Moon Called (Ace, 2/06) by Patricia Briggs
Blood Bound (Ace, 2/07) by Patricia Briggs
Embraced By Darkness: A Riley Jenson, Guardian Novel (Dell Spectra, 8/07) by Keri Arthur
Ill Wind: Weather Warden: Book One (Roc, 12/03) by Rachel Caine
Once Bitten, Twice Shy: A Jazz Parks Novel (Orbit/Little, Brown & Co., 10/07) by Jennifer Rardin
Heart of Stone: The Negotiator: Book One (Luna, 11/07) by C.E. Murphy
Wind Follower (Juno, 10/07) by Carole McDonnell
Dancing With Werewolves: A Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator Novel (Juno, 11/07) by Carole Nelson Douglas
Blood Magic (Juno, 9/07) by Matthew Cook
Amberlight (Juno, 12/07) by Sylvia Kelso
Brave New World
Unpredicted by science fiction extrapolations, a sea change has swept the United States: Fewer and fewer males are reading, while females are becoming an ever-larger portion of the total fiction readership. Romance was established as a well-selling (if not the best-selling) fiction genre by the 1980s; and that same decade saw so many women take up the reading and writing of mystery fiction that it became difficult for a male protagonist—
Fantasy has long been seen as female-friendly, but its protagonists and writers have tended to be male (the disparaging term "female fantasy writer" does not, after all, have a male counterpart). And science fiction has always been seen as a "male" genre—
That study won't, I think, be true for much longer. The tide has turned even in our genre, washing an ever-higher number of female readers into the SF/fantasy section and depositing an ever-taller stack of female-oriented SF/F on the bookstore shelves. This rising tide has become so powerful, publishers are seeking to ride its currents to new profits. Tor Books aimed a fantasy advertising campaign at women a few years ago, and, in 2004, romance-fiction giant Harlequin launched its female-oriented fantasy imprint, Luna Books. 2007 brought the establishment of at least two SF/F imprints aimed largely at female readers. The earlier arrival, Wildside's Juno Books, publishes, in the words of its website, "fantasy with a focus on the female." Scheduled to launch in 2008, Leda Books (an imprint of newer SF/F/classics publisher Norilana Books) will focus on "romantic fantasy."
I'm a female SF/F reader, but not one of the femmes nouveaux arrivistes. An old-school fan, I grew up reading the traditional, "male" SF/F of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Robert A. Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, et al. But with the new, female-centric SF/F taking over more and more shelf space in bookstores, I figured this chick had better check it out.
What I Read
The protagonist/narrator of Patricia Briggs's Moon Called is Mercedes "Mercy" Thompson, a tough, female, part Native American auto mechanic with the ability to turn into a coyote. Like Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Mercy inhabits a parallel earth where supernatural beings are real and have revealed their existence. Or, more accurately, the cuddlier fae, like garden sprites, have come out. The scary supernaturals, such as werewolves and vampires, leave the mundane public ignorant of their existence.
Mercy, an apparently unique "skinwalker," also stays below the radar, quietly fixing cars in Kennewick, one of the Tri-Cities of eastern Washington State. Other supernaturals number among her clientele, but the runaway teenage werewolf who seeks a job at her garage doesn't recognize what she is. Lone wolves being rare and in danger from werewolf packs, Mercy gives him work without revealing her knowledge of what he is.
Mac is clueless because he's been forcibly changed into a werewolf by a previously unknown method: sometimes-deadly drugs, apparently administed in super-secret government shenanigans. When nasty men show up to reclaim Mac, the boy is murdered, the daughter of the local Alpha (werewolf pack leader) is kidnapped, and the Alpha, Adam Hauptman, is nearly butchered—
Mercy is a complex, likeable protagonist, strong and skilled enough to fight dangerous foes, smart enough to know when she's overmatched. Her smoothly written adventures take unpredictable twists and turns, and the romantic triangle that develops among herself, the Marrok's son, and the Tri-Cities Alpha is well handled. Briggs doesn't avoid the dominance-submission implications of vampires and werewolf-packs, and she handles the power dynamics intelligently. And the settings of Moon Called—
In the sequel, Blood Bound, Mercy's not-quite-friend, the vampire Stefan, calls in a favor owed from the prequel. The mistress of Stefan's seethe (vampire coven) wants him to confront a vampire who's entered the Tri-Cities without her permission. As the stranger seems unusually strong, and Mercy seems immune to vampiric magic, Stefan wants her along in coyote form.
The interloper, a skanky serial killer named Cory Littleton, proves more powerful than anyone has imagined. He's not just a vampire. He's a demon-possessed sorcerer, and he defeats Mercy and Stefan as easily as a pair of children. Mercy will need the aid of vampires, werewolves, and fae to defeat Littleton.
Sequels have a history of falling short of the opener. Blood Bound mostly lives up to its prequel, though it's a wee bit difficult to believe that Mercy would be sharing a place with love-interest Samuel Cornick while dating Adam Hauptman. Also, as the title suggests, the power dynamics are foregrounded; and, disappointingly for such a kickass heroine, Mercy finds herself showing a submissive response to her Alpha boyfriend. At least she finds this disturbing.
Submissiveness is rarely a protagonistic trait in Keri Arthur's Embraced By Darkness, the fourth novel in the Riley Jenson, Guardian series. It's also a book that demonstrates far stronger Anita Blake and Buffy the Vampire Slayer influences than the Mercy Thompson novels.
Part werewolf, part vampire, with her hot-blooded werewolf nature dominant, Riley Jenson works for the Directorate of Other Races (an Australian Homeland Security for supernaturals). Embraced By Darkness finds her investigating a series of bizarre murders, in which men with no apparent connection are literally tearing apart their women and themselves. In her off hours, Riley searches for a missing relative, urges her twin brother to commit to his boyfriend, and negotiates her relationship with Kellen, a good man (er, werewolf), who's pressing her to give up her non-monogamous ways and become his exclusive lover. It's an especially daunting prospect for a werewolf, because they literally mate for life.
Riley is intelligent, powerful, strong-willed, lusty, uninhibited, and dominant. Her supernatural strength makes it possible to defeat a possessed man with her bare hands. And practically every male she meets is gorgeous and attracted to her. She's a sex-changed James Bond, an idealized hero and reader-identification character for the modern woman.
But Bondian adventure fiction, like traditional science fiction and fantasy, generally doesn't talk about emotions, and specifically doesn't chat about commitment. In contrast, Embraced By Darkness gives notable attention to feelings, especially romantic ones. That's a traditionally "female" approach. And, while the Riley Jenson, Guardian books have appeal for both sexes, the art department is playing to women: the romance element dominates the cover of Embraced By Darkness. Clearly, female-oriented covers have become a selling point, and not a sales killer, for SF/F books.
That said, I want to emphasize that this novel is a fantasy, not a romance. The fantasy element is predominant, and the romantic subplot takes a turn that would never be tolerated in a genre romance.
Embraced By Darkness is skillfully written, and it's fun to read about such a strong and competent female hero. However, the novel is romancey (complete with a kiss that "claims" the protagonist), and Riley is so idealized, she comes across like a comic book superhero. Now, I like superheroes comics. And I know that, yes, werewolves are magical beings. But it's still a little too convenient and comic-bookish that Riley's clothes shapeshift with her body.
Jennifer Rardin's Once Bitten, Twice Shy, the first novel about kickass CIA assassin Jaz Parks, is another "irresistible she-Bond" book that wears its Anita Blake and Buffy inspirations on its sleeve. It also wears its Avengers inspiration on its cover. These are suitable influences for an urban fantasy about eliminating nasties in a world of vampires and terrorists; but, alas, Jaz Parks makes an unconvincing CIA agent. The novel lacks the specific details that would make her job believable; a page of Greg Bear's recent bio-thriller Quantico gives a more authentic sense of government operations than Rardin's entire novel. And, unlike the Mercy Thompson books, Once Bitten, Twice Shy lacks the details to persuade readers that its protagonist knows much about unarmed combat.
Credibility is further undercut by Jaz's narrative voice, which makes her sound much younger than her mid-twenties. Are we really supposed to believe that a character who imagines reacting to her lover's rage by "plan[ning] a massive spitball campaign" is an experienced CIA operative?
Once Bitten, Twice Shy builds to an exciting climax; the chat about feelings is kept to a minimum; and the romantic triangle involving Jaz, her vampire/assassin boss, and a private investigator has some heat. But these elements aren't enough to overcome reader disbelief.
Rachel Caine's Ill Wind is also a contemporary fantasy about an irresistible she-Bond. However, the protagonist kicks butt with her powers instead of her extremities. And, instead of vampires and werewolves, Ill Wind gives us weather-witches and djinni.
Ill Wind introduces Joanne Baldwin, ex-employee of a secret organization that's been preserving human civilization for millennia. Weather is a much more dangerous and malevolent force than we imagine, and Mother Nature would like nothing better than to wipe life, or at least the higher lifeforms, off the planet. Weather Wardens prevent this with their innate control over fire, water, air, or earth.
Joanne was a Weather Warden until her boss, Bad Bob Biringanine, gave her a nasty case of demonic possession. As a result, she's being hunted by her own organization. She can free herself of the demon with a djinni, but djinni bottles are controlled by the Wardens' Association, which isn't likely to assign one to someone they want to wipe out. It's possible the world's most powerful weather-witch—
For the parallel earth of Ill Wind, author Caine has created a superior magic system by extrapolating in the classic science-fiction manner, grounding her characters' powers in the physics of weather and atmosphere. This paranormal fantasy might more accurately be described as science fantasy.
While well researched and well written, Ill Wind is not flawless. The identity of the unknown foe trying to kill Joanne is not foreshadowed. Too, the personality of the wisecracking, Mustang-driving narrator/protagonist just doesn't fit her name of Joanne Baldwin. I know, I know. That's a stupid reaction. But every time a character said, "Joanne," I said, "Who?"
Harlequin maintains that its Luna imprint publishes fantasy, not romance, and its latest release by C.E. Murphy, Heart of Stone, supports their claim. This novel, first in the Negotiator series, has a strong romantic subplot, some overt chat about relationships, and plenty of sexual heat, but it's not a romance. By the standards of the genre, a romance must have a happily-ever-after ending, with a commitment between the man and woman. Heart of Stone ends with the romance not only uncommitted and unconsummated, but with its very future in the air.
Heart of Stone is a good contemporary paranormal fantasy with an unusual twist: the love interest is a gargoyle. Alban's a shapeshifter, one of a species that spends the daylight hours trapped in stone. Scarred by the loss of his wife and by exile from his kind, Alban has finally developed an interest in another woman: a human lawyer who jogs, dangerously late, in Central Park. Unfortunately, Margrit Knight is involved with a cop. And, on the night that Alban finally speaks to her, a serial killer leaves a body in the park. She describes Alban to the New York police department as the suspect; hers is a natural reaction, but also a mistake with deadly consequences.
In the books previously discussed, some supernatural characters may have a human parent, but they are not homo sapiens. They are separate species. However, they usually look Caucasian. So does Alban—
An egalitarian theme is evident in the Juno Books title Wind Follower, written by debut novelist Carole McDonnell (a disclaimer: I told McDonnell online about Juno Books, and am thanked in the credits. I have not met McDonnell, nor had I read her novel until I received a review copy). However, this theme is developed without the use of nonhuman species as examples. The characters, barring a few evil spirits, are human.
Wind Follower is not a paranormal fantasy, nor even contemporary. It's set in a world technologically equivalent to ancient Egypt or Judea, in a land under invasion by a foreign tribe. And, while the female protagonist is strong and women warriors are mentioned, this isn't a novel about females kicking ass and taking heads. It follows an older tradition.
As Wind Follower opens, a man sees a woman, falls in love with her, and arranges their marriage. Satha's feelings for Loic, her new husband, are, understandably, more mixed; and her assimilation into the household of his family is increasingly difficult, culminating in rape. Her sphere remains domestic (though it spirals into kidnapping, slavery, and forced marriage) as her husband, seeking to avenge her, roams their world and encounters great trials, including beautiful temptresses and treacherous demons. Both Loic and Satha rise above their tribulations with the help of their God. In short, the inspiration for this fantasy isn't James Bond or Anita Blake. It's the ultimate "bad-shit-happens" book: the Old Testament.
One of the ironies of science fiction and fantasy is that these genres open the mind to new ways of seeing the world—
That's too bad. The protagonists of Wind Follower are complex and sympathetic. The story is interesting (if a bit repetitive in the temptress department) and imaginative. And the deeply developed setting is at great variance from the "Ancient Near East knockoff" that my above description probably led you to expect. McDonnell's peoples mix elements of Near Eastern, African, Native American, and other cultures, but this isn't our world or history; nor is the novel a retelling of Biblical events. If you're of sufficiently open mind, McDonnell's world and novel are worth visiting.
To date, Juno Books' biggest name author is Carole Nelson Douglas, most famous for her pair of bestselling mystery series about Midnight Louie, Feline PI, and Irene Adler. Her new urban fantasy novel, Dancing With Werewolves, puts Juno squarely in Anita/Buffy territory as it launches the Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator series.
A mysterious foundling, Delilah grew up in orphanages and a Catholic school. She was eleven when the Millennium ushered in the public debut of vampires, werewolves, and other supernaturals. Now in her twenties, she's a Kansas reporter on the paranormal crime beat, covering were-cows and crop circles for Wichita's WTCH TV. Then she sees her double—
In perennial adventure-fiction tradition, Delilah no sooner hits town than she's eyeball-deep in action. She barely meets sexy ex-FBI agent Ric Montoya before they uncover a decades-old murder and discover a powerful sexual charge in the melding of their psychic powers (his known, hers previously unsuspected).
As a paranormal-fantasy she-Bond, Delilah attracts almost every male who crosses her path, and most of the (living) males are as astoundingly hot as Bond girls. However, werewolf/casino owner/murder suspect Cicero is not wowed by Delilah's charms. He arranges for our intrepid gal reporter's climactic death by werewolf pack.
I'm all for sisters doing it for themselves, but the Buffy influence is not always a good thing. As the "Chosen One," Buffy is magically empowered. Delilah is powered only by her martial-arts self-defense training as she mows down far too many werewolves to be credible. Fortunately, she doesn't triumph alone; before I could hurl the book across the room or dissolve in laughter, a well-armed Ric arrived to help.
The novel is fun, but it has a number of weaknesses. A magical gift of Delilah's is so versatile, it borders on a deus ex machina. The early chapters lurch about before the plot settles (more or less) down. The prose should've received another pass with the pruning shears, to trim overgrown sentences like this: "I eyed the dog, who licked his chops, i.e., his huge white teeth, with his washcloth-sized tongue, much as Hector Nightwine had done while discussing my double's cameo appearance on an autopsy table." And some of Dancing With Werewolves's plot threads, including the mystery of Delilah's double, are left for a later volume to tie off.
While its protagonist is, like Anita Blake, a female necromancer, the fantasy action moves to a preindustrial world in Juno novel Blood Magic, written by Matthew Cook—
It's not difficult to see why Juno editor Paula Guran acquired his intriguing debut novel. Kirin, the protagonist/narrator, is a woman of considerable psychic and personal powers. Too, her necromantic talents—
Kirin's disturbing abilities prove useful when the Mor—
While all these novels have romantic subplots, Blood Magic breaks even more radically than the previous titles from the Harlequin girl-meets-boy template. Kirin's male lover is killed by the Mor quite early in the plot, and her developing friendship with a female magician has distinctly Sapphic overtones. Apparently, Juno isn't aiming to place its books on Walmart's homophobic shelves.
The above titles, with their mostly kickass women and their automatic assumption of male-female equality, show the influence of feminism. However, these novels aren't feminist. Feminist SF/F examines societies and sex roles through changes made possible by scientific or fantastic extrapolation. And, whether SF, fantasy, or mainstream, feminist fiction doesn't focus much attention on getting or keeping a man.
Juno novel Amberlight, by Australian writer Sylvia Kelso, is feminist SF. The titular city-state is a powerful matriarchy, one with exclusive control over the motherlodes of immensely valuable qherrique. A unique, sentient stone, qherrique heats Amberlight's ruling Houses and gives the city its name. Qherrique also powers some ferocious weapons, which keep the little city-state independent of its warlike, male-ruled, qherrique-covetous neighbor-nations.
Since only females can quarry the moody, sometimes-deadly element, women rule Amberlight, fill its military forces, and lead its wealthy, powerful Houses. Considering men useless, the Houses expose most male babies. The remaining males grow up to be house-husbands, each shared by a number of women. The husbands are pampered, beautiful, bitchy, and as isolated as the women in a harem. The lower classes don't expose their male babies, which is one of the many reasons the Houses look down psychologically as well as literally on the dirty, drunken, dangerous, teeming, thieving poor of Amberlight.
A few of the poor are also brutal rapists, as the Head of House Telluir discovers while searching for a runaway kinswoman in the River Quarter. Instead of her cousin-kin, Tellurith and her bodyguards find a dangle (man) who's nearly dead of his injuries. The qherrique, oracle-like, suggests she save him.
Ravaged and traumatized, possibly unto death, the man has no memory, and refuses to be nursed by anyone but Tellurith—
Though a married woman with at least one female lover in her past, Tellurith develops powerful feelings for the mystery man. And he appears to reciprocate—
Romance with a man! Is Amberlight really feminist? Yes. It fulfills the feminist-SF mandate of challenging our status quo by exploring an imaginary society with radically different sex roles.
The fact that the Amberlight matriarchy is no utopia doesn't change this.
And, while the romantic relationship in Amberlight receives a detailed focus, it's not the same sort of focus as that found in the other titles. Those works (excluding perhaps McDonnell's and Cook's) show some influences from the romance genre. But Amberlight reads like the romance genre never existed.
Overall, Amberlight is a brilliant accomplishment. I haven't read a new novel this strong since The Privilege of the Sword.
However, Amberlight is less accessible than any of the above titles. Its lovely, intricate, idiosyncratic prose does not encourage a zippy, "page-turner" reading experience, as the opening line shows: "High moon over Amberlight, commanding the zenith, radiant, imperial, the city's fretted-ink porticoes and balconies gnawing that torrent of aerial snow." One must read Amberlight slowly and with care to understand it. But attentive reading makes your experience of the novel more powerful. When a key betrayal occurred, I was so affected, I put Amberlight down and couldn't pick it up again for weeks.
Once I did, I was unsurprised that the rest of the novel wasn't as intense. (How could it be?) But the novel remained strong enough to finish as one of the best new SF/F novels of the year.
With these novels, I read ten examples of female-oriented fantasy and science fiction. Did I read a representative sample? I doubt it. But I've read enough to offer some tentative conclusions. And they're probably not the ones you expect.
I found plenty of evidence that Anita Blake and Buffy are big influences, but their influence isn't present in every novel, and where it's present, it may indicate little about what the new female SF/F readers want. Instead, it may reflect the reality that both Anita and Buffy have a lot of fans, male and female. When your admirers number in the thousands, or millions, you exert enormous influence.
This is a major reason print SF and fantasy are attracting increasing numbers of female readers, after all. SF/F movies, TV shows, and games have achieved a critical mass of popularity.
I suspect the romance influences in the new female-centric SF/F reflect the same phenomenon of the influentiality of popularity. Half of all novels sold are romance.
Of course, as a "female" genre, romance reflects the hopes, dreams, experiences, and expectations of many women. And I'm not just talking about women's relationships when I say this. I'm talking about women's lives.
Naturally, our hopes, dreams, experiences, and expectations for our lives also manifest themselves in the new female-oriented SF/F.
"Well, sure," you say. "But many of the female characters you've described have magic powers, for God's sake. And most of them are far braver, tougher, stronger, more competent, more battle-skilled, more attractive, and/or more sexually active than normal mortals of either sex. Is that what women want?"
Yes, but not necessarily in the sense that we expect those things in our own lives.
Women like escapist reading. But, irresistably beautiful as she might be, we don't all identify with that passive staple of escapist fiction, the damsel in distress. We like identifying with the heroes as much as male readers do. However, with rare exceptions, we were stuck with James Bond, John Carter, Tarzan, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and other male characters when we wanted to pretend we were incredibly strong, smart, brave, accomplished, resourceful, and/or sexually aggressive. We yearned for superheroic characters of our own gender.
Finally, we have them.