Posts Tagged ‘Epic Fantasy’

Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

Given how well-established she is, I’m something of a latecomer to Trudi Canavan’s work. Right now, I’m in the middle of her Age of the Five trilogy, which is what’s prompted this post; I’ve also read her Black Magician trilogy, the prequel volume, The Magician’s Apprentice, and the two most recent novels in the Traitor Spy series, which is set in the same world. Full disclosure: Trudi is a friend, and a very lovely person. However, that is hardly a sufficient basis on which to recommend her work, so on the off chance that you, like me, have come late to the party, here are some more compelling reasons why you should give her a try.

One of the most omnipresent epic fantasy tropes is that of prophecy: the insinuation that moments of great social, political and magical change must always be predestined, their success contingent on the agency of either a Chosen One or a classic Five Man Band. Often, there’s a tendency for such characters to be defined by their destinies, such that the possibility of their choosing a different path is never really an option. In Canavan’s works, however, the element of prophecy is absent. The world still changes, and particular individuals often have a prominent say in how that comes about, but their success is never guaranteed, and frequently bittersweet. Instead, the emphasis falls on choice, consequences and conflicting cultures: the honest yet frightening idea that it is only ever people – unguided by higher powers – whose actions change the course of history. Often, characters are forced to question both their own traditions and those of their enemies, sans any sense of moral absolutism. In this context, change is not just an excuse to declare old systems tyrannies while lauding their replacements as infallible; rather, both characters and readers must front up to the idea that such distinctions, while instinctive and easy to make, are ultimately arbitrary.

Her conception of black magic is the perfect example of this. By using a terminology which has negative connotations not just in the world of Kyralia, but also in the minds of readers, Canavan forces us to reexamine one of the most basic biases of fantasy magic: the idea that using blood in rituals is always dark, dangerous and, by extension, morally unjustifiable. Given that black magic is an everyday part of enemy Sachakan life – and given, too, the hideous extremes to which its use is taken – it would be easy and, to a certain extent, expected that the practice itself be vilified in the narrative. Instead, the characters are forced to recognise that, no matter how distasteful they find black magic, it is not evil in and of itself – and more, that it using it may well be necessary for Kyralia’s defense.

In keeping with her emphasis on the actions of individuals, even Canavan’s most powerful characters are shown in a deliberative light, defined by the manner in which they make their choices as much as the choices themselves. There are villains, but not outright villains: no matter how opaque their motives might seem to the protagonists or how objectionable their beliefs, the enemy’s actions are always defined by culture and personality. The same is true of her heroes; nobody is infallible, and everyone makes their own decisions. In this context, ignorance and biased assumption are the greatest evils, such Canavan’s most benevolent characters are always struggling to combat them. This extends to her narrative structure, too. In both the Age of the Five and Black Magician series, the initial confrontations which lead to war are portrayed as being so shocking and violent that both characters and readers automatically align themselves against the evils of the enemy. But as the stories progress, these initial assumptions are slowly peeled back, forcing us both to understand the enemy and to reassess our own ‘side’. Similarly, despite the advent of war in both her series, healing is lauded above and beyond martial prowess. In Age of the Five, the skills of the Dreamweaver healers in the aftermath of battle prompt something of a social reconciliation with the dominant Circlians, while two of the heroines in her Kyralian series, Tessia and Sonea, dedicate their strong magical gifts towards helping the less fortunate. A strong social conscience pervades these stories. No matter how entrenched a prejudice is or how understandable in the context of that society, the narrative never condones it.

As well as encouraging cultural and social tolerance, Canavan’s stories also contain a strong element of sexual equality, both in terms of feminism and homosexuality. Her most recent novel, The Rogue, features three romances, all given equal prominence, each one concerning at least one point of view character: one male/female, one male/male, and one female/female. Similarly, her Sachakan women in The Magician’s Apprentice are shown in a deeply sympathetic light: a group of wives who, despite being controlled primarily by their husbands, have nonetheless founded an underground political movement dedicated to promoting the welfare of other, similarly restricted women and offering sanctuary to those in need. There’s a lovely naturalism to these narrative elements, and a gentleness to their execution which is nonetheless powerful. By which I mean: the characters are never defined solely by these aspects of their personalities, nor do they become crusaders. Rather, they teach by example, encouraging change by living in such a way as to prove its worth.

Couple this with a fluid writing style, memorable characters and epic plots, and you have a set of books that are well worth reading. Canavan is an intelligent, compassionate writer with a knack for crafting believable societies, cementing her characterisation through conflicts that hinge on issues of personal choice, political freedom and, above all, social change.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

There’s an interesting post by Matthew David Surridge over at Black Gate about defining epic fantasy, and an equally interesting response by author N.K. Jemisin. Being as how this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I can’t help but contribute some thoughts of my own. Surridge concludes his article with the following definition:

“An epic fantasy is a very long and fundamentally serious story set mostly or entirely in a fantastic secondary world, typically defined by the existence of magic and often fleshed out with maps, appendices, and other paratextual devices; it’s usually an encylopedic, stylistically direct, structurally uncomplicated story in which characters notable for their active agency combat a defined evil, often by forming an alliance, and generally are involved with a world-transformative event.”

It’s a comprehensive definition, and the article itself makes some very good points – and yet, I can’t quite bring myself to agree, because the more I think about it, the more it feels like a definition of one particular type of epic fantasy, and not the genre as a whole. To begin with, I’d like to consider Surridge’s suggestion that epic fantasy is fundamentally serious: that the world and story cannot be comedic. At first glance, this struck me as a reasonable requirement – until I remembered Redwall, a lengthy series of books created by the recently deceased Brian Jacques. Given that Surridge is willing to include William Horwood’s Duncton Wood in his epic canon – which, insofar as animal protagonists are concerned, falls within the same thematic territory as Redwall – Jacques’s work becomes a very interesting test case. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, it is indisputably aimed at young adults. One thing never discussed as part of Surridge’s definition was whether a series should be excluded on the basis of being YA, presumably because most people consider the answer, whatever they think it is, to go without saying, and perhaps also because, if we accept his requirement (I don’t) that epics be not only written in trilogies at a minimum, but trilogies with a combined minimum wordage of 250,000, then most YA books are automatically disqualified.

But Redwall, which runs to more than 20 stories set in the same world, is a definite contender. The vast majority of novels feature overlapping characters – that is to say, characters who appear in more than one book – and at least four whole volumes are dedicated to the lives of historical characters whose exploits underpin the mythology of all later adventures. Paratextual elements abound in the form of poetry, songs and maps. The crisis and conflict of each book is always a world-transformative event, the evil is always well-defined, quests are quested and alliances are most definitely made. And yet the series is also defined by its humour. The hares of Salamandastron, who count among the fiercest warriors in Jacques’s world, are innately comical creatures, affecting the mannerisms and speech patterns of the British aristocracy to such a degree that many of them, sans the fact of their species, wouldn’t be out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Though the lead villains are always dastardly, their vermin armies of rats, ferrets, stoats and foxes are equally as prone to slapstick and fearful blubbering as they are to ruthless brutality. Comedy is built in to the bones of Redwall, not only as a means of softening characters and concepts that might otherwise be too frightening for younger readers, but because Jacques actively chose to write stories that were equally as capable of eliciting laughter as they were tears.

Beyond the comedy question, and with an eye to further unpicking the Black Gate article, Maria V. Snyder’s excellent Poison Study series stands as strong contender for the notion of YA epic fantasy – as, quite arguably, do the works of Tamora Pierce. But rather than build my definition only in accordance with existing titles, I’ll stop here and consider the question in abstract. The one aspect of Surridge’s definition with which I wholeheartedly agreed was the requirement that epic stories be set either mainly or entirely in a secondary world, one which is frequently (but not necessarily) typified by the presence of magic. In fact, I would go so far as to make it the starting point for my own definition, minus his clarifying remark that most such worlds are similar to medieval Europe. But in order to do that, I must first ask a different question: what are the other fantasy genres, and how are they different from epic? Surridge makes passing mention of heroic fantasy and gritty fantasy, and high fantasy is certainly a known term, but all of these share the secondary world qualification, and having chosen that single factor as a building block, I’ve brought myself to a place where any novel can constitute epic fantasy, regardless of scope, focus or direction, provided it belongs to a secondary world.

This makes for a helpful starting point: nothing more. Because, as tempting as it might sometimes be to have done with the whole question of fantastic subgenres by autocratically declaring everything set in a magical, non-earth world to be epic fantasy, with any other label like heroic or gritty relegated to the nomenclature of individual taste, doing so would be both an oversimplification of epic (hah!) proportions and a gross unfairness to writers who want to find their own, distinct use for secondary worlds. Were I to stop now, for instance, Catherynne M. Valente’s breathtaking Palimpsest would end up categorised as epic fantasy, which it isn’t. And here we encounter the real crux of the matter: a dilemma I’m tempted to refer to as the shelving problem. As things stand, even specialty SFF bookshops will have very few sections, despite the large number of admissible genres. Fantasy, SF and Horror will be honoured with their very own shelves, as, increasingly, will Paranormal Romance – though since coming to the UK, I’ve seen more than one bookstore boasting a Dark Fantasy section, which seems to be a rough equivalent. But the thing about shelving books is that, regardless of content, you cannot put them in two places at once*. Obviously, this is a stricture that applies only in the physical world, and not to definitional debates. And yet, when we think about genre, there is a tendency to behave as if the former principle – the shelving problem – is still the most important consideration; as though, in shaping our notions of genre, we must establish our definition after the fashion of international borders, trying to control not only what goes in, but what can be taken out.

This is not an entirely illogical endeavour, as shown by the above flirtation with an exclusively secondary world definition of epic fantasy. Cast the net too wide, and you end up trying to argue that black is white just because homogeneity is easier to describe. But by the same token, the borders of genre cannot be rigid things. Enforce them too stringently in accordance with too specific a set of principles, and last week’s debate is the inevitable result. Because ultimately, the most common conventions of genre should not be mistaken for the genre itself. The fact that many epic fantasies run to multiple volumes and hundreds of thousands of words, for instance, does not mean that length must be a defining characteristic of epic fantasy. To steal from scientific parlance, that is an instance of confusing correlation with causation. Definitions should not hinge on establishing what is most common; rather, they should ask what is most indispensable.

And so – tentatively, as I am not a perfect, all-seeing, all-tapdancing omniscient – I would suggest that epic fantasy can be defined by the following conditions:

1. Any story which is set, either mostly or totally, in a secondary world; and

2. Which is concerned, either mostly or totally, with the politics and/or history of that world; and

3. Whose arc and resolution, either mostly or totally, involves the use of either magic or technology specific to that world; and

4. Whose characters, either mostly or totally, are instrumental in bringing about the conclusion.

Of all those points, the one I’m least confident in is 3. To my knowledge, I’ve never read a fantasy novel that lacked for magic of some description, or whose fantastic elements weren’t justified by some type of mythic, unobtanium-fueled or genius-dreamed technology. However, that is not to say that such a novel is a thematic impossibility, and if one was written that still met the criteria for 1, 2 and 4, I would be hard-pressed not to term it epic fantasy. For me, the question of whether magic is a necessary component of genre lies right on the borderland between a common characteristic and an indispensable characteristic. For now, I’m working with the assumption that it’s slightly more the latter than the former, but in the end, given that the act of creating a secondary world is automatically an engagement with the fantastic, regardless of whether that world functions exclusively according to the laws of Earth science, I could be persuaded otherwise.

So, that’s my two cents. What’s yours?

*Unless you’ve got multiple copies, but that’s not really the point.

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.