WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Star Realms: Rescue Run and For Steam and Country; this post assumes you have read both books.
Recently, I finished reading my social media buddy Jon Del Arroz’s new book For Steam and Country. This story, featuring the daughter of a famed adventurer inheriting an airship and getting drawn into a massive war, was rather satisfying to read, and it is a welcome addition to any fantasy fan’s collection, and I hope Del Arroz continues the series. However, after I finished the book, I noticed something about the characterizations: the men are men and the women are women, quite unlike his previous novel, where he reversed the roles of male and female.
On the surface, it seems like we’re on track for another you-go-grrl type: Zaira is the daughter of a famous adventurer and war hero, she manages her own farm so she has a bit of physical strength, she trades snide words with her male childhood friend James, and she even inherits her father’s airship. On top of that, Talyen von Cravat, a female officer in the Grand Rislandian Army, is said to be one of that army’s finest officers; it helps that she often accompanied Zaira’s father on his adventures.
However, by Chapter 4, it is made clear that Zaira is no Mary Sue, no Rey the Jedi.
In a fit of overconfidence, she accidentally pilots her airship into territory controlled by the Wyranth Empire — whom Rislandia is at war with. This prompts the Wyranth to not only damage the airship with anti-aircraft fire, but advance into Rislandia itself and destroy her farm. To make matters worse, James’ parents are killed by enemy soldiers. Furthermore, she is not the best at combat, whether hand-to-hand or gun-to-gun — she spends about as much time avoiding the enemy as fighting them. Zaira gets feelings for James, and also gets a bit jealous when the princess talks to him.
As for Talyen, she doesn’t feel comfortable enlisting women in the army, and she harbors a strong, sentimental crush on Zaira’s father. Talyen von Cravat and Zaira’s father even kiss near the end, much to Zaira’s disgust. As icing on the cake, Zaira’s late mother was a duchess that her father had rescued while on a mission.
In this story, the traditional roles and attitudes of male and female are largely adhered to in spite of Talyen. Baron von Monocle isn’t shown to be some kind of fraud or buffoon, James’ desire to train as a knight isn’t undercut by some random Mary Sue (or the princess) embarrassing some random macho jerk, and even Talyen doesn’t have any resentment about being one of the few women in the Grand Rislandian Army. Even the Wyranth men restrain themselves around women due to a sense of chivalry. The sexual and social differences between men and women were not treated as wrong or bad.
Contrast the above with the sheer over-the-top androgyny of Star Realms: Rescue Run, where the hero is a tough-as-nails fighting woman with a heart of ice and the man is a sensitive, almost pacifistic fellow deeply concerned about the plight of his father’s laborers. It is, in many ways, the thematic opposite of For Steam and Country.
In a pop culture landscape dominated by rough and tough women, For Steam and Country stands out not just for bucking the trend, but keeping the story satisfying to read while doing so. Del Arroz wrote a suitably feminine girl without making her passive or obnoxious. She wasn’t perfect at everything; like comparable male characters, she made mistakes and learned from them. She got crushes and felt romantic jealousy. She realized her limitations, but worked around them. Sci-fi and fantasy can stand to benefit from more Zairas and fewer Reys.