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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 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.
30th-Dec-2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
She's definitely one of my favourites, even though I'm scared that once she's grown up she'll replace granny as the hag o' hags. :(
30th-Dec-2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
Ok, I had to go do a few more things than just shopping (throw in getting married).

Here are additional explanations of the recommendations I made above:

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is fun to read and I liked his characters, although it also needs a series trigger warning for horrid transphobia from... I think it was the third book onwards. It left me very bitter, as it ruined an otherwise really entertaining and intelligent series.

Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. Alright, so her writing is not perfect, but this book has both a very interesting and believable heroine AND a very believable male main character, which made me re-read it. The heroine is a middle-aged witch who feels torn between her ambitions when it comes to her magic prowess and her love for her husband and his desire to have children, and they compromise! And she pursues her ambitions and the kids live with him! And he is understanding! And does not pressure her into coming to live with him, even though he'd like that! And she manages to come to term with being torn between her love for her family and feeling tied down and wanting to pursue her magic career! I haven't read it in a while and it may fail in other regards, but it was a miracle find when I discovered it with sixteen.

Momo, by Michael Ende. Momo is an impoverished Italian girl who fights the forces who steal time from humans. It's a boook about stress, the power of listening and the concept of time. It's a must-read for children in Germany, although I'm not sure if it's even available outside of Europe.
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