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!)