Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA

Many people have been talking recently about a post on the Fantasy subreddit, discussing why it can be hard to find female authors of epic fantasy, and why people assume that those female authors who do exist must be writing urban fantasy or YA.

It led to an extended, interesting and depressing conversation, with highlights including examples of war fantasy being given romance-y cover, just because it was written by women, discussion of the pressure on female authors to switch to YA, and author Janny Wurts strongly recommending that new female authors of epic fantasy use their initials or a pseudonym in order to be successful.

And it got me thinking about female fantasy authors, and the relationship between “regular” epic fantasy and YA. As a YA fantasy author myself, I obviously don’t see any problems with female authors writing that genre, and I find it somewhat offensive that people assume a book must be bad purely because it has the YA label (those people have clearly never read books like Shadow and Bone and The Winner’s Curse). As YA is “for children,” and specifically “for girls,” it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes. In short, female authors are shunted off into another genre, and then are considered lesser because they’re there with all the other women.

Meanwhile, we’re told, “real” authors would fight to stay in epic fantasy — but face the fact that they’ll receive little support and are unlikely to have success while they’re there.

Everything about this invented dichotomy — female writers who sell out, write “bad fantasy” and succeed, and female writers who write “good fantasy” and are ignored — is irritating, to say the least. We shouldn’t need to defend female authors’ work by saying “it’s not YA!” and “it’s actually good!”, as though those were different from the norm.  Women shouldn’t feel like they’re betraying fantasy by choosing to write YA, either out of preference or necessity, or like they have to define themselves as “not like other female writers” in order to succeed.

The UK doesn’t have as big a YA industry as the US, and YA fantasy even less so. In fact, many YA fantasies in the US are published as adult fantasy here. Perhaps that is a blessing in one way, as female authors are not shoe-horned into YA. But it also means that female fantasy authors lose the one not-entirely-romance fantasy genre where they aren’t shoved into the background. With YA fantasy published along with epic fantasy, authors all have to face the same issues with a lack of shelf space and promotional opportunities.

So we see things like the famous Waterstones controversy, when Fox Meadows reported that the bookshop’s fantasy book recs booklet contained 113 authors, but only 9 women, and zero authors who weren’t white. Even more laughably, Juliet E. McKenna reported that when she challenged bookstore staff about the fact that they almost exclusively recommend male authors on their table displays, she was told that “women don’t write fantasy.” Assumedly they didn’t realize they were talking to a female fantasy author at the time.

As another example, the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy this year did not feature a single female nominee in either “best fantasy novel” or “best debut,” and only one female author has won in either category since it started in 2009.

To get a picture of how “unusual” women are considered in epic fantasy, I have an anecdote about my own local Waterstones: there’s a We Need Diverse Books table in its fantasy section, which is definitely massive progress. But We Need Diverse Books is all about diverse authors writing about diverse characters in children’s books and YA, specifically about racial diversity, sexuality, gender identity, and disabilities. Most of the books on the table did not fit those criteria. Many were books by white female authors, because that was considered a major minority group (not to mention that, assumedly, the curators did not know of any other diverse fantasy novels to include).

There has been some positive change, of course — I recently saw a different fantasy table simply titled “get hooked on a new series” that ONLY featured female authors, without any mention of their gender, for example. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I must admit, I haven’t read many female authors of epic fantasy. Actually, the list may be “Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Jen Williams,” and at first I didn’t even know Robin Hobb was a woman. I haven’t read widely in the epic fantasy genre in general, as most of my reading time is spent on keeping up with new YA releases, but I’ve definitely read more male writers than female, and I could definitely name many male writers, and only one or two female writers.

I make no apology for prioritizing YA fantasy novels, because I enjoy them, it’s part of my job to stay current on the genre, and authors in that genre are worthy of support too. But the best way to address these issues is to buy, read, discuss and recommend epic fantasy novels from female authors as well, particularly from those who publish under their own name. I’m sure the recommendations of a female YA author who writes on a website called Feminist Fiction will mean little to anyone who already thinks that women only write YA and romance, but as these books are generally less publicized, less discussed and left off of recommendation lists, I hope that I’ll at least be able to find some interesting books, and maybe have some interesting discussions about the work of female writers in a genre that is still male dominated, in terms of both characters and authors.

So that is my challenge for the rest of the year — to read as many female YA epic fantasy authors (particularly those writing female protagonists and not using male pseudonyms) as possible, and to discuss them here. “As many as possible” is not going to be a deluge, because epic fantasy is time consuming and my “to read” list is already a bit jammed, but I’m going to do the best I can!

And if you have any recommendations of epic fantasy written by female authors, and particularly ones that deserve more attention than they’ve received, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts.

16 comments on “Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA

  • Sheila , Direct link to comment

    Great post. May I say firstly that I loved your novel, A Wicked Thing, and am on tenterhooks for the sequel! I find it hard to distinguish between YA and epic fantasy, to be honest – sometimes, books which are considered YA like Kristin Cashore’s works can be placed in the epic fantasy section too, which is good to see. The best example I can think of is the Pellinor saga by Alison Croggon, which you might already have read. I’m pretty sure they’re considered epic fantasy; similar in style to Trudi Canavan’s books except much better in my opinion.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thank you so much! I’ve actually not heard of the Pellinor saga before, so now that’s definitely on my list.

  • Allie , Direct link to comment

    I’m a woman that reads mostly adult SFF, but also the occasional SF or F YA novel. I’m not hugely into epic fantasy as a genre, but I have read a few female authors in the field that I could recommend:

    Lois McMaster Bujold — I really enjoyed the Chalion series, particularly Paladin of Souls (which has a cool female protagonist), though the first book has a male protagonist.

    Jacqueline Carey — if you don’t mind a lot of sex, Kushiel’s Legacy is fun so far (I haven’t finished it yet). The main character is a female courtesan in a fantasy version of France.

    Kameron Hurley — She recently started an epic fantasy with The Mirror Empire. I like it, but it’s also really violent and disturbing (I guess it’s more grimdark epic fantasy). There are a few viewpoint characters, I think about half are female.

    Patricia A. McKillip — I don’t think that I’ve yet read any of her epic fantasy (just ‘normal’ fantasy, I guess?), but I’ve heard that she writes it. I’ve really enjoyed her work, so I feel like I could point to her as a fantasy author on that account. Her style reminds me of fairy tales.

  • Penelope , Direct link to comment

    Hi, this is my first comment. I have only just discovered this blog, and it looks wonderful. Thank you Rhiannon, also for your wise thoughts recently about the Smurfette Principle in AntMan.
    I am puzzled (as an ignoramus) about what is “epic fantasy”? I know “high” and “low”, but epic? I write as someone trying to publish a fantasy/medieval murder crossover with no romance but also no battles (there is politics though). I assume this isn’t epic.
    Agree though that Robin Hobb is epic in all ways!

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Thank you! I’m not sure if there is an official definition of “epic fantasy”… I’d think it has a LOT of overlap with “high fantasy,” with the addition that it tends to be about problems and dangers at a world-changing level — whether that’s battling the Dark Lord or saving the world or a bunch of people fighting over who gets to be king.

  • SFBluestocking , Direct link to comment

    Kameron Hurley springs to mind, although her Worldbreaker books are harrowing reads. I rather prefer her God’s War trilogy, but I wouldn’t consider that to be epic fantasy.

    Personally, my favorite woman writer of epic fantasy these days is N.K. Jemisin, who just had a new book published, The Fifth Season, which is amazing.

    Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that Alex Marshall (A Crown for Cold Silver) is a woman’s pseudonym. I could be wrong, but I recommend the book anyway. It’s worth reading just for its commentary on chain mail bikinis.

  • M.C. , Direct link to comment

    Fun fact: In Germany some YA novels are billed as “All Ages Fantasy” because they want to cash in on adult audiences too and they might not pick up a YA title.

    Btw: Kristen Britain is a rare author whose debut novel “Green Rider” could be billed YA, but ever since the first sequel the books got darker and darker and are now full epic fantasy (or, as I like to call it: the female-centric version of ASoIaF).

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      I have a copy of Green Rider hiding somewhere… if it’s like the “female-centric version of ASoIaF,” I’ll have to dig it out!

  • Mila , Direct link to comment

    Hm, most female epic fantasy authors I can come up with either use a male pen name / initials or have mostly male protagonists, or both. That’s depressing! A few exceptions are The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon and Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey thought I’m not sure if Kushiel’s Legacy is exactly epic fantasy.

  • ConcinnityB , Direct link to comment

    I really enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which is sort of epic fantasy meeting fairytale fantasy and the interaction between them. Kate Elliot writes *very* epic fantasy trilogies with an emphasis on non-white protagonists and cultures (and the ending to the Crossroads books STILL leaves me deeply unhappy in a ‘I’m not sure how this could have worked out any other way but I JUST WANTED THEM TO BE HAPPY oh god why does everything have to be hard’ way), but… yeah, mostly I can think of the ones who’ve already been named. I think Tamora Pierce doesn’t quite slide into epic fantasy, barring *maybe* the Immortals quartet?

  • Lynx Firenze , Direct link to comment

    I have to say this because I say it to everyone who complains there isn’t enough X in X. If you want more women in epic fantasy, write epic fantasy. Don’t complain about people who literally only do what’s profitable for them. Making a big effort to get more women into writing fantasy probably won’t mean much in the long term except perhaps a lowering of standards or making it harder for everyone else to get into it. I write under two psuedonyms, one male and one female, because I seriously get the feeling that there are going to be situations where Blizzard will get an easier ride than Lynx will.

  • Hobbes , Direct link to comment

    Well if you were in the states you would probably have similar problems. There is still a wall for women writers, like if a woman writes a fantasy epic its a romance/fantasy bc men write scifi and women write romance dont ya know.

  • voodooqueen126 , Direct link to comment

    Jacqueline Carey, is highly recommended by me. As well as Anne Bishop.
    So I am thinking a lot about the Hugos. We should look at some good books to nominate. I have bought VE Schwab, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jo Walton, Aliette de Bodard, Elizabeth Bear.
    Older books: Shira Glassman mango verse, the Other Half of the Sky by Athena Andreadis, Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, Shadowboxer by Tricia Sullivan, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, The Grass King’s Concubine by Kari Sperring, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, Outcast by Adrienne Kress, Hybrid Child Melissa Goldberg, Starbleached by Chelsea Gaither, Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler
    Katherine Addison’s goblin empire (even though you said it was terrible.
    Really looking forward to NK Jemison, Red Queen, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, An ember in the Ashes (Sabaa Tahir),
    Not looking forward to but will read ( I could be surprised) Touch by Claire North, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman,

  • voodooqueen126 , Direct link to comment

    So I just read Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was fantastic. Everyone should read it.

  • Carrie , Direct link to comment

    I would like to recommend anything by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley. They write fantasy with diverse female leads and complex stories. They bothe have amazing writing styles with really interesting settings.

What do you think?

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