To Jo Playford, my dangerous minion.
[—George R. R. Martin]
Genre fiction has always been divided over the question of just
dangerous women are.
In the real world, of course, the question has long been settled. Even if the Amazons are mythological (and almost certainly wouldn’t have cut their right breasts off to make it easier to draw a bow if they
), their legend was inspired by memory of the ferocious warrior women of the Scythians, who were very much
mythological. Gladiatrix, women gladiators, fought other women—and sometimes men—to the death in the arenas of Ancient Rome. There were female pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and even female samurai. Women served as frontline combat troops, feared for their ferocity, in the Russian army during World War II, and serve so in Israel today. Until 2013, women in the U.S. forces were technically restricted to “noncombat” roles, but many brave women gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan anyway, since bullets and land mines have never cared whether you’re a noncombatant or not. Women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots for the United States during World War II were also limited to noncombat roles (where many of them were nevertheless killed in the performance of their duties), but Russian women took to the skies as fighter pilots, and sometimes became aces. A Russian female sniper during World War II was credited with more than fifty kills. Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe led one of the most fearsome revolts ever against Roman authority, one that was almost successful in driving the Roman invaders from Britain, and a young French peasant girl inspired and led the troops against the enemy so successfully that she became famous forever afterwards as Joan of Arc.
On the dark side, there have been female “highwaymen” like Mary Frith and Lady Katherine Ferrers and Pearl Hart (the last person to ever rob a stagecoach); notorious poisoners like Agrippina and Catherine de Medici, modern female outlaws like Ma Barker and Bonnie Parker, even female serial killers like Aileen Wuornos. Elizabeth Báthory was said to have bathed in the blood of virgins, and even though that has been called into question, there is no doubt that she tortured and killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children during her life. Queen Mary I of England had hundreds of Protestants burnt at the stake; Queen Elizabeth of England later responded by executing large numbers of Catholics. Mad Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar had so many people put to death that she wiped out one-third of the entire population of Madagascar during her reign; she would even have you executed if you appeared in her dreams.
Popular fiction, though, has always had a schizophrenic view of the dangerousness of women. In the science fiction of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, women, if they appeared at all, were largely regulated to the role of the scientist’s beautiful daughter, who might scream during the fight scenes but otherwise had little to do except hang adoringly on the arm of the hero afterwards. Legions of women swooned helplessly while waiting to be rescued by the intrepid jut-jawed hero from everything from dragons to the bug-eyed monsters who were always carrying them off for improbable purposes either dietary or romantic on the covers of pulp SF magazines. Hopelessly struggling women were tied to railroad tracks, with nothing to do but squeak in protest and hope that the Good Guy arrived in time to save them.
And yet, at the same time, warrior women like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, Maid of Mars, were every bit as good with the blade and every bit as deadly in battle as John Carter and their other male comrades, female adventuresses like C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry swashbuckled their way through the pages of
magazine (and blazed a trail for later female swashbucklers like Joanna Russ’s Alyx); James H. Schmitz sent Agents of Vega like Granny Wannatel and fearless teenagers like Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee out to battle the sinister menaces and monsters of the spaceways; and Robert A. Heinlein’s dangerous women were capable of being the captain of a spaceship or killing enemies in hand-to-hand combat. Arthur Conan Doyle’s sly, shady Irene Adler was one of the only people ever to outwit his Sherlock Holmes, and probably one of the inspirations for the legions of tricky, dangerous, seductive, and treacherous “femmes fatale” who featured in the works of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and later went on to appear in dozens of films noir, and who still turn up in the movies and on television to this day. Later television heroines such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess, firmly established women as being formidable and deadly enough to battle hordes of fearsome supernatural menaces, and helped to inspire the whole subgenre of paranormal romance, which is sometimes unofficially known as the “kick-ass heroine” genre.
Like our anthology
was conceived of as a cross-genre anthology, one that would mingle every kind of fiction, so we asked writers from every genre—science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical, horror, paranormal romance, men and women alike—to tackle the theme of “dangerous women,” and that call was answered by some of the best writers in the business, including both new writers and giants of their fields like Diana Gabaldon, Jim Butcher, Sharon Kay Penman, Joe Abercrombie, Carrie Vaughn, Joe R. Lansdale, Lawrence Block, Cecelia Holland, Brandon Sanderson, Sherilynn Kenyon, S. M. Stirling, Nancy Kress, and George R. R. Martin.
Here you’ll find no hapless victims who stand by whimpering in dread while the male hero fights the monster or clashes swords with the villain, and if you want to tie
women to the railroad tracks, you’ll find you have a real fight on your hands. Instead, you will find sword-wielding women warriors; intrepid women fighter pilots and far-ranging spacewomen; deadly female serial killers; formidable female superheroes; sly and seductive femmes fatale; female wizards; hard-living bad girls; female bandits and rebels; embattled survivors in postapocalyptic futures; female private investigators; stern female hanging judges; haughty queens who rule nations and whose jealousies and ambitions send thousands to grisly deaths; daring dragonriders; and many more.
As the sizzlingly fast-paced and action-packed story that follows demonstrates, sometimes chasing a fugitive can be as dangerous for the pursuers as for the pursued—particularly when the quarry has no place left to run …
Joe Abercrombie is one of the fastest-rising stars in fantasy today, acclaimed by readers and critics alike for his tough, spare, no-nonsense approach to the genre. He’s probably best known for his First Law trilogy, the first novel of which,
The Blade Itself,
was published in 2006; it was followed in subsequent years by
Before They Are Hanged
Last Argument of Kings
. He’s also written the stand-alone fantasy novels
Best Served Cold
. His most recent novel is
. In addition to writing, Abercrombie is also a freelance film editor and lives and works in London.
Shy gave the horse her heels, its forelegs buckled, and, before she had a notion what was happening, she and her saddle had bid each other a sad farewell.
She was given a flailing instant aloft to consider the situation. Not a good one at a brief assay, and the impending earth gave her no time for a longer. She did her best to roll with the fall—as she tried to do with most of her many misfortunes—but the ground soon uncurled her, gave her a fair roughing up, and tossed her, flopping, into a patch of sun-shrivelled scrub.
She stole a moment just to get some breath in. Then one to groan while the world stopped rolling. Then another to shift gingerly an arm and a leg, waiting for that sick jolt of pain that meant something was broke and her miserable shadow of a life would soon be lost in the dusk. She would’ve welcomed it, if it meant she could stretch out and not have to run any more. But the pain didn’t come. Not outside of the usual compass, leastways. As far as her miserable shadow of a life went, she was still awaiting judgment.
Shy dragged herself up, scratched and scuffed, caked in dust and spitting out grit. She’d taken too many mouthfuls of sand the last few months but she’d a dismal premonition that there’d be more. Her horse lay a few strides distant, one foamed-up flank heaving, forelegs black with blood. Neary’s arrow had snagged it in the shoulder, not deep enough to kill or even slow it right off, but deep enough to make it bleed at a good pace. With her hard riding, that had killed it just as dead as a shaft in the heart.
There’d been a time Shy had got attached to horses. A time—despite reckoning herself hard with people and being mostly right—she’d been uncommon soft about animals. But that time was a long time gone. There wasn’t much soft on Shy these days, body or mind. So she left her mount to its final red-frothed breaths without the solace of her calming hand and ran for the town, tottering some at first, but quickly warming to the exercise. At running, she’d a heap of practice.
“Town” was perhaps an overstatement. It was six buildings, and calling them buildings was being generous to two or three. All rough lumber and an entire stranger to straight angles, sun-baked, rain-peeled, and dust-blasted, huddled about a dirt square and a crumbling well.
The biggest building had the look of a tavern or brothel or trading post or more likely all three amalgamated. A rickety sign still clung to the boards above the doorway but the name had been rubbed by the wind to just a few pale streaks in the grain.
was all its proclamation now. Up the steps two by two, bare feet making the old boards wheeze, thoughts boiling away at how she’d play it when she got inside, what truths she’d season with what lies for the most likely recipe.
There’s men chasing me!
Gulping breath in the doorway and doing her best to look beyond desperate—no mighty effort of acting at that moment, or any occupying the last twelve months, indeed.
Three of the bastards!
Then—provided no one recognised her from all the bills for her arrest—
They tried to rob me!
A fact. No need to add that she’d robbed the money herself from the new bank in Hommenaw in the company of those three worthies plus another since caught and hung by the authorities.