Amazon Heroic Fantasy

a critical overview by Jessica Amanda Salmonson


Amazons, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Illustration by Michael Whelan.I. Introduction

The swordswoman in heroic fantasy novels was a rarity up until the 1980s. Exceptions included C(atherine) L. Moore's "Jirel of Joiry" stories from the 1930s pulp magazine Weird Tales, & similar characters created by Robert E. Howard for the same magazine, notably Red Sonya, Bel't, & the lesbian Valeria — amazon side-kicks for the muscle-hero Conan of Cimmeria. Apart from pulp & genre fiction, there have been occasional novels throughout this century with interesting portraits of Amazons, including Maude Meagher's The Green Scamander (1933) about Penthesilea's temporary liberation of Troy, or Helena Carus's historical romance Artemis, Fare Thee Well (1935). But these have remained obscure, hence not influential, to genre readers & writers, so that the Robert E. Howard school has provided the key impact, in addition to the plethora of amazon-like queens who followed in the wake of H. Rider Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be- Obeyed. In the 1970s, with the influx of feminist writings in fantasy & science fiction generally, the amazon slowly began to emerge in genre literature, but not until the 1980s did amazon heroic fantasy became a common subgenre of mass market category publishing.

Her placement in the evolution of commercial f/sf after the original feminist influx of the 1970s makes the amazon a somewhat reactionary development, in terms of a withdrawal into simpler norms of genre storytelling, but also in terms of acceptable roles for women. In the majority of cases even ostensibly feminist authors use the amazon, not always consciously, to confirm rather than debunk or expand feminine stereotypes.

This reaction is seen across the field, & taken one step farther by the next phase of fictional women's evolution, revealed most transparently by the self-styled cyberpunks & the praise-mongers thereof. They've gone so far as to proclaim their predominantly male community the new bastion of feminist extrapolation, coopting & putrefying the rhetoric of feminism into yet another all-men's club. By their reasoning Bill Gibson & his coat-tail riders are the rightful heirs to Joanna Russ & James Tiptree, Jr., & of the important feminist writers of the '70s, only John Varley & Samuel Delany still count.1

The amazon novel would be taken more seriously than it deserves, as absurdly as the cyberpunks have been taken seriously, if the amazon works were also predominantly masculinist in their origin. Amazon novels borrow a heightened sentimentalism from women's Historical Romance, causing them to appear less valuable than the cynical romance of cyberpunk's view of Humanity As Adjuncts To Video Games. To a community that values its word processor "interface" more than it values human interaction or the health of its own physique, becoming computerized ranks more highly than the physicality of heroic fantasy.

A critical look at amazon novels' value in terms of stylishness, moodiness, intellectuality, or innovation finds them largely lacking. The chord they strike in the reader is not one of artistic merit, but of thrilling & romantic content. The majority of the books are hastily written as on-going series, so that no single book ever seems quite finished. They might be treated in the same light as comic book amazons, except that the novelistic versions include such a high percentage of women writers & the comic books, like the similarly comic-bookish cyberpunk novels, are by & for males. Cyberpunk, then, is the Feminist Reactionary Syndrome for boys while amazons are the reaction for women. Both purport feminist value, but achieve it, if ever, only in moderation.

II. Amazon Sex

There are curious variations in the amazon novels, but little that steps outside the conventionality of midlist fantasy publishing. One variation is the prostitute-swordswoman exemplified by Janet E. Morris's High Couch of Salistra & later volumes in that series2 The fighting courtesan does have its historical counterparts,3 but the heroic fantasy version is intentionally unrealistic.

Another variation that similarly connects more to sexual fantasy than to the reality of adventuring women is the masochistic swordswoman of Sharon Green's "Jalav Amazon Warrior" series beginning with The Crystals of Midas. As paeans to heroic masochism, these novels have become minor classics in the s/m underground, especially among "bottoms" who perceive their ability to withstand & enjoy pain as evidence of an amazon nature, rather than proof of weakness & degradation. In John Norman's Tarnsman of Gof, first of a long series of heroic fantasy bondage novels, the amazon genuinely — & unbelievably — seeks to be tamed & chained, so that she is no longer amazonian in any regard. But in the hands of a woman writer such as Green, or in Phyllis Ann Karr's Wildwraith's Last Battle & other of her heroic fantasies, the theme is more complex & interesting. The swordfighting masochist may be captured, but remains ambiguous about her pleasures, is constantly in revolt, & is a danger to her captor even though she loves him. Although such swordswomen have no apparent counterpart in reality, the masochistic impulse is real enough for many women, & these novels obviously enrich certain readers in a primal manner.

Most curiously, the sadistic swordswoman is less often seen in heroic fantasy, though it would seem the most obvious device; the dominatrix has influenced bookcover & comic book illustrators & television producers more than it has novelists, & even in those other arenas the dominatrix is not motivated by a credibly personal need to dominate, but by male masochist masturbation fantasies that can be actualized in the real world primarily for a fee. As a rule, heroic fantasy is not a rebelling literature. While sadism is common enough in women, & a mainstay of non-amazon heroic fantasies wherein femme fatales are frequently dramatically presented, only the masochism is sanctioned by the cultural expectations of women's roles relative to men in heroic fantasy. The amazon torn toward symbols of sanctionable submission, such as masochism, is typical of heroic fantasy; but the amazon who pushes her power to further & further extremes is stepping twice, not once, outside 20th Century standards of femininity. This is apparently asking too much of the commercial authors & publishers of mass market books aimed at fairly simple, even adolescent reading needs.

Especially popular is Marion Zimmer Bradley's creation of the Order of Renunciates, or Free Amazons, in the long-running mass-market paperback series about the planet Darkover. The Free Amazons were glimpsed as early as The World Wreckers in the form of a lesbian couple, but did not gain focus until years later with The Shattered Chain, after which the Free Amazons were to become MZB's most popular creation, birthing many sequels, notably Thendara House,which in an early draft included "consciousness raising" courses typical of 1970s moderate feminism (a midwest fantasy author of the time jested to me that her consciousness raising group had to meet at the laundromat). There are, as well, sanctioned imitations by fans known facetiously as the Dark Ovaries & officially as the Friends of Darkover, chiefly young women who like to sew Amazon costumes to wear at science fiction conventions, & coattail riders hoping some of MZB's success will rub off. Free Amazons of Darkover is an anthology of fan-fiction about the Renunciates. MZB's long-running anthology series Sword & Sorceress began in 1982 in admitted imitation of Amazons!, but boastfully less feminist in tone, was aimed primarily at the beginning writer, most of the introductory nitter-natter written in the "how to write good" school of editorialese, making the volumes, in essence, extensions of the Darkovarian fan universe.

Amazons II, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Illustration by Michael Whelan. Probably because feminists have damned certain aspects of the Darkover books, which are in many ways highly conservative, MZB's The Ruins of Isis was set on an evil matriarchal planet. It is virtually an antifeminist tract, written in a pique over feminist criticisms of her books. The Renunciates Darkover, however, are for all their limitations powerful as symbols due to their ability to function independently in their all-too- familiar misogynist world.

Darkover tales by no means constitute MZB's only heroic fantasy success. She made up considerably for The Ruins of Isis with a relatively positive portrait of the often maligned Morgan la Fay in Mists of Avalon. In Warrior Woman we were introduced to Zadieyek of Gyre, amazonian gladiator. She is in essence a rebellious slave & connects once again with heroic fantasy's tradition of the masochistic amazon, the romance of power & captivity best exemplified by Sharon Green's "Jalav" series. A recurring image in MZB's novels is the strongwilled woman in handcuffs & chains, especially in The Door Through Space but most intriguingly in The Shattered Chain which genuinely investigates the double-edged meaning of the fantasy of the chained amazon.

Yet another variation is the bisexual or partially lesbian swordswoman featured in such works as S. M. Sterling & Shirley Meier's The Sharpest Edge, Charlotte Stone's Cheon of Weltanland & the pseudonymous J. F. Rivkin's Silverglass, & having her literary roots in a Theophile Gautier's Mlle Maupin based on an actual Frenchwoman who historically speaking lived a fairly swashbuckling life, damsel seductions & all. Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground: Tales of the Hillwomen is of related interest in expressing lesbian-feminist attitudes in their purest light, but the optimistic romance of peacefulness & oneness with nature is rather too nambypamby for the amazon category.

The swordswoman as prostitute, masochist, or lesbian shows how reliably even moderately feminist writers objectify the archetype in a manner that makes her, in the hands of these women writers, more a modern expression of sexuality than of militancy, valor, or prowess. In the hands of male writers, such as with Richard Kirk's Raven, Swordsmistress of Chaos, the pseudonymous Asa Drake's Warrior Witch of Hel, & similar works by Lin Carter & Andrew J. Offutt, the objectification is more severe, but otherwise upholds the same expectation of the amazon as an expression of sexuality rather than physical power.

III. Amazon as Anomaly

Commonly the swordswoman is treated as an anomaly in these novels, even in her own fantasy world, as in the cases of Lynn Abbey's Daughter of the Bright Moon, & Elizabeth A. Lynn's "Tarnor Trilogy." Occasionally she is a member of an anomalous cult, & though not the only swordswoman in her world, she remains outside societal norms, as exemplified in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Shattered Chain. Rarely the swordswoman is "the rule" as in Phyllis Ann Karr's Frostflower & Thorn, Lillian Stewart Carl's Sabazel, or Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark.

A curiously common subdivision is the woman from an amazon society electing to live in a patriarchal country, so that she may remain an anomaly though ostensibly she has not always been one. Claudia J. Edwards' A Horsewoman in Godland belongs in this category, as does Janrae Frank's unpublished Tomyris saga.4

The underlying message would seem to be of women's alienation in the real world, as none of these authors have been able to imagine fantasy worlds in which amazons are entirely comfortable with themselves & their environment. None have imagined worlds in which such competence in women is not the special case. A single grand exception is Raven of Samuel Delany's Tales of Neveryon. Though typical of the genre in that she is travelling through patriarchal lands, Raven expresses a world-view radically opposed to the, for her, alien attitudes encountered in male-dominated countries.

No author has reconstructed anything akin to, say, the island Tritonia envisioned by the ancient Greeks as the homeland of the Empire-forging North African "gorgons" or Hesperians, nor the later Amazonia of the Thermodontines (Scythian Amazons), although a well-researched historical novel The Sword is Forged by Evangeline Walton tackles the latter.

The reduction of the amazon to anomaly is recent. In the majority of the medieval popular literature & epic poems dealing with heroism, the Amazon in context of her own society is a commonplace.5 Thus it can be seen that the modern amazon novel shies away from the boldness of tradition in favor of an updated milquetoast approach, devoid, except in Delany's limited case, of Amazon theology & deep-rooted history.

IV. Limited Imagination

The common delusion of fantasy writers is that they have freed themselves from the constraints of history. But history is filled with vastly more interesting amazons than can be found in these books.6 Fantasy novels appear to reduce into simplistic patterns the richness & complexity of reality, rather than building beyond the limitations of an unmagical universe. Hence the Amazon, like everything else encountered in the typical heroic fantasy novel, is a reduction, rather than an expansion, of women's history of adventure & heroism. Publisher preference for predictable books — that must always conform to the given genre's style of paperback cover art — have made the novelist's art more & more collaborative,7 so that the published work becomes about as personal as a Hollywood filmscript by the time it hits the screen. The current economic realities cause publishers & editors to encourage only those writers whose work is the most predictable & suited to collaboration with the product editor, the art director, blurb writer, buck-a-book sales rep, & the supermarket bookrack deliveryman. Authors who can turn a conventional theme, such as the heroic fantasy amazon, right on its ears, are discouraged at every turn, so we end up with authors of limited capacity, shaped by publishing houses for whom artistry is repugnant, & books that echo & reecho the same set of easily codified cliches.

Sometimes the swordswoman is patently a feminist heroine, as with Joanna Russ's Alyx or Mary Mackey's The Last Warrior Queen or, conversely, anti-feminist, as with Marion Bradley's portrait of evil matriarchy in The Ruins of Isis or the wishful thinking in John Norman's Gor novels. The swordswoman may even be a mere clown as in Terry Pritchart's heroic fantasy satires, or in George Alec Effinger's short story "Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson" & Steven Bryan Beiler's "Cohen the Clam Killer" (the Amazon is strictly a joke chiefly among male writers).

When the award-winning anthology Amazons! appeared in 1979, it was widely reviewed, usually treated as an innovation. It signaled the opening of a floodgate & proved the commercial viability of High Adventure with women filling the action role that had previously been reserved largely to Conan types. A decade later, swordswomen had become a disparagible cliche to many. And it is true the majority of these novels read too much like slightly more feminist versions of bodice-ripper historical romances, increasingly so after 1985, by which time the product had stabilized into the sorts of predictable patterns that keep the publishers comfortable & the authors minor.

Nowadays, hardly a month passes without a new amazon fantasy novel appearing: C. J. Cherryh's The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords & Jewels; Marta Randall's The Sword of Winter, Robin W. Bailey's Frost & sequels; Diane Duane's Door Into Fire, Ru Emerson's To the Haunted Mountains & sequels, Ansen Dibell's Pursuit of the Screamer & sequels, Rosemary Sutcliff's noteworthy Song for a Dark Queen, plus works by Andre Norton, Elizabeth Moon, Joyce Ballou Gregorian, Judith Tarr, Mercedes Lackey, P. C. Hodgell, Susan Shwartz, Lee Killough, Patricia C. Wrede, Richard Lupoff, & dozens of others who pad out the midlists of archly commercial genre lines, not to mention the standard-issue amazons of various multi-authored "shared world" anthologies & their spin-offs, plus the latest fad for the amazon femmebot Xena in the subliterate world of television.

Thousand Shrine Warrior, by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Illustration by Kinuko Craft No doubt a few of these authors have certain artistic intentions, but we are still awaiting the amazon heroic fantasy novel that equals some of the non-amazonian classics of fantasy, something as refined as Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, as artfully decadent as Tanith Lee's first two Flat Earth novels Death's Master and Night's Master, or as poetically resonant as Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, let alone as imaginatively grotesque as Jack Vance's Dying Earth tales or Michael Shea's Nifft the Lean. A few short story classics are comparable: Elizabeth A. Lynn's "The Woman Who Loved the Moon," Fiona Macleod's "Ahez the Pale," Vernor von Heidenstam's "The Shield Maiden," Selma Lagerlof's "Sigrid Storrade" & unless I'm deluded, perhaps my own "The Harmonious Battle." And I would assuredly like to believe my "Tomoe Gozen Saga" is as much about angst & honor as it is about wild adventure & bloodshed.

For love of storytelling, many of us may wish the amazon novels were more than they tend to be. Their limiting nature is due to the realities of the publishing industry, not to limitations of the thematic material.

Within the context of genre publishing, such books are at least a step upward, if viewed chiefly as young-adult reading (or stunted-adult reading), therefore excusable in their immaturities. It may even be viewed as extraordinary that the cliches of femininity have broadened to include swashbuckling mayhem.


1. Delany in the cyberpunk propaganda rag SF Eye was told by his interviewer that the history of American science fiction could be reconstructed with Bester, Delany, Varley & Gibson (in the same issue, the editor has discovered how awful L. Ron Hubbard really was, because he depicts lesbians badly in his space operas. Feminist topics for men, I call these). Delany quickly pointed out how the typical reconstruction omits Russ, Le Guin, et al. But he bolstered the common cyperpunk delusion of feminism in his belief that, without the feminists, "there wouldn't be any cyberpunk. It [feminism] lights the whole cyberpunk movement." He may be correct, but only insofar as a reactionary literature requires something to react against. Delany in was probably just being kind to his interviewer, but seemingly mistook the presence of futuristic amazons in cyberpunk as inherently feminist. One only needs to look at the proliferation of Amazons in men's comic books to understand fully why such a "feminist" phenemonon has nothing whatsoever to do with women, for which reason women are notable only by their lack of presence among the Sci Fi Eye fraternity.

2. "Series" becomes a key word here. Well over two-thirds of the novels mentioned in this essay are the first of continuing series, & others are prototypes for series aborted by publishers. Hence the unfinished quality of books hastily written & intentionally open-ended.

3. An example would be the twelve hundred women-at-arms, the mounted courtesans, in the service of the Duke of Flanders, late 1500s.

4. A fragment of the Tomyris saga appears in the original Amazons! & another as a small press pamphlet The Ruined Tower which you can obtain from Violet Books. If the whole is reflected by these parts, then its failure, in fifteen years, to find a publisher, is due chiefly to the rambunctious, rough-hewn Robert E. Howard tone – making them unsuitable as "girls" novels, & not polished enough for midlist invisibility. They are in reality fine works that superimpose feminist sentiment upon an Howardesque environment without losing the raw horrifying beauty seen in REH's best works.

5. Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered features many swordswomen & warrior queens, as does Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, adding for spice an evil amazon nation. Spenser in The Faery Queene imagines one amazon the embodiment of evil, the other of good, pitting them against one another in order to show how amazon virtue inevitably wins over amazon vice. Virgil imagines Camilla surrounded by female companions-at-arms. Queens of a wide array of amazon nations appear in Portugese & Spanish epic romances, the most famous of whom was Califia, Queen of an amazon island, & who warred with her amazon hordes in the middle-east. California is named for her. In the plays of the Restoration, amazon queens ran rampant, generally of exceptional skill & valor, though usually undone by love, the story of Alexander the Great's affair with Thalestris, Queen of Amazonia, being typical. It can be seen that the concept of the Amazon with no broader context for her existence, & as an incongruity, is a recent development, & partly the result of the authors having no knowledge of anything beyond onanistic daydreaming.

6. Three random examples from history: Rhodogune went into battle straight from her bath, refusing to dress her hair until rebellion was suppressed; hence coins minted in her honor show her with dishevelled hair. Theroigne de Merricort led the first major riot of the French Revolution, founded vicious women's brigades, & after lopping off the head of an aristocrat who had been her lover, danced in his blood & sang a revolutionary ballad. During the French Civil Wars Magdelene of Saint-Nectaire led battles against Catholic armies. For details on hundreds more examples, see my The Encyclopedia of Amazons.

7. In the words of novelist William Wharton during a Public Radio interview: "The more you have people collaborating, the less chance you have for art."

The above essay first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, issue 20, 1990. I made a very few expansions in the present text, deciding it was pointless to add more recent titles. The genre has not grown or changed except, perhaps, to become increasingly childish & television-influenced, so that sadly the key points of the essay have not changed, but become increasingly adamant. You will find additional essays by myself on heroic fantasies in my anthologiesAmazons!, Amazons II, and Heroic Visions volumes one & two; you may enquire at Violet Books for these, as also for my nonfiction magnum opus, The Encyclopedia of Amazons: Women Warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Era.

Because few of the books mentioned in this archive presentation of "Amazon Heroic Fantasy" are antiquarian in nature, few can be acquired from Violet Books. I'm apt to stock only older titles in hardcover, plus of course any title written or edited by myself, which I didn't much discuss above, but did use a couple of my covers as illustrations so you can see what I've done of related interest. Do inquire at Violet Books if you're interested in heroic fantasy paperback originals with my byline thereon, or hardcover first editions of fantasy short stories & older fantasy novels generally. Though I'm not your primary source for mass market paperbacks, which is the format for the lioness's share of Amazon heroic fantasies, you will not find it difficult to locate a great many specialists in modern editions of science fiction & fantasy paperbacks, both new & out of print.

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