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.
- Bradley, Marion Zimmer: the Avalon series, recommended by crocky_wock . holyschist points out gender issues for her Darkover series, though, so tread carefully there. Read her comment, it's detailed and awesome.
- Butcher, Jim: The Dresden Files, as recommended by bikinikiller , caveated for chivalry complex by holyschist .
- Butler, Octavia: universal endorsement of her complete works from emily_goddess .
- Cashore, Kristin: Graceling.
- Cooper, Susan: her The Dark is Rising series, recommended by yond_cassius and mothwing .
- Ende, Michael: Momo, recommended by mothwing .
- Forsyth, Kate: Witches of Eileanan series, recommended by countessdeweird .
- Furlong, Monica: Wise Child, recommended by holyschist .
- Gaiman, Neil: Neverwhere, and chasingtides also recommends American Gods and Coraline. holyschist and shenth both recommend the Sandman comics.
- Garner, Alan: The Owl Service, recommended by yond_cassius .
- Hambly, Barbara: Dragonsbane series, recommended by mothwing .
- Hobb, Robin: the Liveship traders trilogy, recommended by speaksoftlylove and countessdeweird .
- Huff, Tanya: Confederation of Valor, the Quartets series and Summon the Keeper, recommended by bikinikiller.
- Jones, Diana Wynne: Fire and Hemlock, Hexwood and Deep Secret as recommended by yond_cassius .
- Jonson, Alayna Dawn: Racing the Dark, recommended by holyschist .
- LeGuin, Ursula: The Left Hand of Darkness, recommended by emily_goddess .
- Kay, Guy Gavriel: The Fionavar Tapestry, recommended with a trigger warning by squinting_kitty, The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, and The Last Light of the Sun recommended by holyschist .
- Novak, Naomi: the Temeraire series, recommended by holyschist .
- Maguire, Gregory: Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, recommended by mothwing .
- McKinley, Robin: Spindle's End, The Hero and the Crown, and Sunshine, recommended by arseaboutface and lisaquestions .
- Murphy, Jill: The Worst Witch, recommended by mothwing .
- Nix, Gabriel: Sabriel, recommended by shenth .
- Pierce, Tamora: the Alanna series, Circle of Magic series, recommended by mothwing, cryingcat613 and yukinoomoni , who seem to have a good idea of what's recommendable, in addition to those. There is a caveat from holyschist due to poorly handled race issues.
- Pratchett, Terry: Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum, Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky - any book in the witches series recommended by seeinglife and mothwing , as well as Unseen Academicals and Monstrous Regiments.
- Reichert, Mickey Zucker: the Renshai series, recommended by speaksoftlylove .
- Richardson, Kat: Greywalker, recommended by emily_goddess .
- Simmons, Dan: Hyperion, recommewnded by yond_cassius again.
- Snicket, Lemony: A Series of Unfortunate Events, arguably and with a warning for transphobia, recommended by mothwing .
- Stevermer, Caroline: A College of Magics, A Scholar of Magics, recommended by holyschist .
- Tepper, Sheri: Sideshow, recommended by emily_goddess .
- Valente, Catherynne: The Orphan's Tales, beginning with In the Night Garden, recommended by mintyfreshsocks and holyschist .
- Wein, Elizabeth: the Arthurian series beginning with The Winter Prince, again recommended by holyschist.
- Wrede, Patricia: Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Marelion the Magician, Magician's Ward recommended (in spite of Mammothfail '09 because her early work is feminist friendly Euro-Fantasy) by holyschist .