These two extremely talented authors are currently working on Kaleidoscope – an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy. This is a crowd-funded project, or hopefully it soon will be. Click that link to get involved.
Meantime, Sherwood and Rachel have written a thought-provoking post considering the nature of protagonists in fantasy fiction, taking a quotation from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” as a starting point.(Longer than my excerpt here)
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories . . . Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?
The key word here is ‘he’…
As the post goes on to say –
While it is not difficult to find excellent novels about homophobia and coming out, it is much harder to find books in which, for example, a teenage, Hispanic lesbian discovers that she has inherited magical powers—a plot trope for which hundreds, if not thousands, of books exist for straight, white heroines. You can substitute any social minority in American society, and similar issues apply. If you’re not part of the ruling class, you don’t get to escape.
…the male heroes of fantasy novels are not average people, and do not have average lives. They are not merely the heroes of the genre of fantasy, but heroes of fantasies—heroes of escapist imagination.
These male heroes were not written to be average examples of their demographic, and we’ve never seen anyone make the argument that they should be. But that argument is applied to female characters constantly, to make the case that they should be average and demographically representative. It is a case for denying women escapism while lavishing it on men.
I urge you to read the whole piece, and you’ll see why this has particularly struck me, especially at the moment when the focus on epic fantasy seems to be defaulting to male writers and male stories for no good reason at all. This has been particularly notable in some conversations I have had about The Hadrumal Crisis, a trilogy where two of the three main point of view characters are women and yet interviewers ask me about ‘the hero’ Corrain. While they recognise how flawed he is as a hero, that’s apparently still his default designation.
At the same time, reader and reviewer reactions to Lady Zurenne, a woman whose story is driven by the fact that she cannot escape, are varied to say the least. Patrick Mahon’s joint review of Dangerous Waters and Darkening Skies in the latest BSFA’s ‘Vector’ magazine describes her as ‘manipulative and calculating’. Just to be clear, I’m not arguing with this review – it’s a thorough and thoughtful analysis of those books which I’m delighted to see – and he’s not wrong. He also sees why she acts as she does, going on to say ‘- although this is to some extent understandable, given her need to secure the future of her two daughters…’
The thing is though, I’ve spoken to readers and seen comments from men and women alike who have even less sympathy for Zurenne, while they’re able to give Corrain much more leeway when his attempts at manly heroics don’t succeed. And again, just to be clear, I’m not arguing with those readers’ reactions. I don’t get to dictate those, writer or not and none of those folk I’ve spoken to are making unfounded assumptions based on anything other than the story in hand. From the books as written, that is an entirely valid response.
Yes, I’ve been a little surprised, since that’s not what I expected – but it doesn’t bother me, since there are plenty of other readers with immense sympathy for Zurenne. I am certainly intrigued though, wondering why this might be so. And I think this question ‘Who Gets To Escape?’ may well hold some element of the answer.
Definitely something to think on.