Monday, May 1, 2023

Celebrating The "Band of Sisters" in Fantasy

I loved reading fantasy and science fiction from an early age, but even when quite young, I couldn't help noticing that it was so often boys and men that went out and had the adventures, while women mainly stayed at home. 

Eowyn, an outlier in the LoTR 'verse

This was certainly true in classics such as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, where Eowyn is very much the exception that proves the rule, as exemplified by both Arwen and Rosie Cotton's part in the story. Similarly, in A Wizard of Earthsea, the reader learns early on that "weak as women's magic" has a companion saying, "wicked as women's magic." Unsurprisingly, women do not play a large part in the subsequent story.

Arwen - a far more traditional heroine
So although I encountered many fine examples of the "band of brothers", any sisters at all, let alone bands of 'em, were in short supply.

Then, to my considerable delight, I encountered Patricia McKillip's Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), where a "band of sisters" comprising Raederle of An (the titular Heir), Tristan of Hed, and the ruler of Herun's heir and personal guard (all women) embark on a journey to locate Tristan's missing brother, who is also Raederle's love interest. They are very much a "band of sisters" and the friendship between them is the heart of the book. It's a tale I loved on first reading, which has since become an "old book friend."

The 1980s was distinguished by many fine books in which women writers and characters began carving a place in speculative storytelling. Bands-of-sisters remained relatively rare, but Barbara Hambly's The Ladies of Mandrigyn is an outstanding example. Their city has been captured by an evil and extremely powerful wizard, and all the able-bodied men enslaved in the nearby mines. Failing in their attempt to hire a mercenary army, the ladies resolve to rescue the men and free the city themselves -- and start by kidnapping a mercenary captain to train them for the task.

Granny Weatherwax & Co...
I believe The Ladies of Mandrigyn remains one of the finest examples of women's friendships and bands-of-sisters in the genre, but it's not entirely alone among 1980s fiction. In 1987, Terry Pratchett, published Equal Rites, which introduced Granny Weatherwax and paved the way for the sisterhood-of-Grannys, who remained Discworld's preeminent band-of-sisters until 2003, when they were joined by the Monstrous Regiment -- of women, of course!

My other, favourite band-of-sisters from that era are found in CJ Cherryh's Chanur novels (science fiction), which span the decade from 1983-1993. As a reviewer (correctly, imho) said, "...These swaggering, vain, tough-talking Hani heroines make Chewbacca look like a pussycat."

Unquestionably, Pyanfar Chanur and her Hani crew are tough in action as well as tough talking. :-)

Although fantasy and science fiction now offer an array of female heroes, and a degree of women's friendships, as well as bands of diverse buddies, the band-of-sisters is still not common. 

Aes Sedai: Red Ajah
First published in 1990, Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) introduced readers to the Aes Sedai mages and the Aiel's warrior sisterhood, the Maidens of the Spear. Relations among the Aes Sedai are both fractured and fractious (although that is arguably true of birth siblings, including sisters), but both sisterhoods remain core to the fourteen-book series.

More recently, Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb series has something of a "band-of-sisters" vibe, especially in the latest book, Nona the Ninth, in which the majority of the main characters are female. There's also the core band of Nona, Camilla, and Pyrrha, to aid my case. :-)

In my The Wall of Night series, female characters are always central to the story, and in The Gathering of the Lost (Book #2) a band of young women must set aside their differences and work and fight together to survive.

I'd love to know if you have  a favorite band-of-sisters, especially in more recent fiction. If so, please do share in the comments! 


About the Author:

Helen Lowe is an award-winning novelist, poet, and lover of story. With four books published to date, she is currently completing the final instalment in The Wall Of Night series.

Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we.


Previous Posts:

February: Honing in on 2021Celebrating the "Band of Brothers"
March: Celebrating the "Band of Brothers" in Fantasy #2
April: Celebrating the "Scooby Gang" #3


Simon Petrie said...

It's a while since I read it, but Nicola Griffith's "Ammonite" (SF rather than fantasy) is very strong on this.

Helen Lowe said...

Thanks for Ammonite recommendation, Simon. It’s a SF book I really rate, but unfortunately I lost my copy some years ago! So now you’ve inspired me to get another copy “interfrastically.”

(I keep hoping to find the original down the back of a book shelf, but suspect it’s past time to give up on that. :-) )