My favorite reading genre is fantasy and science fiction. Over the years, I’ve unfortunately run into a fair number of novels whose stories I was enjoying right up to the point I collided with wince-producing stereotypes pretending to be female characters, or one too many skeezy moments of male characters leering at women’s bodies in lurid detail. In the case of fantasy novels, usually set in a made-up world based on our own historical past, I often hear the excuse that, “women never did anything back then,” which is apparently why some people think they can only be depicted as sex workers, dead or nurturing mothers, or passive princesses forced to acquiesce to the demands of others, with an occasional withered old hag thrown in for diversity.
Women did plenty of things in the past, and furthermore the entire point of writing fantasy is that you can make up your world however you want. I’ve written about writing women characters elsewhere. Instead, let me share with you ten fantasy novels (and series) whose depiction of women did not make me want to throw the book I was reading against the wall. I’ve limited this list to eight for reasons of length, chosen at random from books whose women I’ve appreciated. I can think of more, and I’m sure you, Dear Reader, can too.
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
This sequence of 15 novels begins with Daggerspell, published in 1986. Kerr uses a vast canvas and centuries of history to tell an epic story of of war, loss, and love through the lives of characters who reincarnate in each new generation. This narrative conceit gives the Deverry books their particular and appealing blend of intimacy and scope, as we meet familiar personalities through new faces and lives. Kerr is particularly interested in how women carve out autonomy for themselves in societies that limit their choices, and she contrasts cultures as well by depicting other cultures whose view of gender roles is much freer. Jill, Lovyan, Dallandra, Carramaena, Merodda, Niffa: the women of this sequence have become like old friends (or enemies, as the case may be).
The Sun Sword series, by Michelle West
In this dense and thoroughly imagined epic fantasy series (starting with The Broken Crown), West tells the story of empires in conflict, and demons rising. She contrasts two cultures: the Essalieyan Empire’s rather more egalitarian social roles, not divided along gender lines; and the Dominion of Annagar’s strictly patriarchal society, with upperclass women confined by custom and law to a limited sphere. West skillfully builds female characters in both societies who have a full range of emotion and ambition, with flaws and strengths, whose lives and choices matter to the story when it would have been easy, especially in Annagar, to relegate them to passive, tertiary roles. West is also the author, as Michelle Sagara, of the Elantra series, another great fantasy series with a variety of dynamic female characters.
The Goblin Emperor, by Katharine Addison
As I noted with both West and Kerr, a book can be set in a patriarchal society and still portray its female characters as complex and layered, women with lives and dreams and hopes and ambitions. I love TGE for its hugely sympathetic main character, Maia, an unwanted prince who has grown up in exile and wakes up one day to find himself emperor because his father and older brothers have all died in a terrible accident. How he negotiates the dangerous maze of court life is the heart of the story. At all times, however, Addison depicts the women of the court as full personalities even though the society they live in constrains women’s lives both by law and custom. This is how we do it.
Rivers of London (Peter Grant) series, by Ben Aaronovitch
Lest you think I object on all counts to men sizing up women for sexual attractiveness, let me introduce you to the Peter Grant urban fantasy series (beginning with Midnight Riot in the U.S.), set in modern London. Peter is a 20-something constable who discovers that there is magic in those ancient streets, and gets assigned to a super secret division of magic investigations. I find this series witty and clever because Peter’s narrative voice really amuses me. It is also filled with architectural digressions about London, which I love. It is also filled with people of all sorts, with the full range of diversity found in modern London. It is an excellent example–an exemplar, if you will–of how a writer can write from the perspective of a young man who checks out women in a believable way and has sex without his attention being displayed in an offensive or skeezy or objectifying manner. It’s possible. It really is.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord
In this gorgeous retelling of a Senegalese folk tale, the main character, Paama, is a young woman known for her ability to cook. This skill is not seen as unimportant but as desirable, and in truth it has shackled her to an unworthy and unappreciative glutton of a husband. How Paama acquires the powerful Chaos Stick and what she does with it when pursued by the Indigo Lord who wants it back provides the spine of the plot, but for me the great pleasure of this book is its pragmatic women. Because it is written in the tradition of the griot, note how the narrator herself a woman, a professional storyteller (griotte), whose droll asides and pointed comments embedded in the text deepen the story.
The Fallen Blade series, by Kelly McCullough
Recently I was in the mood for Sword & Sorcery, but I desperately wanted a rollicking good S&S world that wasn’t riddled with the usual helpings of undulating prostitutes, willing bar maids, evil seductresses, and princesses who need rescuing in exchange for sex. The hero of Broken Blade, Aral, is a dude, a former assassin damaged around the edges and struggling to make a go of it after his life fell apart. He’s good at what he does, and makes a living sorting out other people’s problems in a world filled with magicians with weird and really cool familiars, political intrigue, and (of course) people who want him dead. This kind of narrative could easily go wrong on the ladies super fast. As it happens, Aral likes the ladies, and he also respects the ladies, and anyway the ladies are badass on their own behalf. This was exactly the S&S I wanted.
Babylon Steel, by Gaie Sebold
Speaking of Sword & Sorcery, I thought I was totally and forever over the “I manage/work at a brothel” story, but it turns out I wasn’t, because the main character of Gaie Sebold’s novel is a badass swordswoman who is also a sex worker who owns and runs a brothel. I really did not think anyone could pull this off, but Sebold manages it with a hugely thrilling plot about gods and lies and a missing girl and the importance of found family. This novel didn’t get much attention, and I’m sorry, because I loved it.
The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard
A war in heaven sends angels plummeting to Earth, where they end up devastating Paris. Years later, a fragile peace holds between multiple Houses, each established by one of those fallen angels. In this dense, emotional story, a shadowy force seeks to destroy the peace. We follow several characters from House Morningstar as they try to stop the destruction of their House and prevent a new war. This novel is filled with finely drawn, complex characters, many of whom happen to be women. One of the things that makes it so enjoyable is that the jobs people do, the lives they live, has almost nothing to do with what gender they are. It’s so refreshing to read a story like this.
Red As Blood, by Tanith Lee
In this short story collection, Lee retells stories from the Brothers Grimm, with a grimmer twist and a deliberate focus on the ladies. When I read them for the first time, these tales bent my mind because they showed women having sex and not getting punished for it, getting angry and not getting punished for it, taking matters into their own hands in a not-nice way and winning. Those sorts of things didn’t happen in the books and stories I read way back when, where women were secondary characters who supported the male leads, where women were nice, or submissive, or mistaken, or passive, or victims. Lee’s vision exposed the everyday injustices that normally weren’t mentioned or acknowledged or even noticed in fantasy stories, much less ordinary life, and gave the reader a very different, woman-centered outcome. I treasure this collection for that reason.
Truthwitch, by Susan Dennard
Truthwitch isn’t out yet: It’s coming in January 2016. When I read this first novel of a new epic fantasy YA series, I felt at home at once because it is the book I so desperately wanted to read when I was 16, and it simply did not exist then. Two girls, best friends, get thrown over their heads into adventures and intrigue and politics, and they come up fighting. Even better, they meet other women on their way, competent women, complex women, older women. There are plenty of male characters too, and definitely shipping, and swordplay and magic and grand world-building, and of course I keep coming back to Safiya and Iseult, best friends forever.
These days I have a hard time reading fantasy novels with no women (or only one or two token women), with tired stereotypes, with dull repeats of limited views on how women lived in the past. It’s fine those books exist; they’re just not for me. Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, they were pretty much all that existed as I searched for and found it almost impossible to find fantasy novels that gave me a fresh, provocative, innovative landscape without simply replicating the same dull and retrograde roles for women. Fortunately these days it’s new world dawning and I, for one, am thrilled.
Kate Elliott is the author of more than two dozen fantasy novels and many more short stories. Her most recent novel for adults is Black Wolves, available now.