Who Gets to Escape? Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown ask a fascinating question.

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.

Furthermore –

…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.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

4 thoughts on “Who Gets to Escape? Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown ask a fascinating question.

  1. You put up this post just as I was beginning to read the Hadrumal Crisis books. So I’ve had the question of Zurenne at the back of my mind while reading. I’m now almost halfway through the second. (It’s not that I read slowly, it’s just that it’s been baseball playoffs here which is always my priority. Really.) And while I can understand readers not liking Zurenne, I don’t see how she can possibly be called manipulative. Unless “manipulative” just means “getting others to do what one wants without using force,” in which case Planir and Corrain (among others) are also frequently manipulative.

    That said, she’s not really likeable. I have a lot of sympathy for her, and I want to find out what happens to her, but I don’t like her. I don’t like Corrain, either. I don’t see why that matters — if I could only read books about POV characters I would like to meet in real life, I’d have a very limited reading list.

  2. That is really interesting, thanks. And yes, I think we can call her ‘manipulative’ in the ‘getting things done by persuasion’ sense. Not in the sly/underhand sense. Don’t think she’d know where to begin with that sort of thing…

    Which relates to something that came up in today’s women in fantasy panel at World Fantasy Convention – that strong women characters really don’t have to be taking on male roles, donning chainmail and picking up a sword. They can – and increasingly do so on their own terms – but we’re seeing different sorts of heroism too.

    Though Zurenne does have an uphill struggle, since her life-experience and temperament really haven’t given her the skills she needs to handle her predicament!

  3. Why is she like that, though? She’s not stupid — her insight about getting Corrain to marry her daughter in order to prevent outside control of the barony is a brilliant short-term strategy. And she has apparently managed a complicated household with no trouble for many years. But she doesn’t seem to be able (at least, not at the point I’m at in the books) to transfer her organizational skills to managing the rebuilding, and when a steward she dislikes is put into place she can’t work with the servants (who should have a history of loyalty to her) to circumvent him. This is why I don’t like her: she may have been told not to bother her pretty little head with politics, but she doesn’t seem to realize that the challenges facing her are mostly not political, but practical, and right in the heart of her skill set. (Which relates to the question of ways that female characters can be strong and heroic.) That bothers me about her.

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