Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.
by Helen Lowe
In “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” I am shining a spotlight on my favorite Fantasy heroines, not only revealing who they are but why I believe they kick butt and take names as characters.
A while back I mentioned a “band of sisters” in the context of Patricia McKillip’s Heir Of Sea and Fire, but I have always felt the quintessential band of Fantasy sisters is Sheera Galernas and her fifty comrades-in-arms – The Ladies of Mandrigyn in Barbara Hambly’s 1984 novel of the same name.
The story’s premise is that the city state of Mandrigyn has been taken over by the evil wizard-king, Altiokis, and all its able-bodied men enslaved. Up until that point, Mandrigyn has been a very traditional city community in terms of gender roles, with women essentially restricted to the home. But with the men gone, women have had to take over the city’s business at every level. As Eo, the blacksmith puts it:
“Had to… Woulda starved, else.”
Nonetheless, when a leading noblewoman, Sheera Galernas, puts together a plan to rescue the city’s men and throw out the wizard-king, her initial plan is to recruit an army of mercenaries. When the mercenary commander, Sun Wolf, refuses her contract, she has him kidnapped, in order to train a strike force of Mandrigyn’s women instead.
At this point in the novel, I recall thinking, “Oh yeah, let’s see how this plays out.” The reason for my doubt was because I thought there was a fair chance The Ladies of Mandrigyn would either end with the women having being rescued by Sun Wolf when the chips were down, or that the women’s relationships would be rife with petty jealousies and rivalries – both characteristics of certain styles of fantasy prevalent at the time.
Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. First that the story was full of great women characters, who were serious and determined in what they were setting out to do. But I also liked that the story was realistic about what it took to turn a group of largely sedentary women into an effective fighting force.
“He [Sun Wolf] glared at the women who stood in a line before him, all of them wheezing with the exertion of an hour of warming-up and tumbling exercises that had convinced them, as well as their instructor, that they’d never be warriors.”
Also, although Sheera, their leader, is a rich noblewoman, this band-of-sisters comprises a group that is relatively diverse in terms of class, color, and gender preference. Nonetheless, the book is not a thinly disguised treatise on political correctness – it’s a strong and exciting Fantasy story where a large number of the central characters happen to be “all sorts and conditions” of women, working together to achieve a common and dangerous goal.
As you can imagine from the starting point quoted above, their path is not an easy one. Yet as with all groups, there is a moment when it all starts to come together, both for the women and the reader:
“Sun Wolf looked at those who were left. He saw … scared faces, gray with shock and nausea … The place stank with the peculiar battleground smell, the vile reek of blood and vomit and excrement, of death and terror … More than one was crying, with shock and grief and relief. But none of them looked, or would ever look again, quite as they had.”
But, you may say, they’ve still been trained and are being led by Sun Wolf, so they’re still a band of sisters with a male officer, right? In fact, no – because in the end Sun Wolf is taken out of that particular equation and rather than being rescued by him, Sheera has to lead her company to his rescue. And as another mercenary later recounts:
“She’s a good general, too, you know … She always had her forces at her fingertips—always knew what was going on…Yirth (the band’s wizard) showed her the true way (through the wizard-king’s magic) and she followed through illusion and fire and all hell else. The rest … did the same.”
Now it may seem that I’ve given quite a bit of the story away – but fear not, there is plenty more that remains unrevealed for readers to enjoy. And, in fact, there is so much to this book in terms of sisterhood and Fantasy heroines that rock my world that it has to be a two-part post. In the meantime, I give you Sheera Galernas and her ladies of Mandrigyn, who undoubtedly rocked the foundations of their own world, as well as mine as a Fantasy reader.