This is a guest post from Jacqueline Carey, author of the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Tor Books is releasing reissues of the epic fantasy series this summer. Kushiel’s Dart and Kushiel’s Chosen are already out, with the reissue or Kushiel’s Avatar set to drop on August 25th.
“Is this a kissing book?”
Everyone who’s seen The Princess Bride, which includes pretty much everyone I know, recognizes that line, uttered by a young Fred Savage to his grandpa, the ever-charming Peter Falk, who’s come to read a story to his grandson. Fred’s nameless character is confined to bed with a nameless childhood illness. Nothing terribly serious, we assume—perhaps a cough and a bit of a fever, not alarmingly high, just high enough that the doctor suggested he stay at home for a few days.
What we don’t discuss is the—apparently—far more terrifying menace to which the young boy has been exposed: Girl cooties.
As a female writer of epic fantasy, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar, and the same holds true for many of my female colleagues in the genre. A significant portion of the audience consists of male readers, and a significant subset of that readership assumes that epic fantasy written by women must surely be tainted by girl cooties.
Based on personal experience, my take is that this is shorthand for “romance” and that there’s an underlying assumption, consciously or subconsciously, that fantasy written by women must perforce be romance. Of course, romance fantasy does exist, and it’s surely not my intention to denigrate it in any way. The Kushiel’s Legacy series does contain elements of romance—gloriously, unabashedly, sometimes brutally so. And defining genres can be tricky, because sometimes books—often, in my personal opinion, the best books—span a number of them. When I wrote Kushiel’s Avatar, the final volume of the original trilogy, I thought a lot about the dedication that John Steinbeck wrote for East of Eden. According to Steinbeck, his longtime friend and editor came upon him carving a wooden figure, and asked that he make him a box.
“To put things in.”
“What kind of things?”
“Whatever you have.”
Instead of crafting an actual wooden box for his editor, Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, and in the foreword dedicating it to him, he stated, “Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad or evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation. And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you. And still the box is not full.”
I find that to be profoundly romantic.
It’s a pity that the word “romance” has taken on such a negative connotation for a large swathe of the fantasy-reading audience. Even the young grandson in The Princess Bride relents by the end to admit, “I don’t mind so much, Grandpa.” All the epic fantasy trappings of farm boys and pirates and princesses, swordsmen and giants and feats of derring-do, magic and torture and quests for vengeance, are in that particular box, but above all, true love.
And yet it’s also a movie written, directed, filmed and produced by men, featuring a predominantly male cast and a heroine with zero agency.
Over and over, when I see polls on forums listing the best epic fantasy writers, both historical and current, the same names appear, and they’re almost exclusively male—or to be more specific, cisgender heterosexual white male authors. Not to detract from these authors, many of whom I also enjoy and admire, and who have been influences on my own work, but there are always so many female authors missing from the list. It often seems as though the only two woman writers cited are a) Ursula K. LeGuin, because her influence is too significant to overlook, and b) Robin Hobb, because a lot of readers were misled by her gender-neutral pseudonym.
As a teenager and a young adult, I grew up reading whatever fantasy I could get my hands on—which in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was limited to whatever my local bookstore and library had on its shelves. Many of them were women—Mary Stewart, Anne McCaffery, Patricia McKillip, Julian May, Katherine Kurtz, Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliott. Some of these authors we’ve lost since I discovered their work years ago; others continue to write and publish to this day. When I encounter this absence, it almost feels as though a part of my own formative history has been erased.
And then there’s the issue of female characters, who are far too scarce on the ground in epic fantasy. Readers or viewers whose personal identity is well-represented in the pop culture medium of their choosing can’t fully understand the effect of its absence. It’s like looking in a mirror and having no reflection.
Not so long ago, I made that observation to a male friend regarding a fantasy novel he recommended. It was some 500 pages long, and it had one female character in an otherwise fairly extensive cast. Despite being an intelligent and thoughtful guy, my friend had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief to inhabit a world in which my gender—which comprises at least half the world as we know it—barely existed. Now, if that omission is a deliberate choice on the part of the author, I can respect it. Some narratives operate within a set of constraints for a particular reason.
But the truth is, more often than not in epic fantasy, it’s not deliberate. It’s just an oversight.
In another recent instance, I volunteered to be interviewed by two young women from our local high school who were interested in careers in writing fantasy. They were delightful, and we lingered over coffee to chat after the interview. Both of them cited popular recent fantasy debuts by male authors as current favorites. These were books I happened to have read, and again, books which had essentially one female character with any measurable page time. One existed solely to serve as an unattainable object of desire; the other was killed and subjected to the pseudo-medieval equivalent of getting fridged. In case you weren’t aware, “fridged” is slang for a common trope in which female characters are violently murdered and their bodies are left for the hero to discover in a gruesome manner, which then serves as a traumatic inciting event that drives the hero’s dramatic arc. It’s disturbing that there’s actually a specific term for this, right?
Out of curiosity, I asked these delightful, smart, fantasy-loving young women what they thought about the fact that there were almost no female characters in these books—and they looked blankly at me.
They hadn’t noticed.
Of all the times and ways and angles from which I’ve pondered the lack representation of women in fantasy as both an author and a reader, that may have hit me the hardest. It pains me to know that the absence of women in this genre I love is so prevalent that well into the 21st century, it doesn’t even register. Women in fantasy deserve better. As writers, we deserve the right to publish under female-sounding names without fearing the taint of girl cooties. We deserve to be listed amongst our male counterparts in the legacy of the genre. As readers, women deserve a seat at the table in the realm of the fantastic. We deserve female characters with agency, female characters whose actions affect the narrative. We’re not ghosts, we’re not vampires—we deserve to see our reflections in the mirror. We deserve, at the barest of minimums, a society in which that absence is noticeable. We deserve to be part of the warp and weft of the story’s tapestry, not just a single thread.
The box is vast, and still it is not full. In a genre where there are no limits to the world except the writer’s imagination, women deserve more.