Wrath, War, Love, Feminism: On Mixing a Four-Shot Fantasy Cocktail in Master Assassins
I’m a proud feminist, and have proclaimed as much for many years. But embracing the term is the easy part. Slightly harder is deciding what you mean.
For myself, being a feminist means recognizing the harm done to people and the planet by structures of power and thought devised by and for men. It means challenging those structures in my life and work. It means listening to and learning from women, and especially from ways of seeing and living that women (and their allies) offer as a contrast to business as usual. Our genre overflows with such gifted visionaries, as it does with those challenging old and blinkered narratives of race, religion, sexuality, disability and class.
Finally, feminism means for me a constant, critical self-examination. As a man I know that the slick envelope of masculine normativity—Your way is the natural way, the best way, the only way—is waiting to embrace me and affirm my biases and privileges. The better, truer part of me is not interested. But the old skulkers—those lazy, insecure and fearful demons of the psyche—are always looking for the easy out, the popular shortcut, the cheat. Being a feminist means always asking myself what those demons are up to. We all like to be “woke,” but a white man can get away with nodding off any time.
How do I put feminism into practice as a writer? First of all, by thinking skeptically about my own narratives—by which I mean not just the novels and stories, but also my narratives of self. That includes this essay. If I strike a pose or drift away from sincerity, I might succeed in conveying nothing more than an effort to cover my ass.
Which brings us to Master Assassins.
This book began as a cry of rage against war—the collective crime of it, the insurmountable addiction to it we struggle with, our unwillingness to look its horrors in the face. This was partly a fistfight with my genre, which too often seemed to peddle war without consequences, violence as a romp. But at a deeper level I was trying to fight back against that age-old, beloved, utterly evil story of war. The one that warmongers sell and nationalists hawk and whole countries buy into when the drums start to pound. The one that drowns out William Stafford’s warning that “every war has two losers,” the one that fixes on kings and generals, alliances and tactics, but airbrushes out the permanent wounds left behind in millions of bodies, minds and hearts.
Fortunately, novels have a way of taking you far from your starting point. My mind and heart wanted a lot more in this book. They wanted people to love. They wanted those people to have known joy, and to be able to hope for its renewal. They wanted room for laughter, for fighting the darkness not just with rage but with humor and friendship and Eros and idealism. In short, they wanted Master Assassins to run the table of human experiences. And they wanted the whole thing to lift the reader up.
Well, shit, thought the Practical Self. Strap in for six years of writing. And so, of course, I did.
All of this is preface, partly, to a warning I want to offer my readers. There is misogyny in this book. There is misogyny in some of my characters. Misogyny is a subject of this book—just one subject, but a subject I take very seriously as a writer, as a feminist, as a person trying to think honestly about the countless sacrifices we make on the altar of testosterone.
One way to resist evil is to share visions of persons (or societies) rising above it. Another way is to see that evil with all the sober clarity you can. In Master Assassins, I’ve tried to do both.
The continent of Urrath, where this novel occurs, is home to some 410 ethnic groups. There are republics and military dictatorships, matriarchies and patriarchies, industrial hubs and nations of farmers, traditions of equality, traditions of subjugation.
But in this moment of Urrath’s history, darkness has the upper hand. Chaotic, hydra-headed, scorched-earth wars are raging across the continent. My characters are the victims, the products and yes, the perpetrators of those wars.
And I could not sanitize them. I could not, crucially, deny what men do to women under cover of war. But I have tried with all my heart and skills never to be careless or gratuitous when I approach the subject. I must leave it to readers to decide if I’ve succeeded.
You won’t find graphic rape in this novel. You will find women as strong, smart, self-defining and badass as any in fantasy. Quite a lot of them. You’ll find men who are jackasses and men who are struggling with the bad shit in their heads and men who’ve worked a lot of it out. And you’ll find themes and passages I intend to be troubling. And love. And innocence. And ghouls.
That’s the strange cocktail my mind insisted on with Master Assassins. I hope the kick it’s packing is to your taste. I hope you find I’ve done my job.