The Shadow Throne is the second volume in Django Wexler’s ongoing Shadow Campaign series, picking up right where the events of The Thousand Names left off: with protagonists Winter Ihernglass and Marcus d’Ivoire returning home to Vordan from Khandar under the leadership of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, there to continue the latter’s secret campaign against the sinister Duke Orlanko. It’s a flintlock fantasy series, full of secret magic, roaring battles and deadly politics: excellently written, superbly paced and all-round good fun. The Thousand Names was so polished, I had trouble believing it was Wexler’s first novel, and The Shadow Throne only improves from there, the shift in setting from foreign desert to home city managed with aplomb. Wexler is a master at writing battles, tactics and political intrigue with just the right level of detail: everything feels believable and, even more impressively, cunning, and despite the change in location between the two books, the consistent characterisation and martial focus means it never feels like we’ve leapt genres.
All of which is a way of saying that both The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne are excellent books – and I have similarly high hopes of the recently released third volume, The Price of Valour – and that you should go read them immediately. But what I really want to talk about here is Wexler’s excellent and varied characterisation of women, and why it throws into stark relief just how many other writers in the same genre fail to pass the seemingly reasonable benchmark of Treating Ladies Like People.
Specifically: in fantasy novels whose settings are based, whether loosely or closely, on real periods in human history, there’s a tendency to privilege sexism and homophobia, among other forms of bigotry, as cultural defaults, their presence an unquestioned facet of the worldbuilding. As such, whether consciously or unconsciously, the writers of such stories have a commensurate tendency to either severely limit their female characters to occupying traditionally feminine roles – frequently in such a way as to limit their impact on the narrative, to say nothing of their agency – or to make a Big Honking Deal about how a girl! is doing! masculine things!, usually with a side-order of Special Snowflake internalised misogyny about how this makes her not like other girls, because liking dresses is stupid, and she just wants to fight like a man because (the implicit, simplistic logic goes) that means she’s better.
In both instances, the end result is the same: a glut of female characters whose presence in the story is defined either wholly or predominantly by their relationships with men, and a marked lack of women interacting with other women. If the story restricts women to exclusively feminine spheres – and if, as is often the case, the author deems those spheres to be of little narrative interest in their own right – then even when women have ample opportunity to interact with one another, it goes undepicted; but if, on the other hand, the story includes only a few, exceptional women within masculine spheres, then the chances are that we’ll never see them talk to each other, either – or if we do, they’ll be competing for male attention.
Far too many fantasy novels have this problem, because all too often, even by well-meaning authors, it’s excused as a necessary consequence of the setting. Never mind that the decision to write about a sexist culture was theirs in the first place, which makes this justification rather like arguing that there’s no possible way to break, bend or alter the rules of a game that they invented, even when they’re the only ones playing, as though they could never have made any different choices; the sexism exists, they say, and therefore their female characters must be either unimportant, exceptional or isolated from each other, and preferably all three at once.
It’s a problem that predominantly affects male authors, not because men are inherently sexist or unsympathetic or bad at writing or any such rubbish, but because we live in a culture that relentlessly privileges male narratives, and especially straight white male narratives, over everything and everyone else, such that there doesn’t even have to be any malice in the action: it’s generations worth of monkey-see, monkey-do, absorbed from childhood onwards about the right way to tell a story, and if you’re someone who’s never felt the imbalance of it on a personal level – if you’ve always seen yourself depicted in multitudes, never as an absence or a stereotyped minority, and have therefore never felt that reflexive flash of anger at the dissonance between who you are and what the hero looks like – if, in other words, you’re a straight white dude – then you’re at a much higher risk of simply not realising that such absences are a problem, because they’ve never negatively impacted you, and are therefore much more likely to perpetuate them in turn, whether consciously or not.
But Django Wexler – despite having chosen to write about a male-dominated military in a sexist culture; despite being, to the best of my knowledge, a straight white dude – doesn’t do this. He writes women who talk to each other, women who are complicated and real and flawed and sometimes queer and sometimes not; women who feel to me like actual goddamn people, their expressions of femininity as nuanced and complex as their relationships, and this should be such a fucking low bar for books of this ilk, by writers like him, to hurdle, and yet the number of failures I’ve seen still far exceeds the successes. It’s not just that Wexler is an exceptionally good writer, period; after all, there are plenty of otherwise technically and thematically accomplished classics that persist in treating women as aliens who exist to either get knocked up or knocked down by the male protagonists. It’s that he’s writing as someone who clearly understands that the widespread acceptance of sexism doesn’t stop women from being people.
By which I mean: the most pernicious myth about cultural sexism is that women have only ever had a simplex, binary response to it, as if we either stay wholly inside the lines that patriarchy has drawn for us, or else inhabit specifically masculine roles as exceptional outsiders. Not only doesn’t this accounting allow for flexibility in women’s roles – as though, to pick just one historical example, the same woman who faithfully keeps house for her merchant husband might never take over his business as a widow – but, far more importantly, it doesn’t allow for flexibility in women’s thoughts. A woman who loves her husband and her domestic duties might nonetheless chafe at laws that restrict her legal rights without ever wanting to pick up a sword, just as a childless woman who excels at swordsmanship might nonetheless have a great respect for mothers. This attitude leads to a situation where, at base, women are portrayed as having only one of two reasons for their behaviour – that they accept the rules of patriarchy, or else reject them utterly – which in turn means that such female characters lack a complexity of motive. Following this logic, for instance, a girl who runs away to join the army must never have wanted to do anything else, because her whole persona is defined by Fighting Sexism; accordingly, there can’t be two such characters in the same story, because under this system, they’d essentially be the same character.
But in The Thousand Names, Wexler’s Winter Ihernglass – a woman who joined the army while pretending to be a man – did so, not to fulfil any lifelong dreams of soldiering, but to escape her specific, unpleasant circumstances, while another disguised woman under her command is revealed to have signed up after being explicitly inspired by rumours of Winter’s example. Following this pattern, in The Shadow Throne, a group of girls follow the example of both Winter and Jane – their nominal leader and Winter’s lover – to fight in turn, their decision a direct response to the context in which they find themselves. Even when taking similar paths, Wexler’s women remain distinct and complicated, because their motives are guided by their individual personalities, and not because they’ve been scripted to act in ultimate reference to what they think of men.
Which is the other important thing about Wexler’s characterisation: the many and varied reactions his male characters have to the women in their midst. Again, in more simplistic stories about sexist cultures, there’s a tendency for men to treat women in binary, simplistic ways: either they’re accepting of women in non-traditional roles (good guys), or they’re overtly hostile to it (bad guys), with the only complexity coming from whether or not the guy in question wants to fuck the girl in question, assuming she’s not a relative. The problem being, I suspect, that as the men writing these novels have never had the experience of being a woman who’s had to deal with sexism and haven’t bothered to ask about it, they’re defaulting to their own perception of how things work when they’re around to see it: namely, that misogyny is either so overt as to be unmistakeable (bitches should get back in the kitchen and make me a sammich), or else completely non-existent (some of my best friends are women!). The exception here, if there is one, tends to come from traditional quarters, wherein old-school chivalry is conflated with good manners without ever really articulating or disentangling itself, and tends to come out in the kind of male characters who’ll hesitate to hit a highly competent female assassin because she’s a woman, the actual reasoning behind ‘good men don’t hit women’ be damned.
What this neglects, in other words, is the existence of microagressions, and the idea that men can have sufficiently complicated relationships with women – and with the idea of women – that the question of how they’ll respond to an individual lady acting beyond her cultural remit isn’t a cut-and-dried question of misogyny, but rather one of context. As such, it’s not just Wexler’s women who benefit from his decision to include them in the narrative, but his men, too – because they, just like real guys, are allowed to have complex reactions to women, instead of being shoehorned into the binary boxes of Sexist or Saint.
Which is part of why Wexler’s books have struck such a chord with me: they’ve helped me to identify a bugbear I didn’t realise I had. Growing up, I was often referred to as a tomboy: I had female friends, but I hung around with guys a lot, too, and often preferred to do stereotypically masculine things in a way that was remarked upon. As such, from the day I started primary school, when I tried to sit down at a table full of unknown boys in my very first classroom, only to have them all get up and move to a different desk because girl germs, I’ve become well-versed in the many types of male reaction to women who enter their spaces.
Yes, some boys never questioned my presence – championed me, even – while others did the traditional sneer-and-slur. But in between those extremes has always been a fascinating range of variation, and one I’ve seldom seen portrayed with any degree of accuracy in novels, in the sense of being the default: an unpredictable, ever-shifting variant that women in male-centric environments have to deal with all the fucking time. Some guys warmed up to me as a person and a friend, but would still make endless cracks about which of our mutual male friends wanted to date/kiss/fuck me. Some guys bullied me relentlessly at school, but defended me fiercely from bullies who came from elsewhere, because I was, in some sense, theirs. Some guys crushed on me quietly, then got angry when I failed to interpret their friendship as an effort at romance. Some openly valued me for being not like other girls, but still made jokes about how I was typically feminine. Some questioned my presence in otherwise all-male groups, but were perfectly civil; some saw me as a potentially disruptive element, not because we didn’t get along, but because they worried the potential drama of multiple male friends being interested in me would cause a rift. On and on and on.
And in Wexler’s books, this complexity is reflected in the male characters. Marcus, who we otherwise view as a good man, is a benevolent sexist: chivalrous in a way that leads him to devalue female competence through a desire to protect women as special. Janus, though he champions Winter and other female soldiers, does so, not due to any special feminist sentiment that we can see, but because he’s a fierce pragmatist, willing and able to recognise talent – and to put it to use – however it presents itself. The men who accept Jane’s authority in the Docks still want their daughters to stay at home, because recognising Jane’s specific value doesn’t translate to championing all women in all spheres. The university students Raesinia consorts with unquestioningly treat her and Cora as equals, but Duke Orlanko, despite employing many talented female spies, never considers that Raesinia might have a will of her own.
In short, and in addition to everything else that recommends them as excellent reading material, Wexler’s books are a masterclass on how writing a sexist culture – and sexist men, even – doesn’t have to restrict the significance and range of your female characters. So go forth, everyone: read them, enjoy them – and, if possible, learn from them. Because god knows, I’m tired of reading about women with all the individuality of Duplo bricks.
Also, queer ladies being awesome. Yes please: more of this!