Fantasy author Kate Elliott recently finished up her Spiritwalkers trilogy with Cold Steel, a story featuring the brave Cat Barahal, a prophetic dreamer caught up in a tangle of political intrigue after being forced to marrying a powerful Cold Mage. We thought now would be an excellent time for the author to look back on how far her strong heroine has come and explore what role women play in the fantasy genre — both on and off the page. Here's what she had to say:
I have written epic fantasy in one form or another throughout my writing career. My Spiritwalker trilogy is definitely a fantasy series (with shades of alternate history) filled with the kinds of things I love to write about: adventure, sword-fighting, travel, narrow escapes and clever stratagems, good clothes, good food, a little (or a lot of) romance, and war and revolution. When I was a girl those were called novels for boys because of the adventure and derring-do and politics and sword-fighting, but I always knew they were the kind of story I wanted to write. And I knew that I wanted to write my stories with girls and women at the center (as well as men).
Perhaps you have heard the argument that it is not realistic or interesting to put more than one or two women in an epic fantasy novel or series because "back then" women were almost all illiterate pregnant peasant women who died before they were thirty and never went farther than five miles from the village they were born in. So (the argument goes) there is nothing worth writing about the life of such a woman because she would be stupid and ignorant and never do anything anyway. Also because of patriarchy, this argument continues, women had no agency or personality; they were mere adjuncts to their menfolk who did things and who mattered. As well, my interlocutors may remind me, there was only one Joan of Arc and one Elizabeth the Virgin Queen so that just goes to prove that except for a rare few singular characters, women don't belong in epic fantasy (except maybe as a sex worker, a mother, a random crone for wisdom or laughs, and a marriageable lass/aka object of lust or sometimes romance).
People have actually said this or variations on this.
Such arguments display a troubling ignorance of history, as I've said before:
Women have ruled. They have negotiated on behalf of kingdoms and acted as ambassadors. They have run businesses and founded hospitals. They have written books, plays, music, philosophy, and religious tracts. They have invented, taught, been doctors, been slaves, cheated on their husbands, become chaste nuns famous for their learning, murdered their rivals, and led armies. They have also died young in childbirth, died in old age after outliving three husbands, signed treaties, ruled as regents for their underage sons, married off their daughters to benefit their families, used wills to disinherit their children, and never married at all while working and earning their own way. All these things have happened in preindustrial times, all over the world.
Women in the past led varied lives just as people do today. Individual women had agency, which I define as a sense of themselves as a person and what they hope for out of life. They have agency regardless if that goal is as seemingly simple as giving birth to a healthy child and having enough to eat each day (which is not necessarily simple at all)
Or if it is as complex as:
- Being a mathematician and philosopher teaching in 400 A.D. in Alexandria like Hypatia or
- Composing the novel The Tale of Genji in 11th century Japan like Murasaki Shikibu, or
- Defeating the army of Cyrus the Great (and possibly beheading him) as did Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae around 530 B.C.E., or
- Speaking out on behalf of her kingdom and people as did Princess Victoria Ka'iulani of Hawai'i in the 1890s.
These four women were exceptional but they are not exceptions. History is filled with women both ordinary and exceptional who lived their lives, even if academic history has often ignored those lives or glossed them over.
Epic fantasy ought to be filled with women, too, because there are really very few circumstances in which a large scale tapestry of a novel truly demands an all or mostly male cast.
Occasionally I have to wonder if some readers are genuinely offended by the inclusion of women in the fantasy fiction they like to read. Sometimes it seems that way.
Why this insistence on the part of a few that female characters don't have a part to play in epic fantasy stories of great deeds, palace intrigue, politics, war, and change? That women shouldn't be in those stories? Can't be there? Are mere unrealistic wish-fulfillment if they are there?
Are these voices slowly fading? With the popularity of fantasy series heavily populated by female characters (like A Game of Thrones) and the tide of YA fantasy that is bringing new readers into the epic fold, I would hope so.
- Kate Elliott
You can pick up a copy of Cold Steel, and the other books in the Spiritwalkers trilogy, available in stores and online now. And for more genre news and coverage visit our Everything Science Fiction & Fantasy Page.