Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

I was practically born with a book in my hand. Words, whether the creation of or the internalizing of, have been a constant of my life ever since I could read. This intense love of reading has shaped my character and worldview. From Ray Bradbury to Naomi Wolf, a wide variety of writers, geeky and not geeky, have had their hands in creating the person I am today. Today’s post is, in a way, a love letter to two of those writers, the two most dear to my heart. (It’s also partly to convince anyone who stumbles on this post and has never given either of them a try, to go to the library/bookstore/friend’s house and pick up a copy of one of their books.)

The first, chronologically, is Tamora Pierce. I discovered her Protector of the Small quartet when I was in middle school, at exactly the right time. The series follows Kel, the first girl to go through the process of becoming a knight, after the rule prohibiting women from becoming knights was abolished. (That was due to the brave efforts of Alanna, featured in the Song of the Lioness quartet, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a knight.) Pierce’s fiction is always empowering to young girls, featuring strong, realistic characters of both genders, and destroying the well-known myth that swords are for boys. From the moment I picked up First Test, I was in love.

Pierce is a pioneer in young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness quartet was published in the ’80s, at time when library shelves weren’t exactly bursting with girl-friendly fantasy novels. This has changed to some degree, and certainly when I was in middle school, many of the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure young adult books were about girls and/or featured strong  female characters. Being pretty divorced from young adult fiction right now, I’m not totally qualified to make this statement, but when I do browse the shelves, the post-Twilight young adult fiction world seems to be a pretty dismal one with paranormal romance overshadowing badass girls and women wielding swords and magic. Luckily, Pierce’s novels are still being discovered by generations of young girls in need of empowerment, not a boyfriend. (Although there is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend.)

Tamora Pierce handles it all: magic, battles, romance, even periods. And she does it in a way that made 11-year-old me damn proud to be a girl. In a previous post, I mentioned Pierce’s positive portrayal of “not white” people. While often her books take place in Tortall, a sort of typical European country, not all of her main characters are white. One of my favorite Pierce characters is Daja, the girl in the Circle of Magic who becomes a magic-wielding blacksmith. I don’t know of many other fantasy novels, young adult or adult, that feature a black girl at home both in the forge and amongst magicians.

Unfortunately, I no longer read Pierce’s work. I, being an adult and all, have moved on from young adult literature. (Although I will totally read the Numair series when it comes out. I’ve been waiting way too long.) There is nothing inherently wrong in being an adult who reads (some) young adult fiction, but it’s no longer for me. This is a shame because, frankly, there isn’t much in the adult fantasy world that can compare to Pierce. I’m always looking for something to fill the void in my heart and in my fantasy collection that, at age 12, was filled with badass women but is now filled with princess-babes and evil sorceresses.

One writer who helps ease the pain is Neil Gaiman. In a dismal sea of adult fantasy/sci fi/horror/comics populated with hot chicks and women with power who are inherently evil, there are Neil Gaiman’s works. Gaiman is a cross-genre magician, and has enjoyed increasing mainstream success in the last few years. I couldn’t be happier that Gaiman is getting mainstream attention (he was on Craig Ferguson’s show and will be on The Simpsons!). After all, in addition to being a wizard with words, structure, sheer imagination, his female characters are like actual characters. Real people. Even when men are the main characters of his work, he doesn’t skimp on characterization for the women, like so many male authors do. He even carries on the Alice tradition of the girl heroine in Coraline, which has been adapted into everything short of a TV series (well, a film and a graphic novel, anyway).

My first exposure was Neverwhere, lent to me, in high school, by my Tori Amos-loving older sister. Gaiman and Amos are long-time pals who are constantly mentioning each other in their work. It’s enough to be close friends with a fiercely unapologetic feminist, but Gaiman doesn’t stop there. His work is one of the only mainstream adult fantasy (for lack of an overarching genre) writers who I never have to worry about getting a female character sexual assaulted, marginalized, dismissed, or just unfairly characterized. Gaiman respects women, and his work obviously shows it.

In particular, his groundbreaking Sandman series is pretty remarkable for many reasons, but especially when its women are considered. I’m not sure that today DC (who owns Vertigo) would even want to publish it, given its strong female characters, lesbians who aren’t even hot (why bother being a lesbian if you’re dumpy looking?), total lack of sexual assault, and habit of not drawing women to look like pin-ups.

I’ve become discouraged by adult fantasy after too many novels that absolutely ignore women, or include women only as prostitutes, mothers, and destructive schemers. I left the Piercean world of fantasy and entered a much bleaker, much less welcoming world where women are hot or evil or vapid, but rarely the well-rounded real people of Pierce and Gaiman’s worlds. Thankfully, Pierce’s work has endured, and she continues to write the same girl-empowering books she always has. And Gaiman isn’t going anywhere, so I know that whenever I want a well-written, imaginative story (regardless of genre, or even age level) I’ve got a woman-friendly ally in him.

I will end this by urging all of you to pick up a book written by one of these authors, and swim in the refreshing oasis they each built out of what can be a dry literary desert. (And if you know of a woman-friendly, empowering author, whatever genre, that I should know about, please leave a comment!)

-Joanna

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4 thoughts on “Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

  1. I’d like to mention Terry Pratchett, while we’re on Fantasy writers. As a man, I can’t really say how well he does, but it seems to me that he gets it right too. He even wrote a book together with Neil Gaiman!
    Of course, his Discworld series is also comedy, so all of the characters are somewhat exagerrated and stereotypical… I’d love to hear your opinion on Pterry’s books.

    • I haven’t read Pratchett as extensively as I’ve read Gaiman and Pierce, but I’d say he’s a pretty fair writer. Like you say, his work is usually comedic and/or satirical, so judging him is different than judging writers whose characters are meant to be more realistic. But even given the exaggerated/stereotypical nature of his characters, I wouldn’t say there’s ever anything offensive in them. He lampoons everyone equally, and I couldn’t really ask for much more out of him. Unlike Pierce, he’s not especially empowering (although, again, he’s not offensive either), but I suppose he is on par with Gaiman in this respect. Both of them write in the kinds of genres where women are often treated unfairly, yet both of them manage to avoid the same negative stereotyping that lesser writers don’t.

      All of this being said, I’m very glad you brought up Pratchett! His work is deceptively brilliant, and of course, he is a huge part of the fantasy community. Maybe I’ll dedicate an entire post to him one day. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Oooh, there are definitely great women-friendly SFF authors. Here are a few of my old favorites with well-developed female protagonists doing awesome things:
    – Pretty much anything Lois McMaster Bujold, but start with “Cordelia’s Honor”. She’s best known for her sci-fi, but she’s written fantasy and fantasy/romance, too.
    – The Empire Trilogy by Janny Wurts and Raymond Feist. An epic fantasy. Start with “Daughter of Empire”.
    – Emergence, by David Palmer. Post-apocalyptic SF meets polyana.
    – Hero and Crown by Robin McKinley. Actually, a lot of her books have great heroines, but this is a good place to start. She tends to write fantasies that have a strongly dreamlike/fairy tale quality
    – Vows and Honor Trilogy (Starting with Oathbound) and By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey are great old-school sword-and-sorcery fantasies with female leads. She writes a bit young for me in most of the Valdemar books, but these ones feel more adult.
    – Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon. It’s military space opera, similar in some ways to the better known “Honor Harrington” series, but I like it better. Start with Herris Serano (omnibus) or Hunting Party (stand along 1st book)

    And some of my newer favorites include:
    World of the Lupi by Eileen Wilks (Start with Tempting Danger)
    Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews (Start with Magic Bites)
    Alpha and Omega series and Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs (Start with Moon Called)
    Iron Seas by Meljean Brook (Start with Iron Duke)
    Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker (Start with Encrypted)
    Graceling by Kristin Cashore

    • That’s quite a comprehensive list! 🙂 I’ll have to get started on some of those. I have actually read a few of Robin McKinley’s novels, a few years ago. I remember liking them a lot; I should revisit some of her work. Thanks for the tips!

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