I shamelessly admit that I bought Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword solely for the cover. Note to publishers: if you put a lady with a rapier on a novel, I will snatch it off the shelf. Thankfully, the novel delivered woman-with-rapier in spades and I enjoyed myself immensely. I’ve gone back to it three times as a comfort read since then.
Strangely, there aren’t that many novels out there in the fantasy field about women duelling with rapiers, which is probably why I keep going back to this one. I’ve got a craving for this kind of character.
Yet inevitably, this being the internet, the minute you mention a novel with a female protagonist who fights men with swords you get some (very loud) people howling in protest. Impossible! they say. The thin line suspending their disbelief will snap with such a suggestion.
Leaving aside the real-world particularities of male and female bodies in relation to combat, the protest over women warriors makes little sense to me story-wise, especially for the subgenres where they’re most likely to appear. Why? Because in a heroic fantasy, or even a light adventure tale, we’re used to seeing our heroes doing improbable things with swords. None of us could realistically achieve the sorts of feats Conan or Imaro perpetrates in a typical story. Ergo, if we’re perfectly okay with our heroes showcasing skills far beyond the norm of the population, why can’t our heroines? They too will be singular individuals displaying unusual alacrity with sword and spear. Discussions about what we can realistically expect from a normal individual from either gender don’t factor in here, because in most cases a hero or heroine in an adventure story isn’t normal. They’re heroic, and they stand out.
I don’t quite know why I’m so attracted to rapiers and sabres. They seem more elegant and interesting to me than the more popular broadsword in shape and technique required. Perhaps women with rapiers fascinate me because we don’t see them nearly as often as their male counterparts. Not enough Red Sonyas and Dark Agneses for every Alatriste or Flashman, say. But for any writers reading…if you include such a character, I’ll read your book. I won’t be able to resist.
For my own part, a few days ago I started a short story about the daughter of a fencing master in a Renaissance city who witnesses a shocking murder. We’ll see where it goes.