I saw The Eagle a few weeks ago — it’s a tragic exploration of manhood, honor, idealism, and loyalty using ancient Rome as a visual motif. Kinda like Gladiator. Kinda like Spartacus. Kinda like Conan. I got a little bitter, and also soundly mocked by my friends. The thing is, I looove sword and sorcery/sword and sandal fantasy. Spartacus: Blood and Sand made me a very happy girl… but not as happy as reading the adventures of Tiger and Del did. What can I say? I want the genre to do more than have use women as symbols. Here’s a list of my faves… and why I think they rock.
What I love about this series: Look, you probably already know that Tanith Lee pushes psychosexual boundaries in glorious prose. What you might not have noticed is that she’s also a sharp critique of the mechanisms of conquest. Vazkor is especially interesting because it includes 1. colonized subjects 2. interacting with one another 3. and having varying experiences of colonization. Plus, the majority of the book is about women, their interactions with both men AND women, and their impact on Vazkor’s social status.
This long-running series features my FAVORITE couple! Tiger and Del fall in love, explore each other’s histories of trauma (Del was raped in the same raid where her brother was taken as a slave, Tiger was himself a slave for a while), AND have evolving relationships with their bodies as a result of that trauma. For example: Del sacrifices her fertility as part of her mission of vengeance, and eventually reacquires it as she recovers psychologically from her experiences with sexual violence and the destruction of her family — her deity gives it back not because she’s “earned” it but because Del herself is ready to think of a future beyond her rape and its aftermath. Tiger himself is beginning to explore his wyrding ways and is beginning to age.
Rifkind acted as the basis of TV’s Xena. I enjoy this series because Rifkind ages believably during it. She’s never a precisely LIKABLE character, but she’s believably prickly. Also: healer with a sword. Also: telepathic horses. Also: she tells off gods and goddesses.
Look. Together, they fight crime. I actually first encountered these characters AND Tiger and Del in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthology series. Oh my god. Such good, solid, feminist fantasy. If you’re new to this genre, I highly recommending picking up one of those anthologies and just immersing yourself in worlds where women ROCK, magic RULES, gender is AMBIGUOUS, and friends are TRUE. Anyways, back to Tarma and Kethry. Tarma’s clan has been wiped out and she’s sworn herself to regenerating it. Kethry has a sword named Need that’s bound to answer any woman’s need. I’m serious. Together, they fight crime. <3 Their repartee and honest-to-god friendship are truly fantastic. Plus, you know, they’re committed to helping ANY woman in need. <3
Remember Farfhrd and the Gray Mouser? And their occasional reference to Alyx the lock-pick? Yeah… This is that Alyx. She jokes about taking hairy Northmen to her bed, and secretly she’s an agent of Destiny or an everyday thief or the savior of her time. She’s an EPIC HEROINE like Elric is an EPIC HERO except unlike Elric she’s not a pissant, and when she falls in love it’s with causes and people. This is a short collection of stories, but it’s an amazing antidote to the “anti-hero” tendency in the genre. You can like Alyx because she’s a decent human being working in an indecent world.
Okay, so! Earth colonizes a really tiny, cold planet and when that colony gets lost, all kinds of weird shit happens. Like, people develop telepathy, women’s rights take a backseat to political maneuvering, and then BAM there are Free Amazons offering a way out of conservative gender norms and a way INTO contact with the Terrans once the Terrans realize that they’ve lost contact with a colony. This intriguing mix of SF/F features magic, epic quests, politics, and makes women’s bodies and stories central to the conversation. HEART.
This series was really one of my first fantasies. Sheila, a typical 1980s teen with a love on for Bon Jovi, gets swept away into an alternate universe where Illyria, a warrior princess, has been fomenting a revolution against an evil wizard, who’s not only been oppressing the country’s citizens, but has also turned Illyria’s lover (and the brothers/lovers/fathers of her women) into eagles. So, yeah, she’s fighting to knock down an oppressive government AND to free her boyfriend. Now! SPOILERS TIME. They totally kick the wizard’s ass in book three, and Sheila gets sent back to the “real world” … where girls who’ve taken down evil, know how to throw a punch, shoot an arrow, and know there’s more to true love than kissing aren’t exactly out about their awesomeness. So… Sheila sneaks back. The next three books feature Sheila learning about magic, loyalty, and real courage, AND growing into the kind of woman who can be confident in ANY world because she knows her own worth. I FUCKING LOVE THESE BOOKS, but sadly don’t own a copy. They’re now available in omnibus editions and that makes me THRILLED.
I know Marion Zimmer Bradley’s on this list twice, but come on! I wouldn’t know about SOAPWORT without her. Seriously, she wrote historically detailed fantasy that challenged readers to think about canonical mythologies in new ways. I was lucky enough to read Firebrand, Antigone, Wonder Woman, and The Gate to Women’s Country all about the same time. Sooooo yeah. My first taste of Greek myth placed women and their experiences front and center. Much, much more satisfying than Dan Simmon’s Illium
I just mentioned The Gate to Women’s Country when talking about Firebrand. All I can say is that this is both postapocalyptic AND sword and sandal. Basically, women live in women’s country and men live in men’s country, except for those few men who live inside with the women. Unbeknown to the women of Marthatown, Stavia and Chernon have a forbidden relationship: she smuggles him books, something forbidden to the men outside the walls. Their friendship will have a profound effect on both Marthatown and their lives. It’s SO HARD not to be spoilery with this novel — like all Sheri S. Tepper stuff this critiques gender, biology, and destiny while at the same time refusing to offer any easy answers.
OH MY GOD. Sun Wolf and Starhawk are mercenaries. Sun Wolf likes his women pretty, soft, and pliant. He has NO IDEA Starhawk, his fierce second-in-command, loves him. So much so, that when he’s kidnapped to train the ladies of Mandrigyn into a fighting force able to defend their town against the world’s last wizard, Starhawk rushes to the rescue. What follows is a novel analyzing love (professional, romantic, fraternal, and familial) as Starhawk, Sun Wolf, and the ladies of Mandrigyn marshal their resources to protect those people and things most dear to their heart.