Monday, July 1, 2013

Women Heroes in The Seven-Petaled Shield

Novels begin in many different ways, drawing their “motive energy” or “visions of ultimate coolness” from varied sources. Which is a high-falutin’ way of saying that there is no one right way in which to begin a story. It can start with a visual image (very common with me, as I’m a visual writer), an emotional turning-point, or an idea that grabs the imagination. Or a line of dialog or a melody. Many writers experience a tango-like dance with their creative inspirations, which ranges from the times the source dictates its own story in total defiance of genre boundaries and market demands, to those instances when the writer summons a story to fit certain specifications. The world of The Seven-Petaled Shield began with the latter.

My first professional short story sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley for the debut volume of Sword & Sorceress. (It was, of course, an occasion of much rejoicing!) When the anthology became an annual series, I kept submitting stories, and looking around for different cultures and situations. For one of the later volumes (XIII), I wanted to explore the tensions between a nomadic horse people and a city-based culture like Rome, and their different values and forms of magic. I did not call them Romans and Scythians, but these models were very much in my mind. As I delved further into my research, researching aspects of life and warfare that spoke to me, I learned that although Scythian women were definitely second-class citizens, the Sarmatian women rode to battle and were likely the origin of the “Amazons” of legend. Thus began a series of “Azkhantian” tales, in which the women of a nomadic horse people battle against the relentless incursions of Gelon (this world’s Roman Empire) What could be more perfect for a sword and sorcery story featuring a strong woman protagonist?

For the first of these stories, I wanted to depart from the usual swordswoman or sorceress heroine: a woman who is young, physically fit, and unattached to family. I’ve often been astonished by the number of such protagonists who appear to be orphaned only children. In cultures like my Azkhantian nomads, however, family, clan, and tribe form the core of an individual’s identity. A host of possibilities opened when I chose a point of view character who wasn’t physically involved in the battle, but was deeply emotionally involved. Hence, most of “The Spirit Arrow” was told from the perspective of an aging mother, bound to her warrior daughter by more than the natural enchantment of the heart.

Three more stories followed. The world of the Azkhantians got bigger as more cultures and histories made themselves known to me. Meklavar appeared on the map, at first as a remote, mysterious location, a place held in superstitious awe. I had no plans for exploring Meklavar further, although clearly Meklavar itself, abode of witches and prophets, had other ideas. It kept nudging me, even when my Sword & Sorceress stories departed for other worlds.

When at last Azkhantia, Gelon, and Meklavar convinced me they deserved a novel of their own, I brought the legacy of those early stories and their female protagonists – mother, warrior, shaman, sister, or daughter, leader or rebel, outcast or respected elder. Soon it became apparent to me that this was a really big story-landscape and I couldn’t do justice to the theme in a single volume.

From the outset, I knew the story must be told primarily through the experiences of the women. The action begins with the armies of Gelon laying siege to the citadel of Meklavar, but I was interested in what the women of the city were doing. The defense and conquest of a walled city has been related many times in many ways, but usually from the perspective of the male kings, soldiers, generals, with the occasional wizard assisting either side. For my initial viewpoint character, I created Tsorreh, the young second wife of the aged king. She’s inexperienced but neither helpless nor idle; she organizes medical care for the injured and housing for refugees from the lower city. She counsels her husband and treats his own wounds, and most of all, she worries about her adolescent son in his first battle. All of these are traditional “female” roles. Because she is an educated person and a woman with initiative, however, she also takes it upon herself to save the library. Shortly after the city falls, she whisks her son to safety through the mountain tunnels, and she herself becomes the bearer of the mystical gem that will later play a pivotal role in defeating the incarnation of chaos in this world.

Along the way, Tsorreh encounters various other women, some her own age, others elderly, and some who conform to traditional roles but whose everyday acts of courage and compassion make them noteworthy. Short stories need to be tightly-focused, with limited space for minor characters, but novels (or in this case, a trilogy) offer a wealth of opportunities for cameo appearances, especially those that show the variety of individuals within different cultures, and personal choices of those individuals. A warrior woman from the Fever Lands (never named) deliberately provokes a fatal encounter rather than live as a slave. The teenage daughter of a physician acts quickly and in a level-headed manner as she helps Tsorreh to escape from the emperor’s elite guards. Tsorreh makes friends, but she acquires enemies, too, and some of these are women. The ruthless ambition of one of these becomes the motive for an important plot point.

The second and equally important woman hero rides onto the pages of the next book, which is also her namesake: Shannivar. Shannivar is recognizably heroic; she’s a warrior of the Azkhantian steppe, skilled in archery and horsemanship, determined to accomplish great feats of valor. She’s the grandchild of the clan matriarch, a strong and self-reliant woman.

From the very first “Azkhantian tale,” I set up different systems of magic and of spiritual beliefs in the various cultures, contrasting the pantheon of the empire-building, city-dwelling Gelon and the nomadic horse peoples of the steppe, loosely organized into clans (each named for a different totem animal), living in harmony with the land and its seasons.  Their primary deities are, of course, the Mother of Horses and her consort. Both girls and boys learn to ride and fight, and young women are expected to participate in the defense of their clan. Then custom dictates a divergence of roles, for at a certain age women are expected to set aside their lives as warriors, marry, bear children, and attend to more domestic chores. Although married women do not hunt or ride to battle, or sit in formal council at clan gatherings, they wield a great deal of influence. Only women can own the yurt-like dwellings of willow and felt; men live either with their mothers or wives or other female relatives.

Shannivar and her best friend, Mirrimal, have reached the age when they are expected to choose husbands and retire from fighting the Gelon. Neither is happy about this – Shannivar because she refuses to surrender her dreams of glorious deeds, Mirrimal because marriage itself is abhorrent to her. Both women insist on their own self-determination, although with quite different results. Shannivar’s courage and quick-thinking place her in a succession of leadership roles, first of a war-party, then of a diplomatic mission, and finally of a expedition to trace the incursion of uncanny forces into her world.

In tales of fantasy as elsewhere, we have a tendency to measure heroes by their physical prowess instead of, for example, their foresight or moral authority. This approach inherently puts women in non-industrialized cultures at a disadvantage. Very few women are as physically strong as men or have the same mass, height, and reach. We can step a little outside the strength=heroism model if we allow that in some instances, the differences can be minimized by training, appropriate weaponry, or other advantages. Shannivar is a superb horsewoman and archer. The height of her horse (and she has two wonderful horses that are heroes in their own rights) and the reach of her arrows help to mitigate her lesser muscular strength. More than that, she has the ability to see patterns in battle and to think in ways that use the assets of her riders – speed, maneuverability – to best advantage. She has a clear vision of her goals and does not let temper or ego get in her way, unlike her hotheaded cousin. This enhances her ability as a strategist and organizer.

All of these qualities can apply to male warriors as well. What then distinguishes Shannivar as a hero? The quality of her character, her vision, and her determination to defend her people against enemies human and supernatural, regardless of cost. Instead of being a handicap, her refusal to “settle for less” lifts her deeds to extraordinary – heroic – heights.

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