Book review: the Sword of Shadows series by J. V. Jones

I first discovered the Sword of Shadows books as a fifteen-year-old with an increasingly serious (and at times, embarrassing) epic fantasy addiction.

Jones’ bleak, wintry landscapes drew me in from the beginning, not least because of the quality of her writing. Jones explores some of the traditional themes of fantasy fiction – including the moral ambiguity of all agendas, even those that profess to be saving the world from ‘evil’ – with an unusual degree of nuance and depth.

But what made the series particularly compelling for me was its women. The Sword of Shadows books are full of complex female characters who are themselves decision-makers, adventurers and potential role models – rather than just accessories to the personal journeys of their male counterparts. For years, that made me recommend the books to friends as examples of fantasy that was, perhaps, just a little bit feminist.

More than ten years down the track, I’m no longer so sure of that.

In her recently republished work on feminism and science fiction – In the Chinks of the World Machine (2012) – Sarah LeFanu asserted that the mere inclusion of strong female characters is not of itself enough to make a book feminist.

This is definitely a disclaimer that I would apply to the Sword of Shadows books.

Whatever their strengths on the character level, they are set for the most part in a patriarchal, violent world in which men are the only visible subjects of history. To what extent, then, are such books even capable of advancing feminist writing in the fantasy genre – or challenging gender stereotypes? Do these books portray the status of women in that world from a critical, potentially subversive angle, or do they portray it with a kind of nostalgia, glorifying the exploits of male heroes and leaving gender stereotypes untouched?

Separate spheres of humanity

In A Cavern of Black Ice – the first book of the series – Jones introduces the reader to a classic high fantasy scenario in which humanity stands at the brink of confrontation with forces so dark that they threaten existence itself. Yet humanity’ in the series means different things for men and women.

Much of the series is set in the ‘clanholds’ – isolated, periodically warring settlements where the lives of men and women follow predictable – and quite separate – trajectories predetermined by tradition. Men’s positions in the clans are determined by a combination of fighting prowess, various skills (like hunting or the capacity to guide the clan’s religious observances) and sworn oath. By pledging their lives to the clan, men gain social standing and earn the right to participate in clan politics.

Women, on the other hand, belong by default to the clans into which they are born or married. Their everyday responsibilities and (officially at least) their identities are tied entirely to their status as maidens, wives, mothers and widows. Only a handful of supposedly ‘exceptional’ women – roundhouse matron Anwyn Bird, head widow Merritt Ganlow and chief’s wife Raina Blackhail – are deemed to have sufficient ‘due respect’ to even set foot inside the Great Hearth of Clan Blackhail when the men are inside making leadership decisions. And even these women risk quickly being put in their place if they dare to step beyond their limited domain: feeding and clothing the clan, and caring for the sick and the bereaved.

Life in the books’ medieval-style cities does not offer women any greater degree of freedom. The lack of any one rigid social code leaves ordinary women vulnerable to the constant threat of violence, while their bodies are treated as marketable commodities and, if they are lucky, means of social advancement. The women of the nobility, on the other hand, are routinely used as pawns to cement their male relatives’ political alliances. It is only in the lands of the Sull – an ancient race who are ‘not human’ – that we see a society that is not organised entirely along gender lines, in which women’s ambitions and skills can play out independently of the men in their lives.

‘Exceptional’ women

Yet for all the restrictions imposed upon women across these different settings, the Sword of Shadows books are full of women who become exceptions in their own societies, because they do not conform to the gender roles imposed upon them.

Two women – Old Mother and Thora Lamb – ride to war with Robbie Dun Dhoone. Chella Gloyal is an expert archer who helps Raina Blackhail learn to use the bow, while Magdalena Crouch is the best-known assassin in the north. Two of the clans – Scarpe and Castlemilk – are led by female chiefs, and among her band of renegade Sull, Yiselle No-Knife has emerged as an ambitious leader.

It is particularly refreshing to see a fantasy series where powerful women are able to want various things, not all of them noble – advantages and protections for their clans, leverage in political struggles between their people, wealth – without at some point reverting to stereotyped portrayals of femininity by revealing motivations that are actually all about their personal relationships.  Though Yelma Scarpe and Yiselle No-Knife are characterised unmistakeably as villains, their purposes are never carried out by way of seduction. Yelma, Yiselle and Wrayan Castlemilk are able to see past and act against the interests of their immediate family. And none of these women act out of that stale motive that continues to be ascribed in popular culture to women who behave cruelly or ruthlessly: being rejected, slighted or otherwise disappointed in love or sex by a man.

The Sword of Shadows series places emphasis on so many exceptions to the dominant roles available for women that these women become not so ‘exceptional’ after all. Yet the best examples of Jones’ refusal to resort to stereotyped representations of women in her books are the two main female protagonists of the series – Ash March and Raina Blackhail.

Like the outcast clansman Raif Sevrance, Ash March is set apart from other people by prophesies and powers that threaten to turn her into a weapon in the war against the Endlords. Yet even when faced with the horrifying knowledge that the very matter of her body is capable of destroying the Endlords, while the powers she can barely control have potential to free them, she decides that she will protect herself and her unborn child ahead of any debt she may owe to the Sull, or to any other party with their own agenda.

In doing so, she resists the pressure to sacrifice herself to a destiny about which she has only snippets of information doled out to her by various male experts and guardians of knowledge. She chooses for herself the Sull Name ‘Mountain Born’– thus re-inscribing her own meanings upon the story of her birth, over and against the interpretation of that story in the prophesies and schemes of others.

I like the fact that Ash is no cardboard cut-out or action figurine. She accepts her need to rely upon the fighting and trekking expertise of others, even as she makes efforts to master those skills for herself. She is also very self-aware. Though she shares a bond of loneliness and shared danger with Raif, she chooses to leave him and become Sull, realising that she needs to belong to something more than any one man or saviour. She is also able to act on her physical attraction to Lan Fallstar without confusing that attraction with romantic love. She thus eludes the tendency of too many fantasy heroines to attach themselves to the first person with whom they might share an emotional or physical bond, and remains refreshingly self-interested and independent throughout the series.

Raina Blackhail is another character who explores what it might mean to claim one’s identity for oneself on her journey to gain legitimacy as Blackhail’s first female chief. Once content to be defined as the helpmate of the old clan chief, Dagro Blackhail, she comes to recognise that neither of her marriages had ever succeeded in fully binding her to her adopted clan. Rather, her lifelong commitment to the clan is cemented through the oath that she makes over the shards of Blackhail’s broken guidestone – the first oath that we hear spoken by a Hailswoman – and also in that tense but powerful moment in the game room, when she tells Orwin Shank and Anwyn Bird that she will be chief.

Raina’s journey brings her into conflict with others – some of them women – who judge her for stepping outside the boundaries within which all Hailswomen are expected to live their lives. At the same time, though, her journey is very much dependent upon the support networks and strengths of women such as Anwyn Bird, Merritt Ganlow and Chella Gloyal, who act as her advisers, mentors, unwilling accomplices and complicated allies throughout the books.

I like the way that Jones never reduces the complex relationships between Raina and these women to essentialist terms; their ambitions, alliances and ideas about the good of the clan are too diverse to allow for an easy ‘sisterhood’. At the same time, Jones also avoids presenting us with the tired and offensive image of one exceptionally skilled woman rising to the male-dominated top despite and above the jealousy of the other, less ‘exceptional’, women around her.

Walking through the roundhouse

Raina’s journey to become chief is also significant because it takes us for a walk through all the levels of Blackhail’s labyrinthine roundhouse – and into the spaces where the women of the clan live and work.

The invisible work that goes into the running of kingdoms, cities, fortresses and roundhouses seems almost beneath the notice of most epic fantasy novels – which focus on more recognisably  ‘heroic’ or at least political spaces. When the setting of such novels is a patriarchal one, they consequently become the stories of men, in which women are either invisible or somehow ‘exceptional’ – more interesting, talented and adventurous than the rest.

The Sword of Shadows series is different. We see far more of the daily rituals and power struggles that go on in Blackhail’s kitchen, storerooms, barn, granary and gameroom than we do of the battlefield – where clansmen fight armed with arrows made in the depths of the Hailhouse by the roundhouse matron, Anwyn Bird. And the tale of the Dog Lord’s escape to the broken tower on the Dhoonewall is not told without mention of Nan Culldayis’ ‘battle’ to make the tower liveable for him and his men.

In focusing on these spaces, Jones makes the physical and intellectual work done by women – ‘exceptional’ or not – visible and important. She lets us know that the history of the clans is being made not only in the battlefield and the throne room. It is also being made in the granaries, when the loyalty of the farming women taking shelter in the roundhouse first makes the prospect of being called ‘chief’ a reality for Raina. It is being made in the game room, when Raina haltingly announces to her audience of two that she will be chief.

Writing out women and others

For all these strengths, the Sword of Shadows series also has its negative aspects.

One thing I found particularly frustrating was Jones’ insistence on pigeonholing the entire appearance of her female characters almost as soon as they were introduced. Chella Gloyal, for example, is definitively ‘not pretty’, while Raif is instantly attracted to Mallia Argola’s ‘beauty’, if not her non-existent personality.* Raina too is first described in terms of her ‘beauty’ by Raif, who, ironically, is aware that it is ‘ridiculous to think of such a thing’ at a time when she is bravely stepping forward to investigate the facts behind the death of her husband and his fellow clansmen.

It feels as if beauty is almost compulsory for the main female characters in Sword of Shadows – particularly when their sexuality is important to the story. In A Cavern of Black Ice, the sixteen-year-old Ash is repeatedly described by herself and others as underdeveloped and unattractive. Yet shortly before her first sexual experience with Lan Fallstar, she bafflingly reassesses herself as someone used to frank attention from men – someone who had ‘even’ been described as ‘beautiful’. For surely only a ‘beautiful’ woman could have been involved in the sex scenes that took place in Lan’s wolfskin tent – scenes that are, in my opinion, quite good precisely because Ash is their eager, inexperienced yet active subject – rather than the passive object of a man’s sexual experience.

Finally, the books repeatedly normalise heterosexual monogamy – which, of itself, is hardly unusual for the genre. However, the absence of homosexual and bisexual characters from the series is made worse by the fact that the sole exception – the ‘half-man’ and sorcerer Sarga Veys – is repeatedly positioned as ridiculous and unnatural, himself repulsed by his own attraction towards other men.

Too deeply embedded in a sexist world?

The Sword of Shadows books are full of contradictions. Jones clearly tries hard to challenge some of the stereotypes that remain prevalent in the high fantasy genre – resulting in some very interesting female characters whose diverse personal journeys do not have a relationship with a man as their main reference point.

Yet in other ways, Jones’ writing seems to sink a little too deeply into the values and cultures that she paints so vividly to create the world of the series. The limited place that they afford to women is not always treated in a sufficiently critical manner. Jones writes women into the history of the lands that form the subject of her novels, only to write some of them out again by focusing on their physical appearance, or consigning them to herd-like groups of ‘clan maids’ and ‘clanwives’, whose identities have no connection with anything they do or might be good at.

It will be interesting to see where the series goes next, particularly with the stories of Raina and Ash. Hopefully Jones will continue to insist upon the growing self-awareness and independence of these characters. More than that, however, I’m hoping that she will do more to endow all her female characters with a greater diversity of roles and identities. Perhaps seeing more of the Sull will show us more of a society where women are individualised, rather than consigned to marital-status-based groups and allowed to become part of the background. That would do more to make this series a feminist one than a focus on a few ‘exceptional’ women – however strong or admirable – could ever accomplish.

* Though perhaps the next book in the series will reveal more about Mallia, who at this point is the only female character that exists solely as a love interest and a means of binding Raif to the Maimed Men. As Raif himself reflected in A Sword from Red Ice… “in what ways was Mallia Argola not whole?”

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1 Response to Book review: the Sword of Shadows series by J. V. Jones

  1. Pingback: Always already perfect: beauty and female characters in fantasy books | beyond escapism

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