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Today’s guest is Dina from SFF Book Reviews, a great site for reviews of speculative fiction books! I very much enjoy reading Dina’s thoughts on books—they’re detailed and thorough and her enthusiasm shines through when she really loves a book she’s discussing. She also has excellent taste, as you can see from her reviews of Warchild by Karin Lowachee, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, and I’m now excited to have more books by some new-to-me authors to check out based on her recommendations below!

SFF Book Reviews

Hello everyone! I am so excited to be here. This is my first time participating in Women in SF&F Month although I have been an avid reader of this blog and especially the previous Women in SF&F events. Thank you so much for having me, Kristen!

Reading challenges and how they can lead to the most wonderful authors

Reading challenges are sneaky, wonderful things. They tease you with honor and glory should you reach your goal, but they also lead you down new paths and force you to broaden your horizons. Challenges are good things in most situations. Whether you challenge yourself to run a faster 5k, get to work on time every day, spend more quality time with your loved ones, or read more books–the one thing this does is force us out of our comfort zone. I happen to be a lazy but ambitious person (my brain is a weird place to inhabit). I like my comfortable little reading bubble where I keep reading the one type of thing I know I enjoy, but I also like being good at something and reaching pre-set goals. Enter reading challenges.

In 2012, my reading habits totally changed for the first time. I had gotten an e-reader for Christmas, I read my first Catherynne M. Valente book (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) which prompted me to start my own review blog and shout out to the world just how amazingly wonderful books can be (especially if they are written by Cat Valente). Entering the world of book bloggers and SFF fandom also made me realise (1) that the majority of big names were men (2) that I didn’t really question author gender when I chose books. It was a wake up call and I decided to start reading and reviewing a wider range of books by all sorts of authors, not just the best-sellers.

Then, one year later, I discovered a website called Worlds Without End that lists most of the big SFF award winners and nominees and my reading habits changed again. At first, I only used the page to keep track of book awards and, again, was stunned by the sheer overwhelming number of male award winners as opposed to female ones. But Worlds Without End also hosted the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge that year, a perfect opportunity at the perfect time, since I wanted to read more books by female SFF writers anyway (Here is this year’s challenge–you can still join… nudge nudge).

The rules are very, very simple. Read 12 new to you female writers of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Sure, this may sound a little uncomfortable at first. Going out and picking a random author that you’ve never read before… what if you don’t like the book (just put it down), what if you can’t find 12 authors (you will!), what if women just don’t write your favorite sub-genre (they do). Like Aarti says in her annual Diversiverse challenge–another great one, by the way–competing in a challenge may mean you have to change your book-buying habits, but certainly not your book reading habits. There IS exactly the type of fiction you love out there, written by female authors or authors of color. It just takes some looking.

The first year doing this challenge was, admittedly, a bit of a struggle. Picking 12 new-to-me authors took some time, reading book blurbs, checking recommendations based on my reading habits, and so on. But once I was in the challenge-mode, my ears pricked up whenever I heard the name of a female writer of SFF mentioned that I didn’t know yet. It made me more adventurous, simply trying out new things instead of staying in my reading bubble. By the second year, the challenge wasn’t a challenge anymore. I had discovered so many interesting books during the first year that they would last me for ten more challenges. By now, the challenge basically finishes itself. My habits have changed so much that I don’t have to think about it anymore. Women writers just seem to pop up wherever I look and as long as they keep writing fantastic books I keep reading and talking about them.

I don’t think I have to explain the chain reaction this endeavour sets in motion. More people reading books by women, writing and talking and blogging and tweeting about books by women equals more exposure, even if it’s just on small blogs or on a Goodreads account that barely anyone follows. I decided to join and do my part in showing the world that there is more than George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson out there (not that I don’t love my Mistborn and Song of Ice and Fire). But come on people, there is Angela Slatter and Genevieve Valentine, V.E. Schwab and Caitlín R. Kiernan, Sarah Pinborough and Helen Oyeyemi, N. K. Jemisin and Nalo Hopkinson. I could go on forever.

Instead of forever, I have bravely narrowed my favorite discoveries down for you, although you will find a list at the end with some more amazing authors that I discovered because a reading challenge made me go out and look for stuff that is not always out in the open. These are just the few authors I think are most criminally underread, and I sincerely hope that some of you check them out to see if their books are up your alley.

My favorite underrated female SFF authors and why you should READ THEM RIGHT NOW

Flora Segunda by Ysabeau S. Wilce Flora's Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce Flora's Fury by Ysabeau S. Wilce

Ysabeau S. Wilce is my number one most beloved underknown writer. I discovered her by accident–as happens so often–when Ellen Kushner raved about her Flora Segunda books on the SF Squeecast. She made these books sound like so much fun, I went out and got the first one without much thought. Since then, I have hunted down hardback copies of the trilogy to proudly display on my shelves.

Ysabeau S. Wilce has created an alternate California where magic exists. But Flora Segunda, the second daughter in her family called Flora (the first one died), is not allowed to use magic. What she wants most is to become a ranger, a magic-using gun-slinging spy, but her family has other plans. Her mother is a general in the military and does her best to keep the peace with the Aztec-inspired Huitzil empire.

Flora’s first adventure happens entirely by accident when a moody elevator in her house takes her the wrong way. Her House, Crackpot Hall, is a bit like Hogwarts, in that it has a mind of its own…

“Crackpot Hall has eleven thousand rooms, but only one potty.”

Flora, her best friend Udo, her little red dog, and several house ghosts all add a layer of fun and depth to what at first glance appears to be a fluffy children’s story. But in that first book already, there is a sense of a bigger world out there. Wilce invites her readers to explore this world in the sequels, Flora’s Dare (my favorite!) and Flora’s Fury. Flora has to grow up, discover who she wants to be, decide between loyalty to her family and her own dreams, and find out some pretty incredible things about her family’s past.

For some more world-building and a couple of flashback episodes, also check out the collection Prophecies, Libels & Dreams set in the same world, although dealing with other characters. There are many more stories to tell in this universe and although I don’t know the details, I suspect Ysabeau Wilce didn’t get the chance because her trilogy just isn’t as well known as it should be.

I recommend her whenever I can because if just one more person buys her books, that brings me one step closer to maybe getting another Flora adventure. Self-serving as that is (and I’m not even ashamed of that), I also think Wilce simply deserves more acclaim. She did win the Andre Norton award for Flora’s Dare but I’d love to see her on all my favorite blogs, mentioned in best-of lists, and publishing a book every year.

Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter Of Sorrow and Such by Angela Slatter The Bitterwood Bible and Other Stories by Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter is a recent discovery of mine. She has no shortage of awards recognition, but until her novella Of Sorrow and Such was published by Tor.com, she seemed to have been known mostly in Australia, not the rest of the world. Living in Austria, I honestly don’t notice whether an author is published in the US, the UK, or Australia. It all goes in the “English books” section in our bookstores, without consideration for where it comes from. I realise there are some restrictions about where a book can be published, who holds the rights for which territory and so on, and this may be the reason big US- or UK-based blogs don’t talk about her books.

But seriously, if it is at all possible, you should pick up Angela Slatter’s story collections. Start with Sourdough and Other Stories, a novel-length collection telling stories featuring all sorts of amazing women. You get young women, old women, good and not-so-good ones, women sticking together in friendship, jealous women scheming to kill their rivals, witchy women, and living dolls. And it all adds up to one big story about a place and its inhabitants. She does the same thing all over in The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, a collection so perfect I wish I had a larger vocabulary to describe it. Set chronologically before Sourdough, these stories will bring back familiar faces but show them in a different light, and while they, again, all make up part of a bigger picture, the stories are beautiful on their own. Slatter has a way with words that will make anyone jealous and her subversion of fairy tale tropes and characters alone are worth picking up her work.

Slatter’s first novel, Vigil, will be published in June and the excitement has had me hyperventilating ever since I found out.

Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett Shadow Magic by Danielle Bennett and Jaida Jones Dragon Soul by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett Steel Hands by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

Author pair Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett have written a series whose pitch makes the books sound completely different than what they are. Steampunk dragons you say? Sign me up! But wait, the dragons are actually a really, really small part of the story. I’d call this a fantasy of manners in a secondary world featuring some mechanical dragons. Yes, that sounds about right.

Through four point of view characters, readers are introduced first to the amazing (although almost exclusively male) cast of Havemercy. There are politics and there is interesting world-building, but center stage are the people Jones and Bennett have created.

Young farmboy Hal and the more experienced magician Royston live through a beautiful love story while Thom, in the capital city, is charged with beating some manners into the dragonriding men who protect the country. Chief among them is the ace rider of the dragon Havemercy, Rook. I don’t know why there aren’t thousands of words of fanfiction written about Thom and Rook–their relationship, their fighting, their psychological games are much more intense than any dragon battle ever could be.

There are four volumes in the series, and not all of them are about the same characters. But be assured that these two authors have a firm grip on how to tell thrilling tales about a vibrant cast. I don’t understand why Havemercy wasn’t widely recommended during the steampunk craze a few years ago.

The List

Like I promised, here are some other authors I’ve discovered solely because I needed to find women SFF writers I’d never read before in order to get my reading challenge done. Today, these authors are all dear to my heart and I look out for their books wherever I go.

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Today’s guest is author and historian Kari Sperring! Her first fantasy novel, Living with Ghosts, was selected for the Tiptree Award Honor List, won the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and was a finalist for the William L. Crawford Award. The Grass King’s Concubine, her more recent novel, is set in the same world but takes place hundreds of years after her previously published book. She has also written short fiction and nonfiction, and she writes the wonderful Matrilines column at Strange Horizons.

The Grass King's Concubine by Kari Sperring Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring

By Kari Sperring

Some years ago, I found myself spending an afternoon in a major art gallery, devoted to modern works (predominantly 20th century). It was a fascinating place, well-designed and laid out, and every picture was accompanied by thorough and detailed curatorial notes not only about the artist and provenance of the picture or sculpture, but analysis of the racial, class and social coding of the work itself. Across the gallery, the political acts embodied in the works–identity, ethnicity, race, class, political intent, sexuality–were made clear to the gaze of the viewer, revealing the ways in which we use our arts not only to decorate and inform, but to convey prejudice, be it racist, classist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or political, or to challenge these. The gallery held work by a number of artists I knew–Picasso, Matisse, Pollock–but also many who were new to me and the detailed commentaries were useful. But at the same time there was something that made me uncertain. In work after work, women’s bodies were paraded for display, dissected, distorted, sliced and twisted, sexualised, used as vessels to suggest suffering or decay, decadence or disgust. Yet not one of the curatorial notes made any reference to this. Women–our bodies, our lives–remained on the same status as inanimate objects, proper subjects for artists to use to convey meaning, and not needing, it seemed, any further analysis than that. There was no way that I could see to enquire of the gallery about this–this was before the days of visitor feedback forms and so forth. I just filed it away in memory, in the very large filing cabinet labelled ‘unthinking patriarchy’.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I received a fanzine from friends. And there in the letter column was a reference to a book series I know well and like a great deal, British author Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity, as “robot elf porn”. And, as in that gallery, I found myself thinking, rather sourly, hmmm. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen or heard someone refer to that series in that sort of way. It wasn’t even the worst comment: that would be the man who observed with satisfaction that Robson was finally showing her real colours and writing elf rubbish and wasn’t it a relief that serious readers wouldn’t have to bother with her and how clever she thought she is any more. (She is, I will observe in passing, formidably intelligent and this is reflected in everything she writes, whether or not it contains robots and/or elves.)

Keeping It Real by Justina Robson Selling Out by Justina Robson

The Quantum Gravity series sits somewhere between science fiction and urban fantasy, drawing on the tropes and concerns of both to create something unique and powerful. Set in a future in which a singularity event has occurred, causing multiple places of existence to overlap, it follows the career of Lila Black, a special agent in a mixed-species task force whose job it is to somehow maintain a balance between conflicting inter-species interests, conflicts and rivalries. It has elves and demons, faerie and interstitial dragons, worlds with highly advanced technology and worlds made up of our oldest, scariest archetypes. Oh, and Lila Black, who used to be a secretary, is a cyborg who owns nothing, not even her body and her thoughts. The series is clever, pacey, exciting, complex–and probably one of the most significant works of feminist science fiction and fantasy of the last decade. Robson’s previous novels had all been unequivocally science fiction, dealing with post-humanism, AI, nanotechnology, space travel. The British sff establishment, by and large, loved them (though sometimes wondering why Robson’s work had to be so “difficult”). When Quantum Gravity came along and it contained elves and a romance subplot, there was almost an air of relief to the backlash. Robson had done something that could be labelled girly, and now she could safely be dismissed.

That sounds harsh, and it is. I doubt anyone thought of it in such black and white terms, nor with such overt sexism. But the coding was there, and many male readers of my acquaintance, at least, struggled with Quantum Gravity, worrying that it was a misstep by the writer, or finding it both baffling and superficial. It is, in places, a discomfiting read. Lila is not nice, she is not kind, she is sometimes selfish or self-destructive or both. As a culture, the Anglophone western world is not comfortable with women who aren’t nice. And then, the books are written unremittingly from a female viewpoint, and a viewpoint that refuses to submit to the male gaze. Lila’s cyborg self is strong, fast, vicious, highly functional. It has been designed by its makers to be attractive but it is not always attractive to Lila herself–she was not asked about being cyborgized and the body, controlled by programming installed by its makers, does not always do what she wishes. She is a weapon and a function and a thing, and her behaviour can be and sometimes is directed by others, against her own wishes and judgement. She is, as a character, one of the most powerful expressions in fiction of what it means to be female in a patriarchal culture.

Those of us who are female in much of the western world often enjoy only partial agency over our selves. Our bodies are policed by advertising and social expectations, by fashion and film and music, by embedded notions of what is feminine or appropriate, by public commentary on how we look, what we wear, what we say and what we do. Our rights over what we may do with our bodies–particularly where that involves fertility, for those of us who can bear children–are limited in law in ways biologically male bodies are not, and subject to what seems like endless public debates and representations and demands. The character of Lila Black makes all this explicit. She cannot bear children, but she is a sexual being, and that becomes a matter for her owners to police. She has feelings and desires that run counter to what those owners wish her to do, and sometimes they interfere in her thoughts to ensure her obedience. And when she pushes at her boundaries, damage ensues, to her and to others, damage she cannot control or limit. She is in free fall, in a world (a series of worlds) which seek to exploit and control and manipulate her, while giving her as little agency and respect as can be got away with. And she is perpetually required to demonstrate a gratitude she does not feel to her owners, for letting her live and obey. She fascinates and terrifies me as a reader in equal measure, and her dilemmas cut deep under my skin. To be female in public is always to be under some kind of observation, much of it from within, inculcated from early life by my culture.

Female cyborgs and robots are common in science fiction, just as the kick-ass heroine is a common figure in much urban fantasy. But while the latter is predominantly written by women, the former seems mainly to be the territory of male writers. From Metropolis and Friday, to Lexx and The Wind-Up Girl, male writers have explored female robots–as sexual partners, as threats, as objects to be explored, as vessels via which the writer may express his views on gender. But women writers seldom enter this arena. Off the top of my head, apart from Robson I can only think of Tanith Lee, whose The Electric Forest uses cyborgisation to explore identity and attitudes to the body, and perhaps Anne McCaffrey, though The Ship Who Sang is more an early attempt to address issues of bodily ability. For both Lee and McCaffrey, the robot elements are background to their stories. Robson places it front and centre and she makes it deeply, deeply problematic. There are no cute sexbots here, whether presented straightforwardly (not common in sff after the 1960s) or with an edge or humour or satire (the latter often funnier to male readers than female). Lila is no-one’s toy: she may be property, but she is not content, not fulfilled, not at home with her lot–and nor should she be. There is a powerful analysis of indentured labour at work here alongside the discussion of public femininity. This is an important series, a brilliant series, which cuts to the heart of what is wrong with a world that tells women to work and be nice and run households and be kind and be ambitious but know our place.

And yes, there are elves, and Lila looks at those elves as objects of desire–just as male characters in story after story look at women of all kinds. She looks at demons that way, too. She is a rounded, conflicted, complex person. She’s not just a robot, a thing, a toy, a reward.  And that is the point. This is a series that matters, when we discuss women in sff, and I recommend to everyone, highly. It’s worth the discomfort. And the writing is beautiful.

Kari Sperring Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009), (winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honours’ List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of 5 books on early Welsh, Irish and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: the true story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.

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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy writer Susan Jane Bigelow! She’s the author of the Extrahuman Union series beginning with Broken, which was recently republished through Book Smugglers Publishing. The next two books will soon be re-released as well with Sky Ranger scheduled for this summer and The Spark for this fall, and a brand new fourth book in the series will be available toward the end of this year. She’s also the author of the Grayline Sisters books starting with The Daughter Star and the upcoming young adult epic fantasy novel The Demon Girl’s Song, as well as short fiction and nonfiction.

Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow The Daughter Star by Susan Jane Bigelow

Finding Great SFF with Older Women as Protagonists
By Susan Jane Bigelow

Women in science fiction and fantasy have to constantly fight invisibility, but for older women this is especially true. I’m starting to be of an age where I very much want to see women over the age of 35 take powerful, dynamic, and interesting starring roles in genre, but there’s sadly not a lot of that to be found.

And if I want to find stories about queer older women? Forget it.

Now, I deeply love stories about young women, and I read a ton of them! But these days, as I continue to grapple with the idea that I’m no longer young myself, I find the stories of women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond both compelling and comforting. Society doesn’t make much room for women past a certain age, after all, unless they’re in traditional roles as mothers, grandmothers, or teachers.

I’ve tried to weave the stories of older women into my own work; my novel Extrahumans, which is the fourth and final novel of the “Extrahuman Union” series about superheroes in the future fighting a totalitarian government, focuses on the relationship between two women—one in her late 30s, one in her early 50s. That book will be out late this year from Book Smugglers Publishing.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

There are some great SFF books out there featuring older women as protagonists. Lois McMaster Bujold’s recent novel Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen stars Cordelia Vorkosigan, who is one of my favorite heroines ever. Cordelia starred in some of the earliest Vorkosigan Saga novels, but was reduced to a background role as Miles Vorkosigan’s mother for much of the rest of the series. It was awesome to see her back as the protagonist dealing with grief, loss, life, and love. It was also refreshing to explore the nontraditional relationship she had with her husband and Admiral Jole.

Bujold also wrote one of my favorite fantasy novels ever, Paladin of Souls. This book is set in her Chalion universe, and stars Ista as a woman in her 40s who sets out on pilgrimage after being freed from a curse. Her story is moving, compelling, and breathtaking, and I strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy.

Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff A Skeleton in the Family by Leigh Perry

Another book I love that sadly seems like it may be out of print is Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff, a book about a pack of female werewolves whose powers only emerge after they hit menopause. The book is a lot of fun, and the concept is fantastic. Also, the main character is also in the process of discovering her own identity as a lesbian, which is even better.

Lastly, I’ve found a few real gems where the genres of cozy mystery and fantasy intersect. My favorite of these is the “Family Skeleton” mysteries by Leigh Perry, which stars a woman in her 40s raising her daughter while trying to put together a life as an adjunct at a local college. She also solves mysteries with her walking, talking skeleton pal Sid. The books are hilarious, the mysteries fun, and the glimpses into the familiar-to-me existence of adjunct faculty very satisfying.

I’d love to see even more books with older women as protagonists instead of background characters. What are your favorites?

Susan Jane Bigelow Susan Jane Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels, and her “Extrahuman Union” series is being republished by Book Smugglers Publishing in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine’s “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” issue, and the Lambda Award-winning “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and is probably currently at the bottom of a pile of cats.

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Today’s guest is Rachel Cotterill of Strange Charm! If you’re interested in discovering more science fiction and fantasy books written by women, you’ll want to check out Strange Charm: it’s dedicated to showcasing speculative fiction by women and often features books not being mentioned all over the blogosphere. Rachel and her co-blogger Joanna post new reviews and interviews on Mondays and Thursdays, and they also review some books based on fun themes. For instance, Rachel is reviewing some books with Foodie Magic, such as The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman, this spring. In addition to her work at Strange Charm, she also writes books herself and is the author of Watersmeet and the Chronicles of Charanthe.

Strange Charm

Idealism and Realism of Representation in SFF

Almost everyone agrees that increasing representation of minority and marginalised groups in fiction is a noble goal. If you’re reading this because you’re following the Women in SF&F Month, for example, you’re probably on board with the basic idea that it would be good to see more women in sci fi and fantasy. However, look a little closer, and there often emerge sharp divisions of opinion when it comes to the way this should be achieved.

The discourse of representation in SFF usually sees people taking up one of two positions, which for now I’ll term “realist” and “idealist”.

In the realist corner:

“It’s important that SFF reflects all the complexities and inequalities of human society.”

And in the idealist corner:

“You can imagine dragons and magic—why can’t you imagine social equality?”

What makes this interesting to me is that it’s an almost uniquely speculative problem. For contemporary and historical settings, this isn’t hypothetical. Authors can choose to brush over prejudice and inequality, or to reflect it in the background, or to place it front and centre as a primary theme, but for any real-world setting there’s some established ground to build on.

In secondary world fantasy, or an alien culture in a far-flung corner of the galaxy, there is no such context. Authors can do anything, which gives the idealist camp a position they couldn’t really take in other genres. Want women to be equal? Give them the same jobs and roles as the men in your story, have people treat each other the same regardless of gender, and eliminate sexist language from your (and your characters’) vocabulary. Want racial equality? Design society that way. Equality for queer folks, the disabled, the old? Just write it. And given that you can, why wouldn’t you?

Considering this dichotomy of approach in relation to the books I’ve been reading lately, I note that many of my personal favourites take an idealistic approach to some aspects of society, while leaving other areas unbalanced and available for a more nuanced exploration of social issues.

Take Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which famously sets up a society completely devoid of gender as a concept of identity or presentation or even linguistic distinction, thereby removing all gender politics in-world (though back in the real world, Leckie’s decision to use ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun caused no shortage of debate amongst literary critics and linguists alike). Yet the Radch is far from idealistic in other respects, presenting a sweeping study of ruthless colonisation which draws heavily on the empire-building philosophy of ancient Rome, applied on an interplanetary scale. The Radch takes indigenous cultures and absorbs them whether or not they wish to be absorbed, and murders those who dare to protest while claiming to be bringers of peace.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie Goldenfire by A.F.E. Smith

On the fantasy side, there are some distinctly idealist strains in A.F.E. Smith’s construction of the Darkhaven world. This is perhaps most obvious in the matter-of-fact inclusion of gay and lesbian couples: the LGB characters encounter and tackle plenty of interesting problems, just like everyone else, but never directly related to their sexuality. In Goldenfire (book two) there are characters who face the emotional complexities of adoption, and alcoholism, and mental health issues, all of which are integrated seamlessly into the story, and which are presented as internal struggles to be handled with the help and support of loved ones, rather than sources of ridicule or prejudice from others. And then there’s a disturbingly accurate portrait of a young woman determined to become a Helmsman. There are a lot of “sole female warrior” stories in fantasy, but Smith gives us a twist in the form of a second female student. By examining the competition and, yes, blatant sexism which can manifest between two women trying to carve out a shared space in a male-dominated field, this narrative captures elements of what it is to be a minority in a professional environment, in ways I’ve seldom seen explored in fiction of any genre (although XKCD has done quite a good job of capturing the root of the problem in two panels).

The deliberate construction of a more-idealised society can also be a narrative theme in itself. The Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman sees Queen Shulamit, a young woman new to her throne, take on the world as she grows into her power and tries to shape the society she wishes to live in. Her investment in change is deeply personal, as a lesbian in a world where non-heterosexuality is seldom acknowledged, and it’s fortunate that as Queen she’s in a position to challenge this directly—but Shula’s sense of justice reaches far beyond her personal concerns. In Climbing the Date Palm, the second volume in the series, two men from a neighbouring state are victimised for their love, and it’s down to Shula and her friends to save them, while averting a war and ensuring that a group of construction workers are fairly paid. The Mangoverse series also stands out as a rare example of Jewish culture in secondary world fantasy.

Climbing the Date Palm by Shira Glassman The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

To name but a few more examples: In “Flight Risk” by Talya Andor (one of five stories included in gay romance anthology Keep the Stars Running), gay relationships are normalised, but the couple in question must fight the stigma of disability to be together. The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black’s recent fairytale, gives us a gender-flipped take on some standard fairytale tropes: there’s a female knight, a male Sleeping Beauty, and a gay love story. Meanwhile, with these traditional elements quietly inverted, the focus of the story shifts from the classic battle of good and evil to a more subtle clash of wills. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson gives us a contemporary Islamic fantasy setting, featuring a genius computer hacker who is dreadfully sexist even when he’s trying hard to do better.

There’s another kind of social inequality narrative that’s limited to the speculative arena, and that’s the introduction of fantastical or alien analogues to real-world prejudice. This gives the opportunity for an extended social metaphor, of which the substitution of cross-species prejudice for racial prejudice is probably the most blatant and also the most common example.

In Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani, creatures known as Breathers are a kind of energy vampire that are generally reviled and feared; through the story, we see at least one example who is kind and considerate despite being widely hated. In Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey, it’s ghouls who are the social pariahs. Sometimes, as in Rabia Gale’s Rainbird, there are two communities living side by side in a broadly tolerant manner, but deliberately separated, with half-breeds excluded by both groups. Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet uses a range of alien species to explore issues of gender and race without being limited to the existing structures of human society or even human biology.

Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll

I suggested that contemporary settings could be excused from this discussion, but in a few rare cases, a speculative element allows for even present-day settings to be separated from their systemic prejudices. Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll is a case in point. The main cast of characters have returned from the faery realm without their memories, and their prejudices and biases have been erased along with their names and histories. This results in a mixed-race community, bound together by circumstance rather than heritage, all of whom are discovering and shaping their identities together. The resulting group has a higher than average number of non-straight, non-monogamous relationships, a significant proportion of trans and genderfluid characters, and almost no prejudice towards any of them, nor towards those who are struggling with mental health issues as a result of their trauma.

The realist argument usually stems from the idea that fiction should educate us as it entertains us, by giving us an imaginary background to some very real social struggles. But if I’ve learnt one thing from considering this question, it’s that idealist fiction can also be educational: set against the background of our own world, it’s in the differences that we see our flaws reflected. And the idealist vision can give us a glimmer of hope, and a sketch of something better to aspire to.

I don’t think there’s a single right answer, and I suspect those who take up these positions in debate don’t really think it’s all or nothing, either: they’re usually reacting to a perceived imbalance in the current state of things. The realists have seen too many decades of mainstream SF books where there are precious few women, fewer black people, no gay couples, and no recognition of the struggles that marginalised groups regularly face. The idealists have noticed trends that represent without empathy: tropes of slavery and dead lesbians, where the only available stories seem to be tragedies, or cases of tokenistic representation, cardboard stereotypes with only minor roles to play. Both groups challenge us to do better.

Rachel Cotterill Rachel Cotterill grew up hiding from the real world in a succession of imaginary lands, and still likes to spend her holidays there. She likes fast-paced plots, greyscale morality, and characters who remain believable when they find themselves in situations that are anything but. She’s always searching for her next favourite author, and is half of the feminist SFF book blog Strange Charm, which exists to showcase the best in speculative fiction by female authors. When she isn’t reading, Rachel is professionally and perpetually indecisive, splitting her time somewhat haphazardly between writing, computer science, linguistics, recipe development, and travel. Rachel’s third novel, Watersmeet, is a romantic and optimistic fantasy published in 2015.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

It’s that time again—time to announce this week’s Women in SF&F Month guests! But first, thank you to last week’s guests for another great week. In case you missed any of these articles, here’s what happened last week:

And now, the schedule for the following week, beginning tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month Week 3 Guests

April 17: Rachel Cotterill (Strange Charm, Watersmeet, Chronicles of Charanthe)
April 18: Susan Jane Bigelow (Extrahumans series, The Daughter Star)
April 19: Kari Sperring (Living with Ghosts, The Grass King’s Concubine)
April 20: Dina (SFF Book Reviews)
April 21: Janny Wurts (Wars of Light and Shadow, To Ride Hell’s Chasm)
April 22: TBD

Women in SF&F Month Banner

This week I’m giving away one book from the list of nearly 1500 recommended SFF books by women begun by Renay—which book is up to the winner! It can be any book on the list available on the Book Depository that doesn’t cost more than $15 (in US dollars). There are a lot of excellent books recommended that would apply, such as:

The Silvered by Tanya Huff My Soul To Keep by Tananarive Due Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • The Silvered by Tanya Huff
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
  • Both books from the previous giveaways, The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Fire by Kristin Cashore

If you want to enter, check out the list and see which book interests you the most! If you haven’t added some books to the list already this year and want to share some recommendations, we are also collecting more submissions to add to the list this April: 10 favorite science fiction and/or fantasy books written by women that you’ve read and loved in the last year (old or new books).

This giveaway is open internationally—anyone from a country qualifying for free shipping from The Book Depository is eligible. More details on the giveaway are below.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email with the book of your choice to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Book List Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from a country qualifying for free shipping from the Book Depository are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Friday, April 22. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the form has been removed.