Pigs Don’t Fly by Mary Brown #Fantasy

The following book has been selected as part of my search to find positive representations of folks who identify as fat women in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. That positive representation will not hinge on the character being miserable and then happy after losing weight or falling in love. Characters can lose weight or fall in love, but it is not the catalyst for their happiness. I also will not recommend books in which the character pulls her body apart (I call this the “chicken dinner”) and criticize pieces.

Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Content Warnings: harsh fat shaming

Mary Brown’s fantasy novel Pigs Don’t Fly (1994, Baen Books) is part of a trilogy or quartet, depending on how you look at it. The first book, The Unlikely Ones, is completely separate from this book — by hundreds of years, setting-wise — except there is a ring made from a unicorn horn created in The Unlikely Ones that comes back in Pigs Don’t Fly. All you need to know is that it warns the wearer of danger by tingling and allows them to think-speak to animals. Therefore, I vote we’re dealing with a trilogy, starting with Pigs Don’t Fly and dismiss The Unlikely Ones as a separate novel. Furthermore, Brown published The Unlikely Ones in 1986, whereas the next three were published 1994, 1995, and 1999. I’ve spent time on this question because readers on Goodreads seem unsure where to start in the little series and wanted to be helpful to those interested in picking up Brown’s novels.

Pigs Don’t Fly begins with Summer’s life with her mother, who is the village prostitute, which keeps them in money. Summer gains a bit of an education when each man who regularly visits her mother teachers Summer a bit of what he knows or does. The setting is unclear, but it’s something Europe-ish, everyone is a Christian, and there are mostly small villages and knights that own castles. You get the classic fantasy setting as a result. When Summer’s mother suddenly dies, her former clients decide they’ll kick Summer out of the house so a new prostitute can move in — she’s too fat to be a whore. Thus, Summer gathers up her stuff, sets the house on fire in the middle of the night, and runs away with some coins for a dowry. Like classic fantasy, she picks up a rag-tag group of creatures that rely on her: a flea-ridden dog, a blind knight, a pigeon with a broken wing, a turtle whose owners abandoned him, a horse that’s been abused, and a runty pig . . . with wings. The entire book is narrated from Summer’s perspective.

pigs dont fly
Cover. I own the trilogy omnibus, pictured below.

Mary Brown suggests she’ll stick to fantasy tropes: the animals will heal and find their perfect homes as they travel, the knight and Summer will fall in love, and they will have children who will carry on the story in the next book. But Brown deftly dodges our expectations of traditional fantasy. After traveling hundreds of miles by foot and facing challenges along the way (fantasy is set up like Nintendo games in which you must face mini bosses to get to the next level), she realizes she’s a different person who can’t go back to her old way of thinking. I was happy to be surprised and see a character grow organically.

There’s a lot of humor that made me give a small laugh — not riotous, but more charming. The dog is always hungry (even after he’s eaten), so he’s constantly getting caught with his face in the food dishes. The pig with wings is able to save himself and Summer from a high castle window when they’re held captive by filling himself with air and farting them to safety, like a balloon. There’s also a ghost boy that petulantly demands to be told a story or he’ll kill everyone.

The problem is this: Mary Brown made Summer a fat girl and totally belittles the character for no reason that helps the plot. Summer admits:

The fact was I was fat. Not fat, obese. No, admit it: gross. I was a huge lump of grease, wobbling from foot to foot like ill-set aspic. I couldn’t see my feet for my stomach, hadn’t seen them for years. . . . I had lost count of my chins and got sores on my thighs with the flesh rubbing together.

The knight in the story was recently wounded in a battle, causing blindness and amnesia. Summer is thankful he can’t see how fat and plain she is. Wouldn’t he be grateful for the help of a stranger who promises to return him to his home, when he can’t actually remember where home is? Summer asks people they meet to not tell the blind knight that she’s fat because she’s in love with him and doesn’t want to ruin things.

At one point, a street child calls Summer “fatty,” and she thinks, “I flushed with anger — but then I was fat wasn’t I . . .?” Here, I was proud of her! Recognizing that being fat is just a descriptor is hard to do, and she’s done it. I thought the character was growing emotionally. Summer even uses her size to push people around as she escapes and saves the pig’s life in one scene.

Given that classic fantasy involves a journey, typically on foot, I wasn’t surprised that Summer started to lose weight. You walk about 15 miles per day and that tends to happen. When she first notices that she has to take in her dresses a bit, she calls it “a small victory.” What, I wondered, did she “fight” to make her a victor?

unexpected dragon
This is the cover of the omnibus of the trilogy. That’s Summer on the cover.

The ultimate punch to the heart, though, was Mary Brown’s choice to make being fat the component that would keep Summer from happiness — because when she was fat she was disgusting. At the end of the book, Summer is thin, radiant. “Radiance” is unrealistic. A person who walks hundreds of miles and is nearly starving the whole book would definitely lose weight (and be malnourished), but she would also have excess skin all over her body. If you look at the cover image, that’s Summer, and Brown sells readers some weird fantasy-diet-self-help book of sorts. While there is a pig with wings in the book, the title may also be a way of saying that Summer won’t be successful (able to fly) as long as she’s a pig (e.g. fat). The actual pig, who seems to know things from the past, think-talks to Summer to explain how Summer went from gross to gorgeous:

“[Your mother, the prostitute,] didn’t want a pretty daughter to rival her, so she did the only thing she could short of disfigurement: she fattened you up like a prize pig, so that only a pervert would prefer you. Now you are all you should be.”

Never mind that Summer was the leader of a group of broken creatures, kept them safe, saved their lives, brought in money, and found them all homes. Never mind that she is a dreamer and adventurer who never settles when there are so many chances to do so. And that quote just above is why I keep looking for positive representations of fat women in fiction. We deserve better.

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32 comments

    • In this case, there wasn’t a “big boss” at the end, but there was a big surprise! I’m going to keep reading the trilogy to my husband because we’ve already read 2 books from the same world, but I hope it gets less petty about body size.

  1. Ugh! I have no words to describe the ickyness. There was so much potential here to make this something good.

    • Definitely!!! And the stuff about her being fat was completely unnecessary to the story. The person she ends up falling in love with saw her and knew her as a fat person and was never repulsed then. I feel like if Mary Brown is out there somewhere on Twitter, she’s constantly sharing “Food Cleanse” diets.

  2. Good grief! “Only a pervert would prefer you”?? Sounds to me like this author is working out some kind of issues. Maybe she’d have been better off doing it with a therapist rather than publishing such a horrid little book! Ugh!

    • When I Google the author, I can’t find any pictures of her anywhere. I wonder if she has a great deal of personal shame about the way she looks, which in itself is sad. We learn those things. I read about this study of a small island nation (I can’t remember which one; it’s been a while since I read the study) that had a very, very low percentage of people who felt dissatisfied with their bodies. Then, when Western TV was introduced to the island, that number shot up to almost everyone.

  3. Wow…. This sounded interesting at first because seems it seems to play with fantasy tropes. But that line about no decent person wanting Summer? That’s horrific. And what is with the cover? Summer who makes the journey should be on there, not the “radiant,” magically thin Summer of the end.

    • Yes, I was definitely excited that the book didn’t end “happily ever after.” Because it’s part of a trilogy, I knew the story would go on, but unless we’re talking about Lord of the Rings, fantasy trilogies seem to favor having the main characters’ children lead the way in the next book. It was just….it was like Brown had to ruin the heroine. Since walking and a severe lack of food was what made her lose weight, I’m not sure why it’s an accomplishment rather than a byproduct of her journey. Krysta, you’re a fantasy fan, aren’t you? What fantasy do you like? Do you read a lot of trilogies?

      • I think LotR is different because it wasn’t written as a trilogy but as a single book. The publishers asked Tolkien to split it up because of paper shortages during the war/to keep the purchase cost down. So, yeah, TTT doesn’t read like a typical “sequel” because it’s not. It’s just the middle of the story, so you don’t have that typical “we’re just filling up space here till the finale” feel.

        That’s a good point. It seems like the main character didn’t necessarily want to lose weight or feel she had to. And I don’t think food deprivation is the way to go when someone does want to lose weight! Readers shouldn’t be looking at the heroine’s journey and wanting to emulate it!

        I do like fantasy, but I tend to stick to MG and YA. (More MG these days. I feel like YA is in a rut. Too repetitive.) Trilogies are okay as long as the story actually warrants one. But I feel like publishers push series these days because they’re easier to market. But I’d rather read a standalone instead of seeing a story stretched out for no reason.

        • I didn’t know LotR was a single book! That makes a lot of sense. I have a book blogger friend in Australia who has pointed out that Aussie YA is quite different from U.S. YA. She said it’s much more realistic and can be darker. The big publisher over there is Allen & Unwin, if you’re interested.

  4. This sounds weird, but in that old school fantasy kind of way. I’m also having this weird sense of déjà vu. Nevermind, it’s because I’m remembering your review of The Unlikely Ones. The way the author portrays her protagonist and treats her fatness as an obstacle to happiness is definitely problematic. That last excerpt you shared makes me cringe so much. I hope the next book you pick up is better than this one.

  5. Jeez, we do deserve better. That’s an unfortunate way to end what sounded like an interesting book (or series). I will say though, I can appreciate any piece of literature that includes a pig that ‘farts you to safety’ LOL

    • I’m intrigued by what happens in the next book, though. I’m hoping the author forgot all the mean fat stuff and just moved on to write a good story, even though it has a conventionally pretty white woman at the lead.

  6. Wow. I am completely conflicted here! While this sounds like a fun and interesting adventure story, I imagine I might get caught by all the fat-shaming. It makes me so sad to see something like this the focus of plot and character development when it isn’t handled in a meaningful way. Do you find that all the weight Summer lost was realistic? Did you get stuck on that? Because I imagine I’d struggle to understand the “radiance” of such a physical transformation. Like you mentioned, there should be quite a bit of skin hanging off of Summer.

    I am totally intrigued to see where this will go in the future. Will fatness still be a focus in the rest of the trilogy on some level? Or is Brown done with this concept? Aside from the poor treatment of Summer and her fatness, I think I’d really enjoy this novel.

    • I think she’s going to chase after a sexy, sexy dragon, and I’m super ready for the story to go in that direction. I do think the weight Summer lost was realistic because she traveled by foot for 9 months and had very little food. They typically did 15 miles per day! Makes sense. I’m sure there was a point when her body fought because it thought it was starving (it was), but then the body starts using reserve fat stores. If I remember correctly, there is one point when she (or may another character?) acknowledges that her weight likely saved her life on this journey.

      • That’s really interesting. It sounds like Brown is exploring the necessity of acknowledging who we are and the mechanisms our body establishes to protect us while we fight who we want to be. Did the other characters grapple with starvation? Now I really want to read this book and see what I can pick out of it!

        • Summer narrates the novel, so you don’t hear the thoughts of other characters, but yes, they’re all starving because they’re sharing the little food they have (“here’s a small piece of bread and cheese for you!”). However, Mary Brown writes about them all as if they are growing sleeker and more handsome.

  7. Such a shame the author did this. I don’t mind so much when fat-shaming occurs at the hands of characters (whether it is from other characters or internalised), because I think that is true to the experiences of most of the overweight people that I know, and I would find it pretty unrealistic if it never played a part. Certainly I think lots of fat people are worried that people won’t be attracted to them and I think it’s fair to portray that worry. It becomes much more of an issue if the narrative actually bears out all the concerns and makes it a plot point! I still think these books sound interesting but I hope she cuts down on the nonsense for the next book.

    • I agree: worrying about our bodies is a part of being in a fat body, but it was the pervert line that got me. And I’m also confused when the concern about society and its feelings about fat bodies takes over the story. So far, the next book doesn’t have anything about fat-shaming. Summer remembers the previous year when she was fatter and how her features looked softer (because she’s now trying to pass as a boy on a ship, and her more angular features help).

  8. Uggh. This sounds terrible. I’ll definitely be staying away from this book! The more I think about this, the angrier I get. I like how you ended your review: “We deserve better”. Yes, yes we do.

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