Real women, real armor, and worldbuilding

I’m blabbing about art and armor today.

When I really began reading fantasy and science fiction in the late seventies and early eighties, I didn’t pay much attention to the different portrayals of men and women on book covers.

I loved those cover artists equally, shrugged off their foibles, and learned some basic principles of art from them. I grew up accustomed to covers and illos by Frazetta, Vallejo, Rowena Morrill, Don Maitz, David Mattingly, Darrell K. Sweet, Michael Whelan, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Stephen Hickman, and all the other D&D artists who came out of the TSR camp. Some were better than others at showing real people in more-realistic outfits.

For the most part, SF&F cover art men were brawny heroes. Either brazenly loincloth-clad, or shielded behind armor/spacesuits/heavy clothes. Women were often near-naked or in skimpy outfits. If they carried weapons, they did so in excruciating and impractical poses. (Jim Hines has a fab sendup of this dichotomy, which persists to this day.)

While worldbuilding the massive folly that is the Lonhra Sequence, I took early cues from several favorite fantasy writers (among them Steven Brust and C. J. Cherryh). I decided that the humanoid Sirrithani race of Lonhra would have female/male cultural and political parity – if not outright matriarchy. The gender bias might shift more toward assuming a female has higher rank than the males around her.

I’m neither a lesbian nor a militant feminist of the old-school sort. I did this as a thought experiment. Partly a deliberate shrug at the old gender-bias in the English language. Partly solid worldbuilding: I extrapolated that the Sirrithani societies were amalgams of Terran colonies interbreeding (with serious genetic engineering help on a semi-godlike scale) with the local sentient Sonnaroi aliens…who were unalloyed matriarchies. I have a bit on it in the Moroverse Glossary in the pages on the left sidebar; scroll down to ‘Sonnaroi’ if you are interested.

So, in my story arc the Sirrithani have High Queens, female Warleaders, genius female inventors, merchant-baronesses, and canny female ship-captains. (Along the way, I was pleasantly surprised when far more brilliant writers like Melissa Scott and Scott Lynch came to similar conclusions.)

Most Sirrithani societies (by their version of the late Renaissance) don’t cloister and protect their adult males the way Sonnaroi societies tend to do. Sirrithani men can do any job a woman can, right up to ruling a city-state…though they might have to prove they’re not a placeholder until someone finds the ‘right woman’. Sirrithani women, especially among the aristocratic swordcaste, are expected to fight and if necessary die in the ritual battles that take the place of unchecked war between nations.

So my Lonhran women, of any caste, have to be tough cookies. Their society extols a feminine ideal of strength and practicality, with beauty a widely varied attribute across cultures.

One of the main characters in my fantasy novella is a seven-foot-tall+ female mercenary whom I shamelessly based on early readings of the fabulous and endearing Taura from Lois Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ series. My Sfassa is a mystery even to the love of her life, the much-smaller Master-Singer Eridan. I really, really need to draw Sfassa in all her guises, because she is so much more than her trope.

So imagine my joy when I found this site last year: Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor – now I have references, inspiration, and encouragement when I’m fleshing out my female characters .

I also found this Leather armor on DeviantArt, showcasing the work of a leather crafter and costumer called Lagueuse. More inspiration!

Added 10-28-2015: Shortly, there will be even more inspiration in the form of the SFF anthology Women in Practical Armor. Squee.

Added 8-15-2017: I finally have a halfway decent picture of Sfassa. She’s here.


Author: Filigree

Artist and writer living in the Southwest USA.

2 thoughts on “Real women, real armor, and worldbuilding”

  1. Thanks for the link – those were hilarious and thoughtful. I like the holiday pants panel, too. 😀

    As far as women in armor, one of my key inspirations came some decades back, while I was still a member of the Society For Creative Anachronism. At a big regional event’s merchant area, I noticed a woman of medium height and build striding at the forefront of a wedge formation of big burly male fighters in light-to-heavy armor. She was equally armored from helm to boot, and veiled by very fine chain mail up to her eyes. I recall her having two steel swords in a back scabbard, and two long knives slung off her hips.

    Whoever she was, she had rank in the SCA: a narrow coronet was bolted to her helm. And whoever she was in the mundane world, she ‘played’ a war leader perfectly: absolute command without unnecessary swagger, and every man behind her absolutely focused on guarding her. The illusion of her power was very convincing.

    They moved through that market like a plasma welder through paper towels. It was one of the most magnificent displays I’d ever seen.

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