In 2013, Kameron Hurley wrote a powerful essay reminding us that women "have always fought." And not just in a metal bikini as in some video games, but as seriously deadly and committed fighters. Gabrielle Harbowy and Ed Greenwood's Kickstarted anthology, Women in Practical Armor, collects fantasy stories that essentially set out to explore what it can look like if and when women are fighters.
While the stories are quite varied (as much as they can be in a themed anthology), there are some broad categories. There's a set of stories in which the central women are reluctant fighters: they can fight but don't especially want to until forced to it by exigencies. Another general theme is stories in which the women are willing fighters who are held in the same regard as men and they all fight together with little distinction based on sex. And there's a fascinating set of stories where the women are fighters and also blacksmiths.
Many of the stories with reluctant fighters at their core are about old, or older, women. In these stories, the women hope to have left their fighting behind them; they're often tired, and tired of fighting. In Wunji Lau's "No Better Armor, No Heavier Burden," for instance, Rose has moved to the end of the world but is forced to fight on behalf of her wastrel son ("stabbing him is a sure way to get my boil on" [p. 17] she says, despite his wandering ways). And in "The Hero of Ithar" (Sarah Hendrix), J'hell is forced to fight in her later years because of events in her past (and is amusingly aided by an incredibly inaccurate statue, playing rather tartly with expectations of what a female fighter should look like—with "long unbound hair" and armor with breasts [p. 253]). In these stories the women are accepted by the worlds around them as genuine fighters—those who doubt their abilities do so because of their age. These stories say something about motivation, and about what it means to have a reputation as a fighter that maybe you don't want anymore. There's something particularly important about these sorts of stories being written about women, when women "over a certain age" often seem to simply . . . disappear. Just ask Hollywood: Mel Gibson and Danny Glover get to be "too old for this shit" and still kick butts; there's three Expendables films now; but seeing Helen Mirren being an awesome warrior in RED was incredibly exciting and unusual.
The stories where women and men have equal status as fighters often follow standard sword-stories formats, with the exception of the focus being on women. For instance, Chris A. Jackson has written a fairly straightforward squires-becoming-knights story in "First Command"—with the twist that one of those squires is female. "A Night in New Veroshtin" (Cassandra Rose Clarke) features a (female) soldier asked to undertake a particularly distasteful mission, and Rhonda Parrish writes a tale of love and revenge in "Sharp as a Griffin's Claw," with the fighter/blacksmith being a woman. These stories, too, are important. They say that stories of fighting and derring-do can be written quite easily about women—that there's no need for this to be an exclusive boys' club.
The stories where the protagonist is both fighter and blacksmith nicely reinforce the idea that women can be involved in, and good at, all aspects of the "practical armor" idea. For example, in "Pride and Joy" (Eric Landreneau), Elaine is smithing because she was taught to do so by her father and as a way to make money. It's also one of the few stories that focuses on a woman's armor and comments on the temptation to make female 'breastplates with cups, to separate the breasts. Another blacksmith story, "The Family Business" (Kristy Griffin Green) combines blacksmithing with the reluctant fighter—in this case, a grandmother needing to protect her family.
Of course, there are many stories that defy categorisation. Judith Tarr's "Attrition" is an interesting choice for an opening story, as it doesn't particularly set the tone for the rest. It draws on the Amazon myth to imagine what happens if a clan of warrior women are conquered by men—partly through arms and partly through insidious suggestions about the place of women and the comfort of being looked after. Also different is Crystal Lynn Hilbert's "Stone Woken," in which two sister-kings must defend their kingdom from an initially unknown and fearsome opponent. While one of the kings attempts to face the problem alone, eventually it requires all of the women to confront it. There are very few stories in the anthology that focus on people fighting together; most often the focus is on a lone knight. As a result this story very much stayed with me (plus the fascinating world Hilbert presents).
Also defying categorisation and one of few sour notes in the anthology is "Golden", by Todd McCaffrey. For one thing, the focus is mostly on the male character, Simon. He's married to a dragon, Elveth, who can shapeshift. Their daughter, Golden, has just come into the ability to shapeshift into her dragon form. The main problem I have with this story is that while there is some fighting with knights off stage, the main fighting is between mother and daughter and between wife and husband—the sort of fighting where Simon is "wise" to say nothing lest he annoy Elveth and there are jokes about Elveth being able to "literally rip your head off if she got too angry" (italics his, p. 263). It's a story that does little but reinforce tired stereotypes about marriage, and it didn't fit the tone of the anthology (although I guess a dragon's scales are the ultimate in practical armor).
Another occasional sour note is sounded by the fact that, despite the focus on women in practical armor, there are still moments where women are objectified for their appearance. In "Pride and Joy," the main character's opponent has apparently named her breasts (Pride and Joy) and when she realises that Elaine is gay, "yanks her vest open" (102) to display them. Elaine herself is "an even uglier bitch than they said" (p. 101); Rhonda Parrish's Abira is "no great beauty" (p. 274) and neither is her lover. It's disappointing to have stories about women fighting still insisting on describing what those women look like, and making that an important aspect.
On a happier note, the anthology involves diversity beyond its focus on women, with several gay characters and at least one trans character, and numerous characters that are not explicitly white and several that are explicitly not white. It's good to see this, and it makes me wonder whether altering one aspect of the stories' structure—insisting on women as central—makes including other diverse elements somehow easier, or whether it attracts authors who are more likely to be interested in doing so.
The stories also feature a diversity of worlds. There's only one that features the "real," modern world, and even that is a portal story. The others are variously human-only secondary worlds, or feature a variety of non-human characters like trolls or elves. Some involve magic, others do not; there are different levels of technology, and different landscapes. All of this means that for a themed anthology that by definition includes a fair bit of fighting, there's still enough variety to ensure that it doesn't get boring or repetitive.
At the start of the book, Harbowy and Greenwood thank their publishers for trusting them to edit an anthology "that celebrates female empowerment without disempowering anyone else," and overall they have accomplished this feat. The stories present women in a variety of fighting roles, at various life-stages, and with different perspectives on life and fighting. Give a woman practical armor and you can write all sorts of stories about her.