I love stories with skilled women who use their brains and hard-won know-how to solve problems. Jaine Fenn’s Shadowlands duology does just that, with a scientist as the protagonist.

We spoke to Jaine about skilled female characters, what ‘science fantasy’ is, and how you decide on the number of books in a book series.

Jaine is author of the Shadowlands duology – both Hidden Sun and Broken Shadow are out now from Angry Robot.

It is refreshing to see female characters in skilled roles. Was it important for you to write a story with a female scientist? What did you hope to achieve with Rhia’s portrayal?

Growing up, I was steered away from the sciences – my all-girls school didn’t even teach physics – but I also remember my utter delight at being able to study astronomy when I got to uni. Thanks to these early experiences, I’ve always wanted to write about a woman scientist in a man’s world.

Rhia herself is full of contradictions, not least because despite her sharp and enquiring mind she can lack self-knowledge. For much of the story she doesn’t consider how lucky she is; thanks to being born into privilege she can operate freely in both the worlds of science and politics despite living in a hide-bound patriarchy. She also has a massive emotional blind-spot regarding her brother’s many faults. At the same time she has admirable willpower and determination; some years before the book opens she did something unthinkable to avoid an arranged marriage, an act which set the story into motion.    

What are some of your favourite genre fiction stories with skilled, successful female characters?

Broken Shadow, Book 2 of the Shadowlands Duology, by Jaine Fenn. Published by Angry Robot.

Although I’m not sure how well they’d stand re-reading now, I used to love Anne McCaffrey’s books; Lessa and Killashandra were great role-models for me as a girl. A little later, and rather less cerebrally, I had a girl-crush on Molly from Neuromancer, who I managed to semi-conflate with the Miller/Sienkiewicz Electra, leaving me with a lasting and possibly unhealthy interest in female assassins.

More recently, I think Lila Black from Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series is great; certainly skilled, if not always successful. And then there’s Chrisjen Avasarala from The Expanse, brilliant both on page and screen. Actually, I found it easier to come with examples from film and TV rather than books, which might mean that TV and film have got with the programme – or possibly that I just need to read more recent SFF.

The Shadowlands duology mixes a lot of science fiction and fantasy concepts. What appealed to you about writing a story that blended two generally distinct genres of speculative fiction? Did you encounter any unexpected problems when attempting to mix the two?

Again, I was going back to my roots: most of my published work is SF, but I read fantasy before I got into SF, and I’ve always loved authors like the aforementioned Anne McCaffrey, and also Gene Wolfe and Mary Gentle, who manage to blend elements of SF and F in their work. Science Fantasy as a genre has gone out of fashion, but I’d love to see more of it being written today.

Probably thanks to being used to writing moderately hard SF, I did find myself getting a bit hung up on the science – and the science of the Shadowlands is both complex and kooky – even though, with a couple of notable exceptions, most of the characters have no interest in knowing how their world works.

The default structure for SFF series is the trilogy. Why did you want to write a duology instead?

When I first came up with the concept for Shadowlands I thought it would be a trilogy. But with a lot of the action happening simultaneously in different threads I knew it would be hard to find a good point to break between books 2 and 3. Then, when I drafted book 1, I realised that one plotline needed to be resolved early while another one which wasn’t paying off properly needed trimming. So, down to two books then; as a result I think that compared to some traditional fantasy these books are both leaner in the prose and denser in the plot.   

Pitch our readers the Shadowlands duology! Why should we be reading it?

This is science fantasy for the 21st century. It has some tropes you’ll know – though there’s a good reason why one of my cultures looks a lot like pre-Renaissance Europe – but with plenty of moral ambiguity, both from Rhia herself and others, like the expedient scientist-priest who wants to save the world, starting with himself. It also explores contemporary themes like the challenge of re-uniting divided worlds and the thorny issue of comfortable lies vs difficult truths.

Plus it’s got intrigue, joy, despair, love, betrayal, weird ecologies, dangerous journeys, lost technologies, grimly accurate portents, characters in all sorts of adversity and some world-changing science.  

Jaine Fenn – photo by James Cooke

Jaine Fenn studied linguistics and astronomy before becoming a full-time writer. Her first book, Principles of Angels, started the Hidden Empire series of character-driven space opera novels. She won the BSFA Shorter Fiction Award, and now divides her time between original fiction, teaching creative writing, and writing for tabletop and video games. She lives in Devon.

Her latest novel, Broken Shadows, is out now.