There are some writers who did not write enough. Claudia J. Edwards is one of those. In her writing career, she published only four books—one a year between 1986 and 1989. And then she faded from view. I don’t know what became of her or why she stopped writing, but I wish very much she had written more. Her short books are engaging, fresh, and entertaining and belong to a subgenre of fantasy that is sadly rare: the fantasy of competence.
We are drowning, these days, in kick-ass protagonists, male and female. They battle, wisecrack, and bluff their way through adventures, selling us a particular version of what it means to be a hero. They are marked out from those around them by their special powers, their dark backstories, and their all-round awesomeness.
They rather wear me out, particularly the female ones. I yield to no one in my love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I am no longer sure of the underpinnings of the kick-ass female lead. There is little that is truly empowering about a heroine who owes her abilities to having been born with special abilities or powers—and even less to one who owes her skill and power to her past abuse. All too often, in order to justify the abilities of a woman in fantasy, writers seem to find it necessary first to show that these women have been broken. And there is something deeply disturbing about that. The male equivalents may have had troubled childhoods, but they have seldom endured full-on abuse. But far too many of the most prominent kick-ass women begin their stories as victims—and a certain subset of them only gain their full agency due to a rape or serious sexual assault—and that is not healthy for us as women or as a culture.
As I said above, Claudia J. Edwards only published four books—and they are short books, at that. But at the centre of each one of them is a profoundly competent woman. And they are competent not because they were born with great innate abilities, not because they have been forced into it by trauma, not even because they were born to specific privilege. They are competent because they have put in the time and the effort and the practice to achieve their various skills and abilities. (Runa, the central character in Bright and Shining Tiger (1988), was born with the ability to do magic, but she has had to work at it in order to develop her competence, and, like all Edwards’s heroes, she is still learning.) These women are fully adult. They are not necessarily young: Tevra, the protagonist of Edwards’s first novel, Taming the Forest King (1986), is in her late thirties, Eldrie (Eldrie the Healer, 1989) is at least thirty-two, and we are told that Adelinda, in A Horsewoman in Godsland (1987) is considered past her youth. They are not particularly pretty: indeed, Edwards does not tend to describe her protagonists at all, other than that they usually have short hair and a preference for practical clothing. But they are good at what they do, and they know it: in all cases, these are experienced professionals going about their jobs. As a subject for fantasy, this is unusual, and, when the main character is a woman, very refreshing.
There are similarities across the books: the first three are all set in the same world, though each in different parts and cultures. But Edwards is careful about this. Her countries have different languages and practices and customs. In all cases, her protagonists are visitors, and this has consequences. Adelinda is shocked by the misogyny of Godsland, and pushes back against it—so far, so stock. But her assumptions are only partially true and she is misled at several points by them. In particular, they lead her both seriously to underestimate her antagonist, the priest An-Shai, and to ascribe to him bigotries he does not possess. Like all Edwards’s characters, she is still learning, and, in particular, she is still learning about other people. At the heart of all four books, there is a developing relationship between the protagonist and a man she meets and does not fully understand. But the books are not just romances—indeed, I’m not sure any of them are romances at all in the everyday sense of that word. Eldrie and Adelinda, the two more privileged of the heroes, both make snap judgements about people, and much of their stories hinge on the consequences of these. Tevra and Runa are more cautious, but Tevra is bound by her interpretations of propriety and Runa is inhibited by her anxieties (she has faced discrimination in her home due to her magical abilities). As a result, the relationships each form with the various male characters are halting, episodic, crossed with misunderstandings. The latter are not, however, the usual romance tropes: they are, rather, based on ignorance and, sometimes, arrogance. Runa initially assumes Taharka is both stupid and brutal, due to his illiteracy and his size: it takes her a while to discover he is neither, and she repeatedly hurts him by her thoughtless actions. Eldrie is the illegitimate daughter of royalty, but considers herself utterly of the people and is completely oblivious to her own snobbery and how it affects those around her. She treats her armsman Huard as a mixture of nuisance and pet, and rather exploits and resents him: it takes his repeated demonstration of his skills plus his remarkable patience before she is able to see him as his true self—and, in this case, move on. Adelinda likewise comes to respect An-Shai and to accept him: the ending hints at an emerging friendship and perhaps a marriage of convenience, but they are not in love, and it is not clear they ever will be. Runa and Taharka emerge as affectionate partners. It is only Tevra who gets a full-blown romance, and even here Edwards wrong-foots us. Her lover is not whom we might expect it to be from the structure of the book. In all cases, it is the woman who struggles to see the man as her equal, and he has to work to make her see his true self: this is, I admit, refreshing against the background of fictional woman after fictional woman striving to earn the respect of a man.
Edwards breaks a lot of rules. Her plots are episodic; characters move around a lot and have short-term adventures within the overall arc—and the final focus of the plot is not always where you think it might be. This works due to the relatively short length of the books but would probably be distracting in longer ones. There is a great deal of the female gaze: apart from Anne Bishop, I cannot think of another writer who so powerfully conveys the ways women can commodify and scrutinise men (although the one man I know who has read her claims not to have noticed this: perhaps it startles me because it’s something I don’t expect, where he could overlook it). All of her protagonists experience a mix of attraction and alarm about the men they meet, and alarm often wins—Edwards is well aware that being alone with a strong stranger is not necessarily romantic or even exciting. But there is no rape. Not only are her protagonists capable of standing up for themselves, but the central men in the books are not rapists: they are horrified when they discover that women can fear them and work on avoiding that. Edwards was writing at the peak of what the romance community refers to as Alph-Hole heroes—heroes who abduct, assault, and force the heroines into compliance and are presented as romantic and desirable. In every single one of her books, Edwards explicitly resists this.
There are disjunctions and problems. Her world-building is powerfully visual, but she sometimes leaves readers wondering precisely how things work and why. There is an element of Orientalism in A Horsewoman in Godsland, which has not aged well, and the book is saved by the character of An-Shai, who shares the narration with Adelinda and is a fully achieved character who is engaged on enacting change on his own volition. The desert episode in Bright and Shining Tiger, where Runa is nearly abducted by a clan she has met before, makes me wonder why this did not happen the first time she met them, and Edwards does not explain. Apart from the central male characters, the rest of the human cast can be sketchy, and, in Bright and Shining Tiger, there are some assumptions about tenants who are bound to a lord that are rather jarring. I like Tevra, Runa, and Adelinda, but Eldrie is more interesting than appealing—her book was conceived as the first in a series, and I can only guess that she would have deepened and matured if the series had been completed. But, for all these, there is a lot to love: these are intriguing women living their own lives, making their own choices, and dealing thoughtfully with the consequences, to a degree that is still unusual in fantasy. The supporting male characters are interesting, always not what we and the protagonist expect, and emerge as real equals. If there is such a thing as heterosexual feminist romance, this is it (at least in two out of the four books). And her horse characters are wonderful: Edwards was herself one of what Judith Tarr refers to as “the tribe of horse girls,” and horses play significant roles in all the books.
Edwards remains somewhat unusual within SF: she has no clear heirs, and her antecedents are perhaps more writers like Mary Stuart and Jane Aiken Hodge than people working in mainstream fantasy. I am deeply sorry that she published only four books, and I wish her career had been longer. I would love to read the rest of the Eldrie books and then to have seen what Edwards did next. To the best of my knowledge, she died in 2010, and her work seems not to have been republished. It is a great pity: what we have reveals a talented writer who was learning and growing with every book. I miss her. And I hope one day we will find more like her.