Posted by: Casey Lybrand | July 9, 2010

Compelling Women Who Kick Ass: Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

I enjoyed many things about this book, but I loved the women the most. Especially the middle-age and older women. This is a feminist critique of Child of Fire, an urban fantasy novel and the first book of the Twenty Palaces series, by Harry Connolly. This critique is not written at the 101 level, but I have tried to provide links to key concepts.

Note: This post is a bit spoilery: I quote a little from Child of Fire and mention who fights what in very general terms. I don’t think I give away anything major, but just to be safe, I’ll cut it away below. (Also note: I’m not censoring my language on this one. So, warned, enticed, whichever.)

More Than I Expected

I did not expect to love Child of Fire as much as I did. Gritty urban fantasy with a male protagonist is not my usual thing to read — I picked Child of Fire up as part of sampling the genre [1] — but I am really glad I read this book. Let me tell you a bit of why.

Let’s take a look at a sample of the everywomen of Child of Fire — mostly middle-age to older — and what they get up to: There is Miriam, who marches gamely into a rescue attempt, and all her friends, who size up the life-threatening situation they end up in and fucking deal with it. [2] We have “a bird-thin woman of about sixty” who takes down a monster. And then there’s Arlene. More about Arlene in a bit. First, let’s look at the birdlike woman:

The Little Old Lady Who Brings It

The [monster] charged us. The birdlike woman stepped toward it and lifted her rifle.

She stepped toward it as it charged. She took action. Now, the birdlike woman is a little old lady [3]. She is also a person who is called out specifically as someone

. . . with courage and faith in the next life . . .

. . . who can grab her gun and show up for the battle. This whole courage/next-life thing is important, because she is signing on for something that may end this life. And she knows it. She steps up to the challenge, and faces it bravely. The birdlike woman is a hero.

And Then There’s Arlene

I think Arlene is my favorite character in the entire book. Arlene is a hero. This “gray-haired woman” with “a sensible work-and-church vibe” — who is not in the habit of fighting to save people (at least not physically fighting), who is not there for comic relief or contrast, who is not a caricature but a character — is a hero. I cannot think of a way of showing that without including more spoilers than I intend to in this post, so I will just have to assert it again: Arlene is a hero.

Here’s a little sample of what Arlene gets up to; this is not the really heroic bit (for that you have to read the book), but it demonstrates that she is assertive and proactive:

At that moment, Arlene pushed past the guards . . .

Arlene and [another character] both lunged at the creature.

So, okay, there’s guard-pushing and creature-lunging going on there, and that’s awesome. But it gets even better in the next chapter. That’s where the heroic bit is, but Arlene is subject-not-object from the get-go.

Why Is This Important?

This is not the kind of thing I’m accustomed to reading about when there is a gray-haired church-lady on the page. Women who are assertive and proactive – that’s awesome enough. Women who are not young or beautiful or supernaturally powerful, who are assertive and proactive? Be still my heart.

We see this kind of thing all the time with the men: something comes up – something bigger and stronger and more magical than they are – and they deal with it. How often do we see it with the ladies, much less everyday women who are not superpowered? Much less women who are not young?

Now I will admit I am not particularly well-read in urban fantasy. I’m working on it. Is it common in gritty urban fantasy for the grandmas to kick ass? (I am taking reading recommendations, by the way.)

And it’s not just that they’re badass. Arlene and all the other women are also people. Writing women-of-any-age who are real and interesting people is the way to win my heart as a reader. It’s that whole [Strong Females] Characters =/= [Strong Characters] Female thing. Connolly seems to get it.

The Male Gaze, Prostitution, & the Bechdel Test: Brief & Very Feminist Notes

The Male Gaze

Now let’s have a bit about the male gaze. I mentioned these women are not young? Also not beautiful — at least not in the classic appearing-youthful-and-conventionally-pretty sort of way. The women I’ve mentioned in this post? They’re just . . . people. People who look like themselves, and who are themselves. Competent, flawed, amazing people. But if they are anyone’s wish fulfillment, I can’t imagine it’s that of he-whose-gaze-is-usually-centered. They fulfilled my wishes just fine. (And there are beautiful women in the book; at least one of them is superpowered. They’re people, too, by the way.)

The main character, Ray Lilly, is a man (straight, white, male, etc.: the whole deal). As a character, he comes equipped with the male gaze. Everything we know about these women, we know from his point of view, and he is sizing these women up based on his very convincingly rendered cultural assumptions (though I never got the impression that Connolly’s worldview overlaps seamlessly with that of his POV character). But even though Lilly is sometimes surprised by the other characters, he is not challenged by the concept of female competence or assertiveness. I like Ray Lilly.

Sex Workers

Another feminist note. Sort of. I haven’t really worked this one out: In this book, there are scenes set in a brothel, and there is a prostitute with, as it turns out, a heart of gold. She is in one chapter, and very little opinion is rendered by the narrative or characters on her livelihood; the protagonist does not engage her services. I am not addressing this issue, but I am making a note of it.

The Bechdel Test

I also won’t address the Bechdel test in any detail. If this book passes, I did not notice it. It is hard – not impossible, but difficult – to do so with a first person narrative with a male POV character, especially when the pace is fast and the plot is suspenseful. POV is a choice, of course. While in this case I think the POV choice serves the story well for technical reasons — the pace would be hampered with a broader POV — the issue remains, and I think it is important to see it for what it is. Note that it’s there.

Feminism Is Best When It Intersects

Further observations:

  • So far as I can tell, there is one person of color in this book; he is a minor character, and he is written in ways similar to the birdlike woman and Miriam’s friends. He has a first name (Roger). Like the birdlike woman, he is presented as a hero in his brief scene.

  • The general theme of disability is hinted at, but never overtly addressed.

  • If there are any queer people in this book, I did not notice them.

I usually read and love books which handle these topics . . . differently [4] than this book does. I am noting them here so that people can have the information they need.

Wrapping It Up

So why did I enjoy this book? Let’s make a checklist:

  • Strong Characters, Female: Check.
  • Strong Females, Characters: Also Check. [5]
  • Fast-Paced & Suspenseful Plot: Check.
  • Intriguing System of Magic: Check.
  • Sympathetic-Despite-Himself Protagonist: Well, Check. [6]

So why did I expect not to enjoy this book as much as I actually did? I guess gritty urban fantasy about men is not something that usually gets me going. And that’s what I thought I was buying based on the copy and art on the cover. And the book is about that, too! Gritty, urban, fantasy, male: it’s all in there. But it’s not just about that. I didn’t expect the awesomeness of the female characters. It was a delightful surprise, and it stayed with me. What do these surprisingly awesome characters mean for me, as a reader? The Twenty Palaces series: I’m in. [7]

Q: Could I write a post this long without footnotes? A:

1: If I am going to be a SFF writer – and especially if I am ever going to be a published SFF author – I need to learn and grow. I am reading as much as I can — including the works of debut authors, from which I am learning quite a lot.

2: Feminist critiques sure as hell include the word fuck. And badass. For some topics, it’s a requirement.

3: Okay, first: I know sixty is not old! For depictions of badass everywomen it is, though. So, second: She is little. She is old. She is a lady. I use the phrase intentionally, because in this instance the expectations of it are subverted.

4: More in-depth, or more actually there in the first place.

5: I love this type of character, too! Annalise, for example — the main supporting character — is both “Strong Female, Character” AND “Strong Character, Female”. Characters can be both; in too many instances, however, they are strong physically to the exclusion of being strong characters.

6: Okay, so I have a soft spot for this!

7: And that’s it. [a] That’s my review. Badass middle-age women = I’m in. If you are looking for a more traditional review, one which examines the fantasy elements, perhaps using the term Lovecraftian, or one which, you know, reviews the plot, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (Tip: Connolly keeps you updated about reviews on his blog.) Child of Fire has all those elements, and they’re great; other people have covered them. This post is about what makes my feminist heart go pitter-pat.

— — —

An apocalyptic footnote:

a: Should I say something about Apocalypse Week, as well? Okay. As I mentioned yesterday, the stakes of this story are the end of the world. Besides, I figure it’s my Apocalypse Week, and I’ll feminist discourse if I want to. Some folks find that apocalyptic enough.


  1. I have never read urban fantasy so thank you for the review. I have been sitting here wondering what the hell I am writing. There are so many genres now that it boggles my mind so I am trying to find the one that fits mine novel so I can use that as part of my pitch. I’m not Science Fiction, nor am I Horror, and I always thought Fantasy had to involve things like Dragons or Witches and I haven’t got them either so who knows…
    P.S Though my main character is a male. It is the women around him that “save” him in more ways than I can possibly say.

  2. […] only going to link to one this time: Compelling Women Who Kick Ass: Child of Fire by Harry Connolly written by Casey […]

  3. Alanna, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Genre is a tricky one. Do you think you might be writing urban fantasy? If you are looking to explore urban fantasy with a male POV character and awesome women, I think Child of Fire would be a great place to start.

    You could also check out Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. The first one is from a male POV, and is one of the creepiest things I’ve read in a while. That trilogy is YA — which, as far as I can tell, means the characters are young, but the issues are just as heavy — and it is set all over England, including in London. No dragons in that one, either.

    P.S. I figured you had some awesome women in store for us!

  4. Thanks for the book ideas. I am joining my local library this week and will look them up. I do wonder if I am writing Urban Fantasy. Starting to think I am.
    I’ve got so much stuff, science, myth, reincarnation and a very old druid who’s still around and looks like a wizard. Also have helpful cats…they love my boy for some reason. Good thing he’s not allergic :-)

  5. Very thorough review here. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts with us. The story sounds very interesting and will have to be added to my to be read pile.

  6. Alannah, Libraries are great. If you are reading to see if you can situate your work in urban fantasy, let me throw one more title out there. A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin is set in London (it’s one of those stories where the city is almost a character). It has a very interesting approach to myth, technology, magic-users of various sorts, and so on. Male POV. (There are also female characters throughout the story.)

    I am *not* an expert — and I know very little about your book — but I suspect you are writing urban fantasy. At the very least, I’ve never heard anything that makes me think you are not.

    Cassandra, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I highly recommend Child of Fire. (And I’m glad you’re back.)

  7. Thanks for that Casey. A Madness of Angels sounds great. Definitely going to look it up in my local library. I suspect you are right about me writing Urban Fantasy. I have to smile at that as I never thought I would be into fantasy since my fave authors are either Horror (Stephen King and James Herbert) and Douglas Adams, which I would say was Science Fiction/Comedy or god knows what, he was too unique, I’d say he had his own personal Genre.

    Like the idea of London almost being a character. It figures in my novel as well, but more as a backdrop.

  8. Thank you for this review! It’s made me want to go back and re-read the book.

  9. I’m so glad, Ron. I’m re-reading it now, as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: