In my post last week I focused on the issue of visibility for female writers and female-driven stories outside the urban, paranormal-romance, and YA subgenres. Women are writing high-quality epic and historical fantasy, and female leads are featured in it, yet despite obvious evidence (check out the long list of names of female epic-fantasy writers in last week’s post), many remain unaware of it. One culprit is easy to spot — fantasy stories by and/or about women remain a rarity on “Best Of” lists. Such lists can leave an unaware consumer with the impression that male-led stories by male authors are somehow inherently more worth reading.
One such list came to my attention a few days ago, in my Facebook feed: Paste Magazine’s 30 Best Fantasy Book Series of All Time. With thirty possible titles to choose from, the selection is heavily slanted in favor of stories about men — male heroes/saviors, male anti-heroes, male villain protagonists. And the funny-but-sad thing is that many people looking at the list might not think twice about this slant because hey, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is on it.
Let me break it down.
Stories focusing on male heroes, saviors, or Chosen Ones: The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis), The Chronicles of Prydain (Lloyd Alexander), The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Stephen R. Donaldson), The Dark Elf Trilogy (R. A. Salvatore), The Dark Tower (Stephen King), The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), The Kingkiller Chronicles (Patrick Rothfuss), The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), The Pendragon Cycle (Stephen R. Lawhead), Shannara (Terry Brooks), The Sword of Truth (Terry Goodkind), Temeraire (Naomi Novik), The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan). That’s not to say that female characters have no roles to play. Sometimes they’re around to help the male hero, and they may even be awesome in that role (e.g. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Karrin Murphy from The Dresden Files); other times they exist to put the male hero or heroes through varying levels of hell (e.g. The Wheel of Time). But whatever the case, however impressive the girls or women might occasionally be, the boys and men are the ones with the day-saving Destiny. Total number of titles: fourteen.
Series that focus on male protagonists who aren’t quite so heroic: The Black Company (Glen Cook), The Broken Empire Trilogy (Mark Lawrence), The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie), The Gentleman Bastards Sequence (Scott Lynch),The Magicians Trilogy (Lev Grossman), The Night Angel Trilogy (Brent Weeks). Number of titles: six — which brings the total of male-centric “Best” series up to twenty.
Then we have the series in which protagonist duty is divided between male and female characters. Some are ensemble pieces, such as Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. Others focus on male leads in some of the novels and female leads in others: Discworld (Terry Pratchett), The Earthsea Cycle (Ursula K. LeGuin), Redwall (Brian Jacques), Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey), and The Realm of the Underlings (Robin Hobb). Sanderson’s Mistborn belongs in this category as well, even though plenty would recognize it as a female-led title; the first three books do focus on a female savior, but the more recent books feature a man in the savior role, the most powerful person of the cast (though three female characters I like a great deal are strong supporting forces).
The only title on the list in which the focus is on a female lead throughout: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And guess what — it’s YA.
No Kate Elliott. No Barbara Hambly. No Juliet Marillier. No Sharon Shinn, whose Twelve Houses series was one of my happiest discoveries a few years back. No mention of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns or Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, works every bit as powerfully written and thought-provoking as A Song of Ice and Fire, though not as nihilistic. These authors and their works get abundant praise from readers and critics who are actually familiar with them. Yet lists like this routinely leave them off, and meanwhile the same titles are predictably included. Of course The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are going to be there, as they should; they’re a big part of the modern fantasy genre’s foundation. But must every list name The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Broken Empire, and The Gentleman Bastards? As good as these books might be, couldn’t at least one list-maker gravitate toward Elizabeth Bear’s sumptuous Eternal Sky Trilogy?
Readers like what they like, and Best Of lists can only be criticized so far. But when fantasy fans looking for a new read see the same titles recommended again and again, of course that’s what they pick up, and then recommend to others, and so well-written stories centering on female leads will continue to be ignored, even though they’re out there in abundance. Worse, prospective writers may absorb the notion that a female character’s sphere of action must be limited while a male character’s possibilities are boundless, thus affecting the kinds of fantasy fiction we see in the future.
Women have always had a presence in epic fantasy. It’s high time we stopped ignoring them.