Recently I noticed an angry person on the internet expressing outrage at the very idea of women, any women, being able to use a sword. Frankly, it’s an objection that’s too stupid for words. While one could certainly respond by mentioning, for example, the Trưng sisters, Madame de Saint-Baslemont, and of course the flamboyantly bisexual and dangerous Julie d’Aubigny, let’s do what we do best, here, and talk about some of the excellent books featuring swordswomen.
Revolutionary Girl Utena by Be-Papas and Chiho Saito
Most modern schools ignore the role of swordplay in teenaged life. Not so at one school, Ohtori Academy, which is featured in Be-Papas and Chiho Saito’s Revolutionary Girl Utena manga. Dueling is a longstanding custom at the academy. Students fight to win the hand of lovely and passive Anthy. One such student is Utena, a young woman who has always yearned to be a dashing prince. It turns out that what seems to be an innocent game has a dark side. For whose benefit, exactly, are the incessant duels? What is the goal?
Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
The swordswoman featured in Marie Brennan’s Cold-Forged Flame experiences the warrior equivalent of the Actor’s Nightmare. Summoned from an existence she cannot recall, she is dispatched to collect blood from the cauldron of the Lhian. Who or what the Lhian might be and for what purpose the blood is required are mysteries. Solving said mysteries may place Brennan’s protagonist in even greater danger. Happily for the reader, the swordswoman is not the sort of person who permits amnesia and constant danger to keep her from her chosen course.
Tomoe’s Story by Stan Sakai
Stan Sakai’s Tomoe’s Story is the twenty-second volume in the venerable Usagi Yojimbo comic series, which is set in a fantasy Japan populated by anthropomorphic characters. The title is slightly misleading. This volume collects six stories starring Tomoe, the feline woman samurai who keeps encountering series star Miyamoto Usagi. Like Usagi, she has a firm moral sense and, also like Usagi, a rare talent for finding herself in circumstances where only her skill will keep her from the grave.
Steel by Carrie Vaughn
In Carrie Vaughn’s Steel, fourth-rate fencer Jill Archer tumbles off her boat during a family vacation near Nassau. She hits the water in the 21st century; she is pulled out during the Golden Age of Piracy. Luckily for the teen, Captain Marjory Cooper offers Jill the choice between signing on as a pirate or remaining a prisoner. (Less savoury fates are not on offer.) She chooses piracy, a life that involves a lot more deck swabbing than Basil Rathbone movies would suggest. Jill’s astounding temporal displacement makes her of considerable interest to scallywag pirate Edmund Blane. Jill will need better than fourth-place sword skills to survive Blane and find her way home.
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones
In Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery, orphan Margerit Sovitre is astounded when she finds herself heir to the vast fortune of her wealthy godfather Baron Saveze. He has also bequeathed Margerit her very own armin. “Armins” are whos, not whats; they are personal bodyguards. Saverze’s armin is young Barbara, who is unpleasantly surprised, since she’d expected to be freed when the baron died. Serving a jumped-up bourgeoise turned aristocrat wasn’t in her plans. But there’s no time to brood and dither: Margerit is surrounded by enemies. It’s one fight after another. And as time goes on, the two women find their companionship becoming more and more pleasant…
I’m sure I’ve merely scratched the surface here—perhaps a glancing hit. You will doubtless tell me of my omissions and offer additional recommendations in the comments…
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assAlsted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.