Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Sausagefest of Shannara

I'm a bad fantasy reader - my sword-and-sorcery reading is actually fairly limited. Most epic fantasy doesn't interest me much. But then I found a copy of The Sword of Shannara for $1 at Shandaken Days, sold by the steampunk proprietors of Pine Hill's only bookshop, so I figured it was time to finally read some Terry Brooks.

No suspense here: I strongly disliked it. But literary merit aside, what was most striking to me was the lack of female characters. Consider:

There are 55 male characters and nine female characters, a few genderless creatures, and many (minor) characters unidentified by gender. Of those nine women, one is present but an illusion, one is probably fictional, five are only discussed or remembered by the men, and two are both present in the scene and real. One of the two real, present women is an old serving woman who appears and is gone in one paragraph. The other only appears halfway through the book, on page 430.

Shirl's character is pretty limp, and she seems to have no agency whatsoever. She is uninterested in the advances of the man who is obsessed with her, although she is nevertheless probably going to marry him. She is kidnapped and then rescued. She falls in love with her rescuer. Most of her action and dialog consists of waiting, listening to him talk about himself, and telling him to take care of himself.

One telling detail is that Brooks was the kind of writer who used "man" to mean "human." While this is old-fashioned, he really seems to mean it. All the women are either mothers or love interests (or a serving woman). There aren't even serving wenches in the inns or alive mothers to send their sons off.

Of course, Brooks is hardly alone in this. To be fair, compare Sword to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, a book I like much better:

The Hobbit actually comes off worse, as there are no women actually present in any scene. (The paltry few women in his trilogy suddenly seem overwhelming in number. Of course, it's rather like comparing the healthy food choices at fast food restaurants: "Hey, this place actually has a withered salad with carrot scrapings and a sad tomato!") To the extent that Brooks is a pale imitation of Tolkien, his lack of women is at least authentic.

I can enjoy books in spite of these kinds of issues (as I said, I liked The Hobbit), but some days they're just too hard to ignore.

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