The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines
Codex Born, the latest book in Jim C. Hines’ “Magic Ex Libris”series, is out today. See the cover? Nice, right? Well, Jim wants to talk to you about it. Or more specifically, about the character on it — and what she means to the book, and to the fantasy genre, and for other things as well.
JIM C. HINES:
Lena Greenwood, the woman seen holding a wooden bokken on the cover of the U. S. edition of Codex Born, is problematic as hell.
In Libriomancer, Lena is introduced as our typical ass-kicking, vampire-slaying urban fantasy-type heroine. While not physically cloned from Buffy Summers stock—Lena is not white, blonde, or thin—she does toss quips and pound bad guys with the best of them. She’s strong, confident, attractive, and quite sexual. In chapter one, she saves geek-librarian-wizard Isaac Vainio’s butt from some sparkling vampires and begins flirting with him shortly thereafter.
For Isaac, it’s like a dream come true. Aside from the part where he got beat up by sparklers. But it’s a dream that requires a closer look.
This series is all about the love of reading and the magic of books, a world where libriomancers literally reach into the pages to create light-sabers and shrinking potions and invisibility cloaks and all manner of awesomeness. But loving something doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its faults.
Our genre doesn’t have the best record when it comes to our treatment of women as authors, as readers, and as characters. We’re slowly moving past the days of chain mail bikinis and semi-clad damsels draped at the hero’s feet, but we’re not there yet. Books by male authors are reviewed more often. Geek girls are challenged to prove their worthiness, as if geekiness is supposed to be an honor reserved for men alone. And female characters—even “strong” women—continue to be sexualized and fetishized, both on the covers and in the pages.
Lena Greenwood was born via libriomancy, pulled from the pages of a book called Nymphs of Neptune, a fictional title with sensibilities similar to John Norman’s Gor novels. Lena is a dryad, explicitly written as a sexual fantasy. Her personality and preferences are shaped by the desires of her lover.
You can see where this gets problematic?
Codex Born gave me the chance to tell more of Lena’s story, from her emergence into our world to her first “relationship” to her discovery of her true nature. It’s traumatic, to say the least:
“I’m not really a person, am I?” My hair, my skin, my favorite flavor of ice cream, everything about me was a reflection of someone else’s desires.
I sat amidst a circle of Nidhi’s comic books. Ridiculously clothed women stared up at me from the pages, bodies contorted into bone-bending poses that better displayed their exaggerated curves.
“When I was born, I looked for the other dryads of my grove. For my sisters.” I picked up a Red Sonja comic. “I’ve finally found them.”
Forcing women into narrow standards defined primarily by men’s desires is hardly a new idea. I wanted to make it explicit.
I like the badass heroine trope. I like well-written fight scenes spiced with smart banter. But we’ve taken that trope in some narrow and unhealthy directions. For one example, see author Seanan McGuire’s wonderful post Things I Will Not Do To My Characters. Ever.
Last night, I was asked—in so many words—when either Toby or one of the Price girls was finally going to be raped … it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.
Because it’s not enough to have strong heroines—they also need to be broken, generally in a sexual way. Part of the fetishized appeal is that these powerful women still aren’t as powerful as a man. That no matter how strong a woman is, I, the man, could still have her.
That’s where Lena Greenwood comes from, and it’s an ugly place. Ugly for her, ugly for Isaac, and hopefully ugly for the reader as well. In Nymphs of Neptune, Lena was created explicitly for the consumption of men. In Codex Born, she has to learn how to adapt, how to exist within the limits of her nature, and to seek out what freedom she can.
I won’t claim to have written her story perfectly. Easy answers would have been unrealistic. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the discomfort. I wanted readers to question not just the portrayal of Lena, but of so many other literary characters.
Of course, being me, I also wanted the book to have elements of fun and humor. Lena takes shameless advantage of her nature. Her physical body is defined by the description in Nymphs of Neptune. Since she can’t gain or lose weight, she routinely enjoys ice cream sundaes for dinner or ridiculously topped waffles. Her connection to her tree and other plants allows her to grow a garden both beautiful and dangerous. (Do not mess with her rosebushes!) Also, she can kill you with a toothpick.
But in the end, Lena is problematic. So are some of the choices I make about her character and her interactions. I’ve had people ask why I would even attempt to write a character like that, and there are times when I’m struggling with the books that I ask myself the same question.
The answer is that my genre is already creating these characters. I’m simply trying, to the best of my ability, to challenge that trend.