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Alternate history, fantasy, and science fiction author Beth Bernobich is here today to discuss the issue of women’s invisibility in speculative fiction! She is the author of the River of Souls series (the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award-winning novel Passion Play, Queen’s Hunt, and Allegiance), Fox and Phoenix, and much more. Some of her short fiction can be found on Tor.com, and I highly recommend checking out her excellent story “River of Souls.” Her next book, The Time Roads, will be released this fall.

Passion Play Fox & Phoenix by Beth Bernobich The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

by Beth Bernobich

If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “Women don’t write science fiction or fantasy,” I could buy enough books to fill my house a second time over.

If I had 10 dollars for every time someone else said, “Oh, I read SF/F books by women,” and the names they recited were the same two or three you always hear, I could fund a library. Extra points if any of the authors are dead.

If I had $100 each time a critically acclaimed SF/F book put women characters front and center, I’d have to find another source of income.

Over and over, I hear that women don’t write the genre, they don’t read the genre, and they certainly can’t be the main character, unless it’s urban fantasy, and that’s really romance, so naturally that doesn’t count. And inevitably the conversation drifts back to the men who write genre, and the guys they write about.

Joanna Russ described the situation in her book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. “She didn’t write it.” (Mary Shelley) “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” (Butler, Le Guin, Tiptree) “She wrote it but look what she wrote about.” (Urban fantasy written by women.)

Women write in every single subgenre of SF–whether it’s hard SF, epic fantasy, steampunk, military SF, new or old weird–but either their names get left off the genre lists, or the list includes only a few standard names, or the genre they write is reclassified from SF/F to something else. And the way women are depicted in the genre–as prizes or plot points–only exacerbates the situation. That, too, is something that Russ covers, when she talks about popularizing works that relegate women to demeaning roles.

It’s a two-fold problem. How can we explode the myth that women don’t write SF/F? And how can we undo the ingrained assumption we can’t have women as main characters, with agendas of their own? (Or if we do have a woman front and center, why is she the only one in the book?)

Luckily, we have Fantasy Café’s Women in SF&F Month, now in its third year. And luckily other bloggers are covering this same topic, among them Liz Bourke, Tansy Roberts, Kameron Hurley, Foz Meadows, and Natalie Luhrs.

But there’s more we can do, both as readers and writers.

Read More.

Read more books by women, that is. These days, I am deliberately seeking out more women authors for my TBR list. I look for recommendations about new authors, or established authors that are new to me. Ones who write in familiar subgenres, and ones who take me outside my comfort zone. I might not love every single book, but who knows until I try them?

This isn’t about quotas, by the way. This is about making conscious choices, expanding the kinds of books I read, and discovering new-to-me authors.

Talk more.

When I do find a new favorite author, I make a point of telling other people about them. If someone asks me for names of authors who deserve more attention, I’ll mention Cat Hellisen and Jacqueline Koyanagi. If someone says they love alternate history, I’ll tell them about Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy and Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Universe. For hard SF, I’ll name M. J. Locke and Tricia Sullivan. For epic fantasy, Tansy Roberts, Judith Tarr, and Juliet McKenna. For worldbuilding, I’ll recommend Martha Wells, or Nnedi Okorafor, or Aliette de Bodard, or…

You get the idea.

Women write SF/F, but if no one talks about us, it only perpetuates the myth we don’t write in the genre. So. Tell your friends about that amazing author you discovered. Write that review on Amazon. Add that author and their books to the next Goodreads list you make. And maybe, with all the talk, the next conversation about books in the genre will include their names.

Write More.

It’s no coincidence that the authors I mentioned write about strong women. It’s also not a coincidence that these authors go beyond including the one token woman. Their characters have friends and sisters and cousins and mothers, all with strengths and agendas of their own.

But, but, I hear you say. I don’t like quotas. I just want to write good stories.

So do we all. That includes good stories by and about women.

Look, I know how easy it is to fall into the default mode of focusing on the men. That’s the narrative we’ve always heard, in books and movies, in the historical records, in our daily lives. Men are more interesting. Men do the important stuff. We can add a woman here and there, but not too many, and after all, we need a good reason to include any woman, never mind lots of them.

Which makes no sense. Women make up half the population. Women have always played important roles throughout history. So what gives? Other than assumptions and preconceptions, that is.

Oh, but assumptions and preconceptions are strong. Here’s my story.

Two years ago, I decided to make an experiment. I was writing a YA fantasy story. When I started, I knew a couple things. That it would focus on three friends working on a school project together. One had a crush on the other. All three were young women. But what about the rest? There had to be a teacher, of course. Did he have a backstory? How much story space would he need?

That’s when it hit me. Why did the teacher have to be a guy?

I decided at that point I would only include male characters if I had a good reason to. And to my surprise, there were no good reasons. The teacher became a woman. The main character’s family consisted of sisters and a mother. The kingdom became a queendom, and the heir a daughter. The shape-shifting ghost dragon turned into a woman in human form. One by one, the men and boys faded into the background or disappeared altogether.

None of my readers, men or women, complained. And the editor who requested the story bought it.

Fast forward to last year. I’m writing the fourth novella for my alt-history novel THE TIME ROADS, which takes place in the late 19th/early 20th century. This novel consists of three previously published stories, plus a new one. As I wrote the fourth one, I struggled with myself. The existing stories utterly failed the Bechdel Test, even with its remarkably low standards. How could I counteract that? There was the strong queen, of course. But what about historical accuracy? And wouldn’t the genius scientist mathematician guy be the logical hero in this tale? Or the queen’s spymaster? Why try to shove yet another woman into the story?

Except I had forgotten an existing character–another woman, also a genius scientist mathematician. Whose backstory fit perfectly with the front story.

You see how insidiously easy it is to fall into that mode of men first and foremost?

In the end, I wrote the final story with the queen and the woman scientist saving the world. They aren’t friends or lovers. They are uneasy allies, both strong, both flawed, but who both want the best for their world. And in the end, it’s both historically accurate and true to the overall plot arc.

End Point.

It’s a long road, undoing this myth about women and genre. But it’s a road filled with some damned good books. So let’s go forth and read more books, then talk about them with our friends. In fact, I have this wonderful novel from Martha Wells called The Wizard Hunters that I just bought…


Here are a few links and blogs that inspired me to write this post:

Reading, Writing, Radicalisation

And the follow-up to that post

We Have Always Fought: Challenging The Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative

Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.

The Women We Don’t See

Radish Reviews

Beth Bernobich writes fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Asimov’s, Interzone, Tor.com, and Strange Horizons. Her first novel, Passion Play, won the 2010 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy and was long-listed for the Tiptree Award. Her forthcoming book, The Time Roads, will be available October 2014 from Tor Books.

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Today’s guest is Khanh from The Book Nookery! She prolifically reads and discusses books from a wide variety of genres, including speculative fiction, and I enjoy reading her thoughts and insights so much that I frequently read what she writes about books in genres I never read. Her analysis is both thorough and entertaining, and she articulates her points clearly and with a sense of humor. Khanh is one of my favorite reviewers, and I’m thrilled she’s here this month discussing a subject that is near and dear to many of us fantasy fans and the two series that were her gateway to discovering her own love for it.

The Book Nookery

Some little girls dreamed of ponies and unicorns. My girlhood self dreamed of the creatures who ate those horses for a snack.

Dragons. I have always loved dragons. Benevolent or malevolent, grand, or just…grandfatherly. Dragons come in all sizes and shapes and temperaments, and I loved them all.

My love of these fantastic creatures began with the wonderful Patricia Wrede. I have gone on to read (and love) her other works, but there is no doubt that my adventure began as a 10-year old with the Dealing with Dragons series.

I grew up in Vietnam, and in Asian culture, there really was no room for amusing, dry-witted dragons. Our dragons are fierce, they are a force of nature, gods not to be reckoned with.

Not so with Patricia Wrede’s dragons.

The Enchanted Forest Trilogy

This middle grade series is called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and it is by no means a misnomer; from the very first moment I cracked open this book, I was enchanted, enthralled. It is such a good series for younger girls. We have a princess who is not your usual frippery Disney type. She has a backbone, she likes learning, she is intelligent, rational, and never rhymes-with-itchy. She has a boring life. Princess Cimorene wants more. She knows there is a life beyond a forced marriage.

And the dragons! Those fierce, fiery, fire-breathing dragons!!!!

…not quite.

They sneeze.

The gray-green dragon mopped his streaming eyes and blew his nose. “That’s better, I think. Achoo! Oh, drat!”

The ball of fire that accompanied the dragon’s sneeze had reduced the handkerchief to a charred scrap.

They’re not particularly fond of eating princesses (princesses are so stringy!), and they’re not particularly impressive to cats.

“He doesn’t seem very impressed,” Cimorene commented in some amusement.
“Why should he be?” Kazul said.
“Well, you’re a dragon,” Cimorene answered, a little taken aback.
“What difference does that make to a cat?”

To be fair, it’s nigh on impossible to impress a cat.

This series started me on yet another…Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series.

These dragons are more likely to think you taste good with ketchup than the previous dragons. These creatures don’t talk, they communicate telepathically, but they’re rather more grand and awe-inspiring for that. The strong and silent types are always more impressive.

Oh, I’m well aware that this is an adult series with very adult topics and some hmm-hmm going on between the dragons themselves, as well as their riders. But what readers may not know that right smack in the middle of this long adult series, there is a subseries that is quite appropriate for younger readers, the Harper Hall trilogy.

Oh, Tongue, give sound to joy and sing
Of hope and promise on dragonwing.

Harper Hall Trilogy

Once again, this series is just excellent for younger readers, younger girls specifically. There is nothing inappropriate here, the romance is light, and it is a beautiful journey of self-discovery, of coming to terms with the fact that your fate doesn’t have to be confined to what society dictates it to be. It is about taking risks, daring to dream. It is the story of Menolly, a girl from a fishing village with extraordinary musical talent. A talent that is forbidden to her because of her gender.

In her village, girls are meant to be wives, mothers, helpers to their mate. A career in music, in teaching and playing music, is simply out of the question.

It is the story of a girl who runs away and builds her own destiny, along the way, she gathers a clutch of fire lizards…tiny little dragons.

It is a part of the Dragonriders of Pern series, and we will encounter familiar faces here (and familiar dragons). The terminology and culture and setting of our beloved land of Pern is very much there, but this book is about the Harper Hall, it is about music, about song. And it is just delightful. Those who love music will appreciate the details that go into Menolly’s musical training. The instruments, the pitches, the lessons; above all else, they feel Menolly’s joy in that she is finally able to do something she loves.

This series is a sweet little interlude and a lovely introduction for readers not yet old enough for the main Dragonriders series.

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Today’s guest is New York Times bestselling author Cinda Williams Chima! She is the author of two young adult fantasy series, The Heir Chronicles and Seven Realms, and she is sharing some of her thoughts and experiences as a reader, fan, and author of speculative fiction.

I am delighted she is here today since I love her Seven Realms books. (I haven’t yet read The Heir Chronicles, but I added them to my wish list after finishing the last Seven Realms book since I now must read everything she writes.) After reading The Demon King, I saved each successive book in the series to read during a time when I wanted to read a book that would work. This was a good decision since the books keep getting better, and the series is a definite keeper for its page-turning qualities and wonderful fantasy adventure—but, most of all, for the characters. Street thief Han and the princess-heir Raisa were two characters that have stuck with me, and I was sad to leave them behind when I turned that final page. In fact, I still miss them.

The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima The Enchanter Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

I suppose one of the benefits of growing older is the opportunity to look at the back trail, and say, “Okay, maybe we’re getting somewhere.”

On other days, I feel like we’re sliding down the mountain backwards. On our butts.

I’m talking about the role of women in speculative fiction, as readers, writers, and characters.

I grew up reading anything I could get my hands on, from my aunt’s True Story and True Confession magazines to my mother’s historical fiction to my older brother’s comic books and pulp sci-fi novels with their lurid covers and yellowing pages. I brought home Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels by the sack, borrowed from the teen daughters of my parents’ friends. I read Reader’s Digest condensed books and book-of-the-month club mysteries, which made up the bulk of our home library. I devoured Ian Fleming’s James Bond series long before I knew why 007 was so eager to let women share his bed.

Though I read a variety of genres, I became, and continue to be, a committed fantasy fan.

As a teen, I read Tolkien and Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey, Mary Stewart and Jean Auel. Mostly I read novels written for adults. The golden age of young adult lit was still years away.

Even in those pre-fanfic days, I made up new story lines and acted them out in the woods by my house.

That’s the great thing about reading—it’s participative. Readers and writers are partners in story.  I wanted to live in a fictional world where I had a chance at adventure and romance. I needed stories that had the ability to take me away at times when I really needed it.

I really didn’t care—and often didn’t notice—whether a book was written by a man or a woman—the key was whether I felt welcome in that story.

I didn’t like those stories where the female characters have little to do; where they have no agency, no journey of their own; where they do not act, but react. Why should they be victims or prizes, but not heroes themselves? Who wants to role play that? It was too much like real life.

So I began writing my own novels, mostly aspirational stories starring characters just like me and my friends having the kind of adventures that never happened at Cloverdale Junior High. I wrote them in longhand in notebooks, and traded them with my friends. I still have some of the novels I wrote in those days.

When I was sixteen, I began working at the local newspaper, typing advertising copy. Women worked in the phone room, taking real estate and Help Wanted: Male and Help Wanted: Female classified ads.

Yes. I am that old.

Men worked in the field room. They went out and called on customers and had expense accounts. They sold display ads, and were allowed to smoke at their desks. They referred to the phone room ghetto as the “barracuda room.”

I worked there through high school and college. It was great training for a writer, writing and editing copy, meeting deadlines. My keyboard skills are stellar, even today.

I never stopped writing, but for a long time I focused on short work, the kinds of projects I could complete in the corners of life. I returned to writing novels as an adult, when my sons were thirteen and sixteen. We all enjoyed reading fantasy, and often read it together. I wanted to write a story that teens of both genders would enjoy reading. I had this idea about a high school boy in Ohio who discovers he’s one of the last survivors of a guild of magical warriors. I chose a boy because it had been a long time since I’d lived in teen girl world, and I worried that I might not get it right. But I had two teenaged boys living right in my home.

That was the story that became my first published novel, The Warrior Heir.

Because my publisher thought the book would appeal to boys, they asked if I would consider using my initials, a la J.K. Rowling, so as not to discourage boy readers. I knew that we were on the same side: both authors and publishers want the right readers to find our books. And when you really think about it, girl readers have a lot more freedom to read what they like than boys do. Maybe that’s why we read more.

Still, I declined. My mother named me after a character in a novel. I like my name, and I’d waited my whole life to see it on the cover of a book. Maybe it’s driven off a few potential readers, but, oh, well.

I don’t buy into the stereotype that boys like the science in sci-fi and girls like the sparkles in fantasy. Some do, some don’t. It’s a matter of personal preference. I love shiny things, but my connection to a story is all about my relationship with the characters. In some of the high concept spec fiction I’ve read, the characters seem secondary. The focus is on the machine, the technology, the magic, the brilliant idea. All of which is cool—anyone who reads my fiction knows that I love world-building. But if I don’t care about the characters, I will put the book down.

A great premise is not enough. Real life is not made up of premises. It’s a tangled web of joys and catastrophes and people succeeding and failing at relationships, all threads of conflict. To paraphrase Hitchcock, the difference between fiction and real life is that in fiction we leave the dull bits out.

I’ve published four novels in the Heir Chronicles series, with a fifth, The Sorcerer Heir, coming this fall. I’ve also published four novels set in the high fantasy world of The Seven Realms. I don’t know the demographics of my readers, but I see adults and teens of both genders at my signings, and I get fan mail from both. Teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers tell me that both boys and girls like to live in my worlds.

It helps that I’ve had great covers. A good cover makes a promise that the book keeps. My covers are a brand that anyone—male or female, adult or teen, people of all races or sexual orientation—can carry around without feeling self conscious. I write character-driven stories with no characters on the covers. So hopefully any reader can partner with me, and no reader feels unwelcome.

These days, I read more young adult than adult lit, and more fantasy than science fiction. The science fiction I read tends to be character-driven. I read great fantasy fiction by George R.R. Martin, Rae Carson, Robin LaFevers, Maggie Stiefvater, Holly Black, and Kristin Cashore. I read science fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi, Veronica Roth, Suzanne Collins, and Rick Yancey.

When I originally pitched the Seven Realms, my publisher was dubious. The story alternates viewpoints between a male street-gang leader and a princess. You have so many boy readers, they said. Will they read about a princess in the long ago and far away?

Now I have to admit that I have trouble even saying the word princess, because it has so much baggage attached. But my princess is a first daughter, heir to the throne in a queendom beset with treacherous politics, forbidden magic, and wizards behaving badly. She is the only one standing between the queendom and disaster, and she is not one to suffer fools.

Yes, I said. They will read about a princess. And they have.

Cinda Williams Chima

Cinda Williams Chima was named after a character in a book. She grew up with talking animals and kick-butt Barbies. She nearly failed first grade because she was always daydreaming instead of listening. By junior high, she was writing novels in class, which were often confiscated. She was also caught reading a very racy novel in Problems of Democracy class. That was confiscated, too. Unfortunately, it belonged to a friend of her mother’s. With a degree in philosophy and two degrees in nutrition, Cinda is a totally uncredentialed writer. But she believes in the magic of books. Books took her from first grade failure to first generation college graduate to college professor to New York Times best-selling author of two teen fantasy series: The Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms.

These days, she daydreams on the page.

Webpage: cindachima.com
Blog: http://cindachima.blogspot.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CindaWilliamsChima
Twitter: @cindachima

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For the second year in a row, Women in SF&F Month is opening with a guest post by Renay! She is one of the three awesome bloggers who run one of my favorite blogs, Lady Business, and she has also written articles for Strange Horizons. Lady Business is a great site for book reviews, discussions of television shows, and insightful commentary on subjects related to speculative fiction, and I also always find interesting articles to read in the Sidetracks posts. I have a particular fondness for the way Renay discusses fandom, and I always enjoy reading anything she writes.

As for what she’s sharing with us today… I’ll let her fill you in on the details!

Lady Business

It’s a new year and a whole new version of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Month. It’s a perfect time to get excited about women in genre, especially if you like a good reading list. If you do, well, you’ve come to the right themed event.

Last year, Kristen and I asked people to recommend ten science fiction and fantasy books by women that they loved and submit them to a list for compilation. We wanted to crowdsource, if not a definitive list, at least a list long and full of enough women writers that a reader looking for women writers would never lack for a recommendation.

I was humbled and overwhelmed by the incredible response we received. Almost 2500 individual recommendations from almost 200 people have created a list of epic proportions, of almost 1000 books: The Big Giant List of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Women.

This list is a perfect example showing that women have written stories since the beginning of the genre. Women have written fantasy and science fiction and told countless stories and examined other worlds in order to examine themselves and the world around them, to teach, to inspire, and to simply have fun. Women have always been here, writing, and there should never be another time in which people claim not to see us and see the worlds we’ve made and the stories we’ve told.

We’ve built a list containing a multitude of women’s voices and we hope everyone enjoys it. But we’re not done yet. Again this year, we want you to come share ten science fiction and fantasy books by women writers that you love with us until the end of April. They can be all new books, released since we did this last. They can be older titles. They can be a mixture of old and new. They can be books already on the list, or books not yet represented, as long as you love them. Visit the Recommend Books page to search for up to ten science fiction and fantasy books by women and submit them.

After the end of this month’s event, the curated submissions will be published as a new 2014 list that will later be merged with the 2013 list to make our list even more representative of the women writing in the field. Come help us continue to crowdsource the best list of SFF women writers. :)

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Tomorrow marks the beginning of the third annual Women in SF&F Month! Women in SF&F Month began after there were some discussions about women’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy both as authors and bloggers. I’d felt that women in general were often not given the recognition they deserve in speculative fiction for a long time, and I did see a few comments like “Women do not write fantasy and science fiction” or “Women do not review fantasy and science fiction” in response to these discussions. After that, I decided to spend the month of April highlighting some of the many women who were contributing to fantasy and science fiction and showing that yes, indeed, there are women writing, reading, and discussing all kinds of speculative fiction. (The longer version of why I think reading and supporting women who write speculative fiction is important is here.)

Like the two previous years, I’ve invited several women contributing to SF&F to write guest posts, and their guest posts will be shared throughout the month of April. Once again, some guests will be discussing topics related to women in speculative fiction, but not all, since the goal is to get some interesting people, thoughts, and books all in one place—and perhaps find some new books and blogs to read! (I have already added a few books to my wishlist, and the month hasn’t even officially started yet.)

I’m very excited about this year’s Women in SF&F Month and its contributors! The guests for the first week are:


April 1: Renay from Lady Business
April 2: Cinda Williams Chima (Seven Realms, The Heir Chronicles)
April 3: Khanh from The Book Nookery
April 4: Beth Bernobich (Passion Play, Queen’s Hunt, Fox and Phoenix)
April 5: Anne Lyle (The Alchemist of Souls, The Merchant of Dreams)

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that Elizabeth Bear is one of my favorite authors and that I think the first two Eternal Sky books are her best books I’ve read—and that is why I’m thrilled to be giving away the entire trilogy today! I cannot gush about the two books I’ve read in this trilogy enough; the wonderful setting, lovely prose, and amazing characters make these some of the finest fantasy books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. With the release of the final book coming up on April 8, it’s the perfect time to start reading the series!

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

About the First Book in the Trilogy, Range of Ghosts:

Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards. These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

Range of Ghosts Excerpt | Shattered Pillars Excerpt | Steles of the Sky Excerpt

Courtesy of Tor Books, I have a set containing all three Eternal Sky books to give away! This giveaway is open to those with a mailing address in the US or Canada, and it includes Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Eternal Sky Giveaway.” One entry per person and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Monday, April 7. 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 books).

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!

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