Blood in the Water’s splendid cover art, courtesy of David Palumbo, has attracted a lot of comment since it first circulated. Now folk are reading the book, it’s prompting further interesting conversations. One reader has remarked, in tones of mild surprise, ‘Women really are central to the whole revolution. I mean, some of them take more risks than the men.’ Such comments have prompted the next question; ‘Is that because you’re a woman writer? Is it particularly important to you to see female characters well represented?’
I’ve been thinking about that. Yes, I’m a feminist, in the sense that I believe every woman, just like any other individual, is entitled to a peaceful happy life, to education, to work and its rewards, to recognition for their achievements, and that such entitlements should never be subject to anyone else’s judgements on their gender, race, social class, who they might happen to love, a physical impairment or anything else.
But I’m not writing Feminist Fantasy, by which I mean I’m certainly not writing with a pre-determined agenda, intent on getting My Message across. Quite apart from anything else, I saw far too many saccharine picture books crammed with Improving Moral Precepts when my children were young. The one thing they had in common was really lousy stories. The good books, the exciting ones, the ones my kids went back to time and again, were all about adventure, some challenge, the unexpected. And along the way, those books taught them unobtrusive life lessons in the way that fiction has done ever since the first story teller entertained a circle of listeners around a camp fire.
On the other hand, it is very important to me to see women properly represented in fantasy fiction. That means doing far more than playing the damsel in distress who waits around to be rescued in order to be the hero’s reward in bed in the final chapter. Because all fiction must reflect real life to truly explore the human condition and illuminate it, whether by flickering firelight or the glow of an ebook reader. These days, men and women are equals; in the workplace, in the home, in theory at least and increasingly in practise. Parenting is far more of a partnership than it ever used to be. No, things aren’t perfect but the overall trend is positive. Making sure that trend continues and accelerates requires awareness and commitment from us all.
So fantasy writers need to be very wary of the inherent traps in the Tolkien Template. By which I mean the default fantasy settings of kings and wizards determining the affairs of men in high heroic style while the women look on from the sidelines. No, I’m not blaming Tolkien personally, and I’ll defend him against accusations of sexism with more than just reference to Eowyn and Galadriel. But we must see Tolkien’s writing in the context of his day. White male privilege was the order of that day, from his service in the First World War through to the 1950s when The Lord of the Rings was first published. Historical scholarship was still dominated by the Victorian ‘Great Man’ mindset.
Any fantasy writer who unthinkingly follows that template will be reflecting the past not the present. That can only reduce the impact of their writing for a modern audience. They also lay themselves open to accusations of perpetuating outdated stereotypes and prejudices. Personally as a fantasy writer, I’m fed up of being beaten with that particular stick, just because a very few authors haven’t bothered to do their research.
Because the ‘Great Man’ theory of history is as outdated as buggy whips and gas lighting. We have forty years and more of studies into social history that go behind the official version to look at rent books and receipts, at tax rolls and judicial reporting, at hospital records and all the unofficial sources which show just how active women have been historically. They’ve always been involved in decision-making from the highest to the lowest classes. Yes, they were often constrained by circumstance and biology. Visible exceptions to society’s expectations might be few and far between. But they’re there, and more of them than you might imagine, always influential and especially in times of social upheaval. Women have always been involved in revolutions. They have just as much to gain and just as much to lose as the men. Because then, as now, we’re all in this together.
So that’s why Branca, Charoleia and Failla are risking life and limb in this story and while Duchess Litasse of Triolle has taken to carrying the knife that you see her brandishing on the cover of Blood in the Water.