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03 January 2011 @ 01:34 pm
Sex and Violence  

THE LADIES OF MANDRIGYN

            This was my karate book.

            I remember very clearly the moment of its inception. Sensei Ray Dalke – who at that time taught at the University of California, Riverside – offered a Women’s Self-Defense Class sometime in the early ‘70s. I was a brown-belt, I believe, at the time, but training with the Women’s Team at the downtown dojo: non-contact, old-style Shotokan. Sensei asked me and the black belt women to be on hand for the class, to use as demo-dummies and for crowd control, since it would be a huge class and all beginners.

            We seniors were sitting around on the floor of the dance-room, warming up, as all these brand-new young ladies come in, in their gis and white belts, TALKING. Chattering. Like the twitter of birds (since none of them were warming up or anything). More and more of them came in, all twittering amongst themselves, and you could just about feel the level of estrogen in the room rising to the ceiling. At last Sensei yelled, “I can’t STAND this! Everybody get in a line!”

            And I thought, Hmmn.

            And the whole book fell into place in my mind.

            The Ladies of Mandrigyn, like The Walls of Air, is principally about training. For a number of years, my life was about training, the same way it has been about writing for decades now. In the dojo, we all understood each other because that was where we all were. We were also a fairly hard-partying dojo, and I’m not going to go into the dojo party stories: it was the ‘70s, we were all very young (including Sensei, who was I think 34 when I started training), and we all did some fairly stupid and irresponsible things. It was a pretty educational experience for me.

            At one point I did a huge oil-painting of a group of barbarians sacking a town, with portraits of Sensei and the various black-belts. That was how it felt. (I traded it to Sensei for a year of training, I think).

            One of the things I never forgot was how the women pulled together in the face of training against the men. Sensei always had the women spar against men as well as women, and every woman in the dojo, from #1 blackbelt Anne down to the newest white-belt girls, knew which men were good to spar with, and which men got off on hitting women. There were guys who would push you – HARD – without malice, without ego, without hurting you: gentlemen who knew that they were there to help you learn how to deal with someone who was physically stronger and had a longer reach. There were others who came to class and you could smell alcohol in their sweat. We ladies were always pretty pleased when one of these got his ass thoroughly kicked by one of the Men’s Team. One thing you learn in karate, at a visceral level, is that there’s ALWAYS somebody out there better than you are.

            Another thing you learn is that who you are inside is going to come out in the dojo, whether you want it to or not. It was direct, non-verbal, and very intense, and under those circumstances, you can’t hide. Not even from yourself.

            The women got very close to one another, and mostly looked out for each other. Sensei called us the Broad Squad (after the old TV show the Mod Squad); some very close friendships were formed. I don’t think there was any of us who hadn’t had a night when we came off the floor in tears. It brought out one of the essential differences between women and men. One of the guys on the Men’s Team told one of us (I forget who) that they sometimes envied this closeness among the Women’s Team because the guys – being guys – were VERY much into, who could kick whose ass. The competitiveness among the men never let off. Everybody KNEW that Ed was #1 bad-ass on the Team. (And a total gentleman – a joy to spar with). I still remember when John – the smallest of the team at about 130 pounds, and the only guy I believe could actually have killed someone with his bare hands – broke his leg. He’d train with the team – 3 hrs on Friday nights – with his leg in a cast, propped up on a chair. We were all impressed.

            It was a place to do crazy things, to let out your craziness.  I look back and think I must have been crazy to put myself through all that, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in this world.

            Sun Wolf, by the way – the mighty-thewed barbarian mercenary of Ladies - isn’t based on any single person. He’s a rough amalgam of several of the instructors, though some of the mercenary troop – Ari and Penpusher and Dogbreath – are pretty much straight take-offs on various of the guys in the dojo. The women of Ladies aren’t straight copies either. The book is about the feeling, the atmosphere I lived in for eight years: sex, violence, and calluses on your feet.


 
 
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Eben Brooksebenbrooks on January 3rd, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC)
That book was wonderful to read, and one of the first of yours that I encountered. I had read Those Who Hunt the Night in '91, I think, and I found and read the Sunwolf trilogy in '92 or '93.

Question, though: have you ever written anything that you would consider grimmer than the Sunwolf trilogy? 'Cause damn! those were grim books. (Good, but grim.)
barbara_hamblybarbara_hambly on January 3rd, 2011 11:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, God yes! The Dragonshadow trilogy - Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar - were so grim that pretty much nobody read them... which got me all kinds of bad numbers in the magical publishing computers. (Well, that and the fact that the publishers let the first two go out of print before the third one came out, and the copy-editor LOST THE MANUSCRIPT of Dragonstar for months and months... and they neglected to mention that it WAS a trilogy anywhere in the first or second books...)
Eben Brooksebenbrooks on January 3rd, 2011 11:15 pm (UTC)
Okay, well ... no offense, but I think I'll steer clear of those three! The Sunwolf trilogy was about my maximum grimness threshold.

My favorite is still Bride of the Rat God, though. :)
handwornhandworn on January 13th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC)
I'd agree they're pretty grim in some ways, but at one point John Aversin journeys to a world which is a pretty Swiftian satire of aspects of ours-- for example, a whole wall of each apartment is basically a TV, which can't be turned off, and the advertisers pay your rent in inverse proportion to how far the sound is turned down. Some good writing there, I think.
Ross TenEyckross_teneyck on January 3rd, 2011 11:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I did read them, but only once, and they were... let's say they were not comfort reads. Quietly, in my mind, I prefer to think of Dragonsbane as a standalone book.
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on January 4th, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
I remember getting to the "certain death" part of... Book 2 of that, I think it was? Only a formative experience with the ending of /The Silent Tower/ kept me going, "She wouldn't do that. She totally would not do that. There will be another book." But I was /worried!/
barbara_hamblybarbara_hambly on January 4th, 2011 12:49 am (UTC)
You know, I'm sorry those books turned out as grim as they did. When I re-read them now, I enjoy the elaboration of the relationships with John's community and family - and I'm ashamed to say I REALLY enjoyed, and still enjoy, the whole "Blade-Runner" sequence in the dystopian Hell of Walls / alternate universe.

And I enjoyed doing the relationship between John and the Demon Queen.

It seemed to me - at the time - that the big-name fantasies WERE dark, grim, and high-stakes, and I wanted to try something of the kind (a la GRR Martin): I guess I overdid it.

But, I apologize for writing those.
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on January 4th, 2011 01:00 am (UTC)
Nay, no need to apologize. All that I would complain about is laid upon the publisher's doorstep: the lack of a "To be continued in..." at the final page of that rather bleak ending.

Orfhlaithorfhlaith on January 5th, 2011 09:22 am (UTC)
Never, ever apologize! They were indeed very dark and grim. How could they not be with the subject matter? They are also extremely well written and powerful. I have actually read them several times because while you can't actually look through your fingers at the screen as you would a horror movie I find that my mind is good at hiding certain things from itself until I am mentally/emotionally ready to cope with that bit so I keep finding hidden gems of emotion that I can so totally relate to, and in so doing find a bit of catharsis.

I have wept over many pages you have written. I grew up with three brothers who delighted in making fun of me if I expressed emotion in general, let alone because of something I read, so if a work moves me to the point that I do weep despite years of practicing self control it means it has touched me profoundly. That is the highest compliment I can pay you, and I hope you take it as the compliment I mean it to be.
fr0gp0nd on January 5th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
I agree that you shouldn't feel you need to apologize for those books. I really enjoyed them and the darkness felt right - it was a grim hardscrabble world that the characters inhabited and made their relationships and victories that much more precious.
mleiv on January 6th, 2011 01:13 am (UTC)
Also loved those books. Dragonsbane was the book I read as a kid and just didn't connect with, but read again as an adult and totally fell in love with. All the other books in that universe were just as perfect - I bought them all the day each came out! The scifi city was one of favorite future worlds of all the scifi I've read (and that's a lot), and Aohila was so wonderfully spooky and mesmerizing. I think most of my WoW toon names (and those of the significant other) came from these books. But my favorite parts from the Time of the Dark series were also the most awful bits - the religious persecution, the parasitic alien-esque hives, the slunch insanity and deaths, the vicious little teenage wizard. I would just reach a point where I couldn't keep reading because I was so upset, and I couldn't stop because I was so invested. There is not a movie, tv series, or other book out there where I could ever say it did that - got right inside me. Isn't that the point of art? To shake us up, to cross boundaries, to make us question not just how it will end, but how do we want it to end, when all the endings are so terrible? Fantasy and scifi need MORE of this kind of writing, IMO, not less.

That said, a girl's gotta eat. And your more acceptable work is never in danger of being too saccharine. It's all good.
hruppe on January 5th, 2011 03:01 am (UTC)
Cliff Hanger
Well, I was sure cudgeling my brain how John would get out of that scrape. We have to blame the publisher for leaving him there too long.

I like to use it as my example of a cliff hanger ending...
cerrberus: 'chameleon'cerrberus on January 4th, 2011 06:12 pm (UTC)
Read 'Dragonshadow³', liked. Clueless about 'too grim,' I guess.
barbara_hamblybarbara_hambly on January 4th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Because, though the books were very dark, I really like them - and I feel bad about having written them.
cerrberus: frog princesscerrberus on January 4th, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
Stop that!!1!!
Why, it's like saying you're sorry for your readership...erm, sorta.
cerrberus: 'chameleon'cerrberus on January 4th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
Oh, and maybe they'd do better as a single-volume package?
Tho' prob'ly not in today's publishing environment. At least, in the words of Howard Tayler, these didn't feature "TOO MUCH TIME IN THE TENT" like a certain recent movie/the 1/2 book it was based on [Howard's review, 'H P & The Deadly Dull']. ;>)
Professor Liddle-Oldmanliddle_oldman on January 4th, 2011 07:23 pm (UTC)
I read 'em! Twice!

I wonder if that would count with your publisher...

(The woman I almost married tucked neatly under my chin, and would borrow me as a throwing dummy when she did self-defense presentations to teenaged girls, to show that you couldhave a chance against bigger guys with height and reach.)
Mirandamirandaflynn on January 5th, 2011 01:38 am (UTC)
I loved the Dragonshadow trilogy! I thought your handling of Jenny's and Ian's reactions to everything that happened was very realistic.
2ndsoprano2ndsoprano on January 5th, 2011 03:32 pm (UTC)
I read the Dragonshadow trilogy as well, and enjoyed them. Grim? Yes. Unsettling? Oh, surely, yes. But wonderfully emotional and gripping also.
eesc_key on January 3rd, 2011 10:04 pm (UTC)
I loved that book. :D
Elizabeth McCoyarchangelbeth on January 3rd, 2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
I need to do some rereading... Knowing the stories, the tidbits, behind these is very enriching!
wmilliken on January 3rd, 2011 10:37 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... maybe you should package these commentaries with the e-book versions of the books, once you have them written.

---Walter

M. C. A. Hogarthhaikujaguar on January 3rd, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
every woman in the dojo, from #1 blackbelt Anne down to the newest white-belt girls, knew which men were good to spar with, and which men got off on hitting women.

This rings very true to me, even as the only woman who was training, most days I went. (Also, which men got off on hitting, period, as opposed to which ones got off on being able to hit, if that makes sense.)
handwornhandworn on January 13th, 2011 01:01 am (UTC)
When I was a kid and doing karate, we did no hitting at all, which I think ruined it for me. Not that I wanted to hit people, but I wanted to know what war was like, what it was like to hit and be hit in a fight. And now my kids are doing karate, and I realize it's so hard to know from the outside what's healthy and what's too much.
namastenancynamastenancy on January 3rd, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC)
I loved all the Sun Wolf books and the ones that came after. I think that the book with Ice Falcon (? was one of my favorites. I very much liked Dragonshadow as the relationship between John and Jenny was beautifully written. I didn't much like where the books went after that but I certainly respected your story telling talent. But the earlier ones were a feast for my budding feminism and I wish I'd found a dojo like yours to learn in.
Annann_mcn on January 3rd, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
That was the very first book of yours that I read! I took it to the hospital for the birth of my second child (3 boys ultimately), and it blew me away! I cannot remember the books I had for the other two kids, but as soon as I could get to a bookstore, I searched out your books.

And all three of them and I took karate a few years later! Our sensei talked a lot about how that form of karate was so rough and tough, but he waffled about hard sparring when it came down to it. A disappointment.
meccahimeccahi on January 4th, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)
The whole Sunwolf/Starhawk series is on a very short list of books that truly resonated with me. I love your stories, but that series spoke like few others have. Mainly because the characters were so strong and vivid and real. It's neat to learn some of the influences for it.
John Louis: darth tatergrail76 on January 4th, 2011 01:32 am (UTC)
I read that trilogy 2-1-3 and even with that, I thoroughly enjoyed them. The training sessions were one of my favorite areas in the trilogy. Nice to hear the story behind them.
Deborah J. Rossdeborahjross on January 4th, 2011 01:54 am (UTC)
Your story brings back memories of 25 years of kung fu and all the time in tai chi before that. Working out with someone who outweighs you by 100 lbs or more, towers over you, and has all the strength advantages of testosterone is a sobering and ultimately empowering experience. Like you, I wouldn't trade it.

The studio I trained at was in East LA, so there were quite a few ex-gangers, ex-cons, vets with crazy edges (no one talked about PTSD in those days), not to mention a sprinkling of cops with psychiatric disability discharges -- all the people your mother warned you about. It was a revelation to me how supportive they could be, especially after my mom was killed. They would never say it aloud, but there was a lot of love behind those scars.

One thing I got fairly good at after 15 years or so was taking on a young belt (usually male, with Attitude) and calming him down. I'd get them singing Beatles tunes as we worked out. You don't want the predictability of a constant beat, of course, but it sure smoothed out the jerkiness and got them breathing, not just at point of impact but all the time, and once they had that, they could start to get some decent coordination to go with all that muscle.
That Which Fights Entropy: nowhereamberite on January 4th, 2011 03:27 am (UTC)
Cool!

The thing that sticks with me most about that book is Sun Wolf's initiation. It's one of my very favorite sequences; intense and transformative and that gorgeous combination of dark and hopeful that always gets me.
RyokoMusoukaryokomusouka on January 4th, 2011 05:39 am (UTC)
The Ladies was the first book of yours I read. That was ages ago - I have a Del Rey paperback of it still, much-loved and battered, and re-read every year or so.

What struck me about it was how simple and real it felt. These were real people, dealing with extraordinary things. Starhawk wasn't a superwoman. Sunwolf wasn't a superman. They were clumsy and rough and vulnerable.

(Deleted comment)
rogryphonrogryphon on January 5th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
I adored the Sunwolf series. As a black belt in a full contact karate who weighs in at whopping 100 lbs I could feel for the training issues. I know it drives my Sensei nuts that some girls will hit each other and then go "are you ok?" We karate girls do hang together and the bunch of us did the breast cancer run in Oct. We had "fight like a girl" in japanese on front of the shirts. Got Sensei to run with us but he covered up his writing with the run number. But at least he wore it. I will admit I read the dark dragon series only book one and two, I got too depressed. But they are great books.
barbara_hamblybarbara_hambly on January 5th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
We would do EXACTLY the same - one of the ladies would hit another in sparring, then we'd both stop and go, "Are you ok?" It drove Sensei INSANE.
kibihofmann on January 5th, 2011 03:01 pm (UTC)
Dragonshadow
Just wanted to say that I totally loved Dragonshadow and the whole sequence. I thought it was an odd place to end a book at the end of Demon Queen, but otherwise I thought it was brilliant. I think I read Dragonsbane (then the rest of them) after I had read quite a lot of your other stuff - Darwath, Mandrygin, Sun-Cross and Antryg (probably some Ben January too) - I had put it off because the description I read of Dragonsbane (in the back of one of the other books) sounded terribly hokey.

By the time I got around to it I guess I figured you probably could pull off a hokey Dragon book ok, so I took the plunge - perhaps Dragonsbane had been re-issued or I found it second hand - I don't remember....but of course I loved it and when the sequels came out I grabbed them with both hands and don't regret it for a second.

Honestly, I think the Ben January books are grimmer since they are more "real" and his mortal danger and despair are the sort of thing people have really been through. Still, I love those books too. Anyway, don't be scared of grim - maybe some people at publishers don't know how to market correctly.
kibihofmann on January 5th, 2011 03:10 pm (UTC)
Ladies of Madrigyn
...but since this is the subject of the post I ought to also say - I loved this book too. Sheera, Sun Wolf and Starhawk were great - I thought it was a pity Sheera didn't join them...
The sequels were each ultimately good books, but I liked them less than Ladies. Perhaps because I didn't feel there was a real good connecting arc ...it was more like "some more adventures of the fabulous Sun Wolf" but what the hell, I still reread them every so often.
2ndsoprano2ndsoprano on January 5th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
Ladies was, I beleive, the first of yours that I read, and it got me hooked! At least, my copy is dog eared enough for it to be first! I thoroughly enjoyed it and the sequels. And everything else of yours I've read since. But that's the one that got me started.

I have been enjoying these posts. It's neat to read some of the behind the story commentary on much loved books.
padawanslackerpadawanslacker on January 10th, 2011 02:01 am (UTC)
I seem to be way behind the curve on replying to this, but I loved these books. As a (then) 12 or 13-year-old girl, I particularly loved the "Girls With Swords!" angle. :)

I also understand what you mean when you say you can't hide from the people you spar with . . . even in Iaido, which is more or less non-contact, you learn a lot about the person you're facing off against, especially if he (or occasionally she) is holding live steel!
handwornhandworn on January 13th, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
The Ladies of Mandrigyn is up there battling with a very few others as my favorite book of yours. There's a strong portion of catharsis as a theme-- of personal transformation through hardship-- which is so rare in books and honestly and accurately (from life, apparently) drawn that it's amazingly attractive.

I hope there will be another Sun Wolf story in The Further Adventures Of.
greenlily: tardis snowglobe. fangrrl.greenlily on January 26th, 2011 10:06 pm (UTC)
I love the Sun Wolf books. A babysitter gave them to me when I was in my mid-teens and becoming just a little too infatuated with the sparkly-princesses-and-unicorns brand of high fantasy. She wanted me to read something grittier to balance it. :) Twenty years later, this trilogy and the Windrose Chronicles are frequent re-reads.