How Women Are Represented In…
Well, I’ve looked at some old stories in my HWARI series, thought it was about time to go modern. We’re going to have a look at writer I recently came across, thanks to two particularly fabulous book-sellers whose advice I can always trust.
**Shout out to Chloe and Alistair of Books on the Hill, Clevedon, UK!**
This book was published in 2018. It’s the first of an intriguing new fantasy series, and his name is Sebastien de Castell. So today we’re going to delve into the world of…
Right. Unlike the fairy tales and The Hobbit, which everyone knows in their bones even if they haven’t actually read the books, I’m going to give a super-quick outline of the story here, just so we all know where we are. But don’t worry! Any spoilers are mild, and I won’t in any way ruin the ending for you. People who ruin books for everyone else are the worst!
So. Spellslinger then. What’s it all about?
A teenage boy called Kellen is slap-bang in the middle of taking his mage trials with his friends, except he’s distressingly aware that his magic is far too weak to pass them. It sucks for him because his sister, Shalla, is super strong, and his dad is in line to become the next clan prince. He’s supposed to be strong.
He tries to use trickery to pass the first trial, but it backfires and he’s helped by a foreign woman, name of Ferius Parfax. Even though everyone thinks she’s a bad’un, Ferius and Kellen strike up a friendship, and along with a viciously delightful squirrel cat, they uncover all sorts of stuff that could rock the country to its core.
How does it score on the Maria Herring / Bechdel test?
Pretty well actually. Kellen is the protagonist of the piece, but unlike standard fantasy heroes, this young man is magically and physically weak—and all too aware of it. More than once he reveals to the reader that, “I wasn’t the young Jan’Tep hero going off to defeat his enemy in glorious battle.” He’s a bit prone to whining about how unfair it all is, that his mates are so strong when he’s not, but he is teenager. They’re supposed to whine about how unfair everything it. His little sister, who can be infuriatingly arrogant about her own power, provides a nice contrast to his whingeing though, by telling him that he just needs to stop being so lazy and work harder. Nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to get fingers pulled out. Her non-passive, assertive attitude to Getting Things Done definitely takes her out of the archetypal running for Maiden.
But Kellen’s also a kid living in a decidedly patriarchal society, where clan leaders are always princes, girls “shouldn’t be allowed to learn anything except healing”, and boys aren’t allowed to cry in front of people because “A JanTep must be strong.” So if he can’t gripe in the privacy of his own head, where can he?
Ferius Parfax: Possible Mother-figure, Definitely Not a Maiden
An older woman. Distrusted because she’s an outsider. Doesn’t have any magic. Trust me when I say I was keeping my beady eye on how she was characterised. What I like about her was that she isn’t cowed by the male mages in the city who always try their best to belittle her. She doesn’t have to resort to any macho posturing either, she just uses her wit and intelligence to stand up to them, and her own confidence that her lack of magic doesn’t reduce her value as a person.
I also like the fact that, even though there are times where she’s a mother to Kellen, in the sense that she physically carries him out of danger on several occasions, mother-figure isn’t her role in the story. Her ability to behave as a mother when it’s needed is a strength, rather than archetypal behaviour that comes out of a man writing a woman character and assuming she has a fixed role because of her sex. This provides a nice counterpoint to Kellen’s actual mother, Bene’maat, whom he refers to several times as looking like “one of the goddesses our ancestors used to worship.” Classically beautiful, and super powerful, but she can only channel that power into the healing arts, rather than the “high magics” and leadership. That’s solely the province of the men. Kellen’s mother is fated to be the beautiful wife of a powerful man, and bearer of powerful children. Not a fate for Ferius Parfax.
She doesn’t get as much page time as Kellen, but seeing as the story is told in first person POV, that’s okay. It’s clear, however, that her role in Kellen’s adventure is necessary and pivotal. I don’t doubt for a second that her role will become more prominent as the series progresses. And if it doesn’t, I’ll be well disappointed.
The Crone, But Not As We Know Her
There is an old woman in the story. A dowager magus who’s over 300 years old, wears “black from head to toe”, and instils fear in those who meet her. But she’s not an evil creature, like the crones we have in fairy tales. What I like about Mer’esan’s portrayal is that here’s a woman of enormous power and knowledge, and she’s using magic to keep herself alive until she can tell someone the truth about their city. You see, the clan prince imprisoned her body and mind because she knew too much. She’s a physical representation of the suppression of this patriarchy. But she never gives up.
Another interesting detail is her appearance. We’re used to old crones being ugly and terrifying, but Mer’esan’s appearance is fluid, moving through youth to old age as her body is “held together by nothing more than spells and will.” Another great example of how archetypes can be used and then twisted to create an intriguing female character.
Using Archetypes to Make a Point
While there are more male characters throughout the book than female, I feel like the female characters have a little more prominence than their male counterparts. Bene’maat may fit the archetype of Mother, but it seems to be done on purpose to highlight the constraints placed on women in this patriarchal society.
Shalla, Mer’esan and Ferius Parfax, on the other hand, don’t fit comfortably into any female archetype, which I like. In their different ways, they represent strong women who, though flawed, don’t want to conform to the gender roles their society imposes on them.
Read it if it sounds like your jam. I'm looking forward to seeing what Ferius gets up to in book two.