Last year, my best friend (and fellow writer) finished the second draft of her very first novel, and words couldn’t convey how proud I was of her. A book that had been over thirteen years in the making—and which had outlasted undergraduate studies and two Master’s degrees—was finally complete at a whopping 570 pages. It was classic epic fantasy, with dragons and an evil warlord and a rude-as-hell heroine struggling to toe the line of morality. And finally, after hearing about it for all of our nearly decade-long friendship, I had it in my inbox. I tore through it within three days, and it was everything that I had been waiting for.
But I realized that alongside gushing over the things that I loved about it—the heroine’s fight to keep her humanity, the intelligent design of the dragons, the beautiful imagery—I would also have to find a way to tell her that her patriarchal society and its attitude towards women had exhausted me.
Fantasy has always been the biggest section on my bookshelves, and when I was a teenager, my favorite books were in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall quartets. At that age, I needed those books; I needed to read about tough, diverse young women beating the odds by becoming knights and heroes in a time when such things weren’t allowed. But that was when I was a teenager. Now, as an adult, reading about patriarchal societies in any newly published story nearly gives me a migraine with the force of my eye roll.
Unfortunately, it’s a classic setting in fantasy*: Women can’t fight, or rule, or do anything traditionally considered men’s work, and the few who do are aberrations. Think of the scarcity of female figures in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, especially The Hobbit, which is probably the most well-known example. Now, you could argue that Tolkien was simply a product of his time. Why, then, are we still dealing with patriarchal societies in fantasy today?
Let’s compare The Hobbit (1937) with another fantasy giant, A Game of Thrones (1996), first in George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a gap of almost sixty years between their publication dates, and though the substance of the stories is different (Martin has been praised for the diversity of the female characters in his body of work), the bones remain the same. That framework of patriarchy supports multiple societies within Martin’s world, and the question is why. When you have the freedom to create any reality that you want, why in hell wouldn’t you choose one where women are presented as functioning, capable members of society? And not just as warriors and nobles, but as craftswomen and academics? If you want to show us that women can do anything, show us that women can do anything.
In this respect, one of the most successful fantasy stories that I have personally read is Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. While it’s true that most of the main characters are men (hello, single-female-character-in-a-group trope), where these novels really shine are with their secondary and background characters. Women are woven nearly seamlessly into the world as sea captains, foot(wo)men, and alchemists as well as fighters. They typically have power and agency in their own right. Though no series is perfect (the third book has racist tones which weren’t overtly present in the first two), this one is further along than most.
My plea to fellow fantasy writers is this: Be brave, and be aware. Unless your intent is to purposefully subvert tropes (like Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons), think about building your world along different lines. Yes, A Song of Ice and Fire is partially based on England’s Wars of the Roses, but Westeros is not England. And the more often we insist on basing epic fantasy solely on Europe in the Middle Ages, the closer we come to making the unwritten rule regarding it set in stone.
Do I think all of this is done out of maliciousness? No. I think more often than not, it’s done simply because it’s a bad habit. I’m no exception; someone else had to point out to me that all of the authority figures in my fantasy world were men. But I learned, just like my best friend learned, and we’re both better writers for it.
So here I am, begging you to be better too. Because I promise that if my suspension of disbelief is strong enough to handle dragons and magic, it can also accommodate worlds where women have a place at every table.
*Because of length restrictions, I’m going to be limiting this discussion to epic fantasy and it’s representation of “women” as a whole, acknowledging full well that if white heroines have barely carved out a place for themselves at the table, women of color and LGBTQIA women are still mostly stuck hanging out on the floor.