reviews in brief

I went home to New Orleans last week! It was great — then I found out why the tickets were on sale. 😛

While visiting fam, I got to do a lot of reading. Most of it wasn’t memorable, and actually was completely full of fail, but I’m gonna use this to talk about one of the key points of awesome female characters.

The first thing I read were the three books in Barry Hughart’s Master Li series — Bridge of Birds, Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. They’re about a “China that never was” — presumably one filled with randomly beautiful young maidens who are secretly mad goddesses who’ve forgotten their pasts. I… wish I were lying. But so anyways, the basic plot of all three novels is that Master Li, a wizened, impossibly old, alcoholic, and dishonest genius, is a master detective. Number Ten Ox is his embarrassingly strong sidekick. Together? They fight crime. The crime in question is generally supernatural, and, again, involves absent-minded maidens in need of rescue, except they’re totally not the point, since the real villain is generally a male diety who then they totally need to go out and conquer. Oddly, these maidens (who are the only significant female characters and are basically interchangeable ACROSS BOOKS, if you can imagine that) find Number Ten Ox desperately attractive. I’m not sure why, since he sounds like an oaf.

During my layover, I started The Shattered World by Michael Reaves. Interesting premise — millenniums ago, a pissy sorcerer grew quite wroth and SMASHED THE FRICKING GLOBE. It was rage o a global scale, y’all. Anywho, the other mages on the planet did some quick repair-work and kept all the chunks of the planet in orbit around each other so they could still share an atmosphere and support life. This is neat because all the chunks have a different gravitational pull and different day-night cycles, because they’re all different sizes. Sadly, what seems like an incredibly neat concept is totally marred by randomly intuitive female characters (they’re epically powerful, but don’t know how they do their magics — it’s very “men are to culture, women are to nature”), dumb male characters who have random epiphanies that the female character they’re with is secretly their soulmate, and angst. The basic plot is that guy A is a thief who sometimes turns into a bear who steals the anchor stone for guy B’s castle, so the castle will eventually go out of orbit and take a sizeable chunk of the world with it. Guy B has been sleeping with guy C’s wife, so guy C teams up with guy B’s enemies (including Ardatha Deathhand, who is the only character with a memorable name), and wreaks havoc. None of the lady characters have pasts, either. Unlike Hughart’s forgetful goddesses, these chicks just aren’t WORTHY of a past, because really, the main emotional dynamic is between the guy characters, and their journeys to self-acceptance.

I was a sad panda by the time I actually flew in. At this point, I’d read FOUR BOOKS where amnesiac female characters were a symbolic plot point. So, I decided to kick it old school, and read a picture book. Pigasus by Pat Murphy (who also wrote The City Not Long After) was fantastic. Pigasus, delightfully depicted in overalls, is the only pig she knows who can fly. Her mom is totally worried about her, because Pigasus likes to do cartwheels, and sometimes the other animals tease her for looking foolish. After all, pigs can’t fly! Pigasus is sad about this, and resolves to stop flying so much. HOWEVER — a bird steals her mom’s nose-ring, so Pigasus has to flew quick and fast to save the day!

Okay, tell me why a book of less than 300 words managed to pack more female character development than FOUR full length BOOKS? Pigasus emerges as real, vital, and brave in less than 30 pages. She has conversations with several other female characters, about something other than boys, and, most importantly, she’s not a character without a past. She’s got a mom, she’s got friends, and she’s not a mysterious symbol dunked down to represent light or idealism or naivete to inspire OTHER characters to great action. Geez! If Murphy can do this in a kid’s book, you’d think other authors, using more words in a more adult medium, would be able to WORK. IT. OUT.


  1. Alecia says

    If you’re wanting books with strong female characters I’d have to suggest The Black-Jewel Trilogy series and other books by Anne Bishop as well as Warrior and Witch by Marie Brennan. What I’ve noticed is that books that have a magic perspective (some of them) have very strong women who will not take crap from anyone. But you really have to search for them. Another series with strong women is The Dragonriders of Pern series. The Clan of the Cavebear series is really good too. The main character learns just what it means to be herself and learns that in order to be truly happy she has to be true to herself and not let others tell her just who she is. Sorry for the run-on sentence. :)

    But yeah, those are just a few of the series that have very strong female characters. Check them out!


  2. gategrrl says

    I think Pern was discussed here as having a plethora of rapes, subjecting main characters to unwanted or forced sex?

    I’ve read Clan of the Cave Bear series up until the latest one with Horse in the title, and wondered why it took the author over ten years to get it out on the shelf. After I read it, I discovered why.

  3. Izzy says

    Yeah, Pern…gets vaaaaguely better in the later novels, but still sets up a fanfuckingtastic virgin/whore dichotomy. Good girls are chaste until they meet the Right Guy and have kids; women who want sex right away, want sex without kids, or God forbid want sex outside a monogamous relationship are evil harpies who end up dying and deserving it. And the first three books are absolutely horrific–good girls wait until the man they love rapes them, bad girls end up in vegetative states and everyone is glad. The Harper Hall series doesn’t do this so much, possibly because it’s YA and thus doesn’t deal with sex a lot, and is generally worth taking out of the library at least once.

    Also, McCaffrey’s RL views on homosexuality are a world of batshit. Which is why I said “taking out of the library” rather than “buying”–YMMV, but she’s not getting any more of my cash.

    I recommend Naomi Novik, actually. All of the scifi-dragon-bonding-with-rider awesomeness, none of the obnoxious views of gender and sexuality. The series takes place from a male (1800s male, yet!) POV, but the female characters are distinct and developed; you never get the impression that they’re Princess-Toadstool-style rewards for the guy; and they have kids without turning into Nurturing Mommy Stereotypes. (Which I’m not a fan of, and Quentin Tarentino can bite me.)

    Clan of the Cave Bear is good, but the rest of the series descends rapidly into Sue-tasticity, with Ayla inventing damn near everything but math, really bad sex scenes, and an Ancient Not!Wiccan Religion that makes my fillings hurt. Also, I seem to remember Auel referring to a penis as a “woman-maker” at least a few times, which: ew.

    Actually, vaguely related to the Harper Hall stuff: I find that YA books often have better female characters than their adult equivalents. There are exceptions, natch, but I only rarely want to throw YA fantasy across the room for its depiction of women the way I did, say, the Wheel of Time books.

  4. The OTHER Maria says

    I’m not a big McCaffery fan, tho I did like the Talents series. I think her SF is substantially better than her fantasy, tho for both she seems to rely on romance as a major plot point.

    TBH I’m also not big on the Black Jewels — they seem to rely on the same sort of good girl/bad girl/non-consensual sex is sexy sorta thing you get in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. It’s really squicky to me.

    I’ve heard really great things about the Naomi Novik series, tho.

    Alecia, what criteria are you using to judge strength in female characters?

  5. Fraser Sherman says

    I don’t recall any rape in Dragonflight, which was the first book, unless you count Lessa mating when her dragon does. And I would count her as a good, strong female character.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    I don’t recall any rape in Dragonflight, which was the first book, unless you count Lessa mating when her dragon does.

    Hell, yes, that was rape. Lessa does not “mate when her dragon does” – she gets raped when her dragon mates. There is no indication Lessa found herself suddenly aroused and swept up in this unexpected moment: she’s bewildered, and it’s not a pleasant experience. But after that he’s always real sweet, so that clearly justifies the rape in McCaffrey’s eyes. That’s six kinds of fucked up.

    It seemed to me if the dragons’ mating caused the riders to suddenly want to mate, too, Lessa should have suddenly found herself feeling strange new urges which the mating experience unexpectedly satisfied. But no, McCaffrey instead reaffirmed that sex is for men, and we girls must just endure as best we can.

    I also found it impossible to consider the guy a decent human being when he could’ve warned her in advance what was going to happen, but didn’t. That’s very strange behavior from someone who supposedly cares about you.

  7. The OTHER Maria says

    Lessa’s terrified during that scene. I mean, she’s a 19 yr old semi-virgin, who’s not aroused to whom no one’s really explained ANYTHING, suddenly getting mounted. I really stopped liking F’lar as a character after that scene, especially since he’s like 10 yrs older than Lessa and supposed to care about her.

  8. draconismoi says

    For urban fantasy type novel that are not just sex-with-supernaturals, I would recommend Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series and Laura Ann Gilman’s the Retreivers. Good strong female characters, with fleshed out histories and agency.

    For a general list of awesome books with real characterizations of women, GLBTQ and POC, see the feminist sf blog’s poll – I just added every book mentioned to my reading list, even if it didn’t make the top 10. :)

    But yes, Pern is horrifically sexist. Even when they get back to the prequel style books before the feudal society developed – all women are EVIL WHORES or just want babies. Because propagation = virtue

  9. Izzy says

    For urban fantasy, I’d also recommend Magic Bites and Magic Burns, though I can’t name the author just off the bat: cool heroine who seems pretty comfortable with who she is, at least as a fighting woman.

    And Pern…yeah. I can fanwank the Lessa scene to be “they were both aroused and her reaction afterwards was less rape-victim and more morning-after-regrets” so that I can actually read the books without going bazoo, but I know damn well that it’s fanwank. Knowing McCaffrey intended it to be rape, and knowing she intended that rape to be the precursor to a loving relationship…ew.

    draconismoi: Yeah. I remember Dragonsdawn as being slightly better, but still, Sallah and Sorka are presented as only sexual within the context of True Love with The One Guy. Plus they’re both open to kids, and Sallah seems to actively want them; plus Sallah, who does initiate sex, does not exactly end well, and “dead in space” is not an awesome third option to add to “virginal or evil”. Whereas Avril, who’s the only woman presented as non-monogamously sexual…yeah, EVIL SPACE WHORE.

    Shut up, Anne.

  10. says

    Getting back to commenting (for the moment, gack, Real Life for the Not-Win) – I’m disappointed to hear that about Bridge of Birds etc because those have been on my list of “books with great reputations in the fantasy-in-non-medievally-Europeish setting that I should read someday” for years, and I actually did find one recently in the used store and it’s in my to-read pile. I guess I better brace myself…

    For heroines in the YA setting who are loads better than most grownup treatments of female charas, mainstream or genre, you can generally be happy with the alas-recently-departed Lloyd Alexander, altho’ sometimes he does try too hard and come off with rather a Spunky!Sue vibe. But considering the alternatives out there a little overkill in the girl power direction is tolerable imo. And tho’ most of his stories are set in a (much better researched and visualized than many adult genre fic) mythic medieval Europe world, there are at least a few in Asian cultures.

    Likewise Lawrence Yep – his Dragon series is great imo (the main chara is kind of like Sally from Peanuts if Sally were an immortal shapeshifter from ancient China) and he’s written some Encyclopedia Brown type stories where the main character is a young girl solving mysteries with the help of her grandmother for middle schoolers.

    Hilari Bell’s recent “Forging the Sword” trilogy is set in an AU ancient Persia, fighting AU invading Romans, and one of the 3 viewpoint characters is a general’s daughter who has to become a rebel leader after her father’s army is defeated, and has to overcome her prejudices re peasants and what aristocrats do and don’t do and what barbarians are and aren’t as she cooperates with the other two POV charas to bring it about. It’s older YA and so a bit edgier, but not the kind of graphic gore and grimth from adult readers.

    For adult readers, if you like “hard” SF, I will plug as always C[arolyn] J. Cherryh’s sf – it can be hard in the other way, because she writes tight POV and is often describing rather unfamiliar worlds and societies from an insider’s perspective, but it’s often very *fun* to figure out what the analogues are, too.

    The first 4 Chanur books were formative in my feminist development, as they portray a ‘traditional values’ society struggling with conflicting gender norms as they trade with outsiders in a sometimes horrible, sometimes hilarious way – and having a heroic & dashing space captain get tangled up in agonizing fights over paperwork with space station bureaucrats counts as both, imo. Han Solo never had to worry about not being allowed to land over overdue fines while simultaneously facing the winks and nudges of other captains over having – heh, heh, gasp – a *male* crewmember on board…

    The Alliance-Union books can be depressing sometimes, but are fascinating political soap operas in which you have female charas both good and bad and mixed as well as strong and weak – which don’t always correspond to good/bad, and of course who’s “good’ and who’s “bad” can depend on who is in what relation to which character (frex the national heroine in Cyteen, the revolutionary scientific genius who just has this bad personal habit of abusing underlings in vulnerable positions – how many RL excusers can you find for a Great Man who molests his employees, even in progressive circles? The idea that as a species we would do the same for a Great Woman is both plausible and unpleasant.)

    And then there’s my personal favorite, the at-this-point-9-books Foreigner saga, which is not as daunting as it seems since it’s been written as linked but self-completing trilogies. The thing about this, and about the Alliance-Union books, is that they’re set in a future in which humans are not limited to “traditional gender roles” so you get to *see* worlds in which women simply *are* starship captains, or dynastic rulers, or bodyguards, or lead project scientists, or satellite communication center techs, or etc, and their sex is not even an issue. It’s both disturbing and empowering. I can’t fully explain how emotionally troubling it was for me to read the scene in a later volume where the men and women on the bridge of the lost colony ship Phoenix, in a potentially-dangerous situation, are saying proudly amongst themselves that “The Old Lady will get us through” – speaking of the hard-assed but worthy Captain Josefa Sabin, who’s had her differences with our main group of charas – who have all had their differences with each other over the years – the way that charas in an old WWII film might say of the Humphry Bogart type in charge, “The Old Man will see us through this” .

    And there is an acknowledgment, earlier on, by the male POV chara (who’s a historian as part of his diplomatic training) that this egalitarianism was nearly lost, during a particularly dangerous time for the human explorers and a period of high mortality, when female crewmembers had to fight for the right to be treated as other than Precious Vessels, for the right to work and die for their ship just like male crew – and won; and this is all ancient history for the human remnant in this AU…

    It’s more complicated than that, but having a *believable* example of what a world might look like in which people have jobs and families and causes and conflicts *without* their plumbing being the main part of it is very important, and notably different from so much out there in the media. (A uterus is not Chekhov’s gun. Really.)

  11. says

    Ah, you already know about CJ, great! You might also like Martha Wells’ books, which I picked up from a blurb *by* CJ, and mostly like very much, if you haven’t read them; and Chaz Brenchley (desperance on LJ) looks very promising – he’s a queer British writer with insane cats trying to prove themselves omnivores who writes fantasy with non-western settings and strong female charas.

    I’m always looking for authors who write interesting women with good worldbuilding, but the number of ones whose books go into the “must buy” or even “must buy in HC” is very small – frex, I recently picked up a couple based on the cover descriptions, Gordath Wood by Patrice Sarath and Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassoti, and they were both rather disappointing – the heroines were rather flat and the plots/worldbuilding a bit off. (Clockwork Heart is better, btw.) I haven’t totally analyzed why, but there is a bit of the Extruded Fantasy Product of the ’80s feel about them.

    suffers from exactly what Cadigan’s describing here

    Hm. As someone who used to work in book publishing *and* in book retail *and* who still works in print production, I’m not 100% convinced by this argument – for one thing, Borders has been on an industry death watch for a couple years now, with it stepping up hard this past spring, so what they’re doing is to be regarded as “things being done by the crew of the Titanic post-iceberg,” not “accepted/approved practice”, and for another, a lot of blame for poor sales needs to go to the publishers, who are the ones who make the marketing and production decisions.

    Frex, Rusalka was only mediocrely promoted and distributed when it was new: it had one of THE WORST cover designs EVAR, the back cover copy was awful, and actually repelled me from reading it (this was in my pre-CJ Cherryh-fan days. I eventually read it only because I had nothing else to read one slow shift at the library, but I had passed over it with a shudder a dozen times before, only that night the only books on the shelving trolley were even less attractive. After I read it, it made me a fan willing to go buy other CJ books – but this was the days of only indy bookstores, and our indy bookstore in town a) didn’t care much SF and that only the biggest names like Piers Anthony and Larry Niven, b) refused to do “special orders” of ANYTHING they didn’t have in stock. I wasn’t able to get much, except via the Yard Sale Random Luck way, *until* the big chains came into my state.

    But the problem of backlist support is on the publishers’ shoulders. If items don’t sell, why should stores pay to carry them? And merely having them on the shelves is *not* going to make them sell. (Even if they’re brand new titles.) If they’re poorly produced and promoted, nobody’s going to pick them up, except for the presold diehard fans who are already looking for that specific title, and who have probably already gotten hold of it via the internet at this point. I don’t see that it’s the bookstores’ job to do the marketing work of the publishing houses for them, beyond the extent that we did every day by making staff recommendations to customers, which is a very random and inefficient way of doing it, since it depends on so many variables coming together.

    Also, one of the totally ass-backwards things that the publishing industry used to do that shot themselves – and many authors alas – in the foot, was to release a new title in big expensive hardcover first, then many moons later, in softcover. Most readers can’t afford, and couldn’t in the 80s either, to drop a quarter of a day’s paycheck on a single risky choice. So the publishers assumed no one was interested in author X or book Y, when we were waiting for it to come out in paperback, and then if we really liked it, we went and tracked down a hardcover for permanence.

    Obliviousness to what customers wanted and were doing is a huge problem for many industries – from the tech sector to the music biz. But brick-and-mortar stores’ overhead is so insanely high (and so is catalog sales, for that matter, a business I’ve also worked in) and profit already so slim, that retailers can’t afford to have their space cluttered up with box-office bombs. Blaming it on the stores for not carrying every title is like blaming publishers for not publishing every manuscript that comes in the door, imo.

  12. Mantelli says

    I love Bridge of Birds myself. I read it again about once a year because of its wry wit and all the wacky little adventures in it. I especially love that it’s a parody and derived from actual classic Chinese literature. I guess I’m not all that worried by the maidens because female characters with any actual personality are scarcer than hen’s teeth in Chinese literature, and I see the book in that context.

  13. The OTHER Maria says

    Hi Mantelli —

    It’s wacky and fun and an awesome parody. But does it not bother you at all that in parodying a genre and *subverting* that genre (through having the wise master a conniving alcoholic, making number 10 Ox an ironic dufus, and exaggerating the mythos to the point of hiliarity) the author was uninterested in developing ANY of the female characters as existing in their own right? The only one I can think of who’s semi-independent is the mad poet mentioned in the second book.

  14. SunlessNick says

    I’m always looking for authors who write interesting women with good worldbuilding

    It might be worth your while to try Juliet McKenna.


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