That Was Then, This is Now guest post: Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
March is Women’s History Month, and in honor of this I asked Sarah Debraski if she would let me use her “That Was Then, This is Now” series to talk about a book that helped make me a feminist. After all, what’s more appropriate for Women’s History Month than a man taking over something that a woman created? Wait, that’s not right.
Anyway, the book is Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, and it was one of my favorite books as a youngster. I still remembered most of the basic plot: the princess Cimorene is tired of being a princess, so she runs away and deliberately gets herself kidnapped by a dragon, which turns out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to her. She gets into swordfights, foils the plots of sinister wizards, uncovers a conspiracy at the heart of dragon society, and ends up having quite a lot of experiences that just aren’t proper for a princess. It’s a parody of fairy tales and the fantasy genre, but a gentle parody, poking fun at some of the logical flaws in these worlds while still acknowledging the fun you can have in them.
I was delighted to find, on rereading Dealing With Dragons, that it was just as good as I remembered it. Wrede’s writing is clear and droll, with a great deal of wit in her dialogue. The plot is clever and unhurried, with a nice balance between humorous diversions and a gradually building main story. Best of all are her characters: wise dragon Kazul, tidy witch Morwen, and our heroine, the thoroughly sensible Cimorene.
Cimorene is a rare kind of character: she’s not the damsel in distress of fairy tales, nor the overly-violent warrior woman you find in terrible fantasy books where the author is trying to make a “strong female character.” Although she knows how to use a sword and can cast some basic spells, Cimorene’s greatest asset is her common sense. When confronted by a djinn who declares he will kill her, and only offers her a choice of how she will die, Cimorene immediately says, “Old age.” When she’s offered a magical gift, she asks about the technical details of how it works, just so she knows what its limits are. She solves problems not through luck, or violence, or even necessarily great intelligence (although she’s certainly not lacking in brains), but by being sensible.
There are several sequels, and if my memory is any good, they’re just as enjoyable as the first book. If you’re interested in other fractured fairy tales, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted is another classic, as is pretty much anything by Terry Pratchett. For a more serious take on improper princesses, Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy is an excellent read. And for another fantasy heroine who taught young me about feminism, check out Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series.
– Ted Anderson, currently slogging his way through Breaking Dawn (with a much less interesting heroine)