My First Favourite Female Fantasy HeroesMay 6th, 2010 at 22:37
There’s been some talk around the internets in recent days about how rare it is for women to declare and own their awesomeness, without apologising for it, or putting conditions on it, or basically explaining it away until it doesn’t exist any more.
This reminded me of a conversation that went around the traps a while back, I believe centering around Sarah Rees Brennan, who often endorses such wicked ideas, about how actually maybe it’s time we stopped calling female fictional characters Mary Sues every time they display awesomeness.
As with Twilight-hating, I fear I have to also come out against Mary-Sue-callage, something which may be utterly justified at times and yet contributes so much anti-female sentiment that it makes my skin crawl. Yes, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it. Still, I stick by it.
Critiquing the portrayal of women in fantasy is a perfectly valid pastime, but that’s not what I’m here for right now. I want to talk about some of my favourite female characters from my early years of fantasy reading, why I love them and how they have influenced me. Let me know your favourites in the comments!
Alix, The Chronicles of the Cheysuli
These were the books that made me start writing my first fantasy novel, though I had already planned/started novels before, and had been reading fantasy for nearly a year. I was fourteen, and when my friends went home after my birthday party, I lay down on the big stack of mattresses that hadn’t been put away yet, and started writing chapter one. It’s funny now to think that it took me something like fifteen years to get around to writing my own shapechanger books (and longer to get them published), but there you go.
I loved Alix. It’s so long since I read the books, I’m not even sure if I remember her right, or if she would hold up now to my educated feminist eyes, but I liked the way that she seemed so ordinary, even when thrown into a world of shapechanging, animalistic people. I liked that she rejected the prince, and was very cranky that she still totally chose the wrong guy (my sympathies were always with the boy whose love/lust was unrequited, a literary taste I like to think I have moved past given how problematic it is!). I remember that she felt like she was the first person I had come across in a fantasy novel who felt like a real person, and made practical choices. Also, she got to turn into a wolf. The stories had bloodlust, politics, magic gone wrong, but most of all they were stories about families. I never liked Alix as much as in the first book, told through her eyes, but I did like that she became a mother and a matriarch, and that her legacy was so important to the whole eight book series.
Mara, the Empire Books, Raymond E Feist & Janny Wurts
More fantasy about politics, can you tell these were my favourites? Mara remains to this day the strongest example I have of a strong, politically-powerful female character. We see her personality develop from that of a young bereaved girl into a fierce, take-no-prisoners aristocrat, and yet the thing that singled her out amongst all the other leaders of her society was her ability to think outside the box, and to make choices no one else had even thought of. As with Alix, I deeply disliked the main romantic interest set up for Mara – Kevin the slave – preferring to ship her with her spymaster (if only I had known about fanfic and shipping then, my reading habits would have been totally different) but I appreciated that romance was actually only a tiny aspect of this saga, which was more about the different kinds of power you can wield over other people.
Polgara, The Belgariad & The Mallorean etc. by David & Leigh Eddings
I almost didn’t put this one in. My 30-something feminist buttons are shrieking ‘all she did was cook stew and nag,’ which was indeed a disappointing aspect to the character of the most powerful female sorcerer of that particular world. But Polgara was important to me because it was the first time I saw a female character granted as much power as she was in those books. Polgara is the only sorceress of a makeshift family which centres power entirely around not only men, but old and “wise” men. She struggles to balance her roles as daughter, foster mother, etc. with her own magic, and we see very clearly that none of the men even think about such things. She keeps everyone fed. I’m almost tempted to reread these, just to see whether I can look past the domestic drudgery imposed upon the only woman in the Belgariad Sorcery Club to embrace the way she uses her domestic power to, quite frankly, emotionally blackmail the whole sorry bunch of them into doing what SHE wants them to do. Also she looked cool, and I too had a white lock of hair against dark, though of a less prominent part of my scalp. I think we need to reclaim Polgara, and look again at her awesomeness. [also she had better taste in men than my other old favourites, even if she did have the Eddings trait of capturing the man she wanted with Ze Wiles]
(also a bonus mention of Ce’Nedra, who was bitchy and spoiled and useless for most of the Belgariad, then rallied, put some form fitting armour on, and bloody well led an army into enemy territory because no one else was going to do it as well as she could.)
Agnes/Perdita, the Discworld, Terry Pratchett
I know, I know. Granny Weatherwax is awesome. As is Nanny Ogg, who I personally love more. Pratchett has done a fine job of creating some incredibly memorable female characters in the Discworld, especially once we got past the Bethans and Coninas and Gingers and Ptracis who were sort of parodies of a certain kind of girl, but really didn’t have much to do except for yelling at and/or kissing the hero when the situation demanded it.
But Agnes was the first of Pratchett’s women that I really loved. This pragmatic, sensible fat girl with the glorious voice, her cynicism and her brief flashes of romanticism… the few books that have featured her point of view have made me deeply happy from beginning to end. In many ways she is the female equivalent of Rincewind, the one who puts up with all the crap and then misses out on the reward at the end, but when she is in a book she is always the most interesting person on the page. And that’s quite something considering she always shares books with Granny Weatherwax…