The world of hierarchy, war, and women’s subjugation are connected. No news there. They are also widely tolerated (if not celebrated outright) in many fantasy novels. Even really amazing women writers who put striking female characters at the center of their work often can’t escape the vortex of martial splendor, feudal social structures, and the glories of conquest.
Yet it feels not enough to fantasize about the heroine’s journey, instead of the hero’s. It feels like some faux medieval wet dream of a power suit, some trappings we women should don now, projected backward. Not today. (sorry)
The backward projection of the proverbial strong woman, who acts “manly” and grasps the same pseudo-historical hierarchical power, feels like a lazy story. It does little to expand our imaginations and hearts. Exaggeration of our current state may add to our processing for the present, but it doesn’t lead to growth.
What if we had no need for a queen to stand in for the (cruel/mad/benevolent/magically destined) king? What else would we imagine?
What if we tell more fantastic stories about the tensions and power of traditionally “female” and “feminine” slants on things? What is we play around with how hierarchy and equality functioned in past and might unfold in a sandbox of a world? Why are we destined to do battle, when the orcs are just as much in us as against us?
What if we wrote convincingly of reasoned revolution, creation, seduction, compassion, devotion? (I know, tall order.)
What if we set aside the narrative of the sword and let the carrier bag be our guide, chronicling the transformation of the vessel from estranged and hurt to vibrant and powerful? (To leap from Ursula Le Guin’s helpful metaphor) It’s hard because it’s less obvious, but it’s been done and it’s still doable.
I wrote The Mages in conversation with Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones (and Lord of the Rings, but that’s a different post). What I share below is my personal take. No judgement if you found something of interest, value, or meaning in the books. That’s good.
My perspective was my own, but I have to say it. I disliked the female characters, yes, even the “bad-ass” ones. They felt flimsy for the most part. I thought the sex sucked and the portrayal of female anatomy ridiculous. (Dude, she’s had a ton of kids, her husband is NOT putting the burn on her after a usual bout of fucking. And also, nursing a dragon? My nipples are not thanking you right now for that image, R.R.) Most of all, I hated the casual banter around whores and violence. It was like a dirty hot tub, gross and overly intimate and banal.
It was visceral thing. I write fantasy for the joy, the sensuous and intriguing and impossible joy of it. I get to go to parties that are fun, see places and faces that are ravishing and strange, meet characters with different limits and opportunities, perceive feelings that are hard to access in more “realistic” fiction.
Why imagine a world that is so fucking shitty? We have this shitty world; do we need another? Why don’t we demand more from our fantasies?
To get there, we need to look beyond the sword. We need to broaden our knowledge of the non-hierarchical strains of our human past, the cultural exchanges and blurrings, the peculiar local flavor and genius locii that inhabits a lot of art, craft, and text surrounding old places and eras. We need a deeper taste for life, its texture and habits. We need a vessel, a carrier bag, to put all the meaningful details and emotions into, to see what emerges as we meander.