Female Warriors in Fantasy Fiction
Part 1: The Shield Maiden in History

By William Stacey

I met William Stacey through an online writer’s group. His manuscript for Black Monastery impressed me so I reached out to him and became one of his beta readers. That novel did well, becoming a Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist on Amazon in 2014.   

He is a former army intelligence officer who served his country for more than thirty years with operational tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan; a husband, father, and avid reader with a love for the macabre; and last but not least a skilled and thoughtful writer.  I knew he would write a great blog, and he did not disappoint!  

Look for Part 2: The Female Knight in History coming later this month.


Twenty-year-old university dropout Cassie Rogan has returned to her small British Columbia home. Tortured by an accident that killed her parents, she drifts, failing life at every turn. When an uncanny lightning storm hits the forest, Cassie discovers that, after centuries of atrophy, the forces of magic are flowing back into our world, and Cassie can wield arcane powers. But everything comes with a price… Available on Amazon.

**Spoiler Alert!**

There’s a brutal swordfight in episode 10 of season 4 of Game of Thrones when Brienne of Tarth goes toe-to-toe with thuggish Sandor, “the Hound,” Clegane. To HBO’s credit, the fight is violent, exciting, bloody—and most importantly—completely believable. It was easily one of the best things I saw all last year on television. Gwendoline Cristie’s portrayal of tragically noble warrior Brienne is nothing short of amazing.

But…even in the make-believe world of Westeros, Brienne is an aberration.

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She is consistently underappreciated and often the subject of scorn, ridiculed by both men and women (I’m looking at you, Cercei Lannister). George is an amazing writer, and his portrayal of a female warrior in a fantasy setting was, in my opinion, perfect—because—as unpopular as this may be with some—there has been only a very, very small percentage of female warriors throughout history. Right or wrong, warfare has pretty much always been a boy’s club.

Now, I get it. Westeros is a fantasy setting, not reality. However, I think Westeros is also pretty obviously modeled on medieval Europe. In fact, so is most fantasy fiction produced in the West. I’m not going to imply that this is somehow wrong; certainly I’ve used medieval Europe as a mirror for much of my own fiction. I think it’s normal to create worlds similar to what we’re already familiar with (although some would also call it boring… but hey, people also say that the zombie craze is over, yet we’re getting a new Walking Dead series spin-off). European history is immediately relatable to most readers. Call a character a knight and a picture pops into our heads—even if that picture is often biased by the movies. Writers can introduce a little bit of world building—put in a castle, a few knights, a dragon—and readers are good to go.

Fiction isn’t reality, I do get that, but grounding a story in history can often make it much more believable. If you need an example, read anything by Bernard Cornwell. He writes the best medieval combat out there because he researches everything. So, if fantasy is more realistic when it’s modeled on real history, what’s the state of women warriors in fiction today? Is Brienne of Tarth a believable character? What about Lagertha, the famous Viking shield maiden who fought beside Ragnar Lothbrok? How are we writers doing with our heroic female warriors? Well… not bad, actually.

Let’s start with Lagertha and female Vikings. Did shield maidens exist? Sadly, probably not—at least there’s no firm historical evidence that they did, and certainly not as a significant portion of any Viking military force. Did (at least some) Norse women fight in battles? Absolutely, just as there are anecdotal examples of women who fought as warriors in medieval Europe. Historically, though, these examples are so few and far between as to be statistically irrelevant. There is little-to-no proof that female warriors ever accompanied Viking armies in large numbers, and likely 99.9% of Viking warriors were male. It’s possible that the enduring legends of Viking shield maidens are confused with that of the Valkyries, Odin’s female (but not human) messengers who carried fallen warriors to Valhalla.

Admittedly, history isn’t always black and white, and not all historians agree on the existence of shield maidens with some insisting that they did exist. The twelfth century historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote of the heroic Lagertha (Lathergertha in his writings) as well as other shield maidens who fought with the Viking armies. The problem with Saxo, however, is that his histories are considered by some to be largely fictional, including details from myth and legend. As a credible source, Saxo isn’t.

Still some people remain convinced that there were, indeed, female Viking warriors. The History Channel’s outstanding Vikings series—with the incredibly cool Lagertha portrayed by Katheryn Winnick—may be reinforcing these beliefs. In 2014, an article (bearing a picture of Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha) was published on Tor.com with the headline, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female.” The source for this new information was a paper published in 2011 in the journal Early Medieval Europe, written by Shane McLeod, where, following reexaminations of Viking burial sites in Britain, McLeod proposed that the ratio of female-to-male Viking settlers may have been much higher than was previously thought. Through osteological sexing (bone analysis) of fourteen burial sites in Britain, six were found to likely be female. McLeod concludes by suggesting that maybe a third to one half of Viking setters—not warriors, setters—may have been female. Fair enough. That’s an interesting finding and bears further investigation; after all, fourteen burial sites is hardly a significant sample. The problem, though, began when some took McLeod’s findings and twisted them to say something that he wasn’t at all saying—namely that half of all Viking warriors were female. They weren’t. And while some female Norse burial sites have been found to contain swords and other traditionally male-centric items, that’s hardly proof those women were warriors. It just means they were buried with weapons. Judith Jesch, the Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, stated, “It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age….Women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.”

I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier: fiction isn’t reality, and certainly fantasy fiction is even further removed from reality. Historically, shield maidens may only be legend, but so were dragons—and those glorious, fire-breathing creatures aren’t going anywhere. Authors need to decide for themselves. In my latest fantasy novel, The Sword of Heaven: Book 1 of the Vampire Queen, I have Viking-like female warriors fighting side by side with their male counterparts, but I also have a European-styled medieval kingdom where gender expectations forbid women from bearing arms. I accept that shield maidens didn’t exist, but I’m putting them in the book anyhow. My story-world, I can do as I want. However, if I were to write another historical Viking story, such as I did with Black Monastery—rather than a Viking-like story—I probably wouldn’t include the historically inaccurate shield maidens.

So, sorry, Lagertha, while I don’t believe you ever existed, I still think you rock!


Sad Sad Sunday

Sunday, August 23

Sunday was a day I looked forward to: Leasspell had it’s first ever in-person writer’s group at a little breakfast place around the corner…we even dared sit outside in the patio!  Breathing continued to be doable on Sunday, though in the afternoon I could still smell some of it.

It was a sadder day than the others.  The con was nearly over. We said goodbye to Jax. I went to a few panels, but the energy was kinda gone.  Hung out with Denise and told her how disappointed I was to have never laid eyes on one of my favorite authors, Carol Berg.  Every time she was scheduled, I had a commitment.  The thing I most wanted to do was go to her Kaffee Klutch, but it was at the same time as my writers’ workshop.


Has anyone seen the author of this book?

“Oh, really?” Denise said.  “We need to do something about that!”  So she and Jason people-watch the whole day as we hang out.  “She’s so nice,” Denise tells me.  “Yeah, we keep seeing her everywhere all week!” Jason adds.  So Sunday was  “the search for Carol Berg” day.  No luck all day long.  Denise and I decide to go to one last panel with Branden Sanderson on it, another of my literary heroes.  Denise and I got separated when I went to the bathroom.  When I came out, she’s practically hopping from foot to foot.  “Carol Berg! Carol Berg just went that way!”  We chase in that direction, but alas…no CB sighting.  But for a stronger bladder, I would have met my author hero, Carol Berg.

Maybe next time, Carol!

What a Difference a Day Makes


Night and day? Well, while the difference is…nope, both taken in the full bloom of day. Top one is Friday and bottom one is Saturday. Yep, we were all breathing in that stuff at Worldcon!

Saturday, August 22

Ahhhhh, go ahead, breathe!  It’s about time.  Holding my breath for all of Friday was getting old. Saturday was a much more enjoyable day.  I spent the morning moderating a writers workshop with the pros, William Campbell Powell, Devon Monk, and Kay Kenyon.  I’ve been moderating for a good many years and I have to say, the last few workshops I’ve moderated have been filled with really good manuscipts and this was no exception.  The pros really delivered, a far better experience than moderating my last Worldcon.  They all really impressed me with how engaged, pertinent, and cogent their critiques were.

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By the time I got out of there, it was well past lunch time.  None of my usual cronies were available for lunch so I thought I’d go on the cheap and duck across the street to Chili’s, taking advantage of the fact that I could breathe outside.  Unfortunately, others must have had the same idea, for the wait was about a half hour.  So I decided to head back to the expensive, but very good, hotel restaurant.  On the way, who should I pass but ElizaBeth Gilligan, DAW author and friend from a writer’s group a long time ago.  In tow, she has two women.  Beth gives me a big smile as we pass and says, “Hi, Jennifer!  This is Sheila, my editor. We’re just going to lunch.”

Be still my heart!  Sheila Gilbert!  I have wanted to submit to her and meet her for years.  So I shove out my hand and say, “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you from Beth.”  And with that, I kept my cool…and let the DAW editor off the hook.  I didn’t tackle her or pitch her or give her my business card…And I SO wanted to!  But maybe someday in a cover letter I’ll say, oh yes, we’ve met before.

So I walked off on cloud nine into the Grand Hotel restaurant. It was empty save for two people at a little table.  Whole restaurant to chose from and the waitress sits me right next to the only other two in there.  Practically on top of them.  Grumble grumble grumble…oh, hey, I know the name on that badge…

HOLY CON ANGEL!  That’s Tony Daniel…Baen Editor.  And he’s sitting with a woman who is obviously a big agent and been in the industry a long time.  Gawds above, I wish I’d gotten her name!  I sat there and listened to them while they talked shop.  I’m not going to reveal what they said, cause, well, I was skating on thin moral ice eavesdropping already, but I will share the one topic that really got my attention. They talked about editors and the unrealistic expectations people have of them.  This is a subject I can relate to.

I so wanted to speak up and join their conversation but that same annoying voice in me that kept me from jumping poor Sheila stomped down this impulse, too.  I decided when I left I would say one thing.  It took my entire meal to get the courage up to speak, but when I got up, I shared my own story of editors being unappreciated.

When I was in educational publishing with Addison Wesley/Simon & Schuster, I made half what my husband made.  (NOTE: if you want to get rich, publishing is likely not a best first choice.) Still, I got endless complaints about how expensive the text books were.  Every time I said I worked in textbooks, that’s the complaint folks would make.  I just felt like saying, “Oh yeah?  Tell you what. I’ll exchange my paycheck for yours any day of the week!”

The agent was gracious and seemed genuinely engaged and exchanged a few sentences with me.  I finished up by going to see Tony Daniel read from his upcoming fantasy series.  I’ll be looking for it if only to relive my day of meeting big agents and editors!

Welcome to Smokane

Friday, August 21

My roomie came into our hotel room today as I was looking out the window. “How are things?” he asked.



Yeah…the sun really was that color and it’s still only early evening!

Outside, I couldn’t see the nearby rim of hills and mountains for the yellow-grey smoke that shrouded the city.  The sun was a red ball…Con goers take warning!  Major fires raged about fifty miles away and a lesser one burned only ten to twenty miles away.  Breathing was the chore of the day.  Every time I asked directions of the staff, they said the shortest way is out those doors—

I’d shake my head vigerously, “Then tell me the longer way ‘cause  I’m not going outside!”  By the end of the day, my eyes stung, my nose ran, my lungs burned, and as for my throat…

I was thirsty. Thirsty was and understatement. My tongue felt thick behind the wet cloth jammed up against my mouth and I swallowed hard. (Opening of the only book I bought this week here…perhaps persuaded by circumstance?)

Yeah, it was that bad.

But the day wasn’t a total loss.  Jax from the writer’s group and I went to vote for upcoming Worldcons.  I voted for Montreal in 2017 so we could all go up to Jason’s neck of the woods.  Then we went to the 2018 tables and Jax donated to the New Orleans effort since that’s where she calls home.  I had my money out to donate when I asked who the competition was…San Jose!  ACK!  Sorry, New Orleans, but San Jose is the next city over from me!

Later, I was excited to dine with Bryan Buhl and his l charming wife Melisa, who was a saint to listen to three writers jabber on about their stories for most of dinner.

After that, we rushed over to see the masquerade show.  The two women I drove up with were in it.  Shael was one bad-ass knit Klingon throwing around a knit bat’leth. I certainly don’t want to cross her now!  And Denise made a remarkable Diana Prince…oh wait!  She gives a twirl and turns into Wonder Woman!  Denise’s costume was a tear-away uniform over a WW costume.  She sure pulled it off—both literally and figuratively!

Quote of the day: There is no smoking inside the auditorium. If you must smoke, go outside and breathe deeply.


A Little Worldcon, a Little Spokane

Thursday, August 20


A little Worldcon…

A morning at Worldcon moderating the panel:

Stories from Around the Water Cooler: Tales Editors and Writers Tell

Cynthia Felice, Lesli Robyn, Zaza Koshkadze, and Patty Briggs joined me in telling tales from their very interesting careers as writers, including an honest to goodness tale of book burning. Quite the popular event; there was standing room only.

And an afternoon of geocaching with a woman I met outside of the critique panel on Wednesday.  Beautiful river front park and a Flexible Flyer red wagon bigger then my living room!

I dropped in on the Northwest Writer’s Association to see our books laid out. Woot!  I also wanted to support them, so I bought a book: Amaskan’s Blood.  First few lines were…

She was thirsty. Thirsty was and understatement. Her tongue felt thick beneath the sour cloth jammed in her mouth and Iliana swallowed hard.

A prophetic opening…

(Tune in tomorrow…same bat time, same bat channel)


A little Spokane…