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Editorial June 2005:  Doughty Heroines
by Hilary Williamson

Revenge of the SithWhere have all the gutsy women gone? Like countless others, I was dazzled by the special effects in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I was carried along by the action and impressed by how cleverly the writers knotted together all (past and present) plot threads. But one aspect of the movie disappointed me, big time. Whatever happened to Padme? She started out as a take charge, kick butt young Queen. Over a few episodes, they've written her into a heroine reminiscent of Disney's saccharine Snow White. What's the message here? True love turns women to wimps and men to the Dark Side?

Soon after Padme's watered down characterization spoilt the movie for me, I attended my son's high school graduation ceremony. Very nicely done, but every one of the female grads was barely able to walk as she tottered around the stage in stiletto heels. What happened to the bra burners of yesteryear? Both these encounters disturbed me so much that I had to bury my nose in a book for reassurance ... several books in fact. Thank goodness strong women fight their way through the pages of many a novel. Here are some for your reading pleasure.

The GameHeading back in time to convention-flouting historical heroines, Manda Scott brings us a dauntless one in warrior woman Breaca, the Boudica, famous for leading a rebellion against the Romans (the series begins with Dreaming the Eagle). In Isabel Allende's feminist take on Zorro, the heroine's presence is subtly in the shadows till late in the book, but forceful nevertheless. Laurie King matches an aging Sherlock Holmes with young, brilliant and brave Mary Russell in series entries like The Game. Cecelia Holland's woman are all credibly competent and courageous as in The Angel and the Sword, in which maiden princess Ragny poses as a knight. And who could forget the original opinionated, feisty woman - Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody - and her archaeological investigations in Egyptian exploits like The Serpent on the Crown?

Speaking of investigators, plucky heroines pepper the mystery scene, from tough, deceptive little old ladies like Miss Marple to gallant, gun-toting PIs like Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski (Total Recall is one of my favorites). There are almost too many to choose from, but here goes. My very favorite hard-boiled chicks are Dana Stabenow's dauntless Kate Shugak (A Taint in the Blood), Carol O'Connell's mettlesome Mallory (Winter House), and Robert Tanenbaum's intrepid Marlene Ciampi (Absolute Rage). I also love Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan mysteries (like Clean Break), in which the spunky PI heroine has a simmering romantic relationship with the wimp next door.

The Steerswoman's Road Since this all started with Star Wars, let's not forget speculative fiction, which (despite Padme) has its share of stouthearted female protagonists. My overall favorite heroine has to be logical, fortitudinous Rowan in Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman's Road, science fiction masquerading superbly as fantasy. In military SF, I enjoy Tanya Huff's Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr series (Valor's Choice), and anything by Elizabeth Moon - such as her Heris Serrano series and Trading in Danger. And of course, Anne McCaffrey has given us valorous SF heroines, my favorite being the indomitable Lessa of Ruatha, who first appeared in Dragonflight.

Continuing with fantasy, I love Lois McMaster Bujold's brave, bittersweet dowager Ista in Paladin of Souls. She emerges from madness to fight demons - when she's not cursing the gods themselves. Judith Tarr is another of my longtime favorite authors - her Queen of the Amazons stars one of her typically dauntless woman, warrior-seer Selene. Jo Walton gives us an alternate world Camelot, starring one of the realm's great warriors, bold Sulien ap Gwien, in The King's Peace. And Sarah Zettel has the guts, in her Isavalta series, to place an antiheroine, iron-willed Empress Medeoan, center stage in The Usurper's Crown.

Speaking of heroines on the dark side and strong, fearless women, I have to mention the samurai-steeled Masako Katori in Natsuo Kirino's chilling Out. But maybe that's going overboard into horror.

So if, like me, you're a little nauseated by many of the female characters on the silver screen, or tired of their secondary appearances as story sidekicks in mysteries and novels, then delve into books and series that feature doughty, gutsy heroines - they're so much more entertaining.
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