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Q&A with Laura Bates - Sisters of Sword and Shadow

By Beth Moore

We are thrilled to welcome Laura Bates to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release, Sisters of Sword and Shadow, released on the 9th of November 2023.

What if the Knights of the Round Table had a female counterpart? An epic Arthurian fantasy reimagining from the UK’s leading and bestselling feminist writer, Laura Bates, for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J. Maas.

'An interesting thing happens, when a man is defeated in combat by a woman . . . He tells nobody.'

Destined for an arranged marriage, Cass dreams of freedom. So when a fierce and beautiful leather‑clad woman rides up and offers to take her away, Cass doesn’t hesitate to join her. She is introduced to the Sisters of Sword and Shadow - a group of female knights training to fight, protect their community and right the wrongs of men. Drawn into a world of ancient feuds, glorious battles, and deadly intrigue, Cass soon discovers she holds a power that could change not only her own fate but that of her entire sisterhood.

Introducing Laura Bates' fantasy debut, the first in a breathtaking and sweeping duology, exploring questions about power, courage and the stories we tell about the past.

Please could you provide us with a little about yourself and your work, and without giving anything away a brief introduction to Sisters of Sword and Shadow.

I’m a feminist activist and writer. I have written feminist non-fiction and contemporary fiction, but this is my first foray into fantasy/historical fiction. Sisters of Sword and Shadow is a feminist retelling of Arthurian legends, which asks the question: what if there was a circle of female knights and the only reason we have never heard of them is because the men who they defeated in combat never told anyone about it? It questions the traditional myths and legends around Arthur and looks at who might have been left out of the story. But most of all it is the story of Cass, a young woman from a sheltered countryside background whose life is completely upended when she stumbles on a community of fierce female knights and learns that destiny has more in store for her than she could ever have imagined.

I would like to start by saying how much I enjoyed reading this book. I am used to reading your non-fiction work so it was a real pleasure to experience your fiction writing. As your non-fiction work is heavily research based, how does the process of writing fiction differ for you or is it not as different as we might believe?

Thank you! It is a very different process for me, and although I do a lot of research (for example I learned to joust and sword fight before I wrote the book!) there is also a lot more creative freedom within fiction which I relish, particularly in a period like this one where so little historical certainty exists about the period and events. I also have a very different approach to feminist issues in different forms of writing – in non-fiction, you are really trying to persuade the reader of your specific viewpoint, whereas in fiction the story is the most important thing and the aim is to use what is hopefully an exhilarating and exciting adventure to gently ask questions and encourage readers to come to their own conclusions.

I read that you said that as a young person you enjoyed this genre of literature greatly, but felt it lacked empowered female characters. I must admit that this is a genre that I am not normally drawn to, however I was compelled by this narrative and realised that perhaps I have never connected with this genre because I didn’t feel represented. Can you speak a little about the importance of representation for young girls and women and why it was perhaps your main driving factor in writing this story?

I think representation in literature (and culture more widely, from film to music to art) is so hugely important. The stories we tell are the way we make sense of the world around us and our place within it, so if those stories only focus on the experiences of a narrow section of our society then lots of people won’t reap the many rich benefits we know these forms of culture can provide. For young people in particular, seeing themselves in stories is part of how they dare to dream about possible futures for themselves and when we only show one very specific type of person in those stories we are sending an implicit message to those left out that their options are limited. In many ways, this theme is echoed in the book itself – the stories Cass has always been shown by the world around her have made it very clear that her society envisages a very limited, domestic, subservient life for her, and it is only when she meets the sisterhood of female knights that her whole concept of what her life might look like can transform dramatically, through seeing powerful female role models who show her just how much more her life might hold. Telling diverse stories about different people isn’t just important for those who see themselves represented either, it also makes things a lot more interesting for everybody!

I was inspired by many of the characters in the sisterhood. Especially the way in which they felt as though they were each representing a different approach to combating misogyny, some taking what felt like the peaceful protest angle whilst others were spurred by their rage. Was this a conscious decision and was showing the value of each approach of importance?

Yes I think it’s really important not to represent women as a homogenous group and to recognise that we all have different ideas about the best way to create change! Argument and division within feminist movements is often portrayed as a great weakness but I think there is strength in diverse voices and the adoption of lots of different approaches towards progress and I wanted to show that here!

I found myself completely absorbed by the friendship between Lily and Cass, in recent years I have really come to truly understand the value of female friendship. Was this something it felt important to convey to a younger audience, as today’s society so often forces us to judge ourselves against our female counterparts and pit us against one another from an early age?

Absolutely, this is so important to me! I grew up with a media that constantly pitted women against each other and suggested we were in competition for male approval, and it really affected my perception of the value of female friendships versus romantic relationships with men. I wanted to explore the enormous richness, depth and joy of platonic (as well as romantic) female relationships because I felt that was an element really missing from the Arthurian adventures I read growing up. The complexity and value of the relationships between the male knights of the round table is one of the most beautiful parts of the stories about the round table and I wanted a chance to explore those dynamics between women, rather than them simply being reduced to rival love interests or evil witches!

Another element of the book I felt worked really well, without wanting to give too much away, was the male characters who were supportive of the sisterhood. Can you speak a little about how important it is for young men to see other men supporting women’s causes and successes?

We are living in increasingly polarised times where, online in particular, young men are being very deliberately targeted with extreme misogynistic narratives. These rely on division and separation, portraying a ‘culture war’ that is a ‘battle of the sexes’ and convincing men that they are automatically in opposition to women, and that supporting women’s rights means taking something away from men. But the reality is so different from that! There is so much to fight for that would benefit young people of all genders, and so much about what feminism is trying to do that would also release men from suffocating and damaging gender stereotypes. And of course the reality is very different from the media portrayals: there are a lot of young men who are really passionate about these issues and fighting hard to try and tackle them. So it is always important ot me to show that complexity, and portray the male characters who are also fighting for equality and supporting women, not least so that those young men know that they are not alone!

“Let me tell you something about stories [...] Those who write them hold power. [...] And once a story begins to spread there can be no stopping it. It becomes a living thing, with a journey all its own.” - A quote from Sisters of Sword and Shadow that I found very powerful and moving, especially in its context. With this belief about stories being in your mind, did you feel any pressure while writing this story, and if so, can you explore why? How did you cope with the pressure, if any?

Yes I really believe that stories hold enormous power in our society and that they have the ability to unlock things, to change things, to create real societal shift. So there is always a sense of responsibility as a writer I think, and for me the best way to deal with that is to try and tell stories that create space for imagination and joy and possibility rather than shutting it down, to honour the experiences of the young women I work with in my writing, and to be as faithful as I can to the reality of those experiences (which are, in many ways no different today than they were hundreds of years ago).

I did get a little bit giddy when Sigrid reveals she is from Fenland as I am a Fen girl myself who finds herself drawn away from the area. Although Sisters of Sword and Shadow is set in a time period far removed from today, it is clear to see the modern reflection in the issues you explore in the narrative. Aside from the inspiring narrative, what advice would you give to a girl or young woman who feels the pull to broaden their horizons and gain their freedom from whatever holds them back?

I would echo what I hope is the message readers will take away from the book: there is so much more inside you than society has allowed you to imagine, you can build a life for yourself that completely ignores societal constraints and expectations if you are brave enough to ignore them, and you will find that you are not alone : there are so many other women who you will find along the way who will be alongside you, cheering you on and blazing trails for you to follow.

As a child I certainly daydreamed about myself riding a horse through a woodland, and being skilled enough to do battle because it was exhilarating and fun, much like your book. Just for fun, if you were a Sister of Sword and Shadow what would your horse be called and what would be your weapon of choice?

Ooh that’s such a great question! Naming the horses was actually one of my favourite parts of the writing process, as the names of the horses say so much about their riders and the journey they are on! (Sigrid’s horse, Brimstone, is my favourite!) I think my horse would be called Blaze and my weapon of choice would definitely be a bow and arrow as archery was the skill I took to most easily during combat training for the book!

Finally, if you had to pick one song to describe Sisters of Sword and Shadow, what would that song be?

Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys

Laura Bates studied English at Cambridge University and went on to be a freelance journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, Red Magazine and Grazia among others. She is also contributor at Women Under Siege, a New-York based organisation working to combat the use of sexual violence as a tool of war in conflict zones worldwide. She is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.


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