When we talk about the lack of female authors visible in epic fantasy, and the lack of strong female characters, I always feel as though one name is left off the list and that has started to bug me.
You see, in 2001 (hell, I was still at university then - it is a LOOONG time ago!) a lady author called Jacqueline Carey wrote a novel called Kushiel's Dart. And it is beyond superb. The lyrical and beautiful prose, the politics, the mystery, the quest, the characters... For a debut novel, it is astonishing how good it is, honestly.
But it is more than that, and I want to list out some reasons why:
1. Although it is based on a version of Europe, as most fantasies are, this novel and the rest in the series explore all manner of locations. Middle Eastern, African, versions of China. We see Greek and Roman representations, as well as Nordic countries. Carey takes her inspirations from all over the world.
2. There are openly gay and bisexual characters in the novels, and that is just fine. The tagline of the series and the words of one of the goddesses is 'Love As Thou Wilt', with no judgement and no reprimand. As long as you are consensual - and, sometimes, even when you're not (if that is your thing) sex is to be celebrated with whomever you might choose.
3. From top to bottom of the cast there are memorable female characters, and the men do not take the limelight. These are women who can operate without men, even within the confines of society. Indeed, the villain (I guess spoilers) is a woman called Melisandre. With motivations and complex reasons for her political actions. How often do you see that?
4. Relationships are examined in detail. Marriage is considered important, yes, but a consort is deemed just as important. A dalliance can be paid for or through love. All the facets of love, affection and emotion are considered and allowed time.
5. As well as relationships, there is one central and desperately important friendship between a man and a woman. Phèdre and Hyacinthe have been friends from childhood, and, although they do have dalliances (as is the way of their religion) the largest part of their relationship is friendship and trust. It is absolutely refreshing to see this happen in a novel.
6. The style of the story allows a great deal of discussion about religion, without enforcing stereotypes. We see societies with one god and societies with multiple gods. Some are pagan and some are based on ritual and more official worship.
7. My final point brings me to the title of my blog post and, for me, the strongest woman in fantasy fiction. Phèdre nó Delauney. This is a woman who is complex and sometimes difficult to understand, who has talents but shows wilful ignorance and rare innocence. She is not all about men. She learns politics and spy craft from a tender age, and uses her body at times to learn secrets, while at the same time respecting her goddess and the ways of a Servant of Naamah. She believes in the tenet that 'all knowledge is worth having'. And, most importantly for me, this quote from the series is how Phèdre lives: "that which yields is not always weak". You see, so many times a strong woman is one such as a warrior maiden, or one who can keep up with the men, or one that wields weapons and swears like a trooper. How many times in fantasy fiction have we seen women portrayed like that, and called strong. Whereas Phèdre's strength comes from her mind and her body, and how she is able to use them. She is astonishing to read about, and, even more surprising, was written before we really started examining the presence of female authors and characters in our epic fantasy. She has been taken to the hearts of so many readers and shows that acceptance of societies and relationships that aren't the norm has been alive and well since the publication of Kushiel's Dart.
And the success of Kushiel's Dart, and the other novels in the series, does beg the question - why is it taking so long to have this acceptance show in the publication of more thoughtful and female-dominated epic fantasy?