J.S Bangs lives in the American Midwest with his family of four. When not writing, he works as a computer programmer, and he can occasionally be found gardening, biking, or playing Magic: the Gathering. His short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and other venues.
Storm Bride, his first novel, is out now from Red Adept Publishing. It can be purchased in paperback from Amazon, and as an e-book from most online booksellers.
by J.S. Bangs
I think it was because I read one too many cover blurbs for fantasy and urban fantasy novels with female protagonists. There was a depressing regularity: The leading woman will carry a gun, sword, or other weapon on the cover. She will look at the viewer either alluringly or defiantly. Her voice will be snarky. She will be “tough”. If it’s a more traditional fantasy, she’ll declare her disdain for princessy pursuits and traditional femininity. If it’s a contemporary fantasy, that attitude will be written in her torn jeans, tattoos, and the mysterious (but attractive) scar above her eye.
She’ll be, in other words, a Strong Female Character™.
Now I have nothing against this type, necessarily. I watched Buffy: the Vampire Slayer at an impressionable age, and I’ve read many great books whose protagonists were cut from this mold. But the regularity of the trope began wearing on me several years ago. What bothered me most was the way in which the characters “strength” was conflated with “violence”: these were strong women precisely because they were women who punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, or burned enemies with magical fire. It was as if we, as a literate culture, had decided that we were okay with women stepping out of traditional roles, but couldn’t think of anything else for them to do other than punch
When I get annoyed by something like this, it frequently turns into a kind of dare to subvert or repudiate the overused trope in the most dramatic way. In this case, I found myself tinkering with a story in which a woman saves the world in the most un-violent way possible, in which strength was determined not by destroying the enemy with power but by doing something else. This was the seed which became Storm Bride. Since I’m writing epic fantasy, I wanted the themes of the story to be reflected in the epic conflicts of the story, with magic and gods and terrible battles, but I knew that the resolution would not be killing the enemy, but rather—
I can’t just spoil the ending of my book here, can I?
So Storm Bride is my first published full-length novel, an epic fantasy about a clash between a frontier city from a settled civilization and a horde of barbarians who descend upon them unawares. The protagonists are Uya, a young woman pregnant with her first child, and Saotse, a very old woman with a unique affinity for the gods. The gods of the two cultures get involved in the fray, but the escalation of violence which first seems like a solution to the problem turns out to be making it worse. In the end, it’s a story about forgiveness, and how sometimes the right choice is to fight, and sometimes the choice is not to fight. I’m very proud of it.
Having written it, I now look around and wonder if I wasn’t riding the zeitgeist a little. There are still plenty of Strong Female Characters™ kicking ass, but there’s also been some really prominent examples of people bucking the trend. A Natural History of Dragons and its sequels come to mind as great examples of a strong female protagonist whose strength has nothing to do with punching things. I also recently read the Vorkosigan books (all of them) for the first time, and I was really impressed by how Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan fulfills the same role. Aside from that one incident involving a head in a shopping bag, Cordelia is not a violent character, but rather expresses her strength in her maternal roles as mother of Miles and Mark, and the educator of Emperor Gregor. These are the kinds of strong characters I can get behind with no ambivalence. And I think that Storm Bride is a fine addition to the group.