheening, or worse, Brock-Turnering, will be a big part of life in years to come.

Stories affect how we see the world, how we see ourselves and others, and how we interact with others. The power of stories just might be what saves us.







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.


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.