Toward a More Female-Friendly Fantasy Canon

Part 3: Worthy Additions

To frame my suggestions for inclusion in a female-friendly fantasy canon, I’ve considered some of the characteristics for which books often included on “Best Of” lists tend to be praised. Strong and vivid prose is, of course, one aspect they have in common, though their styles may differ.

If you seek detailed world-building, complex politics, and a dash of moral ambiguity, you may enjoy–

  1. Michelle West’s multi-volume epic series The Sun Sword. The first book, The Broken Crown, is as violent, dark, and troubling as A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s much-loved series better known by its TV name Game of Thrones. Yet sadly and inexplicably, few fantasy fans seem to have heard of these books. They deserve far more recognition.
  2. Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series. The first volume, Spirit Gate, is almost too dark and violent for my tastes, but the intricacy of the detail is tremendous, and we do get to know some fascinating heroines. The Steampunk-inflected Spiritwalker Trilogy, starting with Cold Magic, is even better in my opinion.
  3. Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns, a planned five-part historical fantasy that begins with The Thousand Names. It may be very new, but other brand-new series have made it onto “Best Of” lists, so why not this one? The action sequences are stirring, and the political wheeling and dealing is a blast. And there are women. Lots of them.

If you’re looking  for detailed world-building and a sense of awe and wonder, you may like–

  1. Kate Forsyth’s Eileanan series, beginning with The Witches of Eileanan, a.k.a. Dragonclaw. Magic in threat, faeries, monsters, shifters, stalwart heroines, scheming villains — they’re all here. The sequel series, Rhiannon’s Ride, which I accidentally read first (and liked far too much to put down and backtrack to the first series) is also well worth a read. It has a female pegasus! I’m practically sold right from that point.
  2. Elizabeth Bear’s The Eternal Sky, the trilogy beginning with Range of Ghosts. This book offers a treat for those weary of pseudo-Medieval Europe fantasy worlds. Djinns, afrits, magical horses, and mutant tigresses populate this Arabian Nights landscape, along with female wizards (two of them, both wonderful), a destined hero, and a queen who can command an army of monsters.
  3. Anything by Patricia McKillip. The words “awe and wonder” are all but synonymous with McKillip’s numinous, poetic writing style. Those I’ve read: Winter Rose, The Bards of Bone Plain, Alphabet of Thorn, Ombria in Shadow, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, and The Cygnet and the Firebird.
  4. The Sevenwaters Trilogy, beginning with Daughter of the Forest. Juliet Marillier’s series brings Celtic mythology vividly and lyrically to life, and it reminds us that a heroine does not always need to wield a sword in order to save the day, as Sarah Letourneau points out.

If you like rough-and-tumble action with heroes and heroines kicking butt side by side, you should appreciate–

  1. Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk trilogy, beginning with The Ladies of Mandrigyn. Hambly is one of the most solidly readable writers I’ve discovered in the last decade. (I’ve heard her Star Wars tie-in novels aren’t the best, but at this point I’d be tempted to read a shopping list if Hambly wrote it.) Her heroes are flawed but understandable, and boy, do they ever make the villains sorry they crossed them. A touch of moral ambiguity is on the menu here (there’s a distinct gritty toughness), but so are friendship, loyalty, and satisfying self-discovery.
  2. Violette Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno series, beginning with The Sleeping God. I admit I picked up that first book because the statuesque, muscular, poised-for-action image of heroine Dhulyn Wolfshead looked like someone I wanted to read about. Now, with only one more book to go in the series, I find it criminal that Malan’s work isn’t better known. There’s plenty of action here, for those who love action, and romance, for those who love romance.

If you enjoy alternate-history or historical fiction with fantasy elements, you should try–

  1. Kate Forsyth’s “fairy tale” series. Bitter Greens merges a retelling of Rapunzel with the story of one of the ancien regime fairy-tale authors who recorded it, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. The Wild Girl tells the story of Dortchen Wild, the girl who became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm and one of the storytellers whose tales he and his brother recorded. Both books are immensely powerful and cathartic, more of a challenge than the superbly dreamy Eileanan novels. To read both sequences is to witness the versatility of a gifted writer. The “fairy tales” series has a new entry, The Beast’s Garden, which I’ve yet to read but can’t wait to get my hands on.
  2. Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, but especially A Song for Arbonne, alternate-history France in the age of the troubadours, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, a depiction of the conflict between Christian (Jaddite), Muslim (Asharite), and Jew (Kindath). Lions is my favorite due largely to its female lead, the Kindath physician Jehane, a beautifully realized rule-breaker.

If you like fantasy that intersects with the real world and presents complicated, often disturbing moral dilemmas, you will enjoy–

  1. Kindred and Wild Seed, both by the justly lauded Octavia Butler. In the first, a modern African-American woman is transported to the pre-Civil War South and saves the life of an adorable redheaded boy — only to return again and again and watch as he evolves into a vastly less adorable young man. In the second, a powerful shape-shifting force of creation is locked in a centuries-long dance of doom with her evil opposite number. Both books are strong meat, and would serve as a wake-up call for those who believe women only write “soft” fiction.
  2. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death. The heroine who strides powerfully through the wastes of post-Apocalyptic Africa is part destroyer, part savior. Once again, very strong meat.

If you like urban fantasy in which the plot is NOT driven by the protagonist’s sex life, you should be pleased with–

  1. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, a foundation work in the subgenre. Musician Eddi McCandry may fall in love with a supernatural ally, but she doesn’t let romance distract her from fighting to save her city from Fair Folk with evil intent. This book has plenty of humor and verve, and I need to reread it soon.
  2. Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook. Good and evil mutants battle for the life and soul of contemporary London, and the female protagonist is an amnesiac, fearless, supernaturally gifted office drone. What’s not to love?
  3. The Girl With All the Gifts. I’m not sure if M.R. Carey’s novel of a zombie-plagued England and the mismatched misfits who try to navigate it really belongs in this category, but I have to put it somewhere. It’s just too good for me to leave out.

Whew! That’s quite a lot, and I’m sure I will need to add more as my reading life proceeds. For a finish, I offer a list of books that may do for young readers what Hambly’s Dragonsbane did for Brandon Sanderson:

  1. Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
  2. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, beginning with The Wee Free Men, and The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
  3. Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Spindle’s End
  4. Anything by Tamora Pierce
  5. Anne McCaffrey, The Harper Hall of Pern, beginning with Dragonsong
  6. Patricia C. Wrede, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, starting with Dealing With Dragons. (She has several good series, but this is my favorite.)
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