Another Favourite Warrior Woman Character (and an important lesson about self-discovery by disguise)

Cover painting from the book Winds of Fate by Mercedes Lackey

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my favourite warrior women characters.

(That is, my favourites aside from the one and only Xena, who is, in my opinion, the greatest warrior woman character there is.)

But I inadvertently left someone off my list; someone who made a strong impression upon me at a specific point in her personal journey.

Elspeth, Princess and Heir to the Throne of Valdemar

Elspeth is the daughter of the Queen of Valdemar and both a Herald and burgeoning Mage in fantasy author Mercedes Lackey’s long-running Valdemar series, which I read during high school.

In the earliest books in the series, Elspeth is introduced as a bratty child.  However, by the time we get to the Mage Winds trilogy (Winds of Fury, Winds of Change, and Winds of Fate), Elspeth has received proper guidance and grown into a mature and responsible adult.

It was here that her character became particularly interesting to me.

Although she’s been trained in swordfighting and other weaponry, as all Heralds of Valdemar are, Elspeth is not a true warrior woman.

Her role in the kingdom, as heir to the throne, is more so that of a diplomat, ambassador, and subject-matter expert on magic since she’s the first person to possess the mage gift in generations.

Elspeth not being a warrior is a notable part of why I like her so much, and why she made such an impression on me.

In Winds of Fate, while on a mission to recruit mages from another kingdom to aid Valdemar against an unknown magical threat, Elspeth pretends to be a warrior – a prosperous female mercenary – to conceal her identity against possible assassinate attempts.

The description of Elspeth in the role of boisterous, strutting sell-sword has stuck with me over the years, and upon rereading the passage, I loved it all over again:

“A free-lance merc wear his fortune,” Quenten told [Skif].  “If you need to buy something … break off a couple of links of those necklaces, take a plate from the belt, hand over a ring or a bracelet….”

Still, [Skif had] complained to Elspeth their first night on the road that he felt like a cheap tavern dancer, with his necklaces making more noise than his chain-mail.

Elspeth had giggled, saying she felt like a North-Province bride, with all her dowry around her neck, but she had no objections to following Quenten’s advice.

Skif had the feeling she was beginning to enjoy this; she was picking up the kind of swagger walk the other well-off mercs they met had adopted, and she had taken to binding up her hair with bright bands of silk, and some of the strands of garnet and amethyst beads Quenten had bought.  There were eye-catching silk scarves trailing from the hilt of [her sword], and binding the helm of her saddlebow.  She looked like a barbarian.  And he got the distinct impression she liked looking that way….  One night she’d even taken up with another prosperous female free-lance, Selina Ironthroat, and had made the rounds of every tavern in town….

Oh, yes, indeed, she looked, and acted, the part; a far cry from the competent but quiet Princess of Valdemar, who never had seen the inside of a common tavern in her life. (pp. 208-210).

I just adore the mental image this description conjures in my mind: a more gaudily-coloured female equivalent of Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Captain Jack Sparrow

What I love most about the excerpt, though, is how relatable its main sentiment is, even decades since I first read it in high school.

Many people, I suspect, have experienced the feeling of not living up to your idealized version of yourself.  That, and a longing to just transform into someone more vibrant and less timid than the person your life has caused you to become.

When Skif later complains that Elspeth is getting a little too into her role, she explains how she prefers herself that way rather than her usual bearing as “mousy little princess Elspeth”.

Skif, however, persists, as men often do when a woman dares step behind the bounds of what society perceives as acceptable and respectable for women.  He accuses her of being loud and “hearty” and causing people to notice them wherever they go.

To this, Elspeth responds with a surprisingly astute observation for an early-90s YA fantasy novel:

She snorted and it wasn’t ladylike….  “Sure I’m loud.  That’s what a woman like Berta [Elspeth’s alias] would be.  Like Selina Ironthroat.  I spent that night studying her, I’ll have you know.  I’m competing for men’s money in a man’s world, and I’m doing damn well at it, and the more I advertise that fact, the more jobs I’ll be offered.  In fact, I’ve been offered jobs, quite a few of them[.]” (p. 212)

Nowadays, I have complicated opinions on the notion of women having to behave like men (or else in a manner deemed more palatable and worthy of respect to men) in order to get ahead in mainstream patriarchal society.

(So too am continually ambivalent about my fondness for the high fantasy trope of the roguish soldier of fortune, which has zero basis for comparison with medieval mercenaries from history.)

That said, I appreciated this commentary in Winds of Fate on women, work, the expectation of exceptionalism, and how it often backfires nonetheless that still holds true to this day.

So too did I (and do still) value the lesson that there’s often more to ourselves than we realize.  That a role we assume with relative ease often isn’t a role at all, and that deep inside, we’re usually already the people we most want to be.

Are there any characters from books you read in your youth that have stuck with you over the years?  Who are they and what was it about them that influenced you so?  Tell me about it in the comments.

(Image source #1 and #2)

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4 thoughts on “Another Favourite Warrior Woman Character (and an important lesson about self-discovery by disguise)

  1. I reread, every year or so, a children’s book called The Other Side of the Moon, by Meriol Trevor. The character of Anselm Wainwright, the Navigator, who loses his sight but gets to hear the music of the spheres while saving a civilization on the unseen side of the moon (this was before Sputnik and the moon landings) has stayed with me and I made sure I passed it on to my children. The writing is amazing, the theology is hidden deeply in the characters, and it’s just an all-around marvelous story (except for the complications of us knowing what the other side hasn’t now).

    It was published by Sheed & Ward, I believe a Catholic publisher, long ago, and Ms. Trevor went on to write theology later in life (as did Dorothy L. Sayers). Women of that depth of character often imbue their writing with symbolism and details that can only be understood because that’s the way they viewed the world. It isn’t a coincidence that the Peter Wimsey stories, especially the last ones where Lord Peter courts his Harriet Vane, are also my favorites. The stories are just different – not religious per se, but having something other writers, such as Tolkien, also have.

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    • Nope, I didn’t specify it had to be women characters. I generally don’t reread books, or if I do, it’s more so with my writer hat on as a means of studying some element of craft, and even then, rarely the entire book. Your annual reread of this book is amazing. You probably gain new insights each time through, both as a reader and a writer, even if you already know how the story ends, which is my biggest deterrent to rereading.

      Funnily enough, even if a book I’ve yet to read is “spoiled” for me by someone telling me the ending, I’m still willing to read it to see how the character got to that ending. But once I’ve experienced it for myself, once is usually it for me.

      I’ve never read Dorothy L. Sayers Peter Wimsey series, but nonetheless feel like a know a bit about it. This is both from you mentioning it as one of your comp titles and the fact that I read a reference book about proper forms of address for the aristocracy in support of my historical WIP that used the series as one of its examples.

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      • I started Sayers’ series about the aristocratic detective not expecting much beyond a detective story with a bit of British aristocracy tossed in. The first ones were enjoyable – as detective stories.

        But starting with Strong Poison, where Harriet Vane is accused of killing her live-in lover, a poet, the series changed significantly because Lord Peter recognized something in the accused – and everything was different after that, even though it took four more novels before you knew exactly what. And the ‘what’ is one of the greatest love stories ever. You have to be willing to skip some of the detecting to watch the other thread. But every time I reread that thread (I have it all marked in my copies because after a while rereading the detective part IS boring – you already know it), I marvel at what Sayers is doing with these two people.

        I’m not alone in that, BTW.

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