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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.

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 05:22 am (UTC)
It's been a while since I read it, so I don't remember the specifics. Yeah, most of these books aren't perfect. :(
28th-Dec-2009 01:14 am (UTC)
Wow. You ought to be doing the list at the top, seriously. Thanks for the recommendations! Wise Child in particular sounds extremely worth reading.
28th-Dec-2009 05:23 am (UTC)
Fantasy is pretty much my favorite genre. :) Wise Child is an absolutely fantastic, beautiful gem of a book, and it's all about the relationship between the girl and her female teacher. I'm not such a fan of the prequel, Juniper, or the sequel, but they're worth reading, too.
28th-Dec-2009 09:56 am (UTC)
The review I read really made me curious about how the character of Juniper works- there are too few female mentor figures that I found in any way relatable.
28th-Dec-2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
You might like the prequel, too, then, although I think starting with Wise Child is the best. That's kind of an odd review in some ways (and the way I read it, Juniper is definitely a "witch", although not necessarily one who isn't Christian as well), but it does sort of get at the interesting dynamics with Juniper, Wise Child, and Wise Child's biological mother.

It's a very short book--written before the trend of YA novels being bricks.
28th-Dec-2009 01:38 am (UTC)
The Last Light of the Sun sounds SO awesome. Vikings!!

I like reading m/m stories, too, but the fact that it sometimes seems as though the majority of readers was interested in little else has me frustrated occasionally.

With regards to your remarks on fandom vs. mainstream writing I think you're right - which is probably why my level of frustration is, unfairly, much higher when it comes to fandom than it is for mainstream fiction, at which my anger probably ought to be directed.
28th-Dec-2009 05:28 am (UTC)
I had issues with The Last Light of the Sun, actually. The treatment of women in the book was kinda 'eh, in my opinion, but that could have been because GGK was talking about Vikings and wanted to portray the Vikings that way. The plot was also pretty male-centric. There was really only one strong female character that I recall, and she was definitely a Strong Female Character.

I liked GGK's Ysabel though. Really interesting story.

And I just love the Fionavar trilogy, but I'm a high fantasy nerd. Fully recognize the problems with the books (and they are there), but I still love it.
28th-Dec-2009 10:01 am (UTC)
I had an inkling it would be male-centric when I read the part of the summary that is on Wiki, but was too distracted by the Shiny of Vikings (!!!!). As long as it stays within historically accurate limits, I'll probably stay too distracted to be bothered, but I'll add the caveat - I hope it doesn't take me out of the story.

I added Ysabel.
28th-Dec-2009 05:29 am (UTC)
I like Last Light of the Sun a lot, but other GGK fans don't. On the other hand, I couldn't get through Fionavar, and not because of the rape but because I disliked it. I love how grounded in detail his historical fantasy is, though, and he does write wonderful female characters.

With regards to your remarks on fandom vs. mainstream writing I think you're right - which is probably why my level of frustration is, unfairly, much higher when it comes to fandom than it is for mainstream fiction, at which my anger probably ought to be directed.

Eh, I don't think it's unfair--I expect more from fandom! I mean, fandom has made me FAR more aware of all kinds of issues, from race to disability, because there ARE a lot of fans who are very thoughtful about their reading and writing and want to create stuff that is nuanced and not offensive. So it's extra-frustrating when there are also so many fans who are swallowing the media crap whole, or going a step further (e.g. female-character-hate in some fandoms).

But at the same time, it can be easier to find the good stuff in fandom, once you've figured out the "right" circles (like, my other LJ friendslist consists mostly of people who are multifandom and not m/m slash-exclusive, and who like thinking about feminism and race and so on; but it took me years to find all those people). So that's frustrating, too!

28th-Dec-2009 08:10 am (UTC)
UGH, Mercedes Lackey. I have to add a caveat for her 500 Kingdoms novels for heterocentrism, 'justified' by the guiding magic of the universe. Also, obnoxiously obvious naming.

Also, definitely trigger warnings for rape on the Arrows trilogy, the Vanyel trilogy, Kethry and Tarma's backstories, et cetera.
[trigger warning]

I mean, Tarma's entire clan is killed, she's raped, tortured, and then gets all vengeance-y and literally turns asexual. And Kethry's rape-as-backstory comes up ONLY for her to have a Confrontation with her rapist, where she figures out he's a worthless piece of trash and instantly gets over it. And of course, all Talia's trauma over being RAPED AND TORTURED is healed by her boyfriend's (and soulmate's!) magic penis.

[end trigger warning]
28th-Dec-2009 09:30 am (UTC)

I'll, er, remove the recommendation until someone recommends a specific book, then, shall I? This sounds just HORRID.
28th-Dec-2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
See, that wasn't even the Tarma episode I was thinking of. I was thinking of the one with the demon (?) and magically changing her outward personality and appearance.

Yeah, I have serious, serious problems with Lackey as a feminist or queer-friendly writer, although I am still sort of fond of Kerowyn and Tarma and Kethry (although not how Lackey treats the later two).

[trigger/spoiler warning]

...honestly, I can't think of a lot of the Valdemar or Gryphon books that don't have rape. It's one of her favorite plot devices All the stuff with the, um, I forget their name--the super-magic Vale people? With the pretty gay wizard and Darkwind's angsty gay father and what happens to them?

[end trigger/spoiler warning]

(Well, The Silver Gryphon was pretty okay, probably because it was mostly a survival story in a jungle, iirc. But some of the other Gryphon books were not so.)

Her more recent Valdemar books may or may not be better, but I gave up on them a while ago. I must confess I am not exactly a fan of soulmates or set-ups with the Perfect Kingdom of Goodness With Magic Horses (Valdemar) versus the Kingdoms of Evil (although she did somewhat subvert that with Karse--by giving them a female ruler, apparently all it takes for a kingdom to go from Evil to Good).

Her non-Valdemar books that I've read have been considerably better and less triggery (with Valdemar, I think she got stuck writing in a poorly constructed world she probably came up with when she was a teenager, with tropes that speak to teenagers), but I'd still call them solidly mediocre and not particularly feminist. I haven't read any of her co-written urban fantasy, though I'm kind of skeeved about appropriating Bloody Mary et al. from real street kids to stick into a fantasy novel.
28th-Dec-2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
I haven't read any of her co-written books, but I have read her Wizards of London series, which has incredibly obnoxiously obvious theme naming (seriously, one book has a Water Master named Marina and an evil Satanist witch named Arachne), and race issues in one of them, with two magical Indian women, one of whom is Miss Evil McBadPerson. But ignoring that one IN ITS ENTIRETY and aside from the theme naming, they're not bad. Retellings of fairy tales with the princesses kicking ass and taking names. Though Phoenix and Ashes, being a Cinderella retelling, needs an abuse trigger warning for the treatment of the main character by her stepmother. And well, 500 Kingdoms I already mentioned ridiculous heterocentrism. x_x

And she keeps getting rec'd to me as a 'feminist fantasy' author! WTF?
28th-Dec-2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
I read a couple of the fairytale retellings...I vaguely recall liking the Swan Lake one okay. But her books really don't blow me away. (The cover artist for most of them, on the other hand, I adore. She does Michelle West's covers, too, and a bunch of others.)

And she keeps getting rec'd to me as a 'feminist fantasy' author! WTF?

I find it baffling for the same reason I find Anne McCaffrey being recommended for her female characters baffling. Oh, god, the gender dynamics and horrible sexual orientation fail of Pern! (Not to mention racefail and sciencefail.) But eh, I guess if you don't think too much about what happens to their female characters and the underlying themes of the books, they do write superficially strong female protagonists.
28th-Dec-2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
Alaya Dawn Johnson: I haven't read any of her books all the way through yet (haven't been able to get them at the library or local bookstores), but she writes YA fantasy with characters of color. There are several chapters of Racing the Dark at her website, which are pretty awesome:

Caroline Stevermer: A College of Magics
A Scholar of Magics
Alternate history, I think Victorian/Regency-ish, about a ladies' school for magic. Intrigue, magic, politics, and some romance.

Patricia C. Wrede:
Enchanted Forest Series
Mairelon the Magician/The Magician's Ward (may need caveats, haven't read it in a long time. And I think it ends up mentor/student)
Sorcery and Cecelia (with Caroline Stevermer), and with less enthusiasm, the sequels (I don't think they're as fun)
Wrede's latest book sparked a huge argument about race in fantasy fiction and I wouldn't recommend it; but her earlier fantasy is solid feminist-friendly Euro-fantasy.

I've seen a few reviews of fantasy novels about characters of color, by authors of color at 50books_poc, some with female protagonists, but not a lot. Octavia Butler is much-recommended (deservedly) for SF, but she's not light reading.
30th-Dec-2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the additional recommendations, I added them to the list. Especially the Stevermer books have my attention because there are few things more awesome than Victorian ladymages. <3

I was hoping that we'd get more recs from people doing the 50poc read - I failed at that this year.
31st-Dec-2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the only non-thesis stuff I've been reading has been mostly rereading stuff I've read before (mostly Pratchett and moon). Post-thesis, I'm going to make a serious go at 50bookspoc, and I've been keeping track of stuff that looks interesting on the community. But there really hasn't been a lot of SFF reviewed yet, so I'm going to have to go looking for more of that to add to my to-read list.
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