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.
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.