In Which I Ponder Girls with Swords

The sword: the weapon of choice (cue Fatboy Slim) for many urban fantasy/paranormal romance heroines and heroes (and villains). Browse the book covers in the genre and you’ll see many feature someone brandishing a blade. One would expect to see swords in high fantasy, but urban fantasy and paranormal romance are usually set in our world, where swords would seem to be anachronistic. From Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires to Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, some of the best and most kick-ass UF heroines are masters of swordplay, despite having many other weapons at their disposal.

Why the fascination with blades in modern UF? Sometimes it’s because these heroines find themselves battling creatures who would be impervious (or nearly so) to bullets, either standard or silver. Also, swords don’t need to be reloaded, so you’re not going to run out of ammo unless you do something dumb like throw your blade away. In some series, our heroine finds herself fighting vampires, who seem to prefer blades to more modern weapons (since so often vamps seem unwilling to update their techniques), so she must be able to face them wielding her own sword.

But whatever the explanation for the heroine’s ability to shish-kabob her enemies, it’s worth thinking about the symbolism of the sword in the hand of a woman. For a very, very long time in all corners of the real world and with only a few notable exceptions, swords were a man’s weapon. Unless you were raised in Themyscira, women didn’t get sword training, not even to defend themselves. There are few weapons with a more sexist history than a sword. Even the sword itself is phallic, the act of running someone through coded as masculine.

With that in mind, consider a book cover or a scene featuring a woman wielding a sword and what that represents, not just to the genre, but historically. It’s a statement of self, autonomy, and courage, as well as defiance, not just against the enemy in the book but the historical oppression of women. Perhaps that is some of its appeal for writers and readers of the genre.

The fierce female protagonists of UF don’t always use swords. Alice doesn’t. But her weapons are formidable regardless, and the same argument applies regarding making a statement about autonomy and self-determination. A well-armed, well-trained heroine is the woman warrior in all of us, rising in defiance of everyone who stands against her, her sword raised (or fire whip coiled around her), a counterpoint to the damsels-in-distress or helpless victims of both other genres and history.

I know that it was this representation of a strong, capable, well-trained woman that attracted me to this genre in the first place, in addition to the imaginative world-building (which will be my next blog topic).

I have a sword, by the way; a real, very sharp katana. I bought it because it was beautiful, well-made, and deadly, and it matched my purse.