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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.