Dave Freer is one of my favourite authors - hence my pushing of Save the Dragons. He writes books that are fun to read and yet possess layers of plot, character and thought-provoking stuff to make you come back and reread. I have in fact read his latest, Dragon's Ring, at least twice since I bought the eARC a few months back. and it will probably get read again shortly. Hence anypne expecting a negative review of this book is going to be disappointed if they ask me.
However in this review, rather than simply rave about how good the book is, I'm going to compare it with Lois M Bujold's Sharing Knife series (which I have also reviewed in thepast). I I'm inspired by this partly because of a post written a few weeks back on the Mad Genius Club blog discussing females in Speculative Fiction. In the comments to that post someone mentioned that Fawn from the Sharing Knife (TSK) series was interesting because she's not a typical genre heroine.
What is interesting about Fawn is that she's sort of the junior partner to her lover/husband. We, the readers, know that she helps him a lot and that Dag, the husband, loves her as much for her sparkling mind and indominatable spirit as anything else - yes she has curves in all the right places but then so do most young women. However the world at large undoubtedly sees Dag as the hero and her as the add-on because Dag has groundsense (i.e. can do magic) and Fawn can't. Dag is also much older and your classic tacitrun scarred verteran. One of the things that Fawn does well is make Dag approachable and less fearsome to people but this facilitator role is not going to be perceived as important as Dag's activities. This is not especially surprising, we always diss these facilitator folks - think of how interpreters. PR agents etc. are seen and it makes sense.
The fascinating thing about Dave Freer's Dragon's Ring is that Meb - the heroine - is everything that Fawn is but yet more in that she really becomes an equal part of her partnership with Fi(o)nn in a way that every one will realize. There are numerous parallels between Dag/Fawn and Fionn/Meb that make comparing the two very interesting.
Both Fawn and Meb start off as young, naive, innocent village girls who are forced through circumstances to grow up extremely fast and cope with a world rather larger than they or their village parents ever really understood. Both are relatively uneducated but both have the spark of intelligence and a decent moral sense. If this were a D&D world both would fall in the "Lawful, good" part of the spectrum and both would have minimal scores on things like experience, yet both have great hidden strengths. Their attraction to their partners is that unrealized potential and the desire of their partners to awaken that potential and guide it.
On the other hand Dag and Fionn are neither young nor innocent. They are also both outsiders to their societies and have great powers. The difference is that Dag is respected his known powers but is generally seen as rather dour. Fionn on the other hand, despite having probably more powers, is not respected for them but is known for a certain low humour. Even people who know he is powerful discount his constant statements that he intends to destoy the world and think he's just pulling their legs whereas he is deadly serious. Dag by contrast is recognized as a past hero and his statements about changing the world are taken at face value (and people tell him to stop being such an idiot).
The relationship between the two couples starts off very much the same. Dag and Fionn both rescue their girls and feel compelled to continue to protect the naive yet talented girl they've just saved. Romance doesn't raise its head quite so quickly in Dragon's Ring - Meb tries to pretend to be a boy whereas Fawn is clearly a fertile female - but other than that the two heroes act in similar ways to nurture their girls and give them the education they need.
The societies depicted in both books are not dissimilar - they are essentially the same pre-feminist society that humans have lived in for most of the last couple of millennia if not longer. A woman's place is, for the most part, to be subservient to her husband/father and there is plenty of discrimmination against women to ensure that they stay in their place. Meb pretends to be a boy because girls can't be apprentices and in both worlds unattached girls have little ability to protest the advances of unwanted suitors or rapists. Boys are allowed to sleep around but girls that do the same thing are sluts or harlots.
Another similarity is that both cultures are on the cusp of drastic change and there are of course many in these cultures who are resisting this change by any means possible. On the other hand both Fionn and Dag are "agents of change" to borrow from another SF series. They see the drastic change as a requirement and view their partnership with Meb and Fawn respectively as a key part of that change. Not only is their relationship key to the change, letting go of the girl would mean a victory for the forces of conservatism.
Yet while there are numerous similarities there is one big big difference. Meb has the potential to be as strong a mage as Fionn while Fawn is genetically limited to her total lack of ground-sense. Fawn learns how to find workarounds to her limits but she can never breach the limit. Meb on the other hand is a danger because she has the power but has never been taught to properly control and channel it. This is the key difference and makes Meb, in my opinion, a rather more suitable feminist heroine. Meb goes from pretending to be a powerless boy to accepting and utilizing her inborn talents whereas Fawn, although she matures, can never really challenge or compete with Dag in his core magical competency. Fawn is limited to "soft" power if you like but Meb can challenge on rather more levels. Of course that doesn't mean fighting it out with muscles - small women don't beat large men that way - but in the end Meb uses her in-built talents to do things that Fionn could have done but doesn't.
Fawn on the hand is left living happily ever after with a baby. If ever you wanted to illustrate the modern maternal dillemma of family vs career then despite their similarities in background that would be the difference between the two endings. Not that I think Fawn is unhappy with her choice whereas (and I'm in danger of getting more spoilerific than I want) Meb is certainly desperately unhappy with her choice - its just that the other options are worse.
One thing is for sure though, both authors are great. But if you've read TSK I think you'll get an extra kick out of Dragon's Ring by comparing the two.