Fantasy is Female: The Importance of Feminism in YA Fantasy

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S.W. Sondheimer

Staff Writer

When not prying Legos and gaming dice out of her feet, S.W. Sondheimer is a registered nurse at the Department of Therapeutic Misadventures, a herder of genetic descendants, cosplayer, and a fiction and (someday) comics writer. She is a Yinzer by way of New England and Oregon and lives in the glorious 'Burgh with her husband, 2 smaller people, 2 cats, a fish, and a snail. She occasionally tries to grow plants, drinks double-caffeine coffee, and has a habit of rooting for the underdog. It is possible she has a book/comic book problem but has no intention of doing anything about either. Twitter: @SWSondheimer

There have always been women in fantasy. They’ve come a long way from their origins as the bikini-clad damsel clutching the leg of the hero, the sacred prostitute sold into the life by her desperate parents, the cold assassin with a singular talent raised among men, or the powerful sorceress who must decide between her power and the love of a good man.

Our progress has been slow and is more evident in some sub-genres than others; because urban fantasy and many paranormal romances are set in worlds similar to our own, it’s a simpler, though never easy, task to modernize our fictional sisters. Voices like those of Nnedi Okorafor have brought us Akata Witches and Zoraida Córdova Brooklyn Brujas.

But high fantasy. Oh, high fantasy.

Yes. There are some high fantasy stories with well-developed female characters who have complete story arcs and independent vectors and don’t ultimately trade everything they’ve fought for and built for the heart of a knight or a rogue or a djinn or…you get the idea.

While at Emerald City Comic Con, I had the opportunity to speak with Alexandra Christo (To Kill a Kingdom) and Tricia Levenseller (Warrior of the Wild, Daughter of the Pirate King) about their particular mission to inject feminism into their female-led YA fantasy and why they think it’s so important to do so.

S.W. Sondheimer: Both of you have major plot points that revolve around conflict between the female protagonist and her mother. They resolve in very different ways. Why was it important to include that conflict in each story?

Alexandra Christo: This is where my mother, who is the most lovely person in the world, always tells me, “You know, people always ask me if the sea queen is based off me…” I think in a lot of books, the villain is quite far removed from the protagonist and so there’s that sort of line between them. I feel it’s really interesting to explore that sort of villainous relationship between two characters that are supposed to traditionally love and care for each other, and show that’s not what all families follow…that’s not the way it always goes. You don’t have to love someone just because they’re your family. You’re not required to put up with a bunch of monsters just because you’re related to someone. It’s interesting to explore those families and see where that antagonistic relationship comes from. It’s also the idea of Lira…she begins the book ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to get her kingdom, and once she becomes human, she starts to explore whether she was always that monster or whether that was drilled into her and she can change who she is, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore.

Tricia Levenseller: I think that in YA novels, it’s so hard to get the parents out of the novel, how do you get the parents out of the way? And I think one way to do that is to make the parents the villains. I grew up with fabulous parents who I love and adore, but I have a friend who had horrible parents and it wasn’t their experience. I wanted to have my fantasy novel reflect real life events and how some relationships look. Obviously (in real life) her mother did not lie and send her out to a monster-filled wilderness like happens in Warrior, but there are these interesting parallels to these relationships that exist in the real world and I like to reflect those and the complexities of them in fantasy worlds. It gives us a fresh way to look at them.

AC: And it shows us that even if you have bad relationships in your families, you can still come out the other side. It doesn’t make you a lesser person.

SWS: Why is showing the process of character development so important, especially in YA? Lira and Rosmera change because they want to. In many fantasy novels, the woman changes for love. In To Kill and Kingdom and in Warrior of the Wild, Lira and Rosmera change because they want to, and love comes later and separately. Why is that important for girls especially, but boys as well, to see?

TL: I think it’s incredibly important for feminist fantasy that girls are reading about girls who are doing things because they want to and not for a man. We live in modern times and this is something we need to be talking about, especially to our teen readers who are growing up and learning from the books they read…

AC: I think Lira’s character actually came about because, in fantasy, in usual fairytales, women didn’t have agency; they just waited around to be rescued. It was their story but they didn’t do anything in their own story. They relied on other people. In the Little Mermaid (which inspired To Kill a Kingdom), in the end, she sacrifices herself completely for this guy who doesn’t even love her. I wanted to show a women who went out for what she wanted, who was ambitious, and who didn’t apologize for it. So often strong women in fantasy are seen as bossy or bitchy. Her character arc isn’t forgetting her goal…it’s about finding a new way…learning and adapting…not being stagnant. She doesn’t have to fit into a mold, she can do things her own way. It goes back to getting the parents out of the book. Once she’s away from that abusive and destructive relationship, she begins to discover who she actually is…you don’t need to be who people are telling you to be or who people expect you to be. You can be who you want to be and forge your own way. Fantasy is a really unique way of getting that message across without it being a flashing neon sign.

SWS: I don’t want to give away the ending, but it wasn’t what I expected…I was thrilled.

AC: I didn’t want it to be a traditional “they get married and walk into the sunset.” I wanted it to be “Lira and Elian still have their own plans for the future. They can still have those plans and do those plans. They don’t have to choose between X and Y, they can have both. Women can have everything.”

SWS: And Elian didn’t have to give up his plans either.

AC: Exactly! He didn’t have to fit into “what it means to be a man,” as well. He could choose his own family.

TL: I get told a lot that my women are “too confident,” and that makes them “unlikable.”

AC: Only women are “unlikable.” Men are “flawed.” Women have to be perfect and fit into the mold.

TL: Now I’m almost taking it as a compliment because if it were a man, they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Now, I’m like, good. If she’s unlikable at the beginning and I can make you like her, my job is done. She’s a full character. I just hope we get past that point.

SWS: In both books, the young women are a force for change. Talk to us about including that and why it’s important for young women to be seeing that, especially right now?

AC: It’s especially important for young people in America and across the world, with all the protests…it’s important to show young people that their voices can change the world, that their actions can make a difference, that they can have a voice and they should use it and they can use it, and they should not be afraid because they’re not alone. I think that’s really important because there’s always the person who starts the protest or starts the act for a specific thing, and if that one person doesn’t come forward, maybe no one else might. If you feel passionately about something and you want to change it and you can change it, it doesn’t matter if adults and men and X person tell you you can’t; you can and you shouldn’t feel confined by society telling you no. Because society gets it wrong a lot. Sometimes, society is fucking stupid and we shouldn’t say, “Oh, my little voice won’t make a difference,” because if we all said that, nothing would get done. I remember—I’m going to get this so wrong—I remember back in the UK when we had our elections, there’s the conservative government and the labour government…and lots of people were saying, “my vote doesn’t matter, why bother voting?” and in Kensington, which is always the most conservative borough of London, Labour actually won by like, two votes, two people. So if everyone said, “Oh, my voice doesn’t matter,” we would have lost that borough to the conservatives. So it’s important to show that every voice matters. If every single person says, “I’m going to stand up,” then you have an army behind you and then you have real change.

TL: I also really wanted to write a male-dominated society, because we are living in one.

AC: You mean the real world.

TL: (laughs) Yes, the real world. And then show how a girl can still make big changes in that kind of society. I would really, really like to see more women getting involved in politics and the sciences and all these fields. I want so many more voices in this male-dominated society, and it was so important to me Warrior have this girl who wasn’t a traditional beauty, who could step up into this traditional male role and embrace her feminine side but be part of a warrior society. Even when she failed, she didn’t give up. Even when she was cast out, she kept at it. I think it’s so important to show there are going to be bumpy roads, you’re not always going to win but if you keep at it, you will make a difference and things will change for the better. Even if it’s not in your lifetime, it will be down the road.

AC: Rosmera goes on to lead that society. Women become the leaders and change those societies.

TL: Also, it wasn’t Rosmera’s typical masculine qualities that came through for her in the end. I think it was her feminine qualities. Her intuitiveness, her ability to feel for the boys that were stuck out in the wilderness with her, to rally them, to inspire them. I feel those are feminine qualities, though my goal is to smash the barrier and let everything just be people qualities in the future—but if we’re talking about them in these terms, I think it’s important to note it’s not always physical brute strength that gets you where you need to be in the end, it’s your wits, you intuitiveness, your compassion.

AC: There are a lot of times in fantasy women are strong because they can murder people with a flick of their wrist, killer assassins. That was one of the reasons in To Kill a Kingdom, I started with Lira so (physically) powerful and then I stripped it all away, so she had to find the mental strength, the emotional strength, the strength of self, and learn from that…to show there are different ways of being strong and none are lesser than the other. They’re all equal.

SWS: What are you reading right now?

AC: I just finished reading WarriorThe Last Magician is the one I’m reading now and also Maggie Stiefvater put one on her IG lately…Something Wicked This Way Comes

TL: I just finished A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was so good. I still have a book hangover from it. But I can’t say anything about it.

AC: I loved that one! I blurbed it. It’s my favorite ever Beauty and the Beast retelling.

SWS: What’s next for each of you?

AC: I have a new duology launching in October: Into the Crooked Place. It’s about four crooks who deal in magic and they’re murderers. Not very nice people. They discover their criminal leader has a really dangerous and dark plan that crosses the line for them, so these four crooked killers team up to save the world and destroy the leader.

TL: My book that comes out next year is also about murderers. They’re great people to write about.

I mean, I can’t do much better than that as a closing line, so: “murderers. They’re great people to write about.”