This International Women's Day we're celebrating some of the incredible female voices in science fiction and fantasy.
We lost Ursula Le Guin this year. Hopefully the upside of such tragic news is even more readers, new and old, diving into her tender and thought-provoking fiction – from the magic-rich archipelago of The Earthsea Quartet to the 'Utopian' moral conundrums of The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
Le Guin also left her mark on non-fiction, including Steering The Craft, her workbook and meditation on writing itself, and her poetic interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Few have done as much for the craft, and for the people engaging in it, as she.
Naomi Novik first broke into the fantasy scene with her rip-roaring Temeraire series: an alternate history sprawl that reimagines the Napoleonic Wars with the addition of draconic warfare. And her award-winning fairy tale novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver, have cemented her as a must-read author.
Uprooted is an enchanting fairytale read, with a unique take on traditional themes that feels like a classic in the making. Her subsequent novel, Spinning Silver, twists the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale to upend traditional gender roles as part of another gripping standalone story. Both novels feature hugely memorable and complex female characters, so it’s no surprise Novik is on our list.
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A prolific and inarguably genre-defining fantasist. Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings is an enduring triumph of world-building, with no fewer than five relatively self-contained trilogies set within it, three of which explore the stories of the truly iconic Fitz and The Fool.
Hobb is a modern master of emotional characterisation, political intrigue, and plots of the densest weave. She shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
We’ve mentioned Jenn Lyons’ debut, the first of her series, A Chorus of Dragons, in our Exciting new science fiction and fantasy books in 2019 blog post, but her epic writing and compelling characters make her an unmissable writer. The Ruin of Kings takes on the ‘Chosen One’ story, where young hero Kihrin hides a secret – and lineage – that people will kill, and die, to control. Multiple narrators, visceral action and intrigue, not to mention a live-action adaptation on the cards, prove that Lyons is a master storyteller.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear the series will unfold into an epic journey – but is also content to stray from convention into new territory. Jenn is a bold new voice, not just because of her ambition or terrific writing, but because she skilfully subverts the very tropes that inspire her.
Octavia Butler was the first sci-fi author to be awarded the Arthur Fellowship 'Genius Grant' Award in 1995. This was no doubt due to her eerily prescient themes of hybrid human societies and environmental concerns, but her gripping characters and pacing certainly can't have hurt either. An inspiring author to this day, and one who overcame huge societal hurdles (she was a woman, in LA, in the 50s) to help knit the fabric of the genre.
Arkady Martine’s explosive debut, A Memory Called Empire, is something for fans of Isaac Asimov, Dan Simmons and Ann Leckie to get really excited about. In this incredible opening to the Teixcalaan trilogy, ambassador Mahit Dzmare finds herself knee-deep in deadly political machinations when she travels to the Teixcalaanli Empire’s interstellar capital, only to discover her predecessor was murdered. With parallels to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and The Traitor by Seth Dickinson, Martine is in excellent company.
Her universe-building places one of the most fascinating themes possible at the very centre of the pan-galactic stage – memory. In the Teixcalaanli universe, a select few possess the technology to carry their predecessors’ memories in their minds. But this is a dangerous secret, and one that could topple the empire. This is a political space opera of the highest order and an astonishing debut.
The recent TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has catapulted Atwood into the consciousness of many, without them realising it, which is fitting given the extent of her influence in general. In fact, Atwood is a genre-blurring pioneer, calling her own MaddAddam trilogy ‘speculative fiction’. Just like the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the massively decorated author’s finest skill: showing us gripping, grim alternative futures held together by nothing that doesn’t actually exist in today’s world.
Bloodwitch marks the third book in Susan Dennard’s epic Witchlands series, which sees tensions escalate as war sweeps the witchlands. Dennard’s approach to themes of female friendship and organic worldbuilding elevates her action-packed writing with thoughtful and nuanced characters. Her worldbuilding, in particular, is informed by Dennard’s previous career as a marine biologist, and brings a memorable vividness to the environments her characters careen through. And the relationships between the three protagonists are utterly gripping, leaving fans already desperate for the next book in the series.
Listen to Susan discuss the series along with her approach to ecological world building on the Uncaring Universe podcast, and read our guide to the Witchlands series.
Zen Cho is a Malaysian author based in Britain, whose award-winning debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, put a fantastical spin on historical fiction. Zacharias Wythe, England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, teams up with ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman in a Jane Austen-esque romp through Regency London, where they sidestep danger at every turn. With a diverse cast and telling parallels to the modern day, Cho brings a fresh voice to the Regency fantasy genre. And if The True Queen, her follow-up, is anything to go by, that voice is only becoming more adventurous, assured, and essential.
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