Favourite female characters in speculative fiction

When I was asked to write some blog entries for the Orbit site, one of the great suggestions made was that I take a look at some of my favourite female characters in the realms of speculative fiction. So I did … and guess what I found? They were nearly all created by Terry Pratchett. I’ve decided to write another post just on his characters shortly, but in the meantime…

As much as I passionately adore Terry Pratchett’s female characters,  I’m pretty fond of a few others, too. And if you pinned me in a corner and asked me to choose my absolute favourite?

My answer would be Lieutenant Eve Dallas, created by JD Robb, (aka Nora Roberts) for her futuristic ‘In Death’ crime series.

Eve is a homicide detective: tough, committed, courageous,  prickly, unexpectedly vulnerable,  dedicated, ruthless and relentless in the pursuit of justice.  She is always surprising, never a stereotypical female character, sexy and appealing because of her strength … and the flaws that go hand in hand with it.

Even more exciting is that Eve’s not the only great female character in this series. Her partner in hunting murderous criminals is the fabulous Delia Peabody, who’s smart and feisty and loyal and brave.  Broadcast journalist Nadine Furst  is a great foil,  psychologist Charlotte Mira and free spirit singer Mavis Freestone are both fully realised women with their own lives and agencies within the narrative.

The ‘In Death’ series is one of my all time favourites, of any genre,  because each story is gripping and emotionally engaging, giving the reader character growth and development skilfully entwined with the crime de jour. I eagerly await each new release in hardcover. The first book in the series is ‘Naked in Death’.

For me, one of the most egregiously under-rated writers in the speculative fiction genre is the late Kage Baker. Her series of Company novels, starting with ‘In the Garden of Iden’,  is an extraordinary body of work, a wonderful achievement. She also wrote short fiction and fantasy fiction too, and it galls me even now that this unique voice was never given the microphone and accolades it deserved.

Baker’s best-known female character is Mendoza, one of the driving narrative voices of the Company series.  In the world of the Company,  characters time travel on behalf of their mysterious employer, observing and recording significant events in history, and collecting and saving artefacts for posterity. The Company recruits its time travellers by taking suitable children out of their own time, medically altering them, then training them to become agents. The repercussions of this process, plus the Company’s shadowy agenda, are the twin engines that drive the series.

Mendoza is not an easy character. She’s scarred and bitter and passionate and lonely and endlessly fascinating. Throw her into the story mix and anything can happen.

My next choice for favourite female character is, in fact, a little bit problematical. That’s because I no longer read the series in which she stars. Anita Blake is a vampire hunter and necromancer, whose adventures start in  ‘Guilty Pleasures’. I think you could say that this series really got the ball rolling on the hugely popular urban fantasy sub-genre, and for a good while there it was one of my ‘must read’ series.  Anita is smart and sassy and courageous and dedicated. She’s a true noir hero, in all the best senses of the term. I only stopped reading the series because the emphasis shifted from the supernatural crime/mystery solving aspects towards more focus on the sexual elements, and as a result the books became less interesting to me. But I still re-read the early novels in the series and continue to enjoy them.

Another favourite female character is Cordelia Naismith, created by Lois McMaster Bujold in her Vorkosigan series. While it’s true that Cordelia is more in the background from ‘The Warrior’s Apprentice’ onwards, she’s the star of ‘Cordelia’s Honor’ and ‘Barrayar’,  the two books that create the background for the rest of the series and go a long way in explaining the complication that is Miles Vorkosigan.

Cordelia is a hero, plain and simple.  She’s a leader and a thinker and a champion of justice. She’s compassionate and forthright and courageous and unflinching in the face of intimidation.  She’s the kind of woman a lot of girls aspire to be when they grow up.

Finally, I’ll recommend Kate Elliott’s newest trilogy, Spiritwalker.  In the first installment, ‘Cold Magic’, we meet Catherine Hassi Barahal. Thanks to various familial machinations, Catherine is married to a complete stranger and taken away from all that she knows and loves. Faced with life or death challenges at every turn, she meets each twist of fate with courage and humour and gritty determination.  I fell in love with Catherine within pages, and I’m so looking forward to the next book, ‘Cold Fire’.

Looking at all these favourite female characters, I can see they have a few things in common. They are brave and bold and never defined or judged by their physicality. They’re independent, not relying on men to save them or think for them or be their reason for existence. They love, but love is not their sole function in the narrative. Like Terry Pratchett’s women, they are fabulously interesting and entertaining human beings who just happen to be women … and they live lives of adventure and mystery and  purpose. They don’t exist as props for men.

There are many more wonderful female characters to discover and enjoy. These are just a few of mine … and if you’re yet to meet them, I hope my enthusiasm inspires you to give them a go.