My favorite thing George R.R. Martin has ever said (barring the moment he exclaims, “Here comes Benjen Stark!”) is his response when asked his approach on writing female characters: “I’ve always considered women to be people.”
What a novel concept! Yet the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy (the former being a genre more or less created by ladies cough Mary Shelley cough Margaret Cavendish cough) have a history of being somethingof a boys’ club, with respect to both main characters and the people writing them. A spate of releases this summer, however, proves that women aren’t just churning out creative, highly addictive sci-fi and fantasy worlds (Dystopias! Superpowers! High fantasy!) populated by complex female characters, they’re also pushing the boundaries and broadening the horizons of genre fiction. Here is but a sampling of my favorite Charlotte Pickles-approved recent reads to add to your to-consume lists.
The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen
Johansen juxtaposes medieval high fantasy with dystopian future in this debut. After a childhood spent in hiding, 19-year-old Kelsea makes the perilous journey to assume the throne of the Tear that has been vacant (aside from her scheming, laughably dastardly uncle, The Regent) since her mother’s death. The Tear, a downtrodden kingdom whose capital is New London, is not, as you’d expect, set in the past. Instead, this civilization—along with the adjacent, antagonistic Mortmesne and a handful of other city-states—is the result of a great migration following an environmental catastrophe in our own time. (Just as we read the texts of Plutarch to understand the ancients, Kelsea looks to J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien.) As Kelsea attempts to clean up a dominion in disarray, it quickly becomes apparent to both readers and every man she comes across that this queen is no pushover. In fact, she could be a savior.
Illusive, by Emily Lloyd-Jones
Whenever any author deigns to explore mutants living among us, the next thought is always a comparison to the X-Men. It’s not fair. Illusive—like another one of my recent favorites, Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey—is so much more, with its superpowered, criminally inclined teens. The setup goes as follows: Mankind is decimated by worldwide viral epidemic. Mankind makes vaccine to fight off virus. Mankind’s vaccine yields side effects that mankind did not expect. Mankind maybe destroys the vaccine. Mankind maybe does not. Rat race begins to figure out whether that last part is true. What’s even cooler? A female lead who’s smart, spunky, and doesn’t fall in love in the first 20 pages.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
You can’t get your hands on it until September 9, but know in advance that I devoured it in two sittings, and it left me completely gutted—but in the good, healthy way. Built around the world’s end, Station Eleven flashes between life (or more specifically, the lives of a handful of interconnected people) before the outbreak of a deadly flu pandemic and the postapocalyptic landscape it leaves in its wake. In the former, all roads lead to and all lives revolve around the death of a famous actor in the middle of a performance of King Lear. (Which also happens to occur on the night the world as we know it comes crashing down.) In the latter, we pick up with a traveling band of musicians and actors (including hardboiled survivor Kirsten) who stage Shakespeare’s plays at the surviving outposts of society. To say more would be to spoil you on an elegant narrative, at once hopeful and mournful.
The Angel of Losses, by Stephanie Feldman
Fans of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless can get their folklore and mysticism fix here. Feldman weaves Jewish myth with a heaping helping of family secrets to form an imaginative work that’s part magical realism and part fable. When college student Marjorie finds her grandfather’s mysterious notebook filled with stories about the mysterious White Rebbe, she comes to realize everything she understood about her grandfather, her family, and her thesis (on the legend of the Wandering Jew) is, well, lacking. And then off we go through the centuries—and the various incarnations of folklore—to find out the truth.
Waking the Merrow, by Heather Rigney
Sebastian was wrong: the seaweed is not always greener in somebody else’s lake. In Narragansett Bay, it’s made of peril. You know what’s great about Rigney’s horror-ific (that’s horror-filled and terrific), hysterical debut novel? Besides the bloodthirsty merfolk, our antihero protagonist is an overweight, drunk, subpar mother, who also happens to be a funeral director. I can’t even describe the premise of this book without getting giddy, because how many times does a plot involve both vicious mermaids and Rhode Island colonists?
What female-penned sci-fi and fantasy do you love?