Written by Beth Bernobich
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the presence and roles of women in epic fantasy stories. Tansy Roberts wrote a sharp-edged take-down of the notion that women never did anything important in history in her article Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That. Kameron Hurley followed up a couple months later with ‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative.
Read both articles and follow the links for the whole discussion, but the short form is: women have played all kinds of roles and followed all kinds of careers throughout history, and to leave them out of epic fantasy is not historically accurate. You can choose to leave out women, but don’t use history as your excuse.
Much of this debate took place while I was writing Allegiance, the third book in my River of Souls trilogy. The books are epic fantasy, set in a world where souls are reborn from life to life. They’re about a young woman, Ilse Zhalina, and her journey toward independence and agency. And because these novels are epic fantasy, they have lots of characters, and a lot of them are women.
Ilse has changed a great deal since her story began in Passion Play. She’s older, stronger, and more capable. But she’s not the only woman in the book, and certainly not the only strong woman. I wanted to portray a world where the women lived lives as varied as the men did, and where those women are in the foreground of the story. Where they are villains or heroes, queens or merchants, poets or cooks. Sisters, soldiers, healers, or spies.
Ilse’s beloved, Raul Kosenmark, has three sisters: “Three barbed and dangerous creatures,” as Raul describes them. Ilse meets all three of them for the first time in Allegiance:
“At last, our foolish brother chose someone with sense. And,” she added, “a very nice sword. My name is Heloïse.”
The rest gave their names rapidly. Marte, tall and slim and with eyebrows arcing over a strong face drawn in uncompromising angles. Olivia, a smaller, rounder version of the same. Terrible creatures, all of them, Ilse thought, with their laughter and smiles edged with sharp wit. She no longer wondered why Raul had absented himself from his home in Valentain. He and they were much alike, shielding their hearts beneath masks. It would be too painful, living with reflections of himself.
And yet, they are more than reflections of their brother. They act together, taking charge when they need to (and sometimes when they don’t). They have their own histories, their own strengths and flaws, their own loves, and their own futures.
Not everyone in the story is a noble. Maryshka Rudny lives in the remote village of Ryz, in the far southwest of Károví. She and her mother, Ana, are healers for the village, which gives them a significant measure of authority. When Ilse arrives with a badly wounded companion, Maryshka takes control of the situation:
The young woman thrust back her hair and laid a hand on Bela’s forehead. Her mouth thinned. She touched two fingers to Bela’s throat and her lips moved rapidly. Not an invocation to the gods and magic, Ilse thought, not here in Duszranjo.
Maryshka glanced over her shoulder at the still-arguing men. “Jannik, she’s dying. Louka, if you insist, I can make the pledge myself to Lir, Toc, and your blessed honor, that she won’t hurt anyone or anything.”
“What about the other one?” Louka said.
The young woman’s gaze swung around to meet Ilse’s. “What do you say? Shall I pledge myself for you as well? Speak quickly.”
Maryshka appears only for a short segment of Allegiance, but it’s her skills that save Bela’s life and enable Ilse to continue her journey.
The injured companion mentioned above is Bela Sovic, a captain in Duke Miro Karasek’s personal guard, skilled in magic as well as warfare. Shortly after they meet, she tells Ilse how she came to serve the Duke:
“It was his father who bought me from the prison. I had tried to fight the pirates on my own after they killed my sister and brother. I—I was less able to distinguish between the enemy and someone merely ignorant, or greedy, and I killed the wrong person. Several wrong persons. The king wished to punish me. I cannot say I disagree, but the old duke believed in mercy. He paid the blood price and took me from the prison. For what he—and his son—have done for me, I would do anything in return.”
And she does—facing exile, injury, and death with courage.
When Ilse first meets Nadine in Passion Play, Nadine is one of the courtesans in Lord Kosenmark’s pleasure house. Nadine has a complicated past, which she only hints at to Ilse. She also has a deeply ingrained sense of self-preservation because of that past:
Nadine had not shared any of the secrets she had uncovered for herself over the past six years. A little judicious spying. The practice of carelessly glancing over the envelopes the senior runner carried to Kosenmark or his secretary of the moment. All habits learned in previous houses, previous lives. And most effective, when she had discovered certain key listening devices scattered around the pleasure house. Nadine knew about Kosenmark’s political games. He might claim a higher cause for his actions, but in truth, they both wished to survive in a chance-riddled world.
In Allegiance, Nadine turns from courtesan to spy, using her skills in the much wider—and much more dangerous—world of the royal palace. In the end, it’s because of Nadine and her spying that events turn out as they do.
Six women, from different kingdoms and different classes, each of them strong in different ways.
From the Tor/Forge October 21st newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the October 21st Tor/Forge newsletter:
- On a Bus to New York by Fred Chao
- An Editor’s Dirty Little Secret by Claire Eddy
- October Grab Bag Sweepstakes