A couple of days ago I had one of those wonderful moments when I see my own views perfectly reflected in the words of another writer — in this case, Emily Asher-Perrin, a writer for the Tor.com website. The post was an old one, from 2012, entitled “Break the YA Monopoly — Give Us Female Heroes for Adults,” and in it Ms. Asher-Perrin noted with pleasure the growing number of active heroines in science fiction and fantasy directed at the YA audience, yet expressed regret at the comparative lack of female leads in SFF aimed at adults. In the Comments section (yes, I know, “never read the comments,” but I can’t help myself), one reader took her to task for failing to acknowledge the rise of Urban Fantasy, a sub-genre dominated by female protagonists. Ms. Asher-Perrin admitted the criticism might have some weight but confessed that Urban Fantasy is just “not my cuppa” and she gets tired of being pointed toward it each time she expresses a desire for more woman-centric adult-oriented fantasy.
Welcome to my head, Ms. Asher-Perrin! These very thoughts, in almost these very words, have coursed through my brain when I’ve browsed Goodreads lists like “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” and “Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book” and noted how many of the titles are either YA or Urban Fantasy or, of course, both. As I’ve stated before on this blog, I can take much pleasure in a well-written work of YA fantasy, and I’d never hesitate to praise the work of Robin McKinley or Tamora Pierce or Gail Carson Levine, particularly as its influence on a rising generation of potential writers cannot be over-appreciated. But I can’t help regretting that male leads continue to dominate in fantasy’s more mature works, with writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, R. Scott Bakker, Brian Staveley, and Mark Lawrence leading the pack. (To be fair, Staveley and Lawrence both have books coming out this year in which they’re trying their hands at female leads. Should prove interesting.) As for Urban Fantasy, while there may be some exceptions, in general I’m with Ms. Asher-Perrin: it’s not my cuppa. Some UF may be very well-written, but the edgy ultra-“modern” writing style tends to put me off. Also, I read fantasy to explore other worlds, not to tour some near-variation of the real one. I’d rather see more powerful, active female presences in the subgenres I prefer — second-world fantasy, historical and epic.
What exactly defines a work of epic fantasy? I freely admit my own novels don’t qualify, though they are second-world (that is, set in a created world). My stories so far have concerned the fates of small sets of characters in limited settings — in Atterwald, a magically secluded estate, and in Nightmare Lullaby, a village. Epic fantasy is wider in scope. In epic fantasy, the fates of nations or even entire peoples is at stake, and military action is nearly always involved. Tolkien’s legendary Lord of the Rings, which essentially gave birth to the modern fantasy-for-adults genre, is of this ilk, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire stands as the best-known recent example. Women do play significant roles in Martin’s series, but the excuse for why male characters continue to dominate in the genre is a simple, short-sighted, oft-repeated one: women aren’t interested in epic fantasy. We don’t read it, and we don’t write it.
Excuse me. Yes, we do.
Here, if you will, is a list of names, just for a start — and not, by any means, all the women who write or have written epic fantasy. An asterisk denotes those whose work I’ve read and whose quality I can vouch for.
Elizabeth Bear*. Kate Forsyth*. Kate Elliott*. Katherine Kerr. Katherine Kurtz. Michelle West*. Mickey Zucker Reichert*. Jennifer Fallon*. Melanie Rawn. Sara Douglass. Tanith Lee. Naomi Novik*. Robin Hobb*. Janny Wurts*. Barbara Hambly.* Carol Berg. Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette*. Jacqueline Carey*. Julie Czerneda. Lois McMaster Bujold*. Elizabeth Moon*. N.K. Jemisin. Kameron Hurley. Mary Gentle. C.S. Friedman. J.V. Jones. Lynn Flewelling. Teresa Frohock. Rowena Cory Daniells. Jude Fisher. Katya Riemann. Holly Lisle. Evie Manieri*. Stina Leicht*. Patricia McKillip*. C.J. Cherryh.* Helen Lowe. Karen Miller. Gail Z. Martin*. Elspeth Cooper. Jennifer Roberson. Anne Bishop. Judith Tarr. Mercedes Lackey*. Sherwood Smith. Kristen Britain*. Trudi Canavan*. Glenda Larke*. Elizabeth Haydon*.
Given such obvious evidence to the contrary, why do some still cling to the assumption that women, as writers and as readers, don’t care about epic fantasy? Why, when we express a wish for a stronger female presence in adult-targeted epic fantasy, should we be told to read urban fantasy instead? I’ve read plenty of theories, but all of them point back to one thing: visibility. As good as their work may be, these women’s names almost never pop to the top of the Recommendations or Favorites lists, and so many prospective readers may never even realize their work is out there. In the urban fantasy subgenre, female writers are front and center, and so the phrase “fantasy by women” may conjure a certain image in a lot of readers’ minds, of a woman in low-rider jeans and cut-off t-shirt, side-arm in hand and face either cut off or hidden in shadow, the proto-typical cover of an urban fantasy novel.
The perception needs to change, and we can all do our part.
I confess that when I choose books to read, I pay far less attention to the author’s gender than I do to the characters’ genders. A book that omits women or relegates them to background roles won’t appeal to me these days, regardless of who wrote it. And as I’ve mentioned in the past, we can’t assume that women writers will always write better female characters than men do. Male writers like Django Wexler, Brandon Sanderson, and Max Gladstone fill their works with not just one or two interesting women but an abundance of them, but some excellent female writers, like Carol Berg and Sarah Monette, have at times noted that male characters come more easily to them, and accordingly, nearly all their novels feature male leads. The notion that male leads are better suited for the sorts of stories epic fantasy novels usually tell is very easy to internalize.
Yet in Women’s History Month, a too-brief time we set aside to acknowledge and lift up the accomplishments of women, I want to call attention to some of my favorite works of epic fantasy both by women and about women. I know I’ve mentioned some of these in previous posts, so I’ll keep it short and simple.
Elizabeth Bear, The Eternal Sky Trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky). What makes it epic? A contest between heroes and villains for the soul of a nation and the lives of its people; a sumptuously detailed Arabian Nights setting; a clash of armies, both human and nonhuman; a plentiful cast of characters, both male and female, including a kick-butt giant mutant tiger.
Kate Forsyth, the Witches of Eileanan series (The Witches of Eileanan et. seq.) and its sequel series, Rhiannon’s Ride (The Tower of Ravens, The Shining City, and The Heart of Stars). What makes it epic? A setting that ranges from castle walls to faery forests to a mountain range inhabited by dragons; a clash between sympathetic witches and grasping witch-hunters for the life and soul of a nation; a plentiful cast of characters, male and female, human and nonhuman, and (perhaps the greatest rarity) young and old.
Robin Hobb, The Liveship Traders (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny). What makes it epic? Sea battles between pirates and merchants; sentient ships, sea serpents, and dragons, each one of them given point-of-view sequences that give us glimpses of their nonhuman natures; clash of cultures and races.
Michelle West, the Sun Sword series (The Broken Crown et. seq.). What makes it epic? A clash of nations and cultures; a large cast of characters, with detailed and complex points of view, on both sides of the struggle; destiny-shaping nonhuman forces, often in the background but always omnipresent.
Mickey Zucker Reichert, The Renshai Chronicles (Beyond Ragnarok, Prince of Demons, and The Children of Wrath). What makes it epic? A cast of characters that includes humans, elves, and gods; a quest to find a missing heir and save a kingdom from evil forces without and within; political machinations alternating with action sequences.
In short, such books have all the ingredients to make any epic fantasy fan happy. And all include multiple women in important roles. The Illustrated Page is also posting a series this month highlighting the impressive work being done by women in the fantasy genre. Give it a look for even more titles.
Seek out these books. Revel in them. Devour them. Women belong in epic fantasy, both as writers and as characters.