Thoughtful Thursday: Keep your girlie bits out of my epic fantasy

[Ruth’s post reflects her own opinions and not the opinions of the entire FanLit staff. We love Ruth, so we sometimes let her rant here.]

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsJustin, I love you like a brother, you know that right? That said, your claim that “I may have agreed with her 15 years ago, but I think the gender bias in epic fantasy has balanced out pretty evenly” in regards to N.K. Jemisin‘s post about the feminization of epic fantasy struck me a bit as “the lady doth protest too much.”

Now, I don’t read much epic fantasy, but that is because of the problem that you said doesn’t exist anymore. Long doorstopper bricks of a novel, in my experience, tend to feature manly men and the women who are (contractually obligated) to love them.

My completely non-scientific sample of epic fantasy includes the following male-centric works:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien — Not many women folk of any race running around in those, other than as objects of inspiration or desire. He does get bonus points for Eowyn, though.
  • Piers Anthony — I stopped reading him because of all the suicidal teenage girls.
  • Patrick Rothfuss — Brilliant author. Main female character is a professional.
  • C.S. Lewis — Yes, Lucy and Susan are there, but kept at a distance from the main action. And then Susan grows up and commits the sin of *gasp* liking boys so she gets kicked out of fantasy land.
  • George R. R. Martin — Lots of man violence and rape.
  • Robert Jordan — ’nuff said.
  • Terry Brooks — I admit to not having read these.
  • Stephen R. Donaldson — Establishes manliness through raping a woman.
  • David Farland — I DNFed these in my pre-FanLit days.
  • Terry Goodkind — *gag* smashing babies — not a particularly feminine attribute.
  • Robin Hobb — Another fantastic author. Mostly male leads.
  • Ursula K. Leguin — Earthsea — I’m specifying a series here, because LeGuin does amazing work with gender in other books, but as an example of male-centered epic fantasy, I have to include this.
  • Patricia McKillip — The Riddlemaster of Hed.
  • L.E. Modesitt‘s — The Saga of Recluce.
  • Janny Wurts — The Wars of Light and Shadow.

Now, you’ll notice that I am not saying that this is a problem with male authors, because there are several females on my list. I love some of these books, but I think they all feature male protagonists. At least the ones I’ve read.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSo, my questions this week are multiple: Are there epic fantasy series out there featuring women that I am just missing? Or is there something about the epic fantasy sub-genre that requires male protagonists? Epic fantasy is usually about saving the world, the battle between which is more powerful — good or evil — and which will come out victorious. Combined with the typical trappings of some sort of feudal monarchy — medieval European setting, it’s not surprising to see that so few authors manage to escape standard constructions of power = male. But that is what we get. In the few epic fantasies featuring women, they are basically men without penises in all but fact — muscular, aggressive, large — that they don’t get beyond the gender divide in any meaningful way.  C’mon, Justin, I want to believe you that all is happy in fantasy land, but I’m discovering a dearth of evidence that supports your claim. Maybe our dear readers can help you out.

Join in what I am sure will be a respectful and courteous comments section and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win a book from our stacks!

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. And apparently, I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m not 16 anymore, so everything I’ve read hasn’t been written in the last 15 years. Seriously, some of those books I listed are old. Good catch, and point to Justin.

  2. Just thought I’d chime in here (long time reader, first time poster!) to mention Mark Anthony’s The Last Rune series. It’s about 10-15 years old now, and has some great female lead characters in it (2 main characters, one male and one female, along with a large number of strong supporting female characters – probably more than there are male characters, thinking about it). Vastly under-appreciated, as I never see it mentioned anywhere, but it’s the series that got me into Fantasy to start with, so I find it very easy to recommend!

  3. What a great Thoughtful Thursday. Thank you Ruth. I’ve learned a lot from this exchange.

  4. Oh Ruth, if only you were alone in not having to come to terms with not being sixteen anymore (sigh)–my wife’s complaints notwithstanding . . .

  5. Me too. Ruth’s explaination:

    “Greg, it’s because women are used to being marginalized in society, and for a long time the survival of women depended on their ability to identify with and work within male values and power structures, so they are more capable of doing so in fiction as well. Men have never had to identify with women to survive, so they have not developed those skills.”

    Really was an eye-opener for me. One of those profond truths that is so simple it never occured for me..Now if I could only incorporate it into my lifestyle….. excuse me I gotta go my Hooters waitress just brought my beer and wings…What we’re we talking about?… LOL.. just kidding.. ;)

  6. I confess to not reading every post, so my apologies if I’m repeating something here, but in fantasy or in other genres, I generally find that if the author has created cardboard characters – male or female – then I’m not interested in reading the book. I got sick of UF and PNR quickly because they’re all alike in the end. People rave about Kate Daniels, but I found her and her world, in the end, a bore.

    Janny Wurts, for instance, has a male hero in her Wars of Light and Shadow series, but there’s also a strong female who is a whole lot more than a typical foil for the hero. She’s female, she knows her own mind, and she’s courageous. The hero is a well developed character who struggles against using his powers and suffers terribly with real guilt.

    I’m relatively new to epic fantasy, so haven’t read as widely as most of you here, but I do see what Ruth is talking about. I wonder, however, if the problem is less a gender issue than it is an author’s failure to write fully developed characters that feel real to us. I found Jordan’s characters in WOT to be unbelievably naive and stupid, and will not read past book one. I read Sanderson’s new tome and found his characters to be weakly developed and his world yawn-worthy, so will not be following that series. I tried Gene Wolfe who seems to be the fantasy snob’s go to author, and couldn’t bear the narcissistic whinging of the misogynistic main character so stopped reading.

    In other words, if the story is good, the characters believable, the fantasy elements well woven and interesting, then I enjoy the books whether the main character is male or female.

  7. @Gary – you hit the nail on the head: “Vastly under-appreciated” – the point is not just whether there are strong female characters in epic fantasy but how books which are feminized (with “feminine” qualities) are treated by the critics and readers.

    To me the core of Jemisin’s argument may have nothing to do with how many male or female characters there are:

    “Epic fantasy is dominated by a “masculine” aestheticism, ethos, and structural focus [that] systematically defends … masculinity with great vigor.”

    Further, that defense comes from readers (both male and female) in the form of critiques (and corresponding refusal to read/recommend) of epic fantasy novels (with or without strong male leads) which are deemed to feminine or in which the feminine encroaches on the masculine.

    As such, the question is as much whether well-written epic fantasies with strong stories/characterizations/world building which also have strong core “feminine” qualities and values – the world viewed through the female gaze – are embraced by readers to the same degree that equally well-written strong epic fantasies which depict the world through the male gaze (even with strong female characters) are. Listing books which do feminize the epic fantasy world with caveats such as “vastly under-appreciated” or “not well known” would suggest that the answer is “no.”

    Hence the true test is not whether we can come up with a list of feminized epic fantasies but whether we can come up with a list of BEST SELLER feminized epic fantasies and then ask what proportion of best selling epic fantasies do they represent?

  8. Ah, excellent point, drmeow! Excellent point, indeed!

  9. Dr Meow — If you live in the U.S., you win a book from our stacks! Please contact me (Kat) with your choice.
    Contact page:

    If you don’t live in the US, let me know so I can pick someone else. Thanks!

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