Top 10 Women Writers of Fantasy Fiction (Part 1)

20th Aug 2012

Here Be Dragons

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.

Angela Carter

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.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Equally at home in the worlds of science fiction (The Dispossessed) and fantasy (The Earthsea Trilogy), literary master Ursula K. Le Guin was not afraid of writing about wizards.

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.

Elizabeth Bear

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

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

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)


  • What fun! I nominate ( for the 40 and to make getting to 10 even harder)

    Octavia Butler – for Wild Seed and Kindres and (more SF) the Xenogensis trilogy
    Margaret Atwood (tho she hates the label) for Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake
    Storm Constantine, particularly for Hermatech which may be more SF but she’s written pure fantasy too
    Marie Percy for Woman on the Edge of Time
    Isabel Allende for everything, particularly the House of the Spirits
    Jan Morris, for Hav, which UKL described as ‘science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality’ and I enjoy so much I have to suggest
    Sarah Hall for the grimly dystopian The Carhullan Army which is fabulous in several senses!
    C J Cherryh who is much more SF but writes amazing worlds with fantastic characters and creatures
    Marion Zimmer Bradley for infusing her fantasy with such commitment to a more positive future

    I hope you enjoy this lot in sorting out the next five

  • Jess says:

    “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”


    Not massively into fantasy now (GOT aside, obvs) but kid’s series The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper was a massive love of mine and I re-read them a couple of years ago and they haven’t lost anything.

  • Junia says:

    Patricia Briggs is my favorite. Her Mercy Thompson and Alpha/Omega series are both brilliant. They feature very strong women who kick serious a$$ all over the place, and there’s a vampire who drives a VW bus painted like the Mystery Machine.

  • Magda Knight says:

    Jess, I felt such intense shame at only being able to include ten authors on the list that it seemed the only way to deal with it was to attempt to fob people off with a joke about bears. I’m almost entirely certain it’s what Derren Brown would do.

    And I share your respect for Susan Cooper: She’s the Don, along with my favourite children’s author Alan Garner. Thanks to Cooper I spent many childhood hours learning how to pronounce Welsh.

    Sarah: Love, love, love your list. Also, I really liked your first chapter of The Melkjeven Commitment. Interesting stuff. Wishing you luck with that one…

  • Rhiannon says:

    I don’t know if they’re for everyone, but I personally adore the Havemercy series by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. It’s a brilliant fantasy quadrilogy about a war between two nations, magicians and dragon riders who ride mechanical dragons, and it’s incredibly fun to read. It’s good enough that I actually have two copies of the first book, in the event that I ever lend one to someone and still want to read it!

  • Emmanuelle says:

    Um, definitely Susan Cooper! She’s amazing.

    Mercedes Lackey- not only for Valdemar, but also for her Alta series featuring the tough-as-nails Aket-ten, but her Elemental Masters series, which are rewritten fairy tales in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries.

    Madeleine L’Engle- Polly and Meg are so worth the reading, even after slogging through the science.

  • kyle cassidy says:

    I applaud the Elizabeth Bear. My favorite fantasy novel is the witty and delightful Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce. It’s five steps in any direction from the mold. Thanks for this fine article.

  • Serpentina says:

    No Andre Norton?

    • james joy says:

      I am sorry,but if you are talking about female fantasy writers Andre Norton should and must be at the top of the list.Not only did she pave the way for Women in the genre of fantasy and science fiction,but her Witch World series is still one of the best ever written.

  • Doreen Taylor says:

    Lois McMaster Bujold, who won the Hugo Award for best novel four times, matching Robert A. Heinlein’s record. Her Vorkosigan saga is superb – funny, charming, and interesting. From Wikipedia: The point of view characters include women (Cordelia in Shards of Honor, Barrayar; Ekaterin in Komarr and A Civil Campaign), a gay man (Ethan of Athos), and a pair of brothers, one of whom is disabled and the other a clone (Miles and Mark Vorkosigan). All these “outsider” characters belong to a socially prestigious class and are well-educated. In the last two works, we also get the point of view of Armsman Roic and the boy Jin, who are less privileged and articulate.

  • Hands down – Marion Zimmer Bradley. Followed closely by Anne McCaffrey.

  • Jo Fisher says:

    Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey for the Legacy awards, as two major groundbreakers in the field. Jaqueline Carey, for her Kushiels Dart and Kushiels Legacy series, get my vote for current female fantasy writer.

  • Rachel B. says:

    Don’t forget Tamora Pierce!

  • Chelsea says:

    Robin Hobb! How on earth did anyone miss her!

    Lois McMaster Bujold also wrote the Chalion books, which are am-a-zing.

  • Kendall says:

    Katherine Kurtz and Anne McCaffrey were women writers I’ve read extensively. Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley are women writers I’ve read some and liked. I like a lot of urban fantasy and high fantasy and have read Patricia Briggs, Mercedes Lackey, Mary Robinette Kowal, Laurel K. Hamilton, Jana Oliver to name a few.

  • Tina C. says:

    I’d like to see the following included:

    Octavia Butler–she’s a vitally important writer in terms of her content and ethnicity (if only one lady of ethnicity can/will make it to the list, it must be her). She wrote both fantasy and sci-fi (though she is better known for her sci-fi) AND in 1995, she received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, the first science fiction writer ever to do so.

    Madeline L’Engle–because I’m certain her novels where most of us started our love of fantasy novels

    Anne McCaffrey–Pern. Enough said.

    J.K. Rowling–Harry Potter’s effect on the world of literature is undeniable.

  • John Pyle says:

    Patricia McKillip is brilliant.
    Jane Yolen also, diverse, engaging, wise.
    … that’d be my nominees

  • DianaH says:

    For the remaining slots I hope to see Jo Walton, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Margaret Atwood, Jane Yolen, Octavia Butler, Susan Cooper, N.K. Jemisin…so many wonderful writers!

  • J Huw Evans says:

    In no particular order:
    Sherri Tepper
    Ursula K Leguin
    Megan Lindholm (though as Robin Hobb she’s beginning to ramble)
    Sydney J Van Scyoc (Darkchild series)
    Roberta MacAvoy (particularly for Damiano series and Tea with the Black Dragon)
    Patricia McKillip
    Scarlett Thomas
    JK Rowling (though I expect a few sneers for that one)
    Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time has stayed with me as a title even when I’d forgotten the book itself.
    Last one: Struggling now. Definitely not Atwood as she’s so up herself about being “literary” when she means “pretentious” and “dull”. I can just see her doing the airquotes.
    So let’s say Dianne Wynn Jones.