With all the Susan in Narnia talk yesterday I got thinking about my favorite fantasy books when I was growing up, the things that made me feel ok to be a girl/young woman, the books that prized diversity and normalized being not a cis, white, hetero dude. So I've made a list, and I'd love to hear your suggestions, too!
(Sorry/not sorry for the length. The more I thought the more I remembered and I'm starting to realize my parents were far more awesome than I even knew for buying me all of these because holy cats. This is a couple hundred bucks worth of feminist fantasy novels and this is less than 10% of what I read from 11-15 years old. Also, fair warning that I read adult books by the time I was about 14, but most of these could be handled by someone in the 11-18 range depending on comfort level and interest.)
Let's be honest. The best place to start is with East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It's a Norwegian folk tale and an illustrated children's book about the costs of being selfish and how a young woman saves her family form her own bad decisions. I read this obsessively as a kid, along with Jane Yolen's the Girl Who Cried Flowers which appears to be sadly out of print.
Mercer Mayer's art for the copy that I have is just astonishingly rich.
First, the female authors:
Kate Elliott's Jaran books focus on the story of a scientifically minded female ambassador to an alien race. The aliens at some point made themselves a "zoo" planet and populated it with humans who have little technology. She ends up living among them, marrying one of them and having his children. She often leads him through very fraught social situations, and her STEM/social sciences background is just amazing, she is entirely self-possessed and the idea of humans given the chance to develop a second time in a new setting is really interesting. One part that stuck with me is when she tried to explain to him why Catholic priests are celibate and he responds with (paraphrasing) "Wouldn't you want your most holy men to procreate more, not less?" (Crown of Stars series is also good, but VERY thick and sometimes hard to get through. Game of Thrones-esque in terms of violence and abuse.)
Lynn Flewelling is a filthy heartbreaker. Nightrunner Series is about two men who work together as thieves. The pain of having pasts they refuse to talk about, the slow growth of respect, begrudging friendship, and finally (in the THIRD BOOK) romance that you don't really expect. This is what being queer in a fantasy novel should look like.
Monica Furlong wrote a series about several powerful witches that does not rely on stereotypes of Druidic behavior or the bitchy/jealous witch trope. Wise Child, Juniper, and Colman are all really great, and fairly quick reads.
Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy (and later the Tawny Man Trilogy) are about some really amazing characters that have a very strange will they won't they thing, but mostly they're just friends. Women a strong, politics are complicated, the kingdom can't come before personal happiness and yet it does every time. Liveship Traders has female captains of ships that are alive! Sailing the sea being general badasses on ships that sort of think for themselves.
Mercedes Lackey All amazing. All, seriously. Here's a couple of favorites:
- Black Swan: a rewriting of the classing fairy tale from the woman's point of view. Female protagonist (with flaws) saves herself, the people she cares about, and the day.
- Chronicles of Valdemar: There are scores of these, usually laid out in trilogies. Every gender, race, and socio-economic class is written about in at least one of these books. No way of life is portrayed as any better than another. The Herald Mage trilogy, which focuses on a queer, very anxious and depressed mage who struggles with his family's expectations and acceptance of himself and his sexuality is still really powerful for me and I get teary just thinking about it.
Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Song for the Basilisk, and the Book of Atrix Wolfe are also lovely. The first in particular is very focused on a young female protagonist with a strong, questioning voice, and she saves herself.
Robin McKinley really perfected the retelling of several classic fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast in particular) that just transcend expectations. Rose Daughter and Deerskin are also both great female protagonist books.
Tamora Pierce(These are the books I will read my kids to put them to sleep.)
- Song of the Lioness: a first female knight breaking the biggest glass ceiling, gender queerness-ish, not falling for the "right" guy.
- The Immortals: owning your own power, rejecting expectations, taking care of your diverse friends.
- Circle of Magic: diversity leads to strength, fantasy novel with explicitly non-white female (and male) protagonist.
- Protector of the Small: one generation after Song of the Lioness, a second female knight comes to carry the fight forward…great metaphors for later waves of feminism after the trail has been blazed.
- Dalemark: I'm not sure a set of books broke my heart and made me more whole than these books did. Family ties, romantic love that has to remain unrequited for real reasons of safety, just…ugh. I want to be buried with my tear-stained copy of Crown of Dalemark, I've only ever been able to force myself to read it once.
- Howl's Moving Castle (enough said, I hope)
- Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin are parody of the D&D style sword and sorcery novels, with goofiness and some serious poking at gendered stereotypes.
- Pit Dragon Chronicles: Platonic love, the importance of building your own family.
- Wizard's Hall: proto Harry Potter and in my opinion better, and at only 144 pages much faster read.
- Briar Rose: retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale during World War II. Yolen is Jewish and this story deals with concentration camps and very strong themes, but is beautiful and reaffirming.
And a few guys that write really great women:
Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. The classic YA contribution from an author who clearly loves what he does and entertaining young people. I still want to be Eilonwy when I grow up.
Piers Anthony On top of the great Xanth series (which I haven't read honestly) the Incarnations of Immortality series is just astonishing. Strong women, PoC, real compelling stories. (ETA I have ONLY ever read his Immortality series and after Wenchette commented I went and Googled some of his other books. Dude has ISSUES. IoI is really great, but you may want to avoid his other shit like the plague.)
Neil Gaiman I hope I don't really need to explain this one, but Coraline and Stardust and Four Witches in particular are just amazing for young women.
Brian Jacques's Redwall books are awesome...although he technically writes female anthropomorphic animals, not women! Especially if you have a talent for accents, read them aloud to someone. All of the types of animals have a different accent (Cockney, Scottish, Irish, Welsh) and it's one of my favorite memories with my mom, bundled up with the flu listening to her read. The lady badgers are my favorite.
Garth Nix's Old Kingdom (aka Abhorsen Trilogy) focuses on the family of the Abhorsen, the best necromancer in a world where magic and science are only divided by a single wall that cuts Old Kingdom from New. The main character of all three books is a young (under twenty) woman who struggles and loves and loses and really just is a fully fleshed out person. Sabriel (the first book) has a sort of lose love interest that doesn't impede on anything and is very much a Peeta to her Katniss.
So tell me, GT. What books did you read as a wee bairn that the rest of us should know about?