A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine devoted to fiction and art about bugs. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
For this installment of Women to Read, I thought I’d try something a little different and suggest some young women to read about. Summer is a time for vacations, for long lazy days reading on the shore of a lake, or up in the branches of a favorite tree. Well, at least it is when you’re a kid. Perhaps you know such a child, an avid devourer of Young Adult and Middle-Grade fiction? And perhaps you’d like to show them that heroes aren’t always boys with great destinies, and girls aren’t always helpless princesses waiting to be rescued? If so, I have some suggestions for you!
Flora is the hero of Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda trilogy, which begins with the deliciously named Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Beyond the sheer joy in language and the rollicking adventure Wilce delivers, she also draws a richly imagined world that blows typical gender stereotypes right out of the water. Flora is firmly the hero of her tale. Her mother is a general in the army, and when we first meet him, her father is a bit mad. Flora’s sidekick is an appearance-obsessed lad named Udo, who, while loyal and brave in his own way, is ultimately far more concerned with how fashionable his outfit is and the state of his hair. Flora lives in a world where women take equal share – they occupy all ranks of the military, they are rangers, pulp fiction heroes, goddesses, and killers. Within this world, Flora is not a death-dealing infallible hero. She struggles, she earns her place, and sometimes she makes mistakes. In the end, she is ultimately and beautifully human – the kind of human who always strives to do better, to be more, to do what’s right in the face of grayscale moral choices. All of which makes her the perfect hero for young readers of any gender to look up to.
September is the hero of another series of books with delicious names. She is first introduced to readers in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. Like Flora, September is a fully developed hero in her own right, navigating her way through a world of uncertain moral choices. Her story is drenched in Valente’s gorgeous prose, and her world, too, is one that defies traditional gender stereotypes. Here marquesses can rule the world and witches can have multiple husbands and oracles can live by their own rules no matter what you think about them. In September, we also see an assertive hero whose male sidekicks and companions are the shy, retiring, and uncertain ones. While they have their own strength, they contrast with and compliment September’s strengths, but never overshadow them. September never needs to be rescued, and does a fair bit of rescuing herself. On top of that, the world questions traditional assumptions of good vs. evil, presenting the hero with complex choices to make, and doesn’t shy away from big themes or ambiguous actions in a genre where authors are frequently pressured to talk down their audiences and make their work more accessible.
Jonathan Maberry proves that male authors can write heroes, too (said with tongue firmly in cheek, in light of recent/ongoing debates in the genre, and with apologies to Mr. Maberry.) Nix and Lilah are introduced in Maberry’s Rot & Ruin, the first in a four book series. While Benny Imura is technically the hero of the tale, Nix and Lilah have a near equal share of page time, and are shown to be very capable heroes in their own right. Rot & Ruin, and the subsequent books in the series, are set in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, where the four teenaged protagonists, Benny, Chong, Nix, and Lilah (with occasional help from a wide supporting cast of characters) fight hordes of zombies across a desolate wasteland. Nix and Lilah are shown to be warriors every bit the equal of Benny and Chong. Lilah in particular, true to her character, is in many cases the most formidable fighter of the group. The depiction of all four teenagers’ skills feels organic. Nix and Lilah are never super-powered to compensate for their femininity (yes, this is a thing that unfortunately happens sometimes.) They are allowed to be human. They are allowed to be weak, they are allowed to be strong, they are allowed to be whoever they are in the moment, as are Benny and Chong, making all the characters true and believable, and not drawing arbitrary gender lines.
How can you talk about heroes these days without mentioning Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood? Similar to Nix and Lilah, the series that made them famous bears a boy’s name in the title, but that doesn’t mean they’re overshadowed. The first book in the Harry Potter series in particular makes a point of each of the characters possessing a particular strength, and having them work together to overcome seeming impossible odds. Hermione’s braininess saves the day on more than one occasion throughout the series, and though romance does feature in the later books, she is never relegated to the girlfriend role. While Luna doesn’t show up until later in the series, she makes an immediate impact when she does. Initially, she is shown to be an outsider, mocked and dismissed based on surface appearances. But rather than wilting under prejudice, Luna lets it all roll off her, and over time, she’s revealed to have a complex back story almost as dark as Harry’s. Together, Hermione and Luna celebrate the notion of the brainy hero, the one who wins the day with a combination of knowledge, loyalty, and bravery, rather than sheer brute force. They exemplify the notion that there’s more than one way to be a hero, and show that holding a supporting role doesn’t have to mean you’re sidelined. Sometimes being a hero is a matter of being an essential part of a team.
So there you have it – my recommended starting point for women to read about. Next time I’ll be back with more women to read, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite fictional women. Happy summer reading, all!