10 Great Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors from the Pacific Northwest

brentweeks

Brent Weeks’ The Blood Mirror is one of the biggest fantasy novels of the year, and we’re not talking page count here (well, not just page count). The fourth volume of his popular Lightbringer series, it continues the adventures of Kip and Gavin Guile as they defend the Seven Satrapies from the White King and his seemingly unstoppable armies. It has everything epic fantasy fans love: magic, war, betrayal, rich characters, and an intricate world at stake.

A resident of Portland, Oregon, Weeks resides in the Pacific Northwest, also called Cascadia, a region in North America that consists of British Columbia, Washington state, and Oregon. It’s home to some of the best SFF conventions in the world, including Norwescon, Emerald City Comicon, and VCON. It frequently threatens to split off from the rest of North America to form its own country (a prime setting for a near-future dystopia, if I do say). It’s also home to a community of science fiction and fantasy authors that would make anywhere in the world green with envy. The Pacific Northwest even has its own SFF-centric award: the Endeavour Award. Named after James Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, it is given each year to “a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author or authors.” Previous winners include Ramez Naam, Ken Scholes, Laurie Frankel, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Cherie Priest. 

A resident of the Pacific Northwest (West Coast, Best Coast!) myself,  I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the exciting, successful, and downright inspiring writers who have called the region home.

Cat Rambo (Seattle, WA)

Some writers are known for their novels, and others, like Cat Rambo, wow readers with the breadth and depth of their short fiction. Rambois a graduate of the 2005 Clarion West Writers Workshop, where she studied under SFF legends like Octavia Butler and Connie Willis. She has become one of the most prolific and celebrated short fiction writers working today. Her short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, and Apex Magazine, and were collected in Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight. After publishing over 200 pieces of short fiction—and garnering impressive awards along the way—her first novel, Beasts of Tabat, was released in 2015. Her library of fiction is chock full of stories that will appeal to every type of reader.

Robin Hobb (Tacoma, WA)

What can be said about Robin Hobb that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? Her Fitz books, which began with 1995’s Assassin’s Apprentice and continue with 2017’s Assassin’s Fate, are one fantasy’s greatest character studies, featuring some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. (If Shrek is like an onion, these folks are like an onion farm.) One of the most remarkable things about Hobb’s writing is the way she places you alongside the principal protagonist, FitzChivalry Farseer, putting you through an emotional wringer as his brutal, unfair life unfolds before him. Through the eight currently published volumes in the series, you see him grow from a boy, to a troubled youth, to a broken man trying to raise a son of his own. No other fantasy series I’ve read offers such a close look at a single man’s life, and it’s utterly fascinating.

Despite being wrapped around a secondary world inspired by English fantasy, like so many fantasy trilogies are, I’ve long found that the Six Duchies are very evocative of the Pacific Northwest, with its temperate rainforests, lashing rains, mild summers, mountain ranges, and oceanside communities. For this reason alone, I’ve developed a deep affection for and connection with Hobb’s world, because, in a lot of ways, it feels like home. (One of her first books, The Wizard of the Pigeons, published under her real name, Megan Lindelholm, is a strange urban fantasy set in Seattle, but it is sadly long out of print.)

In addition to the Fitz books, Hobb has also published several related series and trilogies, including the Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles—both of which are set in the same world as the Fitz books and cross paths slightly with the journeys and adventures of Fitz and his great friend, the Fool. Her Soldier Son trilogy is a post-colonial fantasy completely unrelated to the Fitz books.

Steven Erikson (Victoria, BC)

Fantasy epics don’t get much bigger than Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, a 10-volume, 12,000-page saga featuring a mind-bendingly large cast; the biggest, baddest magic, philosophical pondering; rich world-building; dragons; wizards; floating cities; and, well, you get the point. SFF blog Neth Space called it “the most ambitious epic fantasy series ever,” lauding its ambition and scope. Perhaps most miraculously in this age of endless series and delayed sequels, Malazan is also complete—from Gardens of the Moon (1999) and ending with The Crippled God (2011), Erikson managed to publish a massive epic fantasy in little more than a decade. Impressive stuff.

So, start with Gardens of the Moon—or, if you’re really looking for a big mountain to climb, you can purchase the entire series, all 3,350,000 words of it, in one enormous eBook, The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen! But, be warned: Erikson never holds your hand, and if you’re not prepared to hit the ground running, you’re going to be left in the dust.

In addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson has also written several other novels, including some set in the Malazan world that flesh out some of the characters and histories touched upon in the main series (Forge of Darkness), satirical science fiction (Willful Child), and even a short fiction collection (The Devil Delivered and Other Tales).

Ursula K. Le Guin (Portland, OR)

Le Guin is a legend. Period. Her science fiction and fantasy—from The Left Hand of Darkness to A Wizard of Earthsea—are cornerstones of their respective genres, and her non-fiction, which covers everything from world-building, to feminism, to the power of language, is a handbook for anyone interested in interrogating their writing or the world a little more closely. For a Le Guin crash course, start with The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin or The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, and then immerse yourself in the beauty of her non-fiction with Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016. That should keep you busy for a while.

William Gibson (Vancouver, BC)

You ever heard of cyberpunk? 

You have William Gibson to thank for that. His 1984 novel Neuromancer defined a genre and still resonates 30 years later, as our world has become littered with social media, smart phones, DDoS attacks, and a million other ideas that Gibson somehow predicted. “It’s hard to underestimate the huge impact left by Neuromancer: The book is ripe with ideas that have influenced generations of authors and directors in the three decades it’s been in print,” said Andrew Liptak on Kirkus. “Movies such as The Matrix and Elysium and television shows such as Person of Interest have borrowed substantially from its themes, while the cyberpunk genre has continued to run forward as computers continue to occupy greater and greater parts of our lives. Even as it feels outdated (there are no cell phones, for example), the novel will undoubtedly continue to remain as relevant and as raw as it was in 1984.”

More recently, Gibson published The Peripheral, which Natalie Zina Walschots called “glorious” in her review for The Globe & Mail. “As with so much of Gibson’s writing, the glory is in the details, the texture of the possible futures he invents and the horrors that lurk within them, the robots who suddenly bristle with spider-like eyes, mobile tattoos that crawl across the skin, grim android cosplay, the profound nausea and physical discomfort that comes from using new technologies.”

Annie Bellet (Portland, OR)

Annie Bellet made a name for herself when she self-published (to great acclaim and an army of happy readers) her urban fantasy series The Twenty-Sided Sorceress. Now the series, which revolves around Jade Crow, gifted magic-user and comic book nerd, is being collected by Saga Press into two gorgeous volumes: Level Grind and Boss Fight. “Bellet infuses her prose with multiple shout-outs to geek and gamer culture, and the tone of her ensemble resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s gung-ho Scooby Gang,” said Publishers Weekly. “Fans of urban fantasy will be drawn to this intriguing series.”

Jay Lake (Portland, OR)

In addition to being a prolific short story writer, Jay Lake was a jack-of-all-trades novelist whose books covered everything from clockwork worlds (Mainspring) to the diverse and endless land of Selistan (Green). Sadly, Lake passed away in 2014 after a long (and public) battle with colon cancer. “Lake was a force for playfulness and expanding boundaries in science fiction and fantasy generally,” said Charlie Jane Anders in her tribute to Lake and his work on io9. “His outgoing persona went hand in hand with his enthusiasm for writers whose work challenged our understanding of genre and storytelling.”

Lake wrote over 300 short stories, and his last collection of short fiction, The Last Plane to Heaven, collects more than 30 of the best in loving memory of one of the genre’s brightest burning and broadest ranging stars.

Shawn Speakman (Seattle, WA)

Shawn Speakman’s seen it all. He first hit the scene as the webmaster for the legendary Terry Brooks, also a PNW’er, whose debut novel The Sword of Shannara literally changed the face of epic fantasy in the late ’70s. He managed one of the largest bookstores in the United States, and has hosted countless bestselling authors as they signed and personalized books for their fans through his website, The Signed Page. But, above and beyond all of this, Speakman is an accomplished writer and publisher. The Dark Thorn, the first book in his Annwn Cycle, is a rich, dark fantasy that blends the best of Terry Brooks’ epics with the flair of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

After overcoming large medical debt due to cancer treatments, Speakman has spearheaded an effort to improve the lives of those burdened by health-related financial issues. He is the editor and publisher of Unfettered and Unfettered II. These terrific anthologies collect stories from popular SFF authors—including Charlaine Harris, Naomi Novik, Brandon Sanderson, Tad Williams—and all proceeds go to fighting cancer and supporting authors with medical debt.

Wendy N. Wagner (Portland, OR)

Wagner’s debut novel, Skinwalkers, is a rip-roaring fantasy adventure novel set in the Pathfinder Tales world of Golarion. Above-and-beyond the action, though, is the rich and layered relationship that the novel’s protagonist, Jendara, a retired pirate, has with her young son, in a world that constantly pulls her back to her bloody path. Now, Jendara is back in Starspawn, and the stakes look higher than ever. Wagner’s work led me to the Pathfinder Tales line of novels, which take place in the world popularized by the Pathfinder RPG, and introduced me to some of the most exciting and accessible sword-and-sorcery novels being written today.

Octavia E. Butler (Lake Forest Park, WA)

There are legends, and then there’s Octavia Butler. In a time when science fiction was dominated by white men, Butler was a revelation. She filled her books with heroic women of color, and her explorations and interrogations of feminism, gender, sexuality, and racial politics still resonate. “Concerned with empathy and with the need to build community, Ms. Butler’s work attracted an audience beyond its genre and was widely praised by critics,” said Margalit Fox in Butler’s obituary in The New York Times.

“For me, Octavia Butler’s significance as an author is her commitment to creating worlds that mirrored our own with an eye toward steering humankind in a better direction,” fellow science fiction writer Tananarive Due told CNN. “She was very bothered by humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, and so much of her fiction is about trying to help us see the dangers of our present course and trying to present alternatives. She wanted us to think and to act, and her passion and prescience really makes her impact timeless.”

Perhaps Butler’s best-known and most studied work, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman from 1976, who travels back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she meets a young slaveholder whose life she must save to ensure her own future. Many of her short stories have been collected in Bloodchild: And Other Stories, and recently two of her trilogies, Lilith’s Brood and Seed to Harvest, have been assembled into single volume ebooks, marking the perfect point of introduction for her inspiring library of science fiction.

Butler passed away in 2006, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire new readers and writers alike. 

This list leaves out many great PNW writers, such as Hugo winner Nancy Kress, Patricia McKillip, Django Wexler, and the legendary C.J. Cherryh (who just happens to be the reigning SF Grandmaster). There’s no doubt that this wet, wondrous corner of North America has and will continue to produce some of the world’s best science fiction and fantasy.

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