Hello DZA readers! My name is Dan Ruffolo, and I’m the writer for the SFF review/article site Strange Currencies. Christina got in touch with me to see if I was interested in doing an exchange of guest posts with her, and this being my first chance to do something like that, I jumped at it. So here we are!
In light of the recent dialogue around publishing as an industry and a highlight of the ways in which advances and marketing budgets are leveraged primarily to the benefit of male, white authors, it becomes incumbent on us as reviewers to take up some of the slack on the marketing front and make sure our readers are made aware of the fantastic genre writing that already exists by women and WOC.
In the hopes of maybe encouraging you to branch out and explore inside the genre, I here and Christina over on my blog will each present a list of 10 great sci-fi or fantasy novels written by women (view her 10 picks here). If we can encourage you to branch out to femme authors if you haven’t been, or help you discover some new authors, we can help change the idea that publishers are ‘taking a risk’ by supporting, marketing and selling authors like them, and instead make it business as usual.
A note on the list: For the most part I’ve either picked a specific book I particularly enjoyed by that author, or the first book in a series/their first novel. Almost all of these authors are still actively publishing new work, so don’t necessarily take my touting of a book from 20+ years ago as an indicator that they’re not still creating all kinds of excellent work, just as a pointer to the starting place if you want to get into their creations. A few of them link to reviews I’ve written on my site.
The Golden Key by Kate Elliott, Jennifer Roberson, and Melanie Rawn
While the list here is not actually ranked, I am starting with my favourite book on the list, and one of my favourite books of all time, the co-written Fantasy novel of epic proportions (running to nearly 800 pages): The Golden Key.
Telling the generations-spanning story of the Grijalva family, a family of painters with many subtle secrets, it includes one of the most interesting systems of magic I’ve ever seen. Melanie Rawn would go on to write another novel in this setting, The Diviner, and to have collectively stopped at only two novels feels like a horrible waste, so incredible is this world and this novel.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
The first adult fiction novel by Dr. Okorafor, Who Fears Death was nominated for the Locus, World Fantasy and Nebula awards for Best Novel, winning one and surely deserving of the other two.
Handling the difficult themes of race, oppression, and weaponized rape with a grace and aplomb that would almost astound if she hadn’t made it look so easy, the story of Onyesonwu’s coming of age, coming to terms with her world, and quest for justice made this book...you don’t want to use a word like ‘enjoyable’ for a story dealing with such serious themes. I suppose I would say ‘compelling.’ But it was a journey I absolutely had to finish as soon as I started it.
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
(A note on the linked review: As it says, it was based on a preview copy of only the first quarter of book one, and I was fairly unimpressed with it based on that. I went on to buy and read the full novel, and both of the others, and absolutely enjoyed the crap out of them, so take the review with a hefty dose of salt.)
One of the best examples of a parallel worlds fantasy I can think of, Victoria Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is an absolutely fascinating look at London through the lens of Kell and Lila, denizens of the magic-rich Red and mundane Grey versions of the city. Fantastic pacing, a deep and rich story and an absolute top 5 ‘best female protagonists’ entry in the form of Delilah Bard, the three books of the Shades of Magic trilogy were a wonderful introduction to a great author.
Brightly Burning by Mercedes Lackey
While coming quite a bit later in the overall widely-spanning Valdemar series (being the 18th book chronologically and the 24th book by publication in a staggering 45-books-and-counting series) I’ve always held a special place for Brightly Burning both as a book in general, and a suggested entry point into the Valdemar world.
In addition to being a stand-alone in what is often a sea of trilogies and duologies, the story of Lavan Firestorm is a deeply emotional and impacting one for anybody who has ever been an outsider. One of the first times I ever cried reading a book.
Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb was one of those authors that I knew for years and years I should read, and just never got around to. Another example of starting late in a series, Fool’s Assassin is the first of a trilogy, but the 14th in the larger Realm of the Elderlings. I gather for people who’d been reading the whole series, the eponymous Fitz of this Fitz and The Fool trilogy was the draw, but for me the show was completely and absolutely stolen by the character of Bee. She was an absolute frigging delight, and the primary push for me to continue on with the trilogy. I’m sure I’ll end up going back to read the rest of the Fitz-based novels, they really are excellent and he’s a great character, but what I really want is more Bee!
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
An extremely topical novel for our current times, Parable of the Sower really highlights the degree to which Octavia Butler exemplified the foundational aspects of science fiction: using imaginary worlds and future settings to mirror the very real issues of the world, and provide a framework for thinking about how to approach that future with hope and aspiration.
A post-, or really mid-apocalypse of climate change, corporate greed, and racism backdrops a young woman’s vision for a better future. Even if Butler weren’t a phenomenal writer in her own right, the sheer volume of contemporary parallels in this, and its sequel Parable of the Talents, should make this mandatory reading.
Valor's Choice by Tanya Huff
The first installment of, for my money, one of the best boots-on-the-ground military sci-fi series ever made, Valor’s Choice introduces Staff-Sergeant Torin Kerr, also one of my favourite protagonists as well. Huff does an incredible job keeping Torin bad-ass and unwilling to take any shit, and do anything to preserve the safety of her team, while also keeping her empathetic, reasonable and incredibly human, a task at which a lot of authors, especially with male protagonists, fail miserably.
The eight-book series is finished, making it a safe dive-in for people who worry about starting series that aren’t done yet. For those who are less interested in sci-fi, I can also highly recommend her Quarters series (4 books, high fantasy) as well as the Keeper Chronicles (3 books, urban fantasy).
Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman
A completely random pick-up at my local library that turned into an absolutely amazing trilogy, and a strong entry in the list of ‘best magic systems,’ as well as as one of the very few books I’ve read that starts with a young chosen one with incredible powers that doesn’t turn into garbage.
Instead, the Vineart War trilogy intimately captures the combination of fear, anxiety, and pride that accompanies anybody who has the pressure of presumed greatness hanging over their heads. You pretty much couldn’t ask for a more realistic and human ‘chosen one.’ And when you combine the novelty of a wine-based magic system, you’ve got the makings of something really excellent, and Gilman didn’t disappoint at all.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
The debut novel for the woman who would go on to become one of the most award-winning SFF authors in the history of the genre, barely a decade into her career. You can see in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the seeds of the brilliance and skill that would lead her to become the only author to win three Best Novel Hugos in a row, and one of only five authors to win three total in their lives.
A fantastic...not so much subversion as innovation...of the otherwise tired trope of “young person goes to big city, gets embroiled in big city politics and learns dark secrets.” The idea gets new life breathed into it with some amazing conceptual world building and a unique narrative style. While it’s never good to get into the practice of canonizing authors where you “have to” read them to be considered well-read in the genre...after 3 Best Novel wins in 4 nominations in less than 10 years, the importance of Jemisin to modern SFF really can’t be understated.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
One of the biggest advantages to branching out from the industry-dominant ‘US/UK White Dudes’ when it comes to reading fantasy is getting to experience all of the cultural myths and spiritualities of other cultures and how they interact with the fantasy genre.
The Ghost Bride takes a long-standing tradition and then steeps it in the fantastical in probably my favorite method of doing historical fantasy. The both figurative and literal spiritual journey that Li Lan undertakes is heartfelt, genuine, and just superbly executed upon.
And in doing a bit of back research to refresh myself on this title, I’ve discovered that Choo has another book out just last year--The Night Tiger--which looks to build upon the same themes.
Dan is the creator of the review and article website Strange Currencies. A lifelong reader of almost exclusively Sci-fi and Fantasy, he has been reviewing since 2011. In addition to reviews, he is a freelance editor, and game designer and is going back to school in September to become a Paralegal and Law Clerk. You can find him in various social media places:
What are your favorite sci-fi/fantasy books written by women? Tell us in the comments!
Never before has a television show landed so hard and fast on my Favorites list. On a scale of one to Avatar: the Last Airbender, The Dragon Prince is a solid nine. Which is hardly a surprise, since they're both created by Aaron Ehasz.
The reason the aforementioned assassin--an elf named Rayla--is sent to kill the princes and king is because the king killed the Dragon King of Xadia, Thunder, and destroyed his egg.
Except it turns out the egg wasn't destroyed, it was stolen. Kept in an underground dungeons by the humans.
The three kids find the egg and travel to Xadia to return it to its mother, in the hopes that this will end the war between humanity and Xadia. As such, the biggest themes in the show are forgiveness, the endless cycle of revenge, and how good intentions can lead to the worst villains. Seriously, every villain on this show really, really believes they're a good guy.
Season one is primarily just laying the groundwork, introducing all major characters, and building the relationship between our three heroes. Rayla is an elven assassin who's never actually killed anyone and is primarily motivated by the need for redemption, not just herself but her family. Her parents were part of the Dragon Guard and failed to protect the egg when the humans attacked.
The two human princes are Callum and Ezran, half-brothers from their mother. So even though Callum is older, Ezran is next in line for the throne because he's the one who's actually descended from the king. While this causes zero friction between the brothers, Callum does have a somewhat awkward relationship with his kingly stepfather. One of those "aw, they love each other so much but have no idea how to express it" kind of situations.
Ezran is a little kid who has to grow into his role as new king very quickly. Meanwhile, Callum wants to be a mage, picking up one spell at a time with what limited resources he has on the road.
Fun fact: the voice actor for Callum is Jack De Sena, who also played Sokka. And yes, they do make a boomerang joke.
The biggest villain opposing our trio is Lord Viren, who takes over the human kingdom after the king is murdered and immediately proceeds to escalate the war with Xadia. This at first seems reasonable. After all, his king and best friend has been murdered, and for the first few episodes it looks like the princes are also dead. Why wouldn't Lord Viren take control and strike back?
But after news gets around that the princes are alive--and therefore, next in line for the throne--Viren sends his adult children to steal the egg back and kill the princes, officially putting him in villain territory.
What makes Viren so terrifying is his manipulation. He has almost everyone convinced that he's a genuinely good person, using lies, gaslighting, and, if necessary, dark magic to get his work done.
Each season has nine episodes, although the latest season probably could have benefited from an extra episode, as there was more than one point where it felt a bit rushed. This is most clearly seen in the romantic subplot between Callum and Rayla. It came out of nowhere. The flirting started a few episodes into season three and by the last episode they were already in an established relationship and exchanging "I love you's."
Although I will admit: once those two get together, they are an adorable couple.
What immediately caught my eye in this show was the cast's diversity: Ezran is the most obvious example, being one of the main three characters and black.
Women and men both hold positions of power--queens, kings, soldiers, generals, mages, assassins, etc.--and there are several characters of color.
There are two same-sex couples, which is huge for a kids' show.
Finally, to top it off, there are a handful of minor characters with disabilities. My personal favorite is General Amaya, Ezran and Callum's aunt who is mute. She communicates through sign language, takes none of Viren's bullshit, and spends most of her time on-screen beating the crap out of elves and villains.
So far there are three seasons, and while it doesn't end on a massive cliffhanger, there are a handful of questions that need to be answered. This is good, because we have a confirmed season four. But because it's Netflix we have no idea when that's actually going to happen, and that was before coronavirus screwed everyone's schedule.
Go to your bookshelf.
Take out all the science fiction and fantasy books that you've read.
Look up each author and then divide the books by "white author" and "non-white author."
Once you have your two piles, you'll probably realizing with a sinking feeling that you have a lot more books by white authors than people of color.
This isn't an attack on you. The publishing industry--like most other industries--are skewed to favor white people. Even as there's a growing interest in characters of color, it's often very difficult for authors of color to break into the industry compared to their white counterparts.
I'm guilty of this, too. One look at my Favorites list will tell anyone that I've been lingering in my own comfort zone for far too long.
In light of this--as well as the recent call to support black business owners and authors--I will be expanding my reading list. As soon as I finish the Diviners series and get my new books in the mail (I wouldn't be surprised if my recent order single-handedly makes Bezos a trillionaire), you will see a spike in this blog of reviews of books by authors of color.
I invite any and all white readers to join me in this challenge of purposefully diversifying our bookshelves. I invite any people of color reading this to join in, as well, though you're probably less likely to need it. More often than not, when I stumble on a "new" author of color, my non-white friends will have known about them for years. Same with LGBTQ+ authors and friends. I'm usually slow to the party, is what I'm trying to say.
Anyway, this post is for people hoping to find a good read by an author of color. Here is a list of six amazing science fiction and fantasy books by authors of color that I've already had the privilege of reading and reviewing. Links lead to more in-depth, spoiler-free reviews. These are all in order from young adult to grimdark adult, so you'll hopefully find something to catch your interest.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Dread Nation and Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
Kingston Cycle Trilogy by C. L. Polk
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James
That's that! Comment with your favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors of color so I can check them out, please and thank you. :)
Note: originally, this was a list of seven authors of color and included G. Willow Wilson's The Bird King. Then it was brought to my attention that she's actually white.
Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland
Note: while there are no spoilers for Deathless Divide here, there are spoilers for the first book Dread Nation. So if you're interested in Justina Ireland's work but don't want to get spoiled, click on the Dread Nation review here.
A little while ago I reviewed the first book in this series, Dread Nation, which followed Jane and Kate from Miss Preston's zombie-killing school to the wild west racist playground of Summerland, in 1880.
I re-read Dread Nation before getting into the sequel, Deathless Divide, and it gave me whiplash. You would think that Justina Ireland could see into the future: replace "zombies" with "COVID-19," and "Survivalist" with "Trump-supporter," and you've got 2020 in a nutshell. It's a little eerie. But it's a necessary read for any fans of speculative fiction who want to better understand race relations, because Ireland does her research. While there's the obvious fantasy element of zombies that throws American history on a different track, it's still grounded in reality, and there are direct parallels between the heroes' plight and our modern-day racial discrimination.
Deathless Divide picks up right where Ireland left off in Dread Nation: Jane, Kate, and their friends let Summerland get devoured by zombies while they try for the fortified town of Nicodemus. The big problem here is that's where a lot of other Summerland survivors are heading, and you'll recall they're all white supremacists. As soon as Jane arrives she spends the next several chapters in a jail cell for murdering the last book's villains: Sheriff and Pastor Snyder.
Deathless Divide is all about consequences. Not only do Jane and Kate have to wrestle with them, but so does this book's villain: Gideon Carr. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he was one of Jane's allies in Dread Nation, and also helped come up with the ineffective "vaccine." He turns villainous because he doesn't have regard for the consequences of his actions. He's consumed by the goal of finding a cure or effective vaccine for the zombie plague and makes horrible, devastating mistakes that cost Jane dearly.
He has several parallels to Victor Frankenstein: he's sympathetic in that he doesn't mean to be evil, and in fact sees himself as the good guy (re: "it'll all be worth it"). At the same time, I don't feel bad for him in the least because he should've learned his lesson the first time a hundred people died. He's a rich scientist who doesn't care about the trail of bodies he leaves in his wake; the zombies aren't nearly as dangerous as he is.
While Gideon goes full on evil, Jane skirts that line herself. In Dread Nation she was already something of an anti-hero, with all of her lying and not particularly going out of her way to save other people, just herself and her frenemy Kate. But when Gideon triggers a vengeance quest within her in Deathless Divide, she goes a little nuts, turning reckless and vicious. While she never hurts an innocent, she does put a few in direct danger and develops taste for torture.
We also get Kate's point of view. This gets irritating because her chapters, like Jane's, are all first person POV. Dread Nation was told purely through Jane's eyes, which worked beautifully. In Deathless Divide, each chapter alternates: chapter one is Jane, chapter two is Katherine, chapter three is back to Jane, etc, much like the last two books of Tiana Warner's Eriana Kwai Trilogy. And just like that series, it can get confusing as to whose head we're in. As much as I appreciate getting into Katherine's mysterious backstory, there were probably better ways to go about it.
Having said that, Katherine's chapters are just as good as Jane's. We learned already that Katherine is asexual and aromantic, a fact that remains true throughout this sequel--none of that ace character getting "fixed" nonsense. Now we learn that she also has anxiety and fierce loyalty. While Jane's romantic subplot(s) are very light, Ireland goes ham on the Power of Friendship, and I love it.
This is an intense story. A major character from the previous book dies in the first fifty pages. People lose limbs and break hearts. One of the main characters is in very real danger of turning full villain. But it is absolutely worth it.
Deathless Divide is an excellent sequel, tying up all the loose ends from the previous book and building upon the established characters' arcs. We also got to see a lot more worldbuilding in zombie-infested 1880 America: the Wild West, California, and New Orleans. If you like zombies, Westerns, and black characters, you're going to love this.
Instagram Giveaway: Homestead Hunts
A few months ago, I was bummed because COVID-19 cancelled what should have been my first ever book signing at Booklover's Con, 2020.
Luckily, BLC rescheduled for August, so we're back on track! I'll be signing and selling copies of Homestead Hunts. But since not everyone's going to get the chance to go to Tennessee, I thought I'd do a giveaway!
One lucky winner will get a signed copy of my illustrated novella Homestead Hunts in the mail. This is the eighth book in the Earth's Final Chapter series, but you don't have to read any of the other books to know what's going on.
Homestead Hunts centers on the dwindling mega-city, Homestead. The residents follow a totem system that puts them in one of two categories: predator or prey. Predators have the legal right to hunt and kill prey for the purposes of food. But after a particularly nasty hunt, calls for revolution go up, and it becomes impossible to know who's the hunter and who's the hunted.
This is an Instagram giveaway. Here's how to enter:
1) Click here or the button below to go to the right post.
2) Like the post.
3) Tag a friend in the comments who loves sci-fi books.
4) Follow me on Instagram.
This giveaway will continue through June 29th, 2020. A winner will be announced on June 30th and contacted through Instagram direct messaging, where I will privately ask for their mailing address to send the signed book.
Motherland: Fort Salem
What if witches ran the United States military?
That's the question asked and answered by Motherland: Fort Salem. It's set in an alternate America where witches are not only real, but they're running every aspect of the United States military.
Three hundred years ago, the immortal witch Sara Alder told the Founding Fathers "Hey, I'll help you win your little war for independence if you stop burning my friends and family." Now she's the head general of all armed forces, and every witch born in America is forced to serve in her military.
This makes for some spicy ethical issues, because forced conscription is generally frowned upon, especially in a nation that's supposed to be about freedom. But there's one group of witches in particular, called the Spree, that decide murdering hundreds of civilians is the best way to gain them freedom from military service. They're the main villains of the show, since terrorism is even more frowned upon.
This directly affects our main trio of characters, three young witches who spend the season trying to finish basic training and fight the Spree. Raelle is a powerful healer whose mother was killed in combat during her forced service, so she has some personal issues with the military and is only in basic because deserters are hunted down and killed.
Tally genuinely wants to serve, in part because she's the kind of soul who wants to help others, and in part because the witches have had an excellent PR team for the last three hundred years, so she believes all the propaganda about the glory of witch service until it gets dismantled throughout the course of the season.
Abigail is from one of the most famous and powerful witch families in America, her mother being another general and the head of intelligence, so she's been quite literally born and raised for this.
Since all three of them are randomly assigned to the same unit--which fails or succeeds as a unit--there's a lot of friction in the earlier episodes, especially between Raelle and Abigail. It gets worse when Raelle starts dating another witch Scylla, who, as we find out in the pilot, is actually working for the Spree.
The set-up gives for a lot of rich character interactions and conflicts, but occasionally the writers sink to petty cattiness. I'd say that bullcrap is about 10% of the entire show, which could have been used to explore the history and worldbuilding of this alternate America.
General Alder is immortal, and while she never stops rubbing the "I saved your asses three centuries ago" in everyone's faces, we don't know much else about her backstory, which is a shame because she gradually becomes a central figure over the course of the season, even arguably turning into a villain.
In the credits we see this world's map of America that includes a long strip of land called the Cessation, but we have no idea what that is.
Abigail's family is descended from slaves, but obviously such slavery is no longer a thing in the modern day, so how did the witches handle the Civil War and all other parts of American/global history? How does that affect her personally, and all the other black witches we see running around?
However, there is great storytelling going on here. The characters are real and flawed, and the acting is great when the dialogue isn't forcing them to be catty or petty. While the theme never goes into outright "the military is bad" or "government is bad," it does look at these institutions through a very skeptical lens, handling it with care and nuance. None of the individual soldiers are outright evil, and in fact when a soldier dies later in the show it's a tragic, honorable moment.
Better yet: almost all the characters are women and half of them are women of color. The woman playing Raelle has a scar on her face from an incident with an earlier acting job (shattered glass panel) that the make-up artists make no effort to hide.
This show has a lot of potential, so it's a good thing they've gotten the green light for a second season. This is great, because season one finale ended on a plot twist that I genuinely did not see coming, and introduced a whole new set of villains potentially more dangerous than the Spree with a personal vendetta against Alder. And since Freeform hasn't shied away from showing lesbian and gay relationships on this show, I'd like to see some trans representation. What happens if a witch is assigned female at birth but identifies as a man, or vice versa?
Motherland: Fort Salem is definitely a show to look into. If you like girls being awesome, a unique magic system, and interesting worldbuilding, you're going to want to check this out.
A list of my top 10 sci-fi and fantasy books that feature LGBTQ+ characters. List your personal favorites in the comments!
Spoiler-free book reviews:
Trials of Apollo
The Bird King
The City in the Middle of the Night
Mermaids of Eriana Kwai
The Wolf in the Whale
Black Leopard Red Wolf
Special thanks to my patrons on Patreon! In addition to making this blog possible, they get early access to these episodes and sneak peaks at my other works.
Check out my Patreon page here.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!