Women in SF and Fantasy: Book Recommendations

Cover of Fey Touched by Erin ZarroI read a lot of SF&F written by female authors and/or starring women. Sometimes I forget that other people don’t. And then something happens to remind me — a friend asks for suggestions, or some sexist kerfuffle blows up in the world of SF&F conventions or fandom.

So here are my recommendations for SF&F starring strong female characters. Most of the authors are female themselves, but not all.

(What exactly is a “strong female character”? She doesn’t have to literally kick ass. There are many kinds of strength….)

Elizabeth Bear — Hammered

A prolific writer who likes to explore all corners of SF&F, Bear has written everything from contemporary fantasy about Faerie (Blood and Iron) to a sort of allegory crossed with generation ships (Dust). Her latest series (starting with Range of Ghosts) is epic fantasy in Mongolia.

My recommendation, though, is the trilogy starting with Hammered — starring an aging female ex-soldier, half cyborg, who’s dragged kicking and screaming back into a military program. Cynical? Yes…but there’s also hard-won hope and a good dose of sense-of-wonder.

Lois McMaster Bujold — Paladin of Souls

Picture this: an epic fantasy novel where the main character is an older noblewoman going on a quest and having adventures…yet she’s acting within social constraints that are true to the medieval setting. Doesn’t sound possible? Read Paladin of Souls. It’s one of my very favourite secondary-world fantasy novels, and that’s saying a lot.

Bujold is also the author of the Vorkosigan Saga, which stars strong women like Cordelia and Ekaterin. Or so I’ve heard…I’m just getting into the series, and looking forward to more.

Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey — The Steel Seraglio

Mike Carey works in comics, and Linda Carey has written fantasy under the name A.J. Lake. But together with Louise Carey, they wrote a lovely novel called The Steel Seraglio. It’s the story of a harem of women whose sultan is deposed by a religious zealot. They’re sent into the desert to die…but they won’t give up so easily. I’ll have more to say about this one in a future post.

Gail Carriger — Soulless

This light, fun steampunk series wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but lots of people love it. It’s got vampires, werewolves, mad science, and a fearless Victorian woman protagonist who’s ready to take on anything and anyone.

Kelley Eskridge — Solitaire

A hard SF novel where the science in question is psychology. The young woman of colour in this story has been born and raised for a role of corporate leadership, but as the story begins, she’s just been told that it’s all a lie. The fallout leads her into solitary confinement, where she confronts everything she’s done and everything she knows about herself. The writing is some of the most psychologically astute I’ve ever read.

Phil and Kaja Foglio — Girl Genius

I’ve talked about this steampunk graphic novel/webcomic series before. The spunky engineer heroine gets up to all sorts of shenanigans involving airships, robots and mechanical constructs of all sizes, a mad scientist out to kill her, the mad scientist’s handsome son, and much, much more. Her adventures are way too much fun, and full of spectacular visuals to boot.

Nicola Griffith — Slow River

This gritty SF novel follows an heiress who is forced into hiding, with no way to prove her identity. Her (female) rescuer is a street-savvy tech criminal. They begin a dangerous romance, and the rich girl finds herself changing…but she must decide who she ultimately wants to become.

KD Sarge — Captain’s Boy

KD Sarge is one of our Turtleduck Press authors. She usually writes SF about male characters, but Captain’s Boy features one of each gender. The young woman is a fiery, prickly type who gets along with nobody in the universe…except for a young man battling internal demons. When the unlikely duo sets out to rescue a boy stolen by interstellar slavers, they both have some hard learning and changing ahead.

Jo Walton — Among Others

Remember what I said about different kind of strengths? The teenage girl in this story isn’t going to kick anybody’s ass. She was crippled, and her twin sister killed, while stopping their evil mother from doing black magic. That’s all backstory.

Now she has to go on with her life — an ordinary life involving English boarding school, where there is no magic. There, looking for something to connect with, she discovers the SF&F section of the library…and a reader is born. This is a love letter to SF&F as much as anything else.

Erin Zarro — Fey Touched

Zarro is another Turtleduck Press author (coincidence? not likely…). This science fantasy novel features two sisters on opposite sides of a raging conflict. One is a genetically engineered Fey, the other a Hunter of Fey, both fierce and determined to fight for their people. But when family and community collide, only one loyalty can prevail.

Honorable Mention: Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer — Agnes and the Hitman

This isn’t speculative fiction, it’s romantic comedy/action, but it had to be mentioned anyway because it is awesome. Agnes is a food columnist with anger problems; Shane is a hitman hired to protect her. They fight crime! And solve mysteries, and spout wisecracks, and reluctantly fall in love. Oh, just go read it. You’ll love it, I swear.

Your turn! Who are your favourite female authors and/or characters in adult science fiction and fantasy?

If you liked this post, you might also like Women in A Game of Thrones.

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14 responses to “Women in SF and Fantasy: Book Recommendations

  1. Mieka Tilley

    Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion is an epic fantasy novel with a very strong female protagonist. Definitely worth a read.

  2. Thanks, Mieka…one more to add to my enormous TBR list!

  3. Also worth mentioning about Hammered that the protag is Native/French Canadian! I can’t remember which tribe but seems worth mentioning. (I read the trilogy entirely on your recommendation and they were terrific) 🙂

  4. And now I’m thinking “tribe” was the wrong word. Sorry. I believe I meant “which nation”. Do you happen to remember which it was, Siri?

  5. Good point, Victoria! I can’t remember either, but I’m glad you liked them! And yes, “nation” is the right word in this case (AFAIK, not being Native).

  6. Yeah, I was actually a big surprised I didn’t see The Deed of Paksenarrion on here, but then, so many books, so little time, and all…

  7. I also read a lot of fantasy by women about women – but have read NONE on your list! (Although I have read Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – the first of the Paksenarrion books.)

    An Australian author you might not have heard of is Kylie Chan. Her Dark Heavens trilogy ++ (beginning with White Tiger) is set in modern Hong Kong with lots of martial arts and demons.

    And of course there’s Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series (beginning with Kushiel’s Dart). An amazing central female character.

  8. Oh yeah, and as you know I’m currently reading Among Others. 🙂

  9. Mike, you got me! I have not read anything by Elizabeth Moon. YET. 😉

    Ellen, Jacqueline Carey’s books are on my radar (aka my massive TBR list…), but no, I hadn’t heard of Kylie Chan…thanks!

  10. They’re releasing the Girl Genius series as novels now–I believe the third one just or is about to be released. I read the first one, and while it’s not the best novel I’ve ever read, it provided some very interesting world and character building that you don’t get from the comic.

    Also, I second Agnes and the Hitman. It is sinfully good. I was sorely tempted to recommend it to my 90% male speculative fiction writing group last week when we were discussing excellent books.

  11. Kit, thanks for the info on Girl Genius! I was eying the novels, but wasn’t sure because the visuals are such a big part of what I love about the series.

    I bet you’d convert your whole male writing group to romance, or at least Crusie-worship, if they read Agnes.

  12. Pingback: I’m On Your Side (Chapter 1) | A Place That Does Not Exist

  13. Siri, thank you! Very nice of you to include Solitaire.

    Among Others is next on my list, really looking forward to it. And I can heartily recommend Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown — two fantastic women protagonists and absolutely gorgeous writing.

  14. Kelley, thanks so much for the comment! I read and loved one of the McKinley books you mention (long, long ago) but not the other…it might just be time to look her up again.

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