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April has come to an end, and so has the fourth annual Women in SF&F Month. Thank you so much to each of this year’s participants for their guest posts—they made this month’s series of guest posts possible, and it was wonderful to read their articles! There were lots of great discussions on a range of topics—writing a gender system, romance, writing with depression, Octavia Butler, refusal to read books by women, older science fiction written by women, working for ongoing representation—and more. Of course, my reading list also expanded since there were also lots of fantastic recommendations for a variety of books by women from science fiction to SF&F comics to not-necessarily-SF&F comics to recent/upcoming debuts, as well as books featuring epic female protagonists and mature women. If you missed any guest posts during the event, you can find all of this year’s posts here.

Also, thank you to to Renay for her continued work on the list of recommended science fiction and fantasy books by women. She began this project, in which we collected reader recommendations of favorite SF&F books by women, during Women in SF&F Month 2012. Last year’s submissions brought the list to over 1,000 individual titles, which can be sorted by the number of times they were entered. This year, we’ve been collecting more reader-recommended favorites. We have about 1,000 submissions so far this year, but we’d love even more so we are leaving this open for a couple more weeks before collecting the data. If you haven’t already submitted some books this year, you can add up to 10 of your favorite science fiction and/or fantasy books by women here. If you have filled it out, thanks so much—the more contributions, the better, and it’s been exciting to see the growth of the list!

It’s been a very busy month (I also just moved and have mountains of boxes to unpack!). I probably won’t be blogging this weekend due to having a lot to catch up with, but check back on Tuesday for a guest post on violence in genre fiction written by Gemsigns author Stephanie Saulter!

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Today’s guest is Cecily from Manic Pixie Dream Worlds! I discovered her blog when I read her fantastic essay “I Want to be the Time-Traveler, Not His Wife” during Sci-Fi November—and have enjoyed reading her site ever since. She often writes about women in speculative fiction, and she also reviews short fiction at The Skiffy and Fanty Show blog. You can also find her micro-reviews of diverse short fiction on Twitter at @SFFMicroReviews.

Manic Pixie Dream Worlds

Epic Female Protagonists Written by Women

Do you ever get tired of gush-a-thons about female characters written by dude authors? Have you come to the point of wincing when a male author’s women characters are described as “amazing” or similar (dubious) adjectives? Because the state of this genre is such that male authors who portray women as, yanno, half the population are given enormous kudos for merely acknowledging our existence, while women writing female protagonists is taken for granted at best, and a strike in the minus column — because that’s just too many girl cooties, y’all — at worst.

We need a shift in discourse.

It’s not that men cannot competently write female characters. It’s that if one is looking for great female characters, that the first source should be women authors should be tautologically obvious. And almost all of the truly great female protagonists I’ve read, the ones who leapt off the page, whose names — whose voices — will stick with me forever, have been written by women.

Here are a dozen of those protagonists and the stories in which they reside.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler The Awakened Kingdom by N. K. Jemisin

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) by Catherynne Valente

September of the Fairyland series knows very well what becomes of Princesses, as Princesses often get books written about them, and she finds the idea of being sidelined until the conclusion of some Prince’s story quite unappealing. Alternately delighting in adventure and side-eyeing the heck out of both our world and the mysterious one she stumbles into, September is simultaneously a self-insert for readers of all ages and a fleshed-out character in her own right.

Parable of the Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler

Lauren Olamina lives in a near-future United States in which the economy, infrastructure, and government are collapsing. Resourceful, wary, and perhaps divinely inspired, Lauren envisions humanity’s future in the stars, and the two Parable novels are the story of her struggles to get us there. As forces both violent and benevolent try to wrest Earthseed from her over and over again, she stands out in her pure iron will.

The Awakened Kingdom (2014) by N.K. Jemisin

Shill is a godling whose raucous enthusiasm sometimes, um, breaks planets and stuff. This novella is a coming-of-age on a celestial scale of what it means to understand the world and one’s purpose within it. Along the way, Shill learns how to believe in herself, what it means to have A GRIEF, and reasons to stay out of black holes: they are not cute! They are actually very bitey and kind of mean. Shill, however, is basically the polar opposite of a gravitational abyss and perhaps the most adorable character ever.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The Drowning Girl (2012) by Caitlin Kiernan

India Morgan Phelps– or as her friends call her, Imp — is an artist and a writer; she also has schizophrenia. She struggles to order her mind as she grows increasingly obsessed with understanding her multiple encounters with the same woman, who may or may not be a supernatural creature. Imp doesn’t hold many attachments, but the ones she does, to her work as well as her girlfriend Abelyn, are her anchors to reality. This is a story about a mermaid or a wolf, or both — but what it is most profoundly is the struggle of a lonely girl not to drown.

Who Fears Death (2010) by Nnedi Okorafor

Alternately powerful and vulnerable, ambivalent and certain, Onyesonwu learns to wield her magic in a sexist society that makes doing so a huge pain in the ass — which she doesn’t shy from complaining about. Accompanied by her “fellowship” composed of a core group of childhood girlfriends, her story shares the familiar tropes of epic fantasy from the prophecy to the quest in a manner utterly original and shaped to who she is. Onyesonwu is, overall, stunning in her complexity.

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories In the Greenwood by Mari Ness Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

Sometimes a goddess, a ghost, a granddaughter, or a grandmother leaves a pretty deep impression in far fewer words than a novel. We get a greater sense of Yolanda from her high school essay in Sofia Samatar’s “Walkdog” than can be found for characters in some massive fantasy series. The main character of Rachael K. Jones’ “Makeisha in Time” leads thousands of lives in the past, as well as an empire; Mari Ness presents a stunning, subversive vision of Maid Marian in “In the Greenwood.” Isa of Alix Harrow’s “A Whisper in the Weld” is a loving ghost, a true-to-life Rosie the Riveter that can’t quite move on because she has one final responsibility. Ittele, a Jewish young woman in 17th century Europe, embarks on a spiritual journey to avenge her brutally murdered father in “Among the Thorns” by Veronica Schanoes; Tongtong of Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” understands the finite nature of life for the first time in a childhood journey that’s surprisingly optimistic. And Grandma Harken of Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” is a feisty fairy tale figure who, as women often must, hides her deeper self beyond view.

So, why do we talk so much about male authors’ female characters, and so little about women’s? Questions like this one may be a necessary step to derive the ultimate answer: that we may live in a world that conceives of dude as default, but SF/F creates worlds, and the worlds we envision need not replicate the inanity of this one.

Cecily Kane read a lot of SF/F as a kid; after a period of being alienated by the overwhelming visibility of books about dudes with swords, she returned to it as an adult. She can be found ranting on Twitter, running a short fiction column at Skiffy and Fanty, and reviewing books and stuff like that on her own blog, Manic Pixie Dream Worlds.

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Today’s guest is young adult fantasy author Danielle L. Jensen! Her debut novel and the first book in The Malediction Trilogy, Stolen Songbird, was released last year, and it was a delight to read, making it one of my favorite books of 2014. I cannot wait to find out what happens to Cécile next, and fortunately, I don’t have to wait much longer for the second book—Hidden Huntress will be available on June 2!

Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen Hidden Huntress by Danielle L. Jensen

When I received the email asking me to write a guest post about women in SFF, the background information on the impetus behind Fantasy Café’s monthly feature gave me pause. Namely, that women were noticeably underrepresented in reviews, sales, and awards in the adult epic fantasy genre. How interesting, I thought, that this bias doesn’t exist in the young adult epic fantasy genre. Given that there are equally talented men and women in both spaces, why is there such a disconnect in recognition? My personal (and not vigorously researched opinion) is the difference is the readership base. It is generally accepted that the fan base for YA is female dominated, whereas the base for adult epic fantasy is a more even split. But why does this matter? Why are men seemingly less willing to read and enjoy works by women than women are to read and enjoy works by men?

My not-very-scientific research, which involved reading the comments sections of other blog posts on this topic and asking around a bit, yielded one overriding comment: women don’t write the sort of epic fantasy that most men want to read. For one, I don’t believe that; and two, it doesn’t answer the other half of the question, which is why women are willing to read works written by men, for, by that argument, other men? Better minds than mine have discussed this question, but this is my opinion, such as it is.

In the world of children’s literature, we talk a lot about the importance of readers finding protagonists they can relate to. Who are like them, or who they can imagine themselves to be. There is a big – and extremely important – push to make space for books that represent our diverse world. For there to be both authors and protagonists who are people of color, or who are gay, or who have a disability, so those who are not white heterosexual men have the opportunity to leave their mark on literary culture. Many fantastic diverse novels have been released in recent years, but that is only half the battle. The other half resides in the willingness of readers to pick up, review, and champion novels where protagonists “just like them” are nowhere in sight.

I’m going to go out on a limb – a very thick and sturdy limb – and say that with the exception of straight white men, all other readers of adult epic fantasy regularly enjoy novels about characters who are nothing like them. Women read books about men by men. People of color read about white people. Individuals in wheelchairs read about people who aren’t. They have to, because if they didn’t, the novels on the shelves appealing to them would potentially be quite few and far between. It is the unique, and, I’d argue, damaging privilege of straight white men to be able to go through life never reading a novel by or about anyone who isn’t a straight white man, unless they feel inclined to do otherwise. The consequence is that while the audience for fantasy novels for straight white men is the whole of fandom, the audience for authors who are not is, at best, half that.  And the consequence of this smaller fan base is novels being underrated, undersold, and, potentially, unread by those who might appreciate them.

Danielle L. JensenDanielle was born and raised in Calgary, Canada. At the insistence of the left side of her brain, she graduated in 2003 from the University of Calgary with a bachelor’s degree in finance. But the right side of her brain has ever been mutinous; and in 2010, it sent her back to school to complete an entirely impractical English literature degree at Mount Royal University and to pursue publication. Much to her satisfaction, the right side shows no sign of relinquishing its domination.

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Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author Aliette de Bodard! Her work includes the novels in the Obsidian and Blood series (beginning with Servant of the Underworld); the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus-nominated novella On a Red Station, Drifting; the Nebula Award-winning novelette “The Waiting Stars”; and the Nebula Award-winning short story “Immersion.” In addition to the two Nebula Awards, she has received a Locus Award, a British Science Fiction Award, and several award nominations, plus her stories have been selected for Year’s Best anthologies. I very much enjoyed both On a Red Station, Drifting and “Immersion,” and I’m very excited about her upcoming novel being released in August, The House of Shattered Wings.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard

When I was a teenager, I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series (with difficulty, because they’re rich books intent on texture, with vocabulary and sentence structure that’s not always obvious to a non-native speaker). A lot of things struck me about them; but the one that I want to talk about is the first one, The Game of Kings.

The Game of Kings is set in a male-dominated society: though Scotland is ruled by a child queen, men are the ones holding the titles, going to war, and occupying much of the stage, as the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, attempts to clear his name and reconcile with his family.

It would be very easy to assume from this that the narrative is going to be all about the men.

In fact, what I remember most about The Game of Kings is its female characters–from no-nonsense, deceptively mild Sybilla, Lymond’s mother; to Mariotta, trapped in a marriage where her husband ignores her; to young Philippa, growing up on a minor holding and having to deal with the invasion of men-at-arms in her well-ordered world.

It’s hard to express, but I think that this was the first time I realised that books and popular media had it wrong.

I was taught, over and over, that stories are about people in positions of power, people who fight; people who go to war. I was taught that women are oppressed in the quasi medieval societies of fantasy, and therefore that the only women worth talking about are those who rebel against this oppression–the ones who have, or who seek to have the same rights and privileges as men, the ones who sneak out of their houses disguised as boys in order to seek their fortune. I was taught that the silent women seemingly only interested in their own households are always inactive, always silent, forever doomed to be background noise. It’s not a conscious thing–rather, it happened by the accretion of dozens, of hundreds of similar narratives until I had internalised them so thoroughly that anything else seems odd and implausible [1].

This idea about powerless and uninteresting women is, of course, wrong on several levels. The first and most obvious is that there were women in positions of power in medieval societies; and that there were women who were having adventures (women merchants, for instance). That they were broadly considered inferior to men does not mean they were all oppressed chattel.

The second, and I think most pernicious cliché is to assume that the oppressed have no narrative but that of rebellion–that lack of power or lack of agency means lack of story. One of the things the Lymond series does tremendously well is showing us the network of women’s friendships, and how these women share information. Women run households, fret over who they will marry and how they will find their places in the network of alliances; and try to navigate their place in a complex tracery of power where they might not have the upper hand, but where they are far from powerless or without opinions.

I wish I could say this was immediately reflected in my fiction; but in fact it took me a tremendous amount of time to go against the received narrative that these types of stories weren’t worth telling–many years and many additional books, until I finally started to write stories where domesticity wasn’t devalued, and where childbirth could be as dramatic as any pulse-pounding battle against an invading army. And, in many ways, I’m still learning–still trying to make space, not only for women, but for marginalised voices in my stories (again, it’s not because one is not in a position of power or actively seeking one that one has no life and no stories worth telling. The slaves, the dispossessed, the oppressed also have their own lives and their own aspirations). But it was The Game of Kings that showed me the way, and I darn well intend to stick to it.


[1] Which is why I try to be conscious, as a writer, of the kind of narratives that I’m putting forward. I don’t believe that my stories can change the world, but I can certainly contribute, even completely unconsciously, to harmful and silencing narratives. But this is not the subject of this essay!

Aliette de BodardAliette de Bodard lives in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In between programming and mothering, she writes speculative fiction–her stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Award. Her newest novel, House of Shattered Wings, is set in a devastated Paris where rival Houses fight for influence–and features fallen angels, Vietnamese dragons and entirely too many dead bodies. It is forthcoming in August from Gollancz in the UK/Commonwealth and Roc in the US. Visit http://www.aliettedebodard.com.

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The first guest of the final week is science fiction, fantasy, and horror author Karina Sumner-Smith! While she’s written a number of short stories, her first novel was just released last year. Radiant, set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End to All Things,” is an impressive and unique debut with excellent worldbuilding and prose. The second book in the trilogy, Defiant, will be released on May 12. Towers Fall, the final book, is scheduled for release in October.

Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

I Don’t Read Books by Women

Looking back, I can’t really tell you what he looked like. White man in his thirties perhaps; I’d say dark hair, but that could just be imagination. Not that it matters. It wasn’t his appearance but his words that stayed with me, even after all these years.

“I don’t read books by women.”

Just like that.

I don’t think he meant to be insulting; it was only his reason why my recommendation of a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold was not even slightly of interest. Never mind that he was looking for a fun, fast-paced space opera.

These days, I’m more confident in my recommendations. I’m even known to jump into a conversation between someone looking for a good science fiction or fantasy novel book and a clueless chain bookstore employee—but then? I was a snail of a girl, mostly pulled into her protective shell, just trying to have a quiet talk with a fellow fan in the science fiction section of the bookstore. His reaction caught me off guard.

I remember staring, at a loss for words. “Why?” I managed to ask.

“Oh,” he said. “I just don’t like romance.”


The idea that women only write romance—and, by extension, do not write real science fiction or fantasy—was (and remains) ridiculous.

Perhaps some of that was my upbringing. While both of my parents read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy, of the two my mother is the biggest reader and SFF fan. I don’t have stories about discovering amazing science fictional tales at my local library; instead, I had my mother’s collection and my mother’s recommendations. It was my mother’s heavy hardcovers that I dragged to school in my knapsack all through high school, and my mother’s battered paperbacks that I re-read until the pages began falling out.

Isaac Asimov. Ursula K. Le Guin. Raymond E. Feist. Anne McCaffrey. C.J. Cherryh. Larry Niven. Mercedes Lackey. Arthur C. Clarke. Jennifer Roberson. David Eddings. The list goes on and on.

I understood not liking particular works or particular authors—but not reading any books by women? It was an entirely foreign concept.

Yet I could not entirely dismiss his opinion as being that of one random and misguided guy, for I began to see it reflected in other places. In jokes or passing comments in online communities that I frequented. In the assumptions made by men who heard that I write. And while it was not the predominant opinion held by the male writers and fans that I knew—and thank goodness for that—it was one that certainly existed, and that crept into conversations in strange and off-putting ways.

Worse, I was a writer—or was trying to be. And suddenly I couldn’t help but think: what if I achieved my dream—what if I wrote a book and had it published—only to find that no one would read it just because it was my name on the cover? A female name.

Would potential readers see that name, turn up their nose, and say, “No thanks. I read science fiction and fantasy, not romance.”


Let’s set aside the power and financial impact of the publishing juggernaut that is the romance genre. Let’s set aside, too, any concerns about who reads or writes romance, or why, or whether romance is read by people of all genders (though of course it is).

Instead, I have to ask: why, for certain readers, is a female byline synonymous with a romantic plotline? Because there are so many excellent books by women within our genre that focus on other things: adventure and magic, culture and politics, economics and war and friendship.

There’s V.E. Schwab’s excellent Vicious, a near-future novel about best friends turned foes, revenge, and superpowers. Or, in YA, how about Nicole Kornher-Stace’s forthcoming Archivist Wasp, a sharp and wholly unique novel about an Archivist in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world who tries to rescue a ghost from the afterlife.

Anyone who thinks women can’t write dark or gritty realism have yet to try Mary Gentle’s alternate history/fantasy, Ash: A Secret History (bizarrely published as four full volumes in the US), about a female mercenary captain in 13th century Burgundy.

There are even fabulous series like Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra, which—despite a setup that seems bound for a love triangle, and a fun, fast pace—has ten books in print without the development of a romance (to some readers’ evident dismay).

Yet it seems disingenuous to point to such works as if saying, “See, ladies don’t just write about kissing and sexytimes!” Especially given that romance is a key part of so many male-authored fantasy novels as well.

I went and stared at my bookshelf, and it’s true. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer novels, Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle (and the list goes on), all have romantic subplots. Neither is male-authored SF a genre without romantic entanglements.

So what’s the difference? Is it the gender of the main character that makes a romantic subplot more interesting (or perhaps more palatable), rather than the author’s gender? Do some female authors write their romantic plots or subplots differently than their male peers, perhaps drawing more heavily on tropes from the romance genre? Do some straight male readers feel uncomfortable viewing a male character through a lens of romantic or sexual desire, even if the point of view character is female?

Or is this only a case of certain readers experiencing a book written by a woman that is very much not to their taste, and instead of thinking, “I don’t like this story/novel/subgenre/genre” they leap all the way to, “I don’t like books by women”?

I don’t know; I really wish I did.

Yet for now, as a new author trying to reach a readership, I still sometimes feel that it’s a struggle to connect with male readers, even if that struggle is only in my own mind. To work around the name on the cover, I feel that I need to explain: “I wrote a fantasy novel, and yes, the main characters are young women—but the book has no romance in it at all.” (Neither, for the record, do the sequels.)


That man I was talking to in the bookstore? He never did pick up the Bujold. I try to tell myself that in the end it was the Baen cover that scared him away.

And when our talk turned to fantasy, I managed to push the first book of C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy into his hands, praising its villain—and encouraging him to just read the prologue to see if it might be his sort of thing. (And yes, it still bothers me that for a moment I almost pretended that, shielded by those initials, C.S. Friedman wasn’t a woman at all.)

Yet now, when I think of that man, it is not with anger, not with anxiety, but hope. I hope that he’s tried to expand his reading horizons a little—and not for the sake of female authors like me, but for his own enjoyment. Because choosing not to read science fiction or fantasy books by women, not any at all? Just think of how many amazing stories he’ll miss.

Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Oct 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a very small dog, and a very large cat. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.

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This month has flown by, and tomorrow is the first day in the last week of guest posts. Before announcing the final guests, here is what went on last week (thanks to all of the guests from the previous week!):

Book List Reminder: If you haven’t already submitted 10 of your favorite speculative fiction books by women this year, there is still time to add up to 10 of your favorites to the list! It currently contains over 1,000 titles recommended during Women in SF&F Month in 2013 and 2014, and Renay and I are collecting more recommendations this month.

Upcoming Guests: April 27 – 30

And now, the final guests of the month will be:

Women in SF&F Month 2015 Week 5

April 27: Karina Sumner-Smith (Radiant, Defiant, “An End to All Things”)
April 28: Aliette de Bodard (The House of Shattered Wings, Obsidian and Blood series)
April 29: Danielle L. Jensen (Stolen Songbird, Hidden Huntress)
April 30: Cecily (Manic Pixie Dream Worlds)