So I’m on book 3 of George R. R. Martin’s series and enjoying it a lot, in a perverse sort of way, and the funny thing is I’m enjoying it despite disliking or outright hating most of the characters. Then I started making a list of the characters I liked–it was a short list–and I realized it consisted entirely of women and girls.
How often does that happen?
This series is medieval-era fantasy, and it is realistic in its treatment of medieval-era women. Life for these women SUCKED. They were bartered and sold in marriage alliances, where they bore children for unloved husbands until childbirth killed them or something else did–and those were the lucky ones, the ones with strong families to protect them, and in peacetime. In wartime, women were the “spoils” of battle and when their side lost, they were commonly raped by the victors. In “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it feels like I can’t go 20 pages without a woman being raped or threatened with rape (actual rapes happen offscreen thus far and are never lingered over; though sexual violence is an ever-present theme of these books, one never gets the impression the author savors it).
There’s a reason none of my fantasy novels are set in the medieval era. See above. Those are the reasons. The medieval era was a wretched time for women, and I’m not interested in writing about it. Similarly, very few romance novels, even historical romances, are set in medieval times.
The short list of characters I like and actively root for (so far):
And… that’s pretty much it. I guess I could throw Jon Snow in there, as well as half a dozen minor characters. I don’t want to explain why I like them because my answers would be full of spoilers, and I know some of you have not yet read (or watched) this series.
One thing that irritates me about this series but also fascinates me is that it reminds me of something I read that Lois McMaster Bujold wrote about “male romance” vs. “female romance.” And I hope I don’t misrepresent her comments because I don’t have them in front of me and I may be mixing them up with something else, but I think the idea is that when men write romance, they tend to write it as a tragedy. A man falls in love, and disaster results. For the sake of Helen, we had the Trojar War. Love destroys! But when women write romance, well, look at any romance novel. We represent it as positive and healing and good, a healing force rather than a destructive force.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a classic example of a male romance. Love destroys. I could name half a dozen examples of love-gone-wrong in this series that resulted in violence and war, beginning with Robert and Cersei, forced into a marriage alliance when each loved someone else. That’s not much of a spoiler since the book opens with that one, but there are more, including a brand new one that just surfaced among the Stark family.
And I think that’s why the series gets my goat so much. I write the opposite of this kind of thing. I write about the positive force of love, not about the destructive force of love. I believe in the positive force of love. So this fantasy series is running entirely counter to my beliefs. And then, you know, there’s all the rape.
On the other hand, it’s so amazingly well done. And though the world itself is misogynistic, the author clearly is not. His female characters, though they are confined to limited roles, are three-dimensional and real. Some are cunning, some are foolish. Some are strong, some are weak. Some are beautiful, some are plain. Yes! George R. R. Martin writes fantasy novels in which there are important female characters who are not young and beautiful. And because it is a time of war and traditional roles fall to pieces when a realm descends into anarchy, some characters are transcending the limited roles once prescribed them. Others use what powers are available to women of the day–their wits, their family alliances, in some cases their sexuality.
Somehow this treatment of women feels more real to me, and even more respectful, than some of the modern novels with their kick-ass, impossibly gorgeous Buffy-style heroines. The Buffy-style heroine is a fantasy, but George R. R. Martin’s fantasy-novel women are real.
Just, no one ever stick me in a time machine send me back to the Middle Ages. K?