Alis Franklin is the author of Liesmith (my review) and the recently released Stormbringer (my review). Both are modern takes on Norse mythology. This Australian author is guest-blogging today to share how she became alienated from fantasy novels and how she found her way back.
I was fifteen when I stopped reading fantasy novels.
I remember the book that killed my interest. I'm not going to name it, only to say it's considered one of the greats of the genre. My father had loaned it to me, the book pulled from his wall-to-wall collection of battered SFF paperbacks after I'd asked him for something to read. Something for "grown ups" (this was in the mid-90s or so, before the YA boom filled in that transitional gap between growing and grown). He took Famous Fantasy Novel from its shelf, and handed it to me. "Read this," he said. "It's a classic."
I didn't make it through the first fifty pages.
"It starts slow," Dad said. "Stick with it."
But I wasn't worried about it starting slow. I worried about it starting wrong. I worried about it starting as a story of a farmboy and his farmboy friends, and the One Girl In The Village.
I worried about the fact I hated that girl. At the time, I didn't know how to put my revulsion into words. She was… annoying. Her sole purpose seemed to be to taunt and tease the boys with her "girlishness". She had no power outside of what the story bequeathed her for her connection to the male protagonist and his male friends. I could tell they were destined for greatness. Her? Destined to be a wife, I guess. Or a victim.
As a teenager, I didn't want to be a wife, or a victim, and I didn't want to bat my eyelashes and swing my hips and nag boys into doing things for me. I wanted to do them for myself. And, more importantly, I realized I didn't want to put up with reading a thousand pages of boys getting to have fun while I didn't. Not again.
I gave the book back to my dad in disgust. And then I did something terrible. Something I'm sure a lot of girls my age have done.
I blamed that female character for my dislike. If it was her "feminine" behaviors that put me off, her "femaleness" that prevented her from engaging in the story in the way I would have wanted to engage... If it was all that, then what else was to blame but the very idea of being female itself?
This, then, was the start of my Not Like Other Girls phase.
Maybe I'm being a little unfair to Famous Fantasy Novel. It might be the first book I remember rejecting for its portrayal of a female character, but it was by no means the first book--or the first piece of media--where I'd encountered a female character I couldn't stand. And always, every time, I blamed my disconnect those fictional girls and women, and, by extension, I blamed real life women, too.
It wasn't until I was much, much older that it occurred to me that every female character I couldn't stand, without fail, had been written by a man. It wasn’t femininity or femaleness I was rejecting; it was a male-perceived version of it. One that didn't mesh with my own experience.
It took other women to bring about the realization. Talking to them both as fans, critical of the texts we were consuming, and as content creators, often in the long weeds of the early internet, outside the trimmed lawns of mainstream pop culture.
Thirty years of bad characters and misplaced blame is a lot to unlearn, but I'm trying. Slowly. Mostly by attempting to consume more media created by--and, importantly, for--women. Media that's inclusive of all kinds of women, no matter their shape or size or interests, no matter their color or sexuality or ability. Women who kick ass and take names, sure, but also the rest of them; the quiet mothers, the supportive friends, the awkward losers. I want their adventures, their stories, their epic quests.
Stormbringer is, in part, my contribution to that journey. More so than its urban predecessor, Stormbringer is a fantasy novel. And while it takes tropes and conventions from the male-written sword and sorcery I wanted to love as a teen, I've tried to rewrite it into the story I would've wanted to read as a teen. A story with all kinds of women; the warrior, the strategist, the queen, the mother, and, yes, the bride-to-be. They are the drivers or the plot, the keepers of the action, much more than the story's male narrators, who are more often than not there merely to observe the outcomes of female agency.
It is, of course, not the be-all and end-all of the Heroine's Journey in epic fantasy; not the last word on female representation. But it's a word; a book with women, written to try and appeal, if not to women in general, but one woman in particular, a.k.a. yours truly, age fifteen.
It's not enough. But it's something.