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Women Who Save Themselves (and Everyone Else)


Women Who Save Themselves (and Everyone Else)

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Women Who Save Themselves (and Everyone Else)


Published on October 3, 2018

Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada. Woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1899
Tomoe Gozen with Uchida Ieyoshi and Hatakeyama no Shigetada. Woodblock print by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1899

Prince-based rescue strategies suffer from a number of intrinsic flaws: princes are in short supply; they are vulnerable to spontaneous batrachification; and many are the products of centuries of ill-considered inbreeding. A prince is as likely to be a Gilles de Rais as a Prince Charming.

Look elsewhere for salvation. Consider, for example, relying on a woman of action. Or better yet, being one.

Of course, history is filled with examples, from the Trưng Sisters to Julie d’Aubigny, from Olga of Kiev to Tomoe Gozen. It’s not surprising that fiction offers some fine examples as well.

Distressed individuals have little choice but to turn to women of action in Mary Cagle’s webcomic Sleepless Domain. In what may be the final redoubt of humanity in a world overrun with supernatural monsters, only those chosen by the mysterious Woman in White are imbued with the abilities needed to hold back the darkness. For some unexplained reason, the Woman in White selects only teenaged girls. For as long as it takes for their powers to fade or the monsters to kill them, Magical Girls like Undine Wells stand between their city and the lurking horrors that encircle it.

Having accepted the burden of her late father’s Letter of Marque, Bodacious Space Pirates’ Marika Kato balances the demands of school work with the challenges of commanding a privateer starship. Although years of peacetime has reduced privateering to a tourist attraction, from time to time Kato’s Bentenmaru finds itself in action, including the time Kato and friends set out to rescue Jenny Doolittle from an arranged marriage.

The single flaw in their plan was assuming that Jenny would wait to be rescued, rather than taking matters into her own hands.

Annie Chang and Evie and Bea Tanaka of Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex series each have their own set of very special skills and powers, from telekinesis to pyrokinesis, from martial arts to sonic screams. Each of them also face their own challenges establishing themselves as superheroes; Annie’s telekinesis is weak enough that she hates to draw attention to it. Evie is more comfortable hiding in other people’s shadows. Poor Bea has to struggle against being seen as only the kid sister; she also has to cope with boundary-violating mental powers more suited for evil than heroism. Not to mention the time Bea committed a bit of light supervillainy …

Jo Clayton’s Duel of Sorcery’s Serroi is a four-and-a-bit-foot-tall green-skinned mutant. She may seem an odd choice to stand between the world and the bored wizard whose idea of entertainment is bringing on the apocalypse. Not only is Serroi a trained warrior, she has impressive magical powers of her own. In fact, it was just those powers that drew her to the attention of Big Bad Ser Noris, whose attempt to exploit her created precisely the messianic figure the world needed.

While still a child, Tembi Moon (of K. B. Spangler’s Stoneskin) caught the attention of the Deep—a vast, powerful, but friendly alien entity. The favour of the Deep granted Moon useful abilities, not least of which was the chance to escape the crippling poverty that had heretofore been her lot. Certainly, Moon did not set out to become entangled in power struggles between those far more experienced and more ruthless than Moon. Intentions, however, count far less than results.

Examples such as these could be multiplied many times over. The woman of action is a popular protagonist these days. She is usually depicted as young, beautiful, clad in form-fitting latex, leathers, or armor, holding a weapon, and twisted into the kind of poses parodied by Jim Hines.

But not always. Consider, for example, the following:

Marley Jacobs of Harry Connolly’s A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark used to be an inexperienced but energetic monster killer. Time and experience have taught her that not all problems can be staked; wisdom has taught her that not all problems should be staked. But can her principles stand fast when her nephew’s murder has all the earmarks of a vampire attack?

For that matter, while most discussions of Vinge’s Snow Queen tend to focus on its lead, the ingenue Moon, consider Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who sets the book’s plot in motion. The ostensible antagonist of the story, Arienrhod isn’t motivated by mere will to power or by a desire to extend her century-and-a-half long life. She wants to free her world from off-planet imperialists.

The ultimate example of an older woman who doesn’t need a Prince Charming to save her may be Terry Pratchett’s long-running character Esme Weatherwax. Wise, and good, but in no way nice, she was arguably the most powerful witch in the Ramtops. Having gained knowledge and magic over the course of her long life, she also had the rare insight needed to know when not to use magic.

If recent events are any indication, it is probably wise to heed these examples, and forget waiting for men to save the day. Take the lesson of Japan’s Glyptotermes nakajimai termite to heart and explore other options….

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.

About the Author

James Davis Nicoll


In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, current CSFFA Hall of Fame nominee, five-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.
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