Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Swordswomen in SFF

Here’s a post by James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Five sword-wielding women in SFF.

To which my immediate response, without reading the post, is: Five? Good heavens, man, couldn’t you instantly come up with ten? Is there a shortage of swordswomen in SFF? I hardly think so.

Well, let’s see which five Nicholl picks and then add five more.

His five:

Revolutionary Girl Utena by Be-Papas and Chiho Saito

I’ve never heard of that. Here’s his description:

Most modern schools ignore the role of swordplay in teenaged life. Not so at one school, Ohtori Academy, which is featured in Be-Papas and Chiho Saito’s Revolutionary Girl Utena manga. Dueling is a longstanding custom at the academy. Students fight to win the hand of lovely and passive Anthy. …

Oh, it’s like a manga version of a reality show? The Bachelor, with swords? Ugh, terrible setup, no appeal for me at all. Who wants to win a “lovely and passive” lover? Passivity is hardly an appealing quality! Again, ugh.

Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan

Never read it — in fact, I don’t recall hearing about it. I really liked the Lady Trent series, really did not care for the Onxy Court series, who knows about this one? If any of you have read it, please comment.

Tomoe’s Story by Stan Sakai

This is another comic. I don’t know anything about it, but it does bring to mind Tomoe Gozen, the series about the historical figure of the same name. The novels are by Jessica Salmonson. I’m not sure why Nicholl thought of the comic before the novels, because the series was pretty impressive. Too tragic for me, in the end, but still impressive.

Steel by Carrie Vaughn

This one sounds pretty fun:

In Carrie Vaughn’s Steel, fourth-rate fencer Jill Archer tumbles off her boat during a family vacation near Nassau. She hits the water in the 21st century; she is pulled out during the Golden Age of Piracy. Luckily for the teen, Captain Marjory Cooper offers Jill the choice between signing on as a pirate or remaining a prisoner. 

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Margerit Sovitre is astounded when she finds herself heir to the vast fortune of her wealthy godfather Baron Saveze. He has also bequeathed Margerit her very own armin. “Armins” are whos, not whats; they are personal bodyguards. Saverze’s armin is young Barbara, who is unpleasantly surprised, since she’d expected to be freed when the baron died. Serving a jumped-up bourgeoise turned aristocrat wasn’t in her plans.

I read the sample, but I haven’t read the full novel. I did like the sample, though, and will most likely get the full book one of these days.

Well, these are remarkably little-known swordswomen given the plethora of well-known choices and Nicholl’s broad knowledge of the field. Also, these are all fantasy, which is of course expected, but then don’t say “SFF,” say “Fantasy.” I can think of at least one swordswoman in a science fiction world, though. Two. Let’s start with those and then pick some of the lower-hanging fruit.

Swordswomen in SFF, an extended list:

6. Bel in Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series

7. Mary in Point of Honor by Dorothy Heydt

8. The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

9. The Paksennarion series by Elizabeth Moon

10. Alanna in the Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

That’s ten. It was too easy. Let’s add another fve:

11. Winter in The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler

12. Both Harry and Aerin, in McKinley’s Damar duology.

13. Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings

14. Del, in Tiger and Del by Jennifer Roberson

15. Taizu, in The Paladin by CJC

I could go on forever! Stopping at five was ridiculous! Granted, writing a little tidbit about each one would take some time, but still.

Okay! My very favorite swordswoman in SFF may be . . . um . . . good heaven’s, I don’t know . . . so many of the women above might be my favorite, and probably were at one point in my reading history. I really love Harry and Aerin and Paks and Winter and Taizu! I think I would have to throw a dart at a dartboard to pick a favorite.

If I missed YOUR favorite swordswoman in SFF, add her to the list in a comment, please!

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11 Comments Swordswomen in SFF

  1. Meera

    Gideon the Ninth! Really fun book, highly recommended- lesbian space necromancers in a locked house mystery competition!

  2. Craig N.

    Jirel of Joiry is the grandmother of them all, though I never thought those stories were C.L. Moore’s best work.

    (My instant choice for favorite is Paks.)

  3. Elaine T

    I remember reading the first bit of Cold Forged Flame and being put off.

    Favorite swordswoman? Beyond Taizu, because that whole story so nicely turns the ‘reluctant Master, pesty apprentice’ trope upsidedown, how about Gil from Darwath? Both scholar and warrior.

  4. Kathryn McConaughy

    Plenty of swordswomen in Lackey’s Valdemar universe… Keladry would be my favorite of those.
    Steel didn’t make much of an impression on me. While the characters are pleasant, none of the relationships have an impact and secondary characters are pretty much ignored, because the protagonist’s intention to return to her proper time is always front and center. And you never really doubt that she’ll make it. In other words, no stakes.

  5. Rachel

    I never happened to read anything by Mercedes Lackey. Nor Jirel, though I know it’s a classic.

    I do agree about Gil, from Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series — and even more, Starhawk from the Sunwolf and Starhawk series! I’m surprised I didn’t think of Starhawk until I got a Barbara Hambly prompt.

    I’ll have to look up Gideon the Ninth!

  6. Sandstone

    Revolutionary Girl Utena is fairly different than that summary makes it sound actually- it’s more of a school story, only the members of the student council are actually secretly a fight club, with swords. The heroine Utena’s life was saved by a prince-like boy when she was younger, and she became determined to be a prince herself and save others, and she is immediately determined to save Anthy when she sees the other student council members passing her around like an object. Things turn out to be a bit more complicated as it’s eventually revealed Anthy has been trying to manipulate people to destroy the system and also defeat her abusive brother no matter what the cost to herself, but after becoming friends with Utena she’s able to recover her self-esteem and want to live for herself too (in most versions of the story there is subtext- or text- that they become girlfriends too!)

  7. SarahZ

    The heroine of Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black comes to mind – she’s a fun, complicated character.

    Alanna’s my favorite swordswoman, though. Or maybe Kate Daniels? There’s some fun swordswomen in their Edge series too.

  8. Rachel

    Oh, yes, I should have remembered Kate Daniels. And the Edge series. The Darkest Part of the Forest is one I’m not familiar with, but it sounds like a neat fairy-tale kind of story:

    At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking…

  9. SarahZ

    I highly recommend it! Does fun things with fairy tales, including some changeling stuff, great characters, no dark ending, and it’s a standalone. (In the same universe as some other books, but no intersection or need to read one to appreciate the other)

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