As I’ve mentioned in the past (here and here), I’m disappointed when historical fantasies present me with a female protagonist whose most distinctive characteristic is not wanting to conform to gender norms. Not that this is a bad characteristic, but it’s not usually enough to impress me.
I was reminded of this again reading Breath of Earth recently. When we meet the protagonist, Isabel, she’s sitting at the college of Earth mages, frustrated because she has more power than any of them but daren’t reveal this because girl parts plus magic is forbidden. Immediately I began to lose interest. But now I’m wondering why I react that way to such characters
A big part of it is that even though fighting for equality a worthy subject, in these books its cliched. Woman vs. sexism was a staple of fiction during the 1970s as second-wave feminism grappled with the same thing in real life. And there’s no shortage of earlier examples either. That part of these stories feels like it could have been written back in the 1970s (even though other parts, like Cato’s black female mage do not); even though those attitudes are still out there, I’d like to see something different. As I said in reviewing Weighing Shadows (cover by Cortney Skinner, all rights to current holder), 21st century sexism has changed in lots of ways from what I saw when I was a teen: online harassment, men’s rights activists, the backlash from the religious right. In some way, I’d like to see that reflected in the story.
Of course we’re talking historical settings, not the present, but the challenges don’t feel particularly historical either — not the way Bettina Krahn’s romance, The Last Batchelor does. Krahn’s book shows the kind of backbreaking labor Victorian women dealt with, and political problems of the day such as “surplus women” (i.e., more women than there were men to marry them); the challenges for the female protagonist don’t feel at all modern even though there’s a lot I imagine a present-day reader could identify with. In The Twelfth Enchantment, protagonist Lucy is completely a product of her times — she’s terrified that saving England from evil is forcing her to go against proper feminine behavior (but does so anyway, of course).
Another problem is that the books I’m complaining about present the gender-nonconforming woman as being a unique freak, where as Krahn actually looks at sexism as something systemic. Ditto Sorcerer to the Crown, in which the fight isn’t just for Prunella’s right to practice magic, but for women in general.
And as far as personal taste goes, I’d sooner read about a woman going off and doing something awesome than read about her being frustrated because she can’t, or isn’t supposed to (in fairness, Isabel does get to do lots of heroic stuff). Or at the least, where defying norms isn’t the most pronounced aspect of her personality, or the first quality we’re introduced to. One of my writer’s group colleagues is working on a story where the heroine doesn’t gender-conform, but I don’t feel like that’s all there is to her.
This may, of course, reflect that as a man, even a feminist man, I don’t have a dog in the hunt: maybe if I were a woman I’d connect with these characters more strongly. But I’m me, so I’ll have to go with my own reactions.