Rereading Melanie Rawn

Rereading Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince Trilogy: It’s a Wrap!

And so we’re done with the reread of the Dragon Prince trilogy. Fear not, I’m moving on next week to the second trilogy, the Dragon Star books—faster, more condensed, but just as opinionated. That will be a read rather than a reread; so, a voyage of discovery.

In the meantime, it’s been a most interesting year of reading and thinking and appreciating what Melanie Rawn did, back in the late Eighties, with and to the genre of epic fantasy. That was the age of the five- or ten-volume trilogy. The Tolkien clone (or Tolclone as it was sometimes called) was king—and clones of clones of clones appeared, sometimes succeeded, often failed, and for the most part vanished away.

There’s been a lot of recent noise made about “Where are the women in fantasy?” and “Women don’t write epic fantasy” and “Gosh, I can’t find women writing epic/historical/non-urban fantasy anywhere, I guess I’ll have to write some myself.” Then the very serious blogs or articles cite the usual handful of well-known male writers, and very occasionally there’s a sidelong reference to one of the usual token women writers. And meanwhile, the legions of women who wrote fantasy all the way back, and have been writing it all along, and are still writing it now, cry out unheard. “Hey! We’re here! We were always here!”

It was one such round of the old game that led to this reread. Talking about the women who wrote epic fantasy after Tolkien and before Martin, we came up with literally hundreds of names and book titles. Here’s one with masses of additions in the comments. And here’s one with links. And here’s another one. It goes on and on. List after list after article and list, usually in response to some Very Serious article that goes over the same old ground.

It boggles me that the new trope is that “Women don’t write fantasy,” or read it or anything else, because in the Eighties, the trope was that “boys write and read hard, manly, real science fiction, and girls write and read soft, squishy, comfy-cozy, make it up as you go along fantasy.” Because now fantasy is manly and hard and real. And girls don’t do that.

Do they?

And that’s where Melanie Rawn came in. She’s one of a number of very successful writers of the Eighties, a bestseller with a strong fan following. She’s also not cloning Tolkien. If there’s any clearly visible influence in her work, it’s Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (oh, that perfect blond hero who loves to be underestimated), and the mother of nuts-and-bolts secondary-world medievalist fantasy, Katherine Kurtz (yet more blond Pimpernel-style heroes). And she does it with dragons.

As much as I can quibble details and narrative choices (and I certainly do), she did things that very few others in fantasy at the time were doing. She entered a genre that was spending a great deal of time rewriting Tolkien (sometimes scene for scene), often through the filter of other Tolkien rewrites and that great repository of assorted lore and fantasy legend, Dungeons and Dragons, which bred its own large subgenre of heroic or epic fantasy. Dice-rattler books, those were, and many read like transcripts of gaming campaigns.

Rawn did her own thing in her own way. She cast the female gaze on a genre heavy with all-male quest fellowships, trophy females, and the occasional Smurfette. Her world was male-dominated and highly patriarchal, but she populated it with notable numbers of well-drawn female characters. They might be constrained to Chosen Love, but by the gods they had their own opinions and their own plans and their own various ways of navigating their culture.

Not one of her characters wants to dress up as a boy and run away and be the superior sex. They manage castles, marry (or not marry) either for love or for political gain, bear and raise children, wage war, clean up after the men—just as real women have done throughout human history. They make magic, too, with no distinction of gender. Magic is what it is, and those who work it can be male or female; it doesn’t matter. What matters is power.

This is a world with good and evil, good people and bad people, and (or so it seems) good magic and bad magic. But these forces are direct and immediate. There are no remote and terrible Dark Lords here. Evildoers, like doers of good (and many who operate in the grey areas between), are human beings with human flaws and preoccupations.

Rawn’s fantasy is intensely personal. Her politics will occasionally blow up into a traditional battle, but her opposing forces always end up settling things one on one, through the duel arcane rather than the Giant Epic Battle In Which All Is At Stake. She’s as interested in the small details of domestic life as she is in the big issues of good and evil, grand politics and the ruling of princedoms, and justice and the rule of law.

In this world of dragons and magic, her princes worry about finances and devote long passages to discussions of trade and political alliances. Even the dragons provide a practical solution to a financial problem: their eggs can be smelted into the gold that makes the High Prince fabulously rich.

That’s genius. It might be a bit more Poughkeepsie than Elfland, but the richness of the physical world and the beauty and drama of the magic provide a necessary balance. There’s grand romance and complex tragedy in a carefully constructed world. And there are dragons.

While a certain enormously influential later male writer both comes under fire and receives praise for his portrayal of women in a medievalist “realist” world (i.e. grimdark and everybody dies), Rawn had already, half a decade before, presented a far more genuinely realistic vision of women’s lives in a medieval-zoid patriarchy. She moved away from the dualism of the Tolkienians, too, and toward a vision of flawed humans making decisions both good and bad, and having to live and die by the consequences of those decisions. Grimdark it’s not, but it’s remarkably realistic for its time and genre.

That’s huge. And it’s been all but forgotten in the places where the history of the genre is sagely discussed, to the extent that serious people seriously declare that “women don’t write epic fantasy.” Beg to differ, serious people. Seriously beg to differ.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in April. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and (yes, Serious People) epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, two dogs, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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