Note: Originally posted to fantasywithbite, but considerably revised.
This fantasy trilogy consists of Tomoe Gozen (also published as The Disfavored Hero), The Golden Naginata, and Thousand Shrine Warrior. Sadly, they are all out of print, but you can find them from used booksellers or PaperbackSwap or BookMooch, and it's well worth getting the complete set. It is my all-time favorite fantasy series. Not "favorite samurai series" or "favorite Japanese fantasy series" but favorite fantasy series period. I am not much of a rereader; for the most part, I prefer to devote my reading time to books I haven't read yet, but this is one of the few I do reread now and then. (In fact, it's been a while since I last read them -- my literary perspectives have shifted a bit since I started reading and reviewing a lot more in the past few years, so I probably need to revisit them. The review below, therefore, may be considered somewhat dated as it's based on my recollection of these books from some years ago.)
Today, kickass female protagonists in fantasy novels are not particularly noteworthy (though the few who don't make you grit your teeth because they're catering to all the would-be Xanders in the world are). But in the 1980s, most fantasy was derived from Tolkien or Howard/Burroughs/Lovecraft, and there really wasn't much that broke out of that mold. You had your swords & sandals barbarian adventures, you had your grimdark albino wizards, you had your epic quests full of elves and dragons, and female characters who weren't tokens (or writhing at the hero's feet in lamé bikinis) were very few and far between. If you did encounter a female warrior in fantasy fiction, she was usually pretty much a man with tits (very large ones) hunting down the forty-seven men who'd raped her.
Jessica Amanda Salmonson is an author you've probably never heard of who wrote books you've probably never read, but she played a part in changing all that.
In 1979, she edited the anthology Amazons!, the "first significant fantasy anthology of works featuring female protagonists by (mostly) female authors." It was followed in 1982 by Amazons II. None of the stories would be ground-breaking today (frankly, my recollection is that they featured a large percentage of rape-revenge stories), nor is a feminist fantasy anthology hard to find today. But in the 70s and 80s, your fantasy archetypal heroine was basically Red Sonja. A whole book full of stories about chicks with swords who didn't wear chainmail bikinis? That was actually groundbreaking.
Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen trilogy featured a woman warrior who was quite simply the best fighter in the world, and who rode, fought, and killed like any other warrior. Also, she wore armor and clothing like any other warrior.
Tomoe Gozen is not completely fictional: she is described in the Heike Monogatari ("Tales of the Heike"), which tells the tale of the 12th century Genpei War that ultimately led to the rise of the samurai class. The Heike Monogatari is considered to be semi-historical, in that most of the events and people described in it have been confirmed by other sources, and it is thus one of the best descriptions historians have of the Genpei War. However, it's basically a collection of oral accounts dating back over 700 years, and it contains a good deal of epic embellishment. Thus, there is some debate over whether Tomoe Gozen actually existed, or was a creation of some storyteller or unknown author, since there is no record of her anywhere else. According to the Heike Monogatari, she was the wife of Minamoto Yoshinaka, the hero of the Genpei War who was eventually betrayed by his own cousin:
Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand, ready to confront a demon or a god, mounted or on foot. She handled unbroken horses with superb skill; she rode unscathed down perilous descents. Whenever a battle was imminent, Yoshinaka sent her out as his first captain, equipped with strong armor, an oversized sword, and a mighty bow; and she performed more deeds of valor than any of his other warriors.
Salmonson's books are based on this legendary figure who may or may not have actually lived. They loosely follow the actual history of the Genpei War, but they are set in a fantasy version of Japan, where magic and mythical creatures are real. The Tomoe Gozen trilogy has a lot in common with the fantasy that was popular at the time: it's pure swords & sorcery, with a badass heroine who travels across Naipon (yes, it's called "Naipon" in the series, because Salmonson deliberately distinguishes this alternate Earth Japan from the real Nippon), fighting other samurai, monsters, and wizards, pretty much carving up anyone and anything that gets in her way.
What makes this series great? Well, first of all, Tomoe Gozen is 100% pure epic badass. She totally p0wns, just like Conan and Elric and all the other male heroes who've been chewing up fantasy landscapes for decades. But Tomoe is a hero out of legend, not a Mary Sue -- she's a samurai, and Salmonson nails the feel of a samurai epic. She also gets the magic and the mythical creatures of Japan right -- when they appear, they have the same mystery and supernatural wonder about them as in Japanese fairy tales; they don't feel like wandering monsters from Oriental Adventures who just show up for the heroine to score some XPs.
So yes, Tomoe encounters tengu, oni, kappa, and even ninja, but these are not her most interesting opponents. Her strict bushido code frequently forces her into conflicts she'd rather avoid. The series is full of tragedy as she's forced to pursue vengeance, keep promises, battle friends, and abandon loved ones, all for the sake of her honor. This makes her a very human character, despite the fact that she's nearly undefeatable in battle.
There isn't a lot of romance, at least not in the Western sense. Tomoe marries Minamoto Yoshinaka and is his warrior-captain wife. She also has a lesbian relationship later with another noblewoman, which is treated briefly and unremarkably, but Tomoe isn't much motivated by sex or family; to her, the first is an occasional pleasure and/or inconvenience, the latter is a duty.
Verdict: The Tomoe Gozen trilogy is an awesome, rocking adventure from start to finish. I'd classify Salmonson as a "literary fantasy" writer who mixes the language of fairy tales with the action and drama of pulp serials. I can't say enough good things about it. I'm now in the process of reading some of Salmonson's other, even less well-known works, and I'm sorry she's not writing more contemporary stuff. Where is the Tomoe among the current crop of sparkly/godly/angelic-dick-pursuing fantasy "heroines"?