Women in Fantasy: Thoughts on Disrupting the Circle

Yesterday, I must be honest with you, I felt a little down about the fantasy genre. Mostly I am an optimist (an angry, angry optimist) but sometimes a flurry of stuff comes along that can (briefly) turn me the other way. I don’t like it much, but it’s true. There was the all male short-list for the Gemmell awards, the ongoing examination of what books tend to get display space in book shops, which books tend to get more review space (spoiler: books by men get the majority of both of these) and the usual stuff I see on forums devoted to SFF; someone asks for recommendations of what to read next, and they get a list of the usual five or six male names. Etc. And so on. I can deal with this most of the time but every now and then it gets a little much. It starts to feel like I might be unwelcome in this genre, what with my being a woman and my tendency to write characters who are women.

And I don’t have any answers, either. Do I think women just aren’t as good at writing fantasy, and the coverage/attention reflects that? Emphatic no. Do I think women just aren’t writing fantasy? Uh, obviously not. Do I think the fandom in general is sexist? No. Do I think the editors and the people in charge of getting the books out there, the “gatekeepers”, do I think they are sexist then? No, and certainly not in my experience. Is there, perhaps, a pervasive, insidious vicious circle of sexism that spins male authors into the spotlight and twirls women off into darker, less obvious corners? Possibly…

It would be a case of: here, these men are best-sellers. Let’s get more books like this, because this is what the reader wants. The reader thinks, hey, I like stuff by this bloke here, and oh, there are lots of very similar books by blokes on this table. I shall buy more of these. Books By Blokes are obviously a success, so let’s keep going round and round in this circle. A simplification, and one that has been written about by better and clearer thinkers than myself, but I suspect that is closer to being the answer than dolloping the weight of sexism on any one group.

So what can I, with my somewhat dented optimism, do? Well, I think we can try to disrupt that circle a little bit. Push some of these women who write fantasy (and other SFF) back into the spotlight a little. Talk about them, recommend them to each other. Get some titles on to tables and face-out in sections. Spread the love and disrupt the circle.

With this in mind, yesterday I asked the bookish denizens of Twitter to recommend me their favourite women writing fantasy, and/or their favourite female characters in fantasy books. I wanted to demonstrate that women are a powerful force in fantasy, both outside (as writers) and inside (as characters). I wanted to mention those men who also write excellent female characters because reminding readers that women are real people with their own agency and adventures also disrupts the circle. Fantasy isn’t a sausagefest, never has been.

SO, with enormous thanks to @Estetio who was kind enough to actually compile a list of everything that went down on the #WomenInFantasy hashtag, here are some of the writers,books and characters that twitter mentioned yesterday. It was an amazing thing to witness; so much passion for women in fantasy. By the end of it my optimism had been restored, and I had one monster of a TBR pile. Have a look. Get stuck in. And maybe we can disrupt the circle a little more.

P.S) The list is in no particular order, and we’ve included those authors who were mentioned but did not have a book attached. It’s a list pulled directly from twitter, so it’s rough and there may be mistakes, bits missing, etc, but I suspect you can find what you need with a quick google search. It’s meant as a starting point really, and is by no means exhaustive. A number of people were kind enough to recommend THE COPPER PROMISE too, which I haven’t included in the list because, well, I am British and we don’t do that sort of thing, but Wydrin salutes you.

(and feel free to add more in the comments!)

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale


Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie


The Dragonlance books, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman


Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey


Hint of Frost, Hailey Edwards


Deryni books, Katherine Kurtz


Kushiel books, Jacqueline Carey


Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, Robin Hobb

Wild Rains Chronicles

The Assassin’s Apprentice (The Farseer Quadrilogy)


Legend of Eli Monpress, Rachel Aaron


Horsemaster, Marilyn Singer


Obernewtyn sequence, Isobelle Carmody


Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig

The Empire trilogy, Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts


Pantomime, Laura Lam


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, Catherynne Valente


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin


Miserere, Teresa Frohock


The Belgariad, Mallorean, and Elenium series, David and Leigh Eddings


Black Magician Trilogy, Trudi Canavan


Poison Study, Maria Snyder


Graceling, Kristen Cashore


The Split Worlds series, Emma Newman


Deverry series, Katherine Kerrs


Castle series, Steph Swainston


Paksenarrion books, Elizabeth Moon


Monstrous Regiment, Terry Pratchett

(and Discworld in general, Granny Weatherwax forever, yo)


Skulduggery Pleasant, Derek Landy


The Black Jewels Trilogy, Anne Bishop


Seven Waters, Juliet Marillier


The Dresden Files series, Jim Butcher


Riddlemaster trilogy, Patricia A. McKillip


Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness


Daughter of Smoke & Bone, Laini Taylor


Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve


Spellcracker books, Suzanne McLeod


Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

Deep secrets.

Charmed life.

Year of the Griffin


The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern


Sabriel, Garth Nix


Northern Lights, Philip Pullman


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke


Three Days Till Dead books, Kelly Meding


Empress, Karen Miller


King’s Dragon & Cold Magic, Kate Elliott


Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold

“The Paladin of Souls”


Geist, Philippa Ballantine


Hero and the Crown, K. T. Davies


The Blue Sword and Sunshine, Robin McKinley


War for the Oaks, Emma Bull


The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon


Eon, Allison Goodman


Falling Kingdoms, Morgan Rhodes


Ash, Mary Gentle


Babylon Steel, Gaie Sebold


Blood & Feathers, Lou Morgan


The Drowning City, Amanda Downum


Perdition, Ann Aguirre


The Iron Hunt, Marjorie Liu


Skulk, Rosie Best


Wolf at the Door, J. Damask (aka Joyce Chng)


Shambling Guide to NY, Mur Lafferty

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson


The Dark Is Rising, Susan Cooper


Nights at the circus, Angela Carter


The Innkeeper’s Song, Peter S. Beagle


Immortal Empire series, Kate Locke


Zoo City, Lauren Beukes


Living with Ghosts, Kari Sperring


Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross


The Runemarks series, Joanne Harris

The Gospel of Loki


Threshold, Sara Douglass


Cherry St Croix, Karina Cooper


Toby Daye, Seanan McGuire


Symphony of Ages saga, Elizabeth Haydon


The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis


The Merlin Series, Mary Stewart


Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth


The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker


Outcast Chronicles, Rowena Corey Daniells


True Game books, Sheri Tepper


Walking the Tree, Kaaron Warren


Brides of Rollrock Island, Margo Lanagan


Flesh & Fire, Laura Anne Gilman


The clever Dark Heavens, Journey to Wudang and Celestial Battle trilogies, Kylie Chan


Otherland series, Tad Williams


Winter of Magic’s Return, Pamela F. Service


Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson


Outside Over There, Maurice Sendak


The Lark and The Wren, Mercedes Lackey


‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, Gail Carriger


Down the Long Wind, Gillian Bradshaw


Classic Trek novels, Ann Crispin


The Queen’s Thief series, Megan Whalen


Urban Shaman series, CE Murphy


Mercy Thompson series, Patricia Briggs


Ash, Malinda Lo

Mindspace Investigation, Alex Hughes

God’s War, Kameron Hurley

Writers who were mentioned without a particular book attached:

Juliet E. McKenna,

Kate Griffin,

Aliette de Bodard,

Nnedi Okorafor,

Angela Slatter,

Helen Oyeyemi,

Tamora Pierce.

29 thoughts on “Women in Fantasy: Thoughts on Disrupting the Circle

  1. Republic of Thieves because Sabetha. And not least because the issue of women being passed over in favour of men is discussed in the text.

  2. Melina Marchetta’s lumatere chronicles are well worth checking out (and I strongly second any recommendations for Margo Lanagan’s work! Her short story collections as well as the novels.)

  3. Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherword series.

    Various multi-character series as Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan Book of the Fallen and Katharine Kerr’s Deverry sequence all feature a number of female leads.

  4. To add to the above list of great authors/series:

    Michelle Sagara – Chronicles of Elantra
    Jennifer Fallon – Hythrun/Wolfblade series
    Lilith Saintcrow – Arquitaine Romances
    Elle Casey – War of the Fae series

  5. Michelle Sagara West – I don’t know how more people aren’t aware of her (29 books published in 24 years as of next month, with dozens more short stories). Her Sun Sword series has a greater number of strong female (and male) characters then just about any dozen other series combined, and they come from all sorts of cultures, backgrounds, etc. The greatest, deepest, wisest character writer that I’ve ever read.

    Carol Berg for so many things.
    Elspeth Cooper for Songs of the Earth.
    Tanya Huff with a ton of books seems mandatory to me too.

    Django Wexler for his Shadow Campaigns co-star Winter Ihernglass.

    There are many more, but this is just off the top of my head.

  6. Tiffany Aching is one of my favourite characters, full stop. I guess she is technically a child, although she’s pretty damned grown up by the time I Shall Wear Midnight’s events happen.

  7. Most of my fantasy titles feature female protagonists: Pelzmantel, Owl Stretching, Unikirja (feminist revisions of traditional Finnish folk tales), The Mangrove Legacy, my slightly supernatural thriller series, Chastity Flame and lots of shorter stuff, too.

  8. Awesome list! Can I throw out a few more women writing fantasy:

    Courtney Schafer, Anne Lyle, Helen Lowe (winner of the Gemmell Morningstar for Heir of Night), Mary Victoria, Stina Leicht, Helene Wecker, Francis Knight, Melanie Rawn, Mazarkis Williams, Freda Warrington, Rae Carson, Trudi Canavan, Laini Taylor, Evie Manieri, Liesel Schwarz, Katherine Addison and, er, me.

    Also a mention for Tom Pollock who wrote splendid female characters in The Skyscraper Throne trilogy.

  9. Yay, for realizing I’ve read a good number of books and authors on this list already.

    I’d also add Goblin Moon, from Teresa Edgerton

    The Glamourist Diaries series (starting with Shades of Milk & Honey) from Mary Robinette Kowal

    And the Sage trilogy, starting with The Fall of Onagros, by Marian Allen (which has a beautifully-rendered matriarchal society in it.)

  10. Maggie Furey is a name I’ve seen on fantasy tites face out in my local Waterstones. (I haven’t been able to buy new books, Pratchett excepted, for many years now, but I still look…)

  11. Wow, great list! You already have most of my suggestions but here’s another: Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhofer. He has a really diverse cast, including two strong female characters. Doesn’t feel forced, either. I think the book is kind of a dark fantasy allegory for racism and/or gay rights.

  12. Great list. Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series (Fantasy meets SF) would be a great addition. Lila Black is a fantastic character…

  13. Perhaps a separate discussion but should George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire be considered? I know that woman are not treated that well in that world, they are second (possibly third) class citizens and are generally used as commodities when trying to broker an alliance or shore up some families heritage or worse just used.

    But there is also…

    Catlyn Stark
    Arya Stark
    Sansa Stark
    Brienne of Tarth
    Yara Greyjoy

    And of course

    Daenerys Stormborn Targaryan, First of Her Name, Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men. Khaleesi of The Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, Queen of Meereen and Princess of Dragonstone.

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  15. I didn’t see C. J. Cherryh’s name in that list, and while I technically haven’t read any of her fantasy as of yet, I saw enough sci-fi in the list to merit her inclusion anyway. The FOREIGNER series is mighty fine piece of speculative fiction.

    Also, when it comes to strong female characters, author Robert Munsch and illustrator Michael Martchenko’s absolutely awesome picture book THE PAPER BAG PRINCESS ought be mandatory reading for all children, both because it is such a great story and because its gender turnaround is still as clever and relevant now as it was upon its publication in the ’80s.

  16. I’d like to add a recent discovery, Jan Siegel, and her book Prospero’s Children (I believe it’s part of a series) and of course the inimatable Robert Holdstock, in the book Broken Kings, whose women Medea and Niv, have plenty of bite!

  17. Re Joakim’s comment, CJ Cherryh writes excellent Fantasy, such as the “Morgaine” and “Ealdwold” books, amongst many others

    Elizabeth Knox’s “Dream” books are always right up there as are Kristin Cashore and Kate Forsyth titles. And I may have missed Sarah Ash, but she had a good series a few years back. ‘Tears Of Artamon’, I think.

    I’m surprised, given your mention of the Gemmells and also plenty of strong and leading women characters, what about Helen Lowe, who is the only female author so far to have won a Gemmell Award (the Morningstar 2012 for The Heir Of Night) and one of the few to be shortlisted (Legend 2013 with Gathering of The Lost) Or perhaps her absence just underscores your point?

  18. I LOVE Robin Hobb.. Just wanted to get that out of my system

    I love Shallan in Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson. She’s definitely my favorite female character…

    Acacia by David Anthony Durham has a badass princess/soldier..

    I think the reason I prefer male characters is because i like men in general and having a crush on a male character makes more sense, right? And yeah I do fall for them sometimes. I dreamt of Kvothe for days/weeks before i finally got over him…

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