15 of the best female authors in fantasy fiction
While I will always owe a great debt to JRR Tolkien for Middle-earth, I am also indebted to the women in SFF who captured my imagination and whose works convinced me that it was a good idea to write stories of my own.
I'm not one of the people who'll yell PATRIARCHY! at the top of my lungs and become woebegone at the idea that there is some sort of global conspiracy to sideline women SFF authors but I will quietly add that these are some of the classic fantasy authors who were a great influence on me when I was younger and while I was sharpening my first quills.
You may not find all of them on the shelves at your local store, which is why I am writing about them here.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and to my eternal regret, there are still many more women authors I wish to read, but these are the ones (in alphabetical order) who inspired me and are the ones who continue to encourage me.
"The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse
A friend of mine, with impeccable reading tastes encouraged me to read Beth's writing, and I've not regretted one instant. I started with her novel, Passion Play, which is the first of her River of Souls trilogy. The reason why I love her writing so much is because her world building is so thoughtful, her characters resonant and reflective.
She makes her detailed world appear effortless, borrowing from that which is familiar (in word-usage, naming) only to recast it in what I consider refreshingly non-Eurocentric fantasy. I've gotten to know Beth via social media, and she's also offered me valuable critique and encouragement for my writing when we've had occasion to trade chapters.
I admit I've not read all Trudi's most recent books, but I really, really enjoyed her Black Magician trilogy, which started out as a coming-of-age story for a young female magician against all odds (and terrible bullying) and quickly grows into an epic.
Trudi's writing is easy on the eye, and she sinks you into the story quickly and I'll revisit her writing for certain. I wasn't that enthused by her Age of Five trilogy, purely because I didn't quite buy the world-building, but once again, the writing carries you along even if I kinda figured out what was going on quite soon.
Kushiel's Dart was one of those books that struck me hard; now here is an author who is a master of her craft. Jacqueline's magical, alternative history is richly detailed, sensuous without being overly sentimental, and is filled with the kinds of characters you'll want to weep over. Intrigue, betrayal, magic – it's all there. Start with Phèdre's Trilogy.
This is a slow-build, gradually unfolding saga that touches on our own histories but spins them out with a magical twist, and I'm long overdue another visit.
Her The Sundering duology takes a stab at Tolkien, telling a tale from the perspective of those one would consider the traditional enemies. It's sitting on my Kindle app, glaring at me to be read.
CJ Cherryh has a formidable oeuvre that spans everything from hard SF through to fantasy. Perhaps the work that has remained the longest with me (and which I'm now overjoyed to own in its entirety) is The Complete Morgaine – a worlds-spanning, gate-jumping SF epic that reads more like straight-up sword-and-sorcery fantasy.
I cannot underscore enough what an important contribution this author has made to SFF in general; she is indeed a cornerstone. Her keen perceptions of flawed characters, as well as her solid world building, make reading her tales an unforgettable experience. She is one of the authors I wanted to be like when I was still in high school, dreaming of one day penning my own novels.
Storm Constantine very much forms part of what I consider to be the triumvirate of authors who're akin to my literary demigods, sharing the limelight with Tolkien and Neil Gaiman.
If anyone had told me way back in 2007 when I first started on this dark, twisted journey of Becoming an Author, that I'd one day be able to say that Storm Constantine is one of my editors, I'd have scoffed. But, here I am, a decade later, having had three stories edited and published by her, with (at time of writing) a novel-length project in the works.
Storm is most beloved for her Wraeththu Mythos, a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which magical hermaphrodite beings inherit the earth after humanity has messed up for the last time.
I still get chills knowing that I've been privileged enough to write for this intellectual property. Beyond being an utterly bewitching author whose understanding of the esoteric shines, Storm is the editor who knows *exactly* what to do and say to coax a better story out of me, and I have learnt much from her – and still hope to learn much more.
I came to Kate's writing via her Crown of Stars series, which enraptured me for the diversity of the characters and the terrible, awful things they endure.
I'm desperate to return and reread these books, not only for the incredible depth and breadth of the writing (I mean, you *need* to see her references texts to understand why I adore this woman) but also because she so effortlessly takes readers into absolute strangeness, and her understanding of what motivates her characters gives them such a ring of authenticity it's staggering. The sheer volume of her work also slays me. I'm so far behind on my reading with her.
An author I often mention in the same breath as CJ Cherryh, Mary Gentle is one whose works don't often easily fall into either SF or fantasy. I first encountered her Ash: A Secret History, but have since dipped into her other works that have dug deeply into my heart with rusty blades and then twisted.
She understands misdirection, reversals, betrayals. Her worlds are tactile, complex. Orthe, which tells the tale of an ambassador visiting an alien world, hurt me.
I've read the book twice and each time left me breathless with the devious nature of the narrative. There are also so many of Mary's books that I've still not read. Much to my horror.
If there's one author who's possibly been instrumental in making me a better writer, it's Cat, and I'm proud to name her my friend. She's held the mirror up to me often, and while at first it's not been easy looking into the cracked depths, it's been necessary. But holy fuckmonkeys, her writing is phenomenal.
Liquid poetry. Even her early versions leave me breathless with the word paintings. If you have to start with her fiction, pick up either When the Sea is Rising Red or her retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beastkeeper.
She has this uncanny ability of taking the familiar and spinning it out into weird and unexpected ways that leave you breathless. She inspires me to constantly reach deeper within for things of beauty.
Robin's Farseer Trilogy is my go-to for anyone who says that they want to read fantasy but they're not quite sure where to start. Her epic saga (now headed to book nine in the third trilogy) telling of the doings of Fitz the royal bastard and the mysterious Fool, are among my favourite books which I've had the opportunity to revisit.
Some fantasy doesn't live up to the re-reading. Not so with Robin's writing. Her world is completely immersive, and every tiny detail has some sort of meaning later on in the story.
How she manages to weave this incredibly detailed tapestry while keeping all the facts straight is beyond me. She's also one of the few authors who's made me cry ugly tears. And don't come tell me you've yet to read Assassin's Apprentice. I won't hear of it. Go read this book already. You'll most likely devour the rest too.
Katharine's Deverry Cycle is a classic, and also highly underrated these days. I've had the occasion to revisit the first four books recently and they were as good to me as they were when I first read them as a teen. What struck me especially was the way Katharine conceptualised her magic system, which knowing what I do now of Western traditions, has a ring of authenticity. I love her envisioning of elves as wandering nomads, ousted by humanity's spread across the land.
And I also owe her a huge debt, because her threaded lives of reincarnated characters working out their wyrd most certainly influenced some of the concepts I play with in my own writing. There is a feyness to Katharine's writing and an underlying deeper understanding of history, and how it oft repeats itself.
I must've been about 13 or 14 when I first was able to finish reading A Wizard of Earthsea, the first of the much-vaunted Earthsea Cycle. There's a lot more to Le Guin's stories than meet the eye, and I'm beyond keen to dip into her writing again now that I'm older, to understand what I missed the first time round.
She goes deep with her writing and creates a quiet pool for reflection, spanning that chasm that is so often perceived to exist between genre and literary fiction. Le Guin truly stands as a singular beacon in her own right, and deserves far more acclaim than she receives at present. While I don't always mention her as often as I should, I feel compelled to mention her importance here. Her writing matters.
To say that Tanith was a prolific author is an understatement, and I'm sorrowful to say that I haven't read nearly as many of her stories as I feel I should. If you're looking for fast-moving tales, you're going to go away from hers with a great feeling of dissatisfaction, and perhaps earlier I was uncharitable about her writing until I finally twigged that it was the atmosphere and mood, and the shifting shadows and the distinct sense of unease that I had to tap into.
If you're used to contemporary fantasy, I suspect you'll struggle to get into her writing, but I promise it's worth it, even in small doses. Also, she was a huge influence on Storm Constantine, which is why I'll persist in delving into her worlds.
Fiona was another author whose kinds words and encouragement got me started way back when, when I first started seriously considering writing fiction. I had reviewed a bunch of her fantasy novels, which were highly accessible, and we chatted a few times via email, and I became excited about fantasy as a genre again (and saw my own potential).
At times the endings of Fiona's novels feel a bit rushed, but oh, the characters and the worlds – stunning. She's incredibly gifted in the way she creates a sense of fascination with her people and places, and she's also an author I fully intend to read again one day.
I first read The White Dragon when I was in Grade 8, and it was one of the novels that changed everything for me. I'd already set a course with JRR Tolkien but Anne pretty much nailed it – this is what I wanted. I've read all her Dragonriders of Pern books at least three times, and I still love them dearly, even if they'll most likely pale in comparison to some of the heavier fare that features regularly in my reading pile.
Anne's writing is incredibly accessible and I'm sorry, what's not to love about telepathic, telekinetic dragons who single out their one-and-only riders? Pern will always have a place in my heart.
When I first cut my teeth I wrote two and a bit fics set on Pern that, to my continuing horror, have had tens of thousands of hits a decade later and still garner me queries from hopeful readers wanting more who claim I write *just* like Anne. C'mon, what's not to love about praise like that, hey?
I know I don't often mention Rowling when I talk about the women fantasy authors who have inspired me and whom I think are absolutely amazing and deserving of honour, but she makes my list. While the concepts she plays with are certainly not new to the fantasy genre (the underdog is the Chosen One who has to battle the odds through a magical academy of some sort), it's the way that Rowling pulls it all together, with equal amounts of whimsy and grit.
Her characterisation is what makes her Potterverse for me. Each person who reads the Harry Potter books will find that one character they resonate with, and it's how she allows her imagination free rein, to borrow and subvert, and put out a tale that is both familiar and at once wholly new. She speaks to us about the matters that are important without making us feel as if we're being beaten about the head with ideology.
I'd love to know who your favourite women in SFF are, and if you are a woman who yearns to write the stories that are important to you, realise that it's never too late for you to take up the pen yourself. This is your call to action as much as it is mine, to be reminded that the stories we choose to tell about ourselves have the power to shape our future.
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