Military fantasy. It’s a genre dominated by men, both inside and out. The characters are distinguished by their accomplishments in battle, their thirst for glory, the amounts of testosterone that drive them (especially the women) and their physical appearances. Your species informs a huge part of your character, both in terms of what you are capable of on the battlefield, but also how your comrades view you. So do your weapon of choice and your rank. Inevitably, the core group of characters will be from the same military band or mission, and the main character will be forced to make a hard decision after earning the audience’s respect or sympathy in battle, while the remaining characters are primarily motivated by their loyalty to the main character or his quest.
Fiction by women, by contrast, often prioritizes different things. It is often dominated by men in its pages as well – this is what sells, in many genres, and these are the types of tried and true character types that a writer can fall back on. Your species is less likely to inform what you can do in combat – that is more likely to fall on how close you are to being an audience surrogate – but rather, your ability to survive different situations. Rank is likely to be honorary (in the cases of Captains, Sergeants and Lieutenants) or more fantastic and emotional than practical (in the cases of Princes). Your weapon of choice is likely a weapon of opportunity, unless it has sentimental value. Characters are likely to be gathered from more sources, as their interaction is likely to be more important than their loyalties.
There are exceptions to every single statement above, of course. Some of the most obvious ones are very good writers, authors writing specifically to entice an audience of the opposite gender, and individuals whose unique style simply differs from the norm. Those exceptions aside, the first way I can usually tell whether an unfamiliar name belongs to a man or a woman is to simply sample a few chapters of their writing, particularly when they are writing one character whom they have an affinity for. There are myriad reasons for this, and one could spend all day on the psychology of it, but that’s not what I am interested in right now. Instead, I want to focus on one book to make a point.
Blood’s Pride by Eve Manieri is a military fantasy story focusing on the intersection of three species: the Norlanders, the Shadari, and the Nomas. The book opens with a prologue in which the Norlanders – tall, pale, ghoulish figures from a militaristic culture – conquer and enslave the more primitive Shadari. As the Norlanders are clearly set up as the symbolic and physical monsters of the piece, the setup seems clear: an alliance of Shadari and Nomas will work together despite racial tension to drive the Norlanders out of the Shadar. And if you’ve read this far into the review to believe that’s the way things are going to play out, you’re not paying very close attention to what I am saying.
Let’s take a look at the characters. There are forty five characters spread over three pages in the Dramatis Personae at the beginning of Blood’s Pride, probably the most I have seen of any book that included one. For the purposes of this discussion, we are going to look at ten to fifteen of them. While that might seem like relatively few, you might want to take a moment to count just how many novels you’re aware of that manages to juggle ten main characters and come out intact. The first two characters that we’re introduced to are Jachad – king of the Shadari by birth – and the Mongrel. It would seem as though these are going to be the two Shadari representatives of the protagonists, except…well, these are also the two characters on the front cover. Jachad is the only man in the story with fire in his hands (more on that later) and the Mongrel is established pretty clearly on as being the one with the eye patch. There is a big reveal involving this character, but since the cover does its best to make it clear which species the Mongrel actually belongs to, I’m not going to try too hard to avoid spoiling it.
The Mongrel truly is more of a mongrel than the story lets on up until even after her big reveal. She truly is a mongrel in virtually every sense of the word: born of one species, weened on the milk and childhood of another, and finally raised by a third, before being consecrated to two gods, who now fight over her body on a daily basis. This last part could have been done without, honestly – even the characters feel that the actions that caused it made no sense – but it provides mystery and a type of explanation for the character before the true mysteries and explanations become apparent.
Jachad is the leader of the Nomas people – the King, actually – which essentially means that he can do whatever he wants without any of his people disapproving while they unquestioningly obey his every command, when he actually bothers to.
Since the characters aren’t very thoroughly fleshed out, their relationships to one another is what truly distinguishes them. They give stakes to the conflict. You don’t want this character to die because you want to learn more about their interactions with another character. You connect emotionally with one character’s death because of the way others react to it, and because of the stupid, emotional choices that led to the injury. And this is absolutely essential to Blood’s Pride.
I’ve known people – both men and women – who have told me that they largely avoid reading Fantasy written by women because they focus exclusively on the romance. And I can understand that; after all, it fits well into the distinctions I’m already used to, plus the facts that women are both better at writing romance and more interested in reading about it. This is an inescapable fact: there are both biological and societal reasons for women to be much more drawn to the romance aspect of the story than men are. While there are women who can’t write emotional romance, they are even rarer than men that actually can. Hence, women in literature have built a niche for themselves, one that not all of them appreciate.
But while I say that all of this is true, here is another thing that’s true: like it or not, there is no guarantee that these characters would have been well fleshed out at all. I’ve read trilogies of this type of “slaves versus masters plus sympathetic former masters” story in which none of the characters were any more fleshed out than the characters I describe here. That’s one of the downsides of fantastic world-building: the characters get short-changed.