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Equality never looked so pissed.
I am a bitter Fantasy fan (now with recs) 
26th-Dec-2009 01:05 pm
I have been reading Fantasy written by English and American authors ever since I was fourteen. It is my favourite genre, and most of my favourite books are Fantasy books. This genre was my cure for sadness, loneliness, and boredom ever since I discovered it. And even though I love that genre and spend quite an amount of time defending its literary merits, most of the writers who do write Fantasy suck at the same thing, keep on sucking and make pots of money while doing so. Especially male writers are, when it comes to their few female characters, by and large, lazy, unapologetic morons uninterested in any kind of realism.

The only male Fantasy writers I can think of who manages believable female characters are Gregory Maguire and Terry Pratchett (and I'm grateful if any of you can point me towards others who manage to not fail). It never ceases to amaze me that it would be so bloody hard to write about human beings that, given that they easily comprise fifty percent of the population, one is certain to have interacted with at some point. Both do have strong female characters that are strong on their own terms without necessarily being eye-candy or supporters of male characters only. What is more depressing is that many female writers copy those parts of the genre that are hell-bent on turning female characters into brainless, decorative, supportive tokens (Anne McCaffrey ARFFF).

Even readers with a background in feminism seem so depressingly easily pleased and make a point of noting that there are female characters who are not decoration as soon as they are there at all. As long as these characters are there, as long as they do something at all, writers get kudos for including "strong female characters". I think that term has been used so often it has been rendered meaningless. If they do feature "strong female characters", one or two strong female characters that are included for whatever reason are really not enough to tip the balance for the rest of the book. If, throughout the story, female characters are treated as decoration, pieces of flesh or house elves, even the most bad-ass female will not rectify the fail when it comes to the other characters (looking at you again, Anne McCaffrey).

And fandom, which in many cases easily offers a break from canon fails due to the creativeness of readers, is no help here. Judging by a rough look at numbers of fanfiction submissions by pairing especially with regards to Harry Potter, most female readers don't seem to care as long as there are ~* hawt *~ male characters they can write trivial, character-exploring fanfiction about that centres on one taking care of the emotional and sexual needs of the other. Only about male characters, mind, because "the female characters in that fandom are so uninteresting". A baffling excuse, given the creative self-confidence of fandom - fandoms that manage to write novel-length stories about characters that never spoke more than three sentences together in a novel ought not to have a problem with that and welcome the challenge. 

But apparently, characters tainted by femaleness are not worth writing or thinking about, because there are no interesting stories to tell about women that aren't about the fact that they are women in a male world, and because fetishizing male-on-male interaction is just "more interesting"/"my personal preference".

EDIT: You guys are awesome, thank you so much for all the recommendations! 

I'll list them here so we have them in one place.

26th-Dec-2009 12:14 pm (UTC)
Rage On!
I'm a sci-fi/fantasy reader as well and am also in the Pratchett Camp!

I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, I think he manages to not fail when it comes to characters.
26th-Dec-2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that the only things I've read by him were Stardust, which I didn't dislike but didn't really make me see why he's awesome, Anansi Boys, ditto, and Good Omens, which I enjoyed, so I don't really know what his women tend to be like. :)
26th-Dec-2009 12:20 pm (UTC)
Spot on!
I think the 'Strong Female Character' trope is misused everywhere, in rom. coms. particularly but SF&F writers should have no excuse!

And I think your analysis of fic really hit the nail on the head with something I've been trying to articulate for a while
26th-Dec-2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, the slash writers... Let's not talk about them. I quit reading fanfiction ages ago because it looks like the only thing people can write is porn, and I'm not very interested in that. I mean, sure, everything has its place, but come ON. You can barely find a fic without a sex scene these days.

I have to admit that I'm guilty of the "my personal preference" thing, and I know why. I mostly watch shounen shows, and the Japanese stereotype of a "good" woman is... questionable. Most of them are only there as decoration. They don't add anything to the story, except maybe screaming the male lead's name every few minutes. I suppose this could be fixed by watching shoujo, but those storylines are uninteresting to me (I hatehateHATE romance stories). Frankly, the few female characters I could relate to in anime were the Major from Ghost in the Shell and Utena.

/thoughts on yaoi

But yes. Fantasy authors FAIL at writing women (Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, I'm looking at you. Stop with the cleavage descriptions already!)
26th-Dec-2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
That's what bothers me - I like my porn, but when ALL fanfiction seems to be written with porn or fetishistic voyeurism lurking somewhere in the near future, it starts getting pointless.
26th-Dec-2009 01:28 pm (UTC) - Agree. 100%.
Dear SF/F: Presenting female characters that are NOT love interests would be great. Males get to be just characters with their own lives and stories... how come women seem to have to be somebody's love interest to get in the story?

(Also a Pratchett fan!)
26th-Dec-2009 02:21 pm (UTC) - Re: Agree. 100%.
Ha, good point. How many sci-fi/f books would pass the Bechdel Test?
26th-Dec-2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
Well, with fandom, it depends on where you go and who you hang with. There's a whole group of (mostly) ladies out there who are interested in analyzing fandom, writer/reader desire, and stuff like why women like slash. (Incidentally, I like slash. And I think about why I like slash.) There's also a whole pile of people who whine, "You think too much!" whenever someone tries to think critically about either a specific canon, or how fans interact with it. Places you might want to visit are Metafandom and Fanficrants. The latter is a rant community, but there's a fairly high political consciousness there.

Yeah, women have been conditioned to be easily pleased with male behavior in all venues. If a dude doesn't rape us that day, we wanna give him a cookie. The analogy works in television, books, movies, whatever. It's how people like James Cameron came to be seen as "feminist," you know? Ridiculous. It's just that the world sucks so much that any little relief from the misery seems like a much greater sign of hope than it really is. That's how Nice Guys get by so easily. We don't want to call out the few guys who at least pretend to be on our side, although they're often as bad as their so-called opposites.
26th-Dec-2009 05:10 pm (UTC)
It definitely depends whom you hang out with. IRL, luckily, I have a lot of people who have similar interests as I do, but online I found it rather hard to find people who have similar outlooks on fandom- and the sheer prevalence of people who are happy not ever analysing anything does get frustrating after a while.

I lurk on both sites you mentioned. :)
26th-Dec-2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
Rage on! I have this same problem!

As for fantasy writers who don't suck, have you tried Tamora Pierce?
26th-Dec-2009 04:05 pm (UTC)
Oooooh, good choice. Her female characters are amazing.
26th-Dec-2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
In fandom, I've managed to find myself a bunch of meta writing feminists/queer analysts and I like to think we're a pretty good lot. (And can write fic with good female characters.) However, I'm the first to admit that we're hardly the majority (especially since I'm in the Torchwood and Supernatural fandoms where... it's crazy).

I'm a Neil Gaiman fan and I like to think that he writes good female characters. (A lot of his stuff is male-centric, but he has some freaking bad ass women - like Door and Hunter in Neverwhere who are more badass than any of the women or Laura and Bilquis and the Zoryas in American Gods. Coraline, I think, is an awesome female protagonist for a kids' book. Consider that when they made the movie, they felt they had to add in a boy character - he wasn't in the book.)
26th-Dec-2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
My RL friends are, for the most part, interested in gender and queer criticism and also write fic, so I usually get my discussion fix there, but going from a discussion on gender politics in fandom and fanfic into regular discussions can be pretty depressing.

I never finished American Gods because I never got interested enough in the main character to get hooked, but I did like Coraline a lot.
26th-Dec-2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
I also strongly recommend Neverwhere.

If you're looking for some really strong SFF, try Catherynne Valente (on LJ as catvalente), who has numbers of excellent female, minority and gay characters. I would especially suggest The Orphan's Tales -- it's two books, but they're two of the best books I've read in the past decade.
26th-Dec-2009 07:53 pm (UTC)
Added to my "trying to hunt that one down in the library"-list. Thanks! :)
26th-Dec-2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
I stopped engaging in fandom at all for some of the reasons you mention, but I can recommend Robin McKinley for excellent fantasy novels and stories about women and girls doing all sorts of interesting things.
26th-Dec-2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
Huh, I'll see if I can find any of her books in the library around the corner. Thanks for the tip. :)
26th-Dec-2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
Tanya Huff's characters are absolutely amazing (her male characters tend to be a bit one-sided, but I think that's fair). I recommend the Confederacy of Valor (if you like military sci fi), Seargent Torin Kerr is the main character and she's totally kick ass.

A male author who does justice by his female characters is Jim Butcher. The Dresden Files are an urban fantasy series about a wizard/private detective (male) who has a strong supporting cast of strong female characters (really, like his main ally is this really amazing police lieutenant, Karrin Murphy).
26th-Dec-2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
Heh, you're the second person to recommend The Dresden Files to me today. I'll see if I can find it in the library. I had only read rather off-putting things about the main character so I didn't bother before.

Military SciFi is not really my thing, but you've given me an idea for a present for someone who is, so thanks a lot!
27th-Dec-2009 01:53 am (UTC)
Diana Wynne Jones, a British mostly YA author, writes amazing female characters. She's one of the few writers I've read who can write interesting, flawed but sympathetic teenage/early twenties women. Fire and Hemlock, Hexwood and Deep Secret are all good places to start.

I have a soft spot for Alison in the Owl Service by Alan Garner, but you might disagree. Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series has teenage characters who convince, and don't fall into the "strong female character" archetype.

In sci-fi Dan Simmons women are interesting, my favourite being Brawne Lamia in Hyperion.

27th-Dec-2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, Diana Wynne Jones manages to write female characters.

Susan coopers books are very special to be because the The Dark is Rising series was my favourite when I was ten - but back then, I mostly identified as male, so I didn't really pay attention to the female characters.
27th-Dec-2009 02:11 am (UTC)
Oh, tell me about it. I spent ages trying to dig up fantasy novels that featured women as central characters when I was in high school. This has also been on my mind a lot lately, as so much fiction centers around the white cis het man as important/special/etc and the women in his life are just there to enable his destiny or provide relationships.

Kind of related to this rage, I've been seeing a lot of people going on about how characters in various TV shows are horrible - and they always describe how to fix the men, but the women always need to be killed off.

This is a brilliant post, thank you for writing it.

27th-Dec-2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for saying that, it means a lot.

Ugh, the treatment of female characters in TV shows by fans is really annoying, especially considering the excuses many are willing to make for their favourite male characters and their shortcomings, while they tend to be more than dismissive whenever anyone brings up concerns on how the female characters are treated or presented.
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27th-Dec-2009 04:43 am (UTC)
Mercedes Lackey is good in that she didn't set off my feminist ire, but I just can't find myself getting super excited about her plot lines. I know I've read the Arrows of the Queen trilogy (not sure what it's called, so that could be wrong) and I think another trilogy or novel that I wasn't crazy about. Any recommendations of other things to try?
27th-Dec-2009 02:58 am (UTC)
Garth Nix's Sabriel and its sequels are fantastic. Excellent world-building, cool plot, and the protagonists are all well-written women.
27th-Dec-2009 04:41 am (UTC)
I second this rec. It seems geared slightly more towards young adult but it is still very good fiction and kept my interest (and didn't set off my feminist anger button). (I'm 24.)
27th-Dec-2009 04:56 am (UTC)
I looooove this post and the comments. I'm also an avid fantasy/(sci-fi) reader and it so very often drives me insane because I can't find good books.

I had been considering trying some Pratchett after seeing the books in the bookstore. Glad to hear some good recommendations here, so mayhaps I should try to pick those up.

My absolute favorite fantasy series is The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. The writing is exquisite, and I love the story. He does okay with female characters. They can fall into stereotypes sometimes (the temperamental, red-haired, man-hating priestess who ends up falling in love with a man later, for instance), but he does it well, if that makes sense, and manages to not make the characters believable, interesting, and dynamic. There's a relatively equal balance of "main" female and male characters. Trigger warning: There is a rather icky rape "chapter" near the end of the first book, and it is pertinent to the plot throughout all three books, so it gets referred back to sometimes.

I would recommend avoiding The Sword of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin and also The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson. I have serious issues with both because of how they treat women. (I've read most of the first two books in Martin's series [for lack of anything else to read at the time] but only part of the first book in Donaldson's, so maybe they would get better, I dunno.)
27th-Dec-2009 04:57 am (UTC)
Er... that should read:

and manages to not make the characters believable, interesting, and dynamic

Re-worded that sentence and forgot to take that out.
27th-Dec-2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
I've been reading Kat Richardson's Greywalker series. It's pretty standard urban fantasy, but it passes the Bechdel test, and nobody is an overpowered Mary Sue (author self-insert, yes, but not a Mary Sue). It says a lot about the state of speculative fiction overall that our options are, mostly, weak women characters in a good story or good women characters in a weak story. I can think of some solid feminist sci-fi, actually, but not much fantasy.
27th-Dec-2009 10:08 pm (UTC)

If you have SciFi recommendations, please do recommend away. It's not my thing, but I am sure that they will be of use to someone on here. :)
27th-Dec-2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
I wish livejournal had an expand all button so I could print all the comments to this out! People here are oh so smart and they read a lot of stuff I bet I want to read, too. :3
27th-Dec-2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
Seriously, that'd be awesome. Don't paid users get that option? Maybe one of the lucky ones who do have paid options can be persuaded.
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27th-Dec-2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
I'm late, but I want to say YES YES YES. I stopped reading fantasy because for the most part, I couldn't find anything that didn't make me feel like shit.

Although, if I may add to your list of recommendations, the Renshai series (two sets of trilogies) by Mickey Zucker Reichart were really good, if I remember correctly, and the female characters were awesome warriors. Also, Robin Hobb had a trilogy called the Liveship Traders (I think - Liveship something) that featured women, and it was great.
28th-Dec-2009 12:29 am (UTC)
Thanks for the recs, more recommendations are always good.

If you've got more, add away, you're not late at all.
27th-Dec-2009 10:13 pm (UTC)
I loved Graceling! It was awesome! ♥ Thanks for this list, too. I think we should do lists like this once every so often. I get so sick of all the girls in my book obsessing over guys.
28th-Dec-2009 12:30 am (UTC)
I loved that book. Did you get a chance to read the prequel, Fire? I tried to, but somehow, I just couldn't get into it. The main character just isn't as interesting and wonderful as Katsa. <3
28th-Dec-2009 12:19 am (UTC)
I'd add some serious cavaeats to both MZB and Jim Butcher. I love their books, but Butcher's Harry Dresden has a serious chivalry complex which is mostly portrayed as something that gets him in trouble but can still be really irritating (TBH, I don't read the books for Harry himself, since I kind of want to smack him a lot--but they are great fun and have well-written female characters). MZB's books have some weird gender and sexuality issues, particularly in the Darkover novels. Lackey's books often have a serious case of Tragic Gay Men and Rape as Plot Motivator for both heroines and the aforementioned TGM; I frankly can't stand her writing anymore. I think her best books in the Valdemar series are probably By the Sword and the Tarma and Kethry novels. There are definitely triggery rape scenes in the later; I can't remember about the former. Mind, these are not recommendations--just which books if hers I think are the best if you feel you must give them a try.

I emphatically DO NOT recommend the Talia books, which have extensive gratuitous rape (and Talia is all super-low-self-esteem-saved-by-magic-horse-and-awesome-boyfriend, which bugs me), and while the Vanyel books get a lot of praise for having a male main character, he's Super Tragic and there's a lot of rape in those, too, so I can't stand them.

I do wholeheartedly recommend Elizabeth Moon--her space opera Serrano Legacy and Vatta's War series have awesome female protagonists and supporting characters, and some of her protagonists are older. Most are also women of color. I'm not a huge fan of her fantasy (The Deed of Paksenarrion), but for those to whom it's their taste (it's military high fantasy), it's good stuff and centered around a celibate (I think?) female hero.

Monica Furlong - Wise Child, absolutely beautiful book.

Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. Although the main character and his dragon are both male, there are some fantastic secondary female characters and significant subplots exploring the role of women, particular aviator (dragon-riding) women in an alternate Britain and the constraints society places on them.

Neil Gaiman--I would definitely recommend the Sandman comics. They are still kind of his magnum opus, and have all kinds of brilliant female characters. Any of his short story collections are great, too.
I like Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fantasy MUCH more than Fionavar, and it doesn't contain so much triggery stuff (if any). I particularly love The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, and The Last Light of the Sun.

Elizabeth E. Wein's Arthurian-Ethiopian novels (beginning with The Winter Prince) have male protagonists, but the supporting female characters and awesome and essential to the plot.

I love Tamora Pierce and she's great from a feminist standpoint, but some of her books (particularly the Trickster duology about Alanna's daughter) have poorly-handled race issues.

Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword has an awesome heroine of ambiguous and complex sexuality; it is better to read Swordspoint first for context (if you can deal with Gay Sociopaths in Love). But I'm not such a fan of The Fall of the Kings.

It's Catherynne M. Valente, not Valenta. The first volume of stories is The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden (I've only read the second, which I agree is awesome).

BTW, I like m/m stories fine, but I like just about everything else as well--f/f, m/f, polyamory, friendship/family, gen (especially gen! Stories with romance subplots and awesome adventure main plots are my favorite kind). There are corners of fandom--even slash fandom--that are quite feminist-friendly, but it does depend a lot on your favorite source media. Overall I've found fandom a lot less frustrating in that regard than mainstream fantasy, and worse, mainstream SF. Grrr, mainstream SF. SO frustrating.
28th-Dec-2009 12:42 am (UTC)
I was just coming back to rec Sandman! However, it has some serious issues at times. The way Wanda is treated in A Game of You is just...ugh. Could be worse, but it's not great. I won't spoil it.

Overall, though, great series. Death and Delirium are two of my favorite characters ever.
28th-Dec-2009 10:37 am (UTC)
My own recommendations - I thought I'd take the commentary out of the list at the top to make it less bloated. My list is sadly white only as I haven't read any Fantasy books set outside imaginary, medievalised Europe and I'd be grateful for recommendations (right now, Zarah The Windseeker, White Is for Witching and Imago are sitting on my shelf, but that's... well. Not much). It's also cis and het only, for the most part.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series - especially the books about the witches (Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum, Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky). I love this man for his humour and optimistic humanism (although that sadly changed towards the more pessimistic in his later novels). The heroines of these books are an increasingly complex parody of the "evil witches" stereotypes. All of the witches are very different women with their own motivations, my absolute favourite being Granny Weatherwax. Witches Abroad also has a female villain who steers clear of most of the usual female-villain stereotypes and is very life-like and human.
Monstrous Regiments, which does have its problems and which is a parody of the trope of female characters crossdressing to get into all-male spaces taken to an extreme. Still, it has very endearing female characters.
Unseen Academicals has Glenda, who is awesome.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore has a strong female character who arguably does fall into the Strong Female stereotype, but which is also the story of the recovery of a survivor of emotional abuse, which struck a chord with me. I love Katsa.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I love his female main characters, both Galinda and Elphaba, the reason to read this book. The one thing that really disturbed me was Elphaba's romance plot, as the effects of the end of that were extremely overdone in my view. Still, she is awesome.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister also has great female characters, starting with the main character, Iris - although her opportunistic and cruel mother was probably my favourite in that novel, even though she is definitely not a very pleasant character.

The Worst Witch series by Jil Murphy. For very young readers, this is a story of witches attending an all-girl boarding school. It is sweet and an easy read with great illustrations.

The Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce. I fell in love with Lark, Rosethorn, Sandry and Daja instantly. It is a very simple story for younger readers, but it does have endearing characters.

The The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper does contain female characters dear to me, although I wouldn't have necessarily included here - although Greenwich really does deserve to be there because of Jane - although in the entire series, she is not only the only strong female character, but the only female character with any relevance to the plot, so I'm still a bit guarded about the inclusion.

I need to go fetch groceries now, but I'll add more later.
28th-Dec-2009 08:04 pm (UTC)
I just have to say I love and adore Pratchett's witches. I think A Hat Full of Sky is one of my favorites of what he's written recently. Oh, Tiffany, and Granny Aching. <3

I loved Nation, too, even though it's not Discworld.
1st-Jan-2010 05:20 am (UTC)
I'm a bit late to the party here, but I strongly recommend Kate Forsyth's Witches of Eileanan series. Awesome awesome awesome women main characters. At one point the heroine rescues a helpless half-clad male! There aren't words for how much I love love love love love Kate Forsyth!

I also second the rec of Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, because it is made of both awesome and win.
1st-Jan-2010 10:05 am (UTC)
Happy New Year! Thanks for the recs, and added!
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