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Thank you to last week’s guests for another great week! This month has flown by, and it’s hard to believe the last week is about to begin. Before announcing the schedule for the final week, here’s what happened last week in case you missed any of it:

Also, Renay and I are once again collecting favorites to add to the giant list of recommended SFF books written by women (which now includes nearly 1500 books with many recommended by multiple people!). Thank you so much to everyone who has added some recommendations! If you haven’t already added some recommendations this year and would like to do so, you can add 10 of your favorite SFF books by women you read in the last year here. These books can be old or new.

And now, the schedule for the final week of Women in SF&F Month, starting tomorrow!

Women in SF&F Month 2016 Guests

April 25: Emma Newman (The Split Worlds, Planetfall, Tea and Jeopardy podcast)
April 26: Lisa (Tenacious Reader, The Speculative Herald)
April 27: Laura Anne Gilman (The Devil’s West, The Vineart War, Retrievers)
April 28: Joanna (Strange Charm)
April 29: Laura Lam (False Hearts, Micah Grey)
April 30: Bone and Jewel Creatures Review

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Since there have been a couple of fantasy book giveaways this month, I thought it was time for a science fiction book giveaway! This book was one of my favorite books of 2013, The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord.

One of the things I loved about this book was that it was very different from what I’d expect given its opening: although it begins with destruction and certainly doesn’t gloss over the resulting heartbreak, it’s overall a very hopeful story. It’s not about vengeance but about a people moving forward after devastation and those who come together to help them do just that. The main character, Delarua, is a compassionate, intelligent woman with a cheerful outlook that shines through her narration, and experiencing events from her perspective is pure fun as she visits different settlements on her planet. I enjoyed reading it very much and found it to be both entertaining and thoughtful (my review of The Best of All Possible Worlds).

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

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

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 “Best of All 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 29. 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.

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Today’s guest is writer and award-winning artist Janny Wurts! She has authored eighteen novels, including the books in the Wars of Light and Shadow series, To Ride Hell’s Chasm, Master of Whitestorm, and Sorcerer’s Legacy, and has contributed to numerous fantasy and science fiction anthologies. Her books are often her own creation both inside and out since she usually illustrates her own covers (including those on the two novels shown below!).

The Curse of the Mistwraiths by Janny Wurts To Ride Hell's Chasm by Janny Wurts

Mediocrity, Reality, and the Merit of Erasing the Boundaries

By Janny Wurts

I am not writing this post to lie quiet, but to incite a crossfire discussion and a lively round of controversy. Many of us can remember a time when our field was considered a fringe interest. While I was a college student, engaged in earnest to write and paint fantasy, I noticed how outsiders reacted. People encountering my world of unbounded creation fell into three distinct categories. The first group viewed my imaginative paintings, glanced away in visible discomfort, then immediately dismissed them, and me, with their most obvious, hasty excuse for retreat: “you must be on drugs” to perceive things “like that.” The second batch gave the works a shallow glance and retreated behind the nearest acceptable label, “Ah, that’s like Tolkien,” end of discussion. The last group, rarest and most interesting, would stop, speechless, and examine what was before them with intense interest–and what usually followed was a focused and relevant exchange concerning the context of imagination and how the unknown related to or expanded our concept of reality. These were the people who saw the world beyond category, and were willing to engage and extrapolate.

Why is it that pure “imagination” is so often applauded in children and stigmatized in the adult? Why are some people so frightened of ideas that fall outside of their comfort zone, and whose defensive choices have defined that acceptable, boundaried mediocrity called “normality,” anyway? Why do we continue to apologize for “fantasy” when in fact, the apology might be more aptly applied to the lack of playful supposition? When did “reality” become the relatable fixation in today’s world, most of all when cutting edge physics has blown the limitations of Newtonian physics so far out of the envelope that the rulebook of “science” is still catching up? Why do we settle for a “realistic” world, when the very term has been used and reused to confine us–to draw boundaries around what is “reasonable” to expect?

Exactly when did the dry reason of “reality” replace expansive hope and the endless creativity offered by the imagination?

I attended a college at the forefront of experimental education, an institution notable for changing the ground rules by encouraging the absence of limitations and beating the drum for social and world change. And yet: I had a head butt with the college librarian over the subject of my novels that, over the years, had been stolen from the school’s collection. When I volunteered to ship replacements, the librarian told me, “Don’t bother. It scarcely matters, the books are just escapist fiction anyway.”

Which smug attitude set my hair on fire on about a dozen counts.

First: every single advance in society, technology, knowledge–anything–began with an idea. Started with the unbridled imagination, toying with concepts that were not “real” or concrete or even accepted as possible. Everybody’s experience confirms this. Imagination is what fuels change. It is the magic that lets us reassemble old ideas in startling ways, or brashly invent new ones. It is where hope and inspiration are found, beyond knowing, and where the walls around what we believe are broken, or dissolved, or escaped. It has no cost, no penalty, and no prerequisite. Everyone with the wits to think can access anything, with infinite ease.

Did I say escape? Yes. In absolute terms, that has a priceless value. Not just for the talent of invention and innovation, either.  “Escape” is quite often our most available therapeutic relief from a bad day, a bad month, a difficult life change, or a toxic work place. The gift of imagination can remake or revise or vault over problems and deliver a changed experience that, proven fact, alters brain chemistry and relieves stress. It accomplishes all of this without side effects or drugs, so where do people get off slinging that word as a negative concept?

Why are some people scared of imagination (yup, you have to be on drugs or crazy to “go there”) or dismissive of it (quick, let’s give it the acceptable label, and move on, thank you very much, now we’re done).

Betty Ballantine often said that SF/Fantasy readers were among the most intelligent, inquisitive and interesting group of people on the planet. They have always been unafraid to look what is different straight in the eye, and quickest to explore beyond the familiar.

The stigma attached to such curiosity, frankly, belongs with the cynic who refuses to suspend disbelief long enough to venture into a refreshed perspective.

We, the readers and creators, all can agree that the vibrant concepts in fantasy and SF literature, film, comics, and poetry hold the power to tear down, build up, alter, and transform. Our drive to experiment, and to thrive on, changing ideas and turning the predictable inside out and upside down offers an infinite dimension to explore concepts beyond daily life.

Time to kick the doors of complacency and throw down the gauntlet in challenge. Because we are given the power to imagine anything, to redesign every single limitation considered immutable–why is there currently such a surging trend to revel in the apocalypse? Now that fantasy and SF have gone “mainstream” and “geek is chic” have we, as a community wielding the cutting edge potential of unfettered imagination, fallen in bed with the cynic and forgotten to wake ourselves up?

Are the problems in our world today not created by the mass failure of creative imagination? Isn’t falling back again and again on what’s already been tried the surrender of our very human (and underappreciated) power to envision solutions outside of the historical record? Creativity is infinite. And yet, we are told and told over, “reality” says otherwise. Why do we listen? Defined, the cynic is someone who has forgotten to question the restriction of their own fixated beliefs. The socially applauded “snark attitude” that grants us the pack permission to laugh off sincerity, in cold truth, applauds nothing. Instead, it encourages us to build ourselves into lead lined boxes, that are also ideas, so sadly nailed shut by the platitudes of our commonly accepted assumptions.

It is a mass hypnosis, or lazy thinking, that imagination by its very nature can blow out of the water, no question: but at the risk of ridicule and “being unrealistic.” When did it become “normal” to pan hope, to give up building a positive vision, and instead create “cool” scenarios of bleak wrack and ruin?  Why do we have so many bestselling stories that run the gamut glut of “totalitarian society” VS the “badass rebel” and since when has that bitter world view claimed the forefront of our field? Since when has the cynical take eclipsed the unlimited vista of modern SF and fantasy?

Not every book, not every film, but admittedly a lot of material topping the charts colors the picture pretty heavily in one direction. The imbalance has become so prevalent, one must look to the fringes to find the exceptions.

If fiction is the posited exploration of beliefs, the living mythscape of our times, have we at the forefront of imaginative creation forsaken the gift of outstepping our boundaries? Have we become “uncomfortable” with the concepts of beauty and hope to the point where such things now seem an immature embarrassment?

This piece is not intended to define or condemn the field as it stands today, but rather, to stimulate conversation in earnest from the standpoint that exploration of the ‘hell in a handbasket’ scenario seems to be claiming the lion’s share of the attention. Fantasy and SF have “gone mainstream” in ways I could never have imagined, when I started out with the career dream to paint and write. Our literature and our films are no longer so casually labeled or dismissed, and our worldwide impact is no longer regarded as the accidental byproduct of a drug culture. My question, placed at large for the purpose of stirring discussion in the community: have we, in fantasy and SF in our turn, bought the mainstream picture of using imagination to stay inside the box? Have we joined ranks with the deniers who blindly denounce the full spectrum offered by true freedom of thought? Has the modern trend to extol the algorithm created the perfect storm where pop culture at large has bought into the ultimate lie of defending the cynic’s picture of limitation? Has Fantasy and SF garnered the widespread numbers only to lose the fringe benefit of challenging the status quo? And if it has, are we comfortable?

I’m not. Let discussion commence.

 

Janny Wurts Through her combined career as an established professional novelist and her background in the trade as a cover artist, Janny Wurts has immersed herself in a lifelong ambition: to create a seamless interface between words and pictures that explore imaginative realms beyond the world we know. Best known for the War of Light and Shadow series, with nine volumes published of eleven, her titles include standalones To Ride Hell’s Chasm, Master of Whitestorm, and Sorcerer’s Legacy; the Cycle of Fire trilogy; and the Empire trilogy written in collaboration with Raymond E. Feist.

Her paintings and cover art have appeared in exhibitions of imaginative artwork, among them, NASA’s 25th Anniversary exhibit, Delaware Art Museum, Canton Art Museum, and Hayden Planetarium in New York, and been recognized by two Chesley Awards, and three times received Best of Show at the World Fantasy Convention.

Story excerpts, announcements, and print shop can be found at www.paravia.com/JannyWurts

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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

OUR BODIES, OUR STORIES, OURSELVES.
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.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

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.