Favorite Feminist Sword and Sorcery/Sword and Sandal

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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.

1. The Birthgrave/Quest for the White Witch/Vazkor, Son of Vazkor

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.

2. The Novels of Tiger and Del

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.

3. Rifkind

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.

 

4. Tarma and Kethry

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

5.The Adventures of Alyx

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.

6. Darkover

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.

7. The Secret of the Unicorn Queen

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.

8. The Firebrand

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

9. The Gate to Women’s Country

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.

10. The Ladies of Mandrigyn

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. 

Comments

  1. says

    Jo Walton’s “The King’s Peace”. It’s more or less an Arthurian re-imagining, where the main character is somewhat like a female Lancelot. I thought it was pretty awesome.

  2. says

    These all sound wonderful! And I’ve only read the Tarma/Kethry series, so most of them are new to me. I will definitely check them out.

    One of the themes I really liked in the Tarma/Kethry series was the sexuality. (May be some mild SPOILERS in this paragraph.) Tarma sacrificed her sexuality when she dedicated herself to the goddess. She is repeatedly described as a weapon as sexless as her sword. There are a couple of times when other people don’t understand how she can live without sex, but she never regrets her choice. Kethry, on the other hand, volunteers her childbearing services and pops out babies as fast as she can. And while Kethry was sort of donating her reproduction to her bestie Tarma, it’s also made explicit that she loves her children very much and is a great mother to them. I really liked how the two extremes of sexlessness and fecundity were contrasted, each a perfectly suitable choice.

    My recommendations:

    1) Anything by Tamora Pierce. You could start at the beginning with Alanna: The First Adventure, about a girl who trades places with her twin brother and cross dresses to train as a knight. That message is very much rah-rah girl-power. Personally, I prefer some of her later work such as Terrier, about a girl named Beka who becomes a police officer in a fantasy city. Women are presumed to have legal equality, but in social practice they don’t so much. For example, the slang for police officer is “the Provost’s dogs”, the slang for a police station a “kennel”. Well, some people take it one step further and call female police officers “bitches”, which really gets under their skin.

    All of TP’s characters work towards their own individual dreams, whether they’re math geniuses who love reading or outdoorsy types who can’t stand being cooped up with dusty books, and fulfilling their unique destiny is a big theme. Many of her characters have sex (without being shamed for it), and they all plan ahead and use protection when they do.

    2) The Sharing Knife by Lois McMaster Bujold. There are the Lakewalkers, magical nomads who dedicate their lives to destroying monsters, and “farmers”, anyone without magic who generally don’t believe in the monsters. Neither side has much respect for the other. Farmers have patriarchal values. Lakewalkers are matrilineal, with no theoretical basis for gender discrimination but in practice some bias towards men as warriors, women as mothers. The main story is a romance between Dag the Lakewalker and Fawn the farmer, but it’s really a coming of age for Fawn.

    There’s so many awesome social dynamics I squee over. Fawn is pregnant when the story opens, and it shows her experience with losing her virginity and being an unwed mother in a society that places value on female chastity. There are some wonderful scenes where she explores her sexuality and has her first orgasm, which is deliberately contrasted to earlier, uncomfortable experiences. There’s a funny/thoughtful scene where a man wonders how it is some girls can go through puberty without learning to masturbate, and a female friend has to explain to him that when you’re taught to think of sex as dirty and your body as shameful, you don’t go looking around in your pants. And just in general there’s a lot of consideration given to what it means to be a woman and to be a good daughter/wife/mother.

    3) When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs. PB tends to be a little hit and miss for me on the feminism front (she gets a lot right and she gets a lot wrong) but when you mentioned the conflicts of colonized subjects this one sprang to mind. The city fell to invading forces when the main character Sham was only a little girl. 15 years later, she uses her magic and her thieving skill to undermine the occupying forces wherever possible. Kerim is the leader of the occupiers, sent to integrate the city into their new empire.

    The conflict between the two populations is at the heart of the story; at what point do your new overlords stop being your oppressors and start being your neighbors? And the cultural conflict is what allows the main problem to grow so large; since the invaders don’t believe in magic and scoff at the natives’ superstition, they are totally unequipped to handle it when a demon starts eating people. Kerim has to hire Sham to find the murderer that can walk through walls and disappear without a trace, even though he remains patronizingly skeptical of her abilities.

    4) The Trouble with Heroes edited by Denise Little. An anthology focusing on what the great heroes were really like, from the point of view of a woman who knew them better than the historians. Many of the stories are about the Greek myths such as Hercules and Medea, but they skip all over the place.

    5) The Stepsister Scheme etc. by Jim C. Hines. Fairy tale princesses – they fight crime. I really like the way the different versions of the fairy tales are played with. The Disney versions are the in-universe rumors about the main characters, the Grimm versions the “true” stories that actually happened to them. Especially with Sleeping Beauty, who makes it very clear that being raped in your sleep is not romantic. Also notable because the third book passes the Bechdel Test three ways: two woman about not a man, two POC about not a White, and two QUILTBAGs about not a straight.

  3. Korva says

    I read a lot by Mercedes Lackey as a teen, and I was indeed fascinated by Tarma and Kethry after discovering them in a fantasy anthology. What bugs me about the two (and Lackey in general) is that there is a lot of rape. I don’t care if that is “realistic”, but I really don’t enjoy that at all. It’s bad enough that we all have that danger hanging over our heads IRL, so I just don’t want the girls/women (or men, even) I root for, identify with or play as in my entertainment to suffer it too. Not to mention that if it’s used to as reason for why female character does what she does, it also bothers me that she isn’t fighting/doing magic/whatever because she WANTS to, but because of what a man did to her.

    Though to be fair, I don’t remember Lackey’s rape victims being all about angst/revenge for that crime, they primarily had other motivations.

  4. says

    Loved Tarma and Kethry–although, these days, I have to raise a cynical eyebrow at the in-universe motivation for Tarma’s asexuality. Does sexuality really make someone less impartial than any other kind of relationship? I know I’m far more biased toward my family and platonic friends than I am toward any of the guys I’ve fooled around with. ;)

    Really, really loved Ladies of Mandrigyn, and am so glad someone else mentioned it. I particularly liked Starhawk’s approach to what she thought was unrequited love: no pining, no fits of jealousy, just being a friend and moving on. That’s something I see too rarely from either sex, particularly in fiction. (Also? Sun Wolf’s love interest at the beginning is smarter, tougher, and less romantic than she seems, and she and Starhawk become friends. Which: AWESOME.) Also, I am a giant sucker for anything involving training montages, so there we are.

  5. says

    Korva,
    Yeah, early Lackey was heavy on the rape-and-general-trauma. (The first two Valdemar trilogies in particular: GAH.) And I agree both that it’s not something I want in my fiction and that I’m really, really sick of it as a reason for women to do things.

    The Tarma and Kethry series seemed like a transition into her later books, which generally don’t involve rape-as-drama or teenagers with low self-esteem, thank God.

  6. Amanda W. says

    I’d also add Katharine Kerr’s Deverry series to this (15 volume epic though it is). Deverrian culture is strongly sexist, but the series itself is feminist, IMHO, both in the sense that it confronts the implications of that sexism and in the sense that women’s bodies and stories are central to it. One of the central premises of the original novels is the self-realization (across incarnations) of the major female protagonist (you’re dealing with a significant core cast of at least three characters), and the later novels feature an expanding cast of varied female characters. Even in the early ones, there are some pretty interesting female side characters along with the central one, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for them: they all come to different terms with the limits society places (or tries to place) on their agency.

  7. M.C. says

    I cannot even begin to explain how much I love Marion Zimmer Bradley’s writing. The Mists of Avalon is my favourite novel ever and the Darkover series introduced me to Science Fiction.
    Have you read her Atlantis novel Web of Light / Web of Darkness?

  8. Lindsey says

    Lynn Flewelling wrote a trilogy about a female protagonist who is raised thinking she is a boy, starting with The Bone Doll’s Twin. The first book is earnestly creepy and compelling, the second deals with the gender issues raised by the premise. The third is sort of weaker, but it ties up the story neatly.

    Ellen Kushner’s Privilege of the Sword is more swashbuckly than sword-and-sorcery but it’s definitely about a strong young woman with a very bad (in a non-molesty way) uncle.

  9. says

    Lindsey,

    I had The Bone Doll’s Twin anti-recommended to me as un-feminist for man-bashing. This person said that the land was sick because the ruler was a man, and it would be healed by putting a woman on the throne, regardless of their moral characters. They also said that the “evil” ruler seemed very competent and a good manager, with his only flaw being the wrong sort of genitalia.

    Do you have a response to that? I haven’t read the books myself because I’m not interested in gender essentialism regardless of which gender it favors.

  10. says

    Isabel C.,

    It’s been a few years since I’ve read Tarma/Kethry, but I thought the in-universe explanation for her impartiality is that she’s supposed to have no particular family as her own, but the entire clan as her family. The fact that the entire clan currently consists of one family made the distinction a little blurry.

    Lackey and rape as drama…ugh. I like her books that leave it out far, far more.

  11. Maria says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Yeah, she’s asexual, but at the same time the mother/genetrix/father of the whole clan — she kinda adopts Kethry as both clanswoman and daughter. I think.

  12. Maria says

    Amanda W.,

    I love the Deverry novels, too. It’s been a while since I’ve read them, though, and I gotta say that I haven’t read EVERY. SINGLE. VOLUME. After a certain point, I was like, EVERYONE HERE NEEDS BETTER INCARNATIONS. No excuses, go achieve enlightenment and come back to this plane once you’ve LEARNED YOUR LESSON.

  13. says

    Maria,

    Seriously! And being very pragmatic, especially towards the end.

    Plus, I’m generally going to give points to anything that averts the “we are both into the same guy, and therefore we must hate each other” trope. Because oh my God, do I ever hate that trope. So much.

  14. says

    Isabel C.,

    Well, I think it says something about the novels, not you. :) Our society tends to correlate sexuality with family (the two most contentious same-sex issues are marriage and adoption), but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees. And I think Lackey was working from that framework of sexuality=family.

    • Maria says

      Working against it though, no? Tarma always felt like a much more… generative character than Kethry. Like, without Tarma, Kethry would’ve been some chick with a sword. Tarma gave her focus and a family.

  15. says

    Maria,

    It’s true many of Tamora Pierce’s stories are set in cities. Some exceptions, like The Woman Who Rides Like a Man being set almost entirely in a desert village, but in general medieval-ish fantasy cities. Not sure what sub-genre that makes it though – I have trouble applying the label Urban Fantasy to it since that tends to play with a very different setting and set of tropes.

    But if you like journeys through countrysides you should like the upcoming Mastiff book – it’s supposed to be Beka’s quest across the country to track down some kidnappers.

    • Maria says

      I’d still say it was urban fantasy — there are many kinds of cities after all! Tortall and its capital certainly feel like a character, too, particularly in the Beka series.

  16. Korva says

    Isabel C.: Hell yeah, me too. For me it’s a big flashing warning sign that I will in all likelihood NOT enjoy that story or its characters, be it in a book, movie, game or other medium.

    The Ladies of Mandrigyn sound interesting, but apparently hard to get a hold of.

  17. Korva says

    Isabel C., I forgot to add that despite my problems with Lackey (the frequent rapes in the early books and the abundance of One True Magical Love Pairings combined with at least two cases of “I’ll kill your lover to give you a reason to wangst but don’t worry you’ll get a better one later”), I do have a soft spot for her because as a mentally damaged/ill teenage girl in desperate need of female role models, I found some things in her books that did appeal a lot to me. Talia’s insecurity for example was something I could (and still can) utterly identify with. And hey, I admit it, I’m a horse-lover so the concept of a magical talking horse was nice too. ;)

    What I also liked is that Lackey has various societies in which women are (more or less) equal to men. I much prefer that over sexist settings because, as with rape, hateful patriarchy is something we see in our lives or on the news every day so I really enjoy getting away from that in my entertainment.

  18. Alara Rogers says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    It’s true that it’s entirely presented from the characters’ own POV as “the ruler must be a woman because otherwise the land will be destroyed”, but the male ruler is not a good person. He usurped the throne from his sister because she appears to be mentally ill (although there are implications that she is mentally ill because he usurped the throne from her, or because he did something to her to accomplish usurping the throne), and would have killed her newborn daughter to ensure that his own son would be his successor. We don’t get to see what happens to the land if there’s a good ruler who just happens to be male, because that never happens.

    I’m not particularly troubled by the gender essentialism, myself, because Flewelling’s universe has absolutely no shortage of strong male heroes (a series she writes in the same universe, taking place in the same land, but in the future, features gay men who are partners in love and magical spycraft, swashbuckling around and saving the day together.) Given all the real world applications of “the ruler has to be a man!”, encountering a fictional representation of “the ruler has to be a woman!” seems to me to be balance rather than essentialism, given that there’s nothing wrong with being *male*, just that there is something wrong with being *king*, in that particular country (other countries do fine with male rulers.)

  19. says

    Alara Rogers:
    It’s true that it’s entirely presented from the characters’ own POV as “the ruler must be a woman because otherwise the land will be destroyed”, but the male ruler is not a good person.

    there’s nothing wrong with being *male*, just that there is something wrong with being *king*, in that particular country (other countries do fine with male rulers.)

    Thank you for clarifying.

    I remain unconvinced that it’s better for a fictional society, without our modern society’s misogynist hang ups, to exclude one gender over another from leadership roles, but I appreciate your point of view. :)

  20. Sarah says

    Alara Rogers,

    If you are referring to the mother, she wasn’t mentally ill until after the birth of her children. The lengths which were gone to save and hide the baby girl and the continuous presence of the boy ghost are what made and kept her unhinged.

    If I recall correctly the king had probably killed his mother (which no one would have been too upset about since she was both deranged and sadistic) and took over technically as regent for his baby sister. Over years though he decided not to give up power, married his sister out into the hinterlands, and his female relatives started dying in suspicious ways.

  21. says

    Maria,

    See, when I think Urban Fantasy, I think of a very specific subgenre of fantasy: Anita Blake, The Dresden Files, Mercy Thompson, Sookie Stackhouse. More or less contemporary setting, film noir influences, a strong central protagonist (very likely to be female) with a traumatic past who is probably sarcastic, likely a private investigator / law enforcement, and theirs is the only or the primary POV.

    I think of the defining characteristic as less about place and more about the central character; “urban” would therefore translate to “contemporary” (you could also argue it translates to “dark and gritty” by way of the film noir influences). By my definition, you could have a female cop cracking jokes while investigating vampire murders in Podunk, Nowhere and still qualify as Urban Fantasy.

    The definition I heard for Sword and Sorcery is that it’s set in a distinctly different world from our own, but focuses on individual problems (as opposed to the saving the world focus of epic fantasy). That’s the definition I was working off of when I included Tamora Pierce.

    But I think genre labels in general are open to many interpretations (The Dragonriders of Pern has both dragons and space ships: science fiction or fantasy?).

  22. says

    Maria,

    I’m starting to get really confused on what I’m saying about Tarma/Kethry vis a vis Tarma’s sexuality, which is generally a sign that I need to reread the books and clarify my own position. :P

    I interpreted Tarma’s sacrifice of her sexuality as intended to disconnect her from specific members of the clan and dedicate herself to the clan as a whole, but I’m not certain how accurate that interpretation is to what the author intended.

    Certainly Tarma is the head / founder of the entire clan considering that at one point she was the last one left, and every member who comes after is descended from a blood bond with her. And if I recall correctly, her gruff, stoic manner of treating the clan younglings was presented as the counterpart to Kethry’s warm, empathic style and so both of them were framed as parents of the clan.

  23. Maria says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Oh! I think of stories where the character of the city matters and where the story would not be the same without it. So like, Lady Lazarus (http://thehathorlegacy.com/reviews-in-brief-%E2%80%94-the-king%E2%80%99s-last-song-passion-play-lady-lazarus/), the stories of New Bedford by Charles de Lint, The City Not Long After, Urban Fey, the Beka series by Tamara Pierce, Wicked Gentlemen (http://thehathorlegacy.com/wicked-gentlemen-ginn-hale/), the Domino Riley series (which can’t really partake of film noir traditions in the same way, because from what I understand those center whiteness?), the LA Banks series, and maybe even some of the Krondor books. If sword and sorcery is about making family/home through movement/journey/travel, then urban fantasy is about places/cities as characters.

  24. says

    Maria,

    The city can definitely be a character but can’t you use that trope in any genre? From sci fi where cities can be literal characters (The Ship Who series) to realistic fic like Scarface (“this city is a…”).

    (which can’t really partake of film noir traditions in the same way, because from what I understand those center whiteness?),

    I wasn’t aware that film noir was any more centered on the White experience than the rest of the time period (1920’s – 50’s). And I’m not sure why a POC wouldn’t be able to follow in the traditions both of yesteryear’s genre and of the modern genre that builds on it. That’s not defensiveness – I am genuinely ignorant.

    sword and sorcery is about making family/home through movement/journey/travel

    That’s a definition I hadn’t heard before. It’s a more complete version of what I have heard, it being about individuals and their personal issues.

  25. Maria says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    I don’t see why you couldn’t use it in any genre — like there are some mystery novels like, say, the Cat Who series that don’t really “depend” on a particular city to work, but then the Inspector Monk series wouldn’t quite work if it wasn’t London during a particular time… or like Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mystery series or even mafia novels. Or are all those just generically mysteries?

    Re film noir: From what I understand about film noir, POC are always used to symbolize immorality and excess, and sometimes tragedy brought about by hubris.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=LXYNUyz50v8C&pg=PA162&lpg=PA162&dq=film+noir+people+of+color%22&source=bl&ots=jiSq6yTv4V&sig=xCmpYmLVO-IwT58eAMk4T5oo4Hg&hl=en&ei=Y2WuTa7ZLMzdgQef-PyaDA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5&sqi=2&ved=0CCsQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=film%20noir%20people%20of%20color%22&f=false

    http://books.google.com/books?id=fNamF1Wi2cIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=film+noir+%22people+of+color%22&source=bl&ots=PdDBhPEktg&sig=0U7Rn6lZPEThxg-Rx5Jocwcfk88&hl=en&ei=8GWuTfTBLtS5tgfo_9XbAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=film%20noir%20%22people%20of%20color%22&f=false
    (look at pg 29)

    In neither analysis is there much space for POC to be main characters without some heavy baggage

  26. says

    Maria,

    (Your second link doesn’t have a page 29 so I’m not sure what you were pointing to specifically.)

    Thank you for the links. Those are insightful analyses. I was aware of the way film noir used light and shadow to symbolize good and evil but I wasn’t aware they extended that pattern to skin tone. From the 2nd article:

    “Leave it to white folk to turn chiaroscuro into a racially coded metaphor for the ‘dark’ places of the white self.” -Eric Lott

    Which is really depressing because I’m fond of other film noir characteristics and I had no idea how problematic it was. :(

  27. Alara Rogers says

    Re film noir: From what I understand about film noir, POC are always used to symbolize immorality and excess, and sometimes tragedy brought about by hubris.

    Also, women are generally used to represent madonna/whore dichotomies and the destructive force of sexuality, but that does not make it less awesome to read a film noir-style story where the hard-boiled detective is a woman and the sexy person who comes into her office with a need to hire her is a man.

    POC can absolutely be centered in “film noir”-style novels (since “film noir” is, in fact, a movie genre, no novel is technically film noir.) All you *really* need is: most people are corrupt; humans aren’t generally good people; sex can be a weapon; the main character is cynical and hard-boiled, but often has a hidden core of idealism and compassion, which the storyline often does its best to crush out of them… there’s absolutely no reason the tropes that define something as film noir can’t be about a POC, even if the actual originating movies that made the trope always treated POC as immoral or something.

    I mean, you can write a story about the Exotic Other in which your main character is Japanese and the Inscrutable Exotic Others are Americans. (The Japanese do this a lot, actually.) Just because the way a trope is usually handled tends to treat people of a certain race or gender in a bad way, doesn’t mean it always needs to do it that way.

    Film noir isn’t about being white, but it’s *not* about being a person of color (or any kind of minority)… because the philosophy is that everyone’s corrupt, you can’t set up a dynamic where it’s Type A People, which the main character belongs to, are being shat upon by Type B People via a systemic oppressive hierarchy; the main character has to be suspicious of *everybody*. So you could do it in a story where you just plain ignored race, or you could do it in a story where everyone was black, but it would be kind of hard to pull off with a black main character in a historically accurate American milieu because the theme of “everyone is corrupt” doesn’t interact well with the theme of “the main character is oppressed because of his or her nature.” However, I *have* seen it pulled off with white women, so it should be quite possible to do with POC.

  28. denimqueen says

    Haha. thanks for writing this. If I had a list like this when I was younger I’d be into a lot more fantasy. Ciao! :D

  29. havocthecat says

    These books are basically the reading interest of my childhood and why I got SO CONFUSED when watching the old school Conan flicks, because the women didn’t seem to be the main characters. (Grace Jones, though, oh, Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer, so amazing.) It also explains why Red Sonja was the sword and sorcery flick that I always watched when it aired. (Yes, I understand the problematic bits and the feminist critiques of Red Sonja, but, hey, it was the eighties and I was a kid. I took what I could get.)

    • Maria says

      I just read Queen Sonja, one of the trades in the Red Sonja series. Despite the lingerie-y drawing, it wasn’t half bad.

  30. Lindsey says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    The ruler himself was not a particularly good leader–he was pretty clearly marshaling the forces of the nation to march to his own drum and was violating old religious practices that literally affected the health of the kingdom. The land had had numerous other male rulers, but they were disfavored against female rulers because that was the tradition and ancient prophecy predicted the return of a legendary queen, who is of course the series lead.

    The usurper-male also sought to enforce very narrow gender roles on a culture that had not previously had such. He was portrayed as pretty much a narcissistic strongman thug, but this was not essential to his gender–there were many men in the series who opposed him. His son was even worse, a coward and weak-willed, though a large part of this came from the manipulations of an evil wizard who worked for years to destroy the boy’s will and sanity.

  31. Alara Rogers says

    Maria,

    Not at all. They’re necessary components of film noir, but urban fantasy doesn’t *always* intersect film noir.

    Some examples of urban fantasy that are *not* aligned with film noir include Patricia Briggs’ Mercy series, in which the main character is a mechanic who believes that people, in general, are usually pretty decent; Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, which frankly tracks closer to superhero fiction than film noir, and has a main character who presents as a stereotypically feminine woman in a kind of Sex and the City model (obsessed with fashion and romance); or, in the same universe by the same author, the Outcast series, where the main character is, in essence, a fallen angel in human form who is a very cool, aloof woman with no concept of things like fashion (but also a heroic character, who has fallen because she refused to destroy humanity… actually she is one of my favorites.) or Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, which is much more literally urban fantasy (it’s actually about the bizarre, modern magic of cities, where the main character does things like disperse garbage monsters by invoking the names of garbage collection companies, or keeps a monster from following him into the subway by an incantation consisting of the subway rules that say you have to have a ticket.) That one is a touch closer to film noir in that the lines between the good guys and the bad guys might get blurry, and the hero is sort of a traditional guy in trenchcoat who helps people, but the utter weirdness of it all keeps it from having any component of the cynicism of film noir.

    Actually, I ought to point out that though the Matthew Swift series is about a white guy, nearly *all* the important supporting cast in it are POCs… the antagonist that the hero has reluctant romantic/friendship tension with but who is ideologically opposed to him is a black woman, the person he ends up taking on as his apprentice is a black woman, the guy who used to be the magical mayor of London was a black man… his former apprentice and lover has a name that suggests she’s Japanese-British, although I can’t recall if we are ever told what she looks like. But I don’t know of any language group but Japanese that contains the last name Mikeda. Another very important supporting cast member (at least in the second and third books of the series) is a white woman. (And the third book passes the Bechdel test in a big way by having one of the central relationships to the plot be a woman and her sister, and one of the major tensions of the book be between the white female assistant and the black female apprentice, because the apprentice once almost destroyed London and the assistant has a lot of good reasons to resent her and fear her for that.)

  32. M.C. says

    Maria:
    I have but not for years. I’ve heard that it’s the set up for Mists, tho, so keep meaning to revisit it.

    I haven’t reread it for some time, but I remember only one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference in Mists with Igraine having a dream or something…

  33. Katherine says

    Yay! I was looking for some more feminist fantasy to read. Thanks everyone, this will give me a bit to get through, depending of course on what I can get at the library.

  34. ninjapenguin says

    Korva,

    Hambly’s early stuff has just come out in e-book format! So now you can find them again. All of her SFF stuff seems to be really good on the feminist angles. Her Darwath trilogy has a female academic and a male biker/artist drawn into a world of magic. Guess who becomes the fighter and who becomes the mage? The Windrose books have as heroine a computer programmer. I haven’t read Those Who Hunt the Night yet, but I hear it mentioned a lot as a vampire book for people who don’t like vampire books.

  35. says

    Just seconding recs for Hambly. She features protagonists and love interests who are – gasp! – not beautiful! In a fantasy setting! Seriously, it makes you realize how thoroughly the genre, for the most part, marginalizes non-beautiful people. Or am I the only one who gets the sense from fantasy that I’m being told, “Because you are not conventionally gorgeous, your life will be boring and unremarkable. We present this fantasy so you can pretend for a few minutes you are not such a huge loser, you sad thing” ?

    • Maria says

      And what I loike the most about that is that it’s not a “secret pretty” kinda thing, like where the description of the character is actually conventionally attractive, but where you’re supposed to believe that she’s socially really ugly. That comes in LKH’s work a LOT (both Anita and Merry are thin and busty… in a world where thin and busty = hot) and in a lot of romance books.

  36. Jane says

    For those getting interested in Hambly, note that there are more novels about Starhawk and Sun Wolf than Ladies of Mandrigyn. The sequels are The Witches of Wenshar and The Dark Hand of Magic. And they are great.

  37. ninjapenguin says

    Jane,

    And if you’re really into Hambly’s stuff, check out the deal she has on her website where you can buy new short stories in her various universes (including the Sunwolf and Starhawk one) for $5 each. Liz Williams does something similar as well with her Inspector Chen books as well. I think it’s a really neat idea.

  38. Maria says

    Maria,

    MY B. I see now that I read the large paragraphs, and not the small one at the top where it’s just names and not story/article descriptors.

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