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!
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!