Not long ago I was idly browsing an SFF forum thread on epic fantasy, and came across this statement (made in apparently perfect seriousness): “Hardly any women write epic fantasy.” I was so flabbergasted all I could do was stare at my screen saying “WHAT.” Even if the poster wasn’t merely using “epic fantasy” as a shorthand for secondary-world fantasy (as so many people do), and meant specifically Big Fat Multivolume Sprawling Epics…well, I’m pretty sure Kate Elliott, Janny Wurts, Michelle West, Sherwood Smith, Jacqueline Carey, and a whole host of other authors would beg to differ. Epic fantasy and its more general cousin secondary world fantasy are my favorite genres, and I’d say about 70% of the books on my shelves are written by women, without any conscious decision on my part to seek out female authors.
Yet this curious blind spot remains among some sections of SFF fandom. Many knowledgeable people have written reams of words discussing the whys and wherefores of it, but one simple solution exists: if you love a book, TALK about it. Show people the breathtaking depth and variety available in fantasy – and trust me, it’s truly breathtaking! Hundreds of wonderful books both old and new exist beyond the annals of the bestseller lists, waiting for readers to discover them.
So I love blog series like the one here at Stumptown Books on Non-European Fantasy By Women – goodness knows I’m always looking to broaden my horizons and discover great books I might’ve missed. And I’m delighted at the chance to share with you a few of my own favorites. I’ve enjoyed so many female-authored novels with non-European settings that I found it hard to narrow down the list…but in the end, I’ve chosen four relatively recent novels and two older classics to highlight. I hope you’ll consider giving these excellent books a try!
Range of Ghosts (Eternal Sky #1), by Elizabeth Bear
Elizabeth Bear’s incredible range as a writer never ceases to amaze me. She writes everything from historical fantasy to post-apocalyptic SF, and all of it with a depth of characterization and beauty of prose that make me sigh in wistful envy. Range of Ghosts is the first in a new epic fantasy series from Bear that features a Mongolian-inspired setting. The plot is complex enough to be tricky to summarize, but here’s a one-sentence version: a Khan’s grandson who barely survived a terrible battle and a wizardess who traded her fertility for magic must face a sorcerer powerful enough to turn the spirits of the dead against them. The world building is utterly fascinating: the cultures, magic, geography, everything has a reality and depth that swept me away. The characters are just as complex and engaging. Basically, if you like secondary-world fantasy at all: go. Read this book. And then together we can count down the days until the sequel, Shattered Pillars, releases in February 2013.
The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1), by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin’s debut The Inheritance Trilogy garnered quite a bit of well-deserved praise and attention (and also features non-European characters and setting). I enjoyed Jemisin’s first three novels, but for some indefinable reason I didn’t quite fall in love with the trilogy to the extent that others did. The Killing Moon, however, knocked my socks off. The setting is based on ancient Egypt, and Jemisin uses it to the fullest; her worldbuilding is superb. The city of Gujaareh is devoted to the Goddess of Dreams, and her priests confer healing and peace upon the citizenry – but to fuel their magic, they kill both willing dreamers ready for death, and unwilling victims whose souls have been judged corrupt. Through the eyes of multiple POV characters, including a faithful but troubled priest, his idealistic apprentice, and a foreign spy from a rival city that fears and detests Gujaareh’s magic, Jemisin explores themes of faith, corruption, and love even as she gives readers an intense tale of conspiracy and murder. It’s a powerful and beautifully crafted book. Best of all, the second novel in the duology, The Shadowed Sun, is equally awesome.
The Cloud Roads (Books of the Raksura #1), by Martha Wells
The Cloud Roads has everything I love best in fantasy: thrilling adventure, engaging characters, and a truly imaginative world. Wells sets the novel in a secondary world populated by a myriad of non-human races, all with their own culture, biology, and customs. The protagonist, Moon, is a shapeshifter who thought himself alone in the world – until he meets another of his kind, and is convinced to return to their colony. But not only is the colony embroiled in a fight for survival against a deadly enemy, Moon finds that fitting in among his own kind involves negotiating a minefield of cultural and biological expectations. Wells does some really neat things with gender roles in this book, and makes the traditional theme of “loner finding his place in the world” feel fresh and exciting. (Just goes to show how the power of a story lies in its execution!) The sequel, The Serpent Sea, is also terrific, and I’m eagerly awaiting the third novel in the series, The Siren Depths, which releases in December.
The Drowning City (The Necromancer Chronicles #1), by Amanda Downum
I harbor a deep fondness for spy novels, and Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City is a spy novel in a fantasy setting. Not the flashy explosions and cool gadgetry sort of spy novel, but the quieter, more realistic sort, where fallible characters with conflicting goals struggle to navigate a confusing, messy tangle of loyalties and information. Not to say that the book doesn’t have interesting magic and some nice action scenes, because it does (one of the main characters is a necromancer, after all!). But to me, the real strength lies in Downum’s weaving of the viewpoints from various characters (some jaded spies, some not so) to create a coherent tale. Downum also provides a plethora of female characters in roles both major and minor (a refreshing change from many fantasies), and her Malaysian-inspired city of Symir is described with evocative prose and with an attention to detail that makes it feel utterly real. You do need a fairly high confusion tolerance at the start of the book, as Downing throws a lot of names and political factions into the fray without ever holding the readers’ hand with infodumps – but the patient reader will be richly rewarded.
Alamut (Alamut #1), by Judith Tarr
I first read Alamut as a teen, and I still adore the book. It’s historical fantasy set in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades, and handles both Christian and Muslim viewpoints with equal grace. To paraphrase the Library Journal description of the book: Prince Aidan, son of a mortal king and immortal enchantress, travels to the Holy Land in seach of adventure, only to discover himself locked in a deadly vendetta against the legendary Assassins and their most powerful weapon—an ifrit like himself. The characters – both Tarr’s creations and the historical figures such as Saladin that they encounter – are great, and locations from cities to desert are so vividly depicted that they stand out in sharply in my memory even years after last reading the novel. Tarr also does a wonderful job showing that women in historical fantasy can be strong, active characters without being anachronistic in their roles or attitudes. If you like Alamut, not only is the sequel (The Dagger and the Cross) also excellent, but Tarr has written many other historical fantasy novels with non-European characters and settings, all with the same careful attention to character and detail.
Tales from the Flat Earth by Tanith Lee
This is a five-book series of novels (Night’s Master, Death’s Master, Delusion’s Master, Delirium’s Mistress, Night’s Sorceries) that are unique in style, lush in prose, and (for me, at least!) utterly captivating. Each book is essentially a set of linked short stories whose plots interweave and influence each other. There are certain reappearing characters, most notably Azhrarn, the prince of Demons – who is beautiful, cruel, destroys the lives of most mortals he interacts with, and yet is capable of love and sacrifice. The setting is Arabian, and the books are narrated as in an oral storytelling tradition. The series as a whole is an incredible achievement – complex, powerful, and breathtakingly gorgeous. The first three books were reissued recently (to my delight!) and they are worth every penny.