In the first of a two-part series, Magda Knight, editor of MookyChick, gives us the lowdown on the best women writers of fantasy…
If you have a newfound love of fantasy fiction you’ll be forgiven for initially suspecting there might only be three fantasy works in the whole entire world.
Those works being Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin) and anything ever by the wonderfully wise Terry Pratchett, all hand-bound into a single book as weighty and lengthy as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Fortunately for us all, we have considerably more than three works of fantasy fiction to hand and a generous proportion of them have been written by women. And that shouldn’t even be surprising. Yet, somehow, it is.
When I started this project, people thought I’d struggle to name ten notable female fantasy authors. As it is, I’m struggling to keep it under forty.
George R. R. Martin famously said that he considers himself to write not so much women as people, and that works for me. I think that male authors are more than capable of writing believable female characters, mainly on account of their also being, like women, people.
But I still want to make it clear that there are some women fantasy writers out there doing some really, really cool stuff.
If you take a look at the Nebula Award Statistics, you’ll see that male domination of genre fiction is diminishing in a most pleasing fashion…
In 1965-1969 only 9% of authors nominated for Best Novel were women, with two years in which no female authors were nominated at all.
From 1990-1999 women accounted for 50% of nominees, and in 2000-2009 they accounted for 35% of novel nominees and 40% of winners.
Female penmanship of fantasy fiction is a strong tradition that began roughly in the 1900s and continues to the modern day. A male author can, of course, write fantasy fiction that features strong female protagonists, but it’s worth taking a look at some of the female fantasy fiction authors that have helped to shape the genre and are continuing to raise the bar.
I’ve put these in no order because hierarchy lists are terribly subjective things; I’m just going to throw ten names at you and see if they stick.
While you’ll see no orcs in her genre-redefining tales, you’ll see swords, dwarves, angels and dark fairytales in gloriously lush, powerful and wit-laden prose.
With short story collections like The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s revisionist work on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales to explore their inherent sexual and behavioural messages was a huge influence on fantasy. She could also do rude and literary things with centaurs that no-one else had thought of doing, which is a plus in my books.
Her slew of Earthsea books envision a world where magic is prevalent and mostly takes the old speech of dragons, except for the island of Roke where it is banned.
Her novels feel terse and thoughtful rather than escapist, and for me her stand-out piece is Tombs of Atuan, the second book in the Earthsea series.
It works well as a stand-alone, focusing on a young priestess who has been left to languish in the dark, sacrificing any notions of individual purpose to tend a subterranean temple dedicated to forgotten gods. Seminal stuff with a story as captivating as its message is powerful.
The second bear-related author in the list (because we all know what the latin root of ‘Ursula’ is. Hot tip: If you want to get ahead in fantasy fiction, think big and change your name to something that’s very obviously to do with bears), Elizabeth Bear is a speculative fiction powerhouse that has won all of the things (the John. W. Campbell award, a Locus and a couple of Hugos).
Her language veers between rich flourishes and sparse tough prose that’s been fired from a gun, the equivalent of Steve McQueen’s dialogue in Bullitt.
She’s as equally comfortable with writing male protagonists as female ones. She likes to mix it up: Her fantasy has a touch of science fiction, and her sci-fi often looks to the Norse mythology more frequently plundered for fantasy.
Her Promethean Age trilogy, which begins with Blood and Iron, is an urban fantasy which takes the tried-and-tested approach of juxtaposing the world of faerie with ours, in this case with evocative prose and painting a world of aristocratic ennui with exhaustive detail.
I’m also going to have to throw in a mention for her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, an epic space adventure with genderqueer characters and some of the best technology writing I’ve seen in a while.
Tanith Lee will be on any fantasy bookshelf in any bookshop you walk into. She’s prolific, she’s elegant with her words, and she focuses on strong female characters who tend to subvert fantasy tradition (I want the prince to rescue me, please) with an eye to creating a page-turner in the popular fantasy genre.
With seventy novels, high visibility in bookstores and a few awards under her belt (she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel) she’s making nonconformist feminist fantasy mainstream.
Any of her books will do, but Winter Moon, a collection of three short stories by Lee, Mercedes Lackey and C.E. Murphy (two more prolific and well-known female fantasy writers) is a good place to start. She also publishes lesbian fiction under the pen-name Esther Garber. She just… can’t… stop… writing.
Katharine Kerr writes sci-fi as well, but she’s probably best-known for her high fantasy fiction set in the imaginary land of Deverry.
Kerr puts so much work into properly developing her world and its simple but well-structured magical system that Deverry is a true pleasure to visit. And as one fan I spoke to puts it, the use of characters who reincarnate makes for a delightfully long read!
To be continued…
Who is your favourite female fantasy author? And do you think they’ll feature in our remaining top five?
Guest feature by Magda Knight, editor of MookyChick
(Image via Signs of Life)