Girly geeky lit

2010 June 3
by Mary

Here’s a bit of a 101 thread with a difference, it’s 101 for women writers, not 101 for feminism.

Over at Tiger Beatdown C.L. Minou talks about her transition in reading (which coincided with her transition in gender presentation), from reading books by and about men to reading books by and about women. Here’s an excerpt, although you should definitely read the whole thing:

Back in my youth I indulged in the most stereotypical of male literature, science fiction, reading it pretty much exclusively for about a decade. It wasn’t all wasted–I got my first bits of sex ed reading New Wave sci-fi–but I don’t need to tell anyone that a lot of what I was reading was so backwards on the matter of gender as to be fucking retrograde. I liked the Big Three a lot: Asimov, Clarke, and god help me, Heinlein–a man who not only thought “all women are the same height–lying down” was a good pickup line, he actually wrote a story where it worked as a pickup line… And women authors? Hah. Even when I was reading science fiction exclusively, I didn’t like LeGuin, the most openly feminist sci-fi author. I think I read one book by Cherryh. Octavia Butler? Never heard of her. Seriously. I’d never heard of Octavia Butler until she DIED. And the authors of my Great Books tour could pretty much all use the same restroom…

Now for our 101. A lot of the fannish geeks here are all over great stuff by women, I imagine, but some (ahem, me) aren’t so much. So here’s a thread for those of you who are on top of your recommendations: women fiction authors, especially ones that you think of as somehow geeky (by genre, or style, or… geek vibe). Some things to start with:

  • General description of fiction that this woman writes (genre, style, language if not English)
  • Recommended starting point for her work.

What you recommend doesn’t have to be professionally published original fiction. Just stuff you love and want to share.

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This post was written by mary.

Mary is a Free Software contributor, computational linguistics research student and programmer at large. She can also be found at and Hoyden About Town.

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61 Responses
  1. Mary permalink
    June 3, 2010

    OK, I might as well start. If you have missed Ursula Le Guin I think a good place to start is The Dispossessed (and the associated short story The Day Before the Revolution) or The Left Hand of Darkness (and the associated short story Winter’s King). They’re all set in her Hainish universe, in which there’s a number of planets in a loose cultural and political relationship which I am told is rather Taoist but I’m unfamiliar with Taoism so can’t confirm. The novels in that setting range from high fantasy to social science-fiction (as in, science fiction used to explore social science, anthropology especially).

    The latter two are better for gender stuff: the hero of The Dispossessed is a man and while it explicitly addresses gender and the status of women in its two worlds (one an anarchist moon colony, one a capitalist nation-state) it is doing so from a male POV. (The Day Before the Revolution, though, which I dearly love, is about the woman who led the anarchist movement that preceded the moon colony, read it after the book though.) The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a world with intersexed inhabitants who assume male or female characteristics during a sort of oestrus cycle.

    I’m not sure how reading the Earthsea novels for the first time as an adult works, but that’s worth a go. The first three are male POV fantasy aimed largely at children or teens, the later works are sort of a deconstruction of that. Reading them in the publication order works best for a number of reasons. (Tales of Earthsea comes before The Other Wind).

    • millefolia permalink
      June 3, 2010

      I love The Left Hand of Darkness. The main character Genly Ai’s attitudes toward women come off as rather dated these days (he wouldn’t think so, but it’s there), but I think of it as an interesting view on the culture he comes from, since he’s the only one we see of his culture.

      I highly, highly recommend getting a copy with the introduction, which is an essay about fiction and includes the marvelous statement that writers are in the business of telling the truth by lying.

    • Katherine permalink
      June 4, 2010

      I just recently read the first 4 Earthsea novels (and I’m an adult!) since I had seen the feminist blogosphere mention LeGuin a number of times, and then hey presto! I found out that my partner owns the first 3.

      It was really strange reading the first 3 after seeing the many many references to LeGuin as some sort of super-feminist writer. I felt hugely let down by the first book, as it seemed so generic and dudely, and contained several comments by various characters that women couldn’t do such-and-such because they just weren’t good at it. You really do need the backstory of the first 3 to read the 4th though, and I found it well worth in once I’d slogged through the first 3. They aren’t bad books really, but my expectations had kinda killed them for me.

  2. Trix permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Well, I’ve been reading SF/fantasy since I was a sprout, and more or less Earnestly Feminist most of my life, and to be honest, many of the ostensibly feminist SFF authors (particularly in the late 70s/80s) were certainly not my faves. All that experimental “stream-of-consciousness” stuff, not to mention pretty anvilicious diatribes about gender roles. I certainly understood why women were angry, but that cultural feminist “all women should want to live in beautiful systerhood in wombynly love” stuff was pretty dire. Not to mention poorly written, most of the time.

    An exception to the latter genre was Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground. Ok, some of it is a bit cringeworthy, but it at least had engaging interwoven plots and was decently written.

    You can keep your Russes (what was she on?), Butlers (OMG depressing, although The Parable of the Sower is an amazing book), Charnases (too earnest for words, and boring) et all. Le Guin has written some amazing stuff: the Earthsea books, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed. But I find a lot of her characters not very engaging and nor is the plotting in much of her stuff very, hm, compelling either. Cherryh, meh, I don’t understand why people get bit by the bug, but when they are, they are.

    Despite the cringe factor now (and then, too, actually), McCaffrey did a good job of writing strong female characters who DID stuff. Not so much the Dragon books, but her 70s sci-fi was pretty decent in that respect, and the characters certainly represent feminist ideals in terms of being strong and feeling they are at least the equals of men. Certainly not perfect, but her characters were pretty inspirational for me in my early teens.

    Similarly, Marion Zimmer Bradley was a woman of her time and devolved into some boring rants at times, but I really loved her Darkover fantasies (with a good splash of SF).

    And who can forget the Grande Dame herself, Andre Norton, who featured Native, black, Asian and female lead characters right throughout her SF oeuvre. She kept me sane when I was growing up.

    Kids books seem to fare well in general. Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane et al.

    Anyway, to start answering the question at hand…

    Vonda McIntyre was like the feminist bisexual riposte to Heinlein. I got a bit tired of some of her whiny characters and their emoting, but the Metaphase novels were good.

    I love Melissa Scott and her strong, queer and feminist characters. And very groovy cyberpunky storylines. I hope she writes more soon. Pat Cadigan is another fave in a similar vein, although less of the queer. Another queer and edgy sci-fi author is Nicola Griffith. Some interesting psychological stuff in her novels, but with nice pumping plots to move things along.

    Catherine Asaro is VERY geeky. Although there is a strong romance element, which suits me just fine when I’m in a mood for a trashy read with a brain.

    And we can’t go past Connie Willis, who is hilarious with her time-travel novels. Passage is a bit of a strange one, though.

    Justina Robson writes some good meaty sci-fi, with big lashings of geekiness and media commentary, and some great characters.

    • Dorothea Salo permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Melissa Scott! Burning Bright is cyberpunk for RPG fans — I love it to bits.

  3. Eivind permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Ursula Le Guin is obvious, first female Hugo award winner, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness won in 1970, and is a favourite for me.

    Vonda Mcintyre, gets bonus-points for dealing with gender issues in several of her novels too, for example “Biocontrol” deals with humans in a future where people can control aspects of physiology that are normally autonomous, i.e. where people can only get pregnant if they actively choose to let their bodies produce eggs/sperm.

    Carolyn Cherry has written over 60 books, and many like her, even though I personally got bored with her after reading 2 or 3 of them.

    Connie Willis, however, is *splendid*. And she’s deservedly won just about anything you can win in science fiction. She must’ve won the Hugo and Nebula atleast half a dozen times each, and she’s also won the Locus and been nominated for World Fantasy Awards. If you pick only -one- writer to look into from this list, pick Connie.

    • Tanya permalink
      June 4, 2010

      Connie Willis is a fabulous author.

      She writes sci-fi that leans heavily into historical fiction (to the benefit of both!)

      I love The Doomsday Book. It is a beautifully crafted novel that does Time Travel like no other author. It is an extension/elaboration on the time traveling technology and characters she created in her short story Fire Watch. All of her short stories are brilliant.

  4. koipond permalink
    June 3, 2010

    If you want to stick with the SF theme you’re going to definitely want to pick up Nalo Hopkinson.

    The first book she wrote, Brown Girl in the Ring was amazing and set in Toronto. It has a very dark future, dystopia/not dystopia kind of feel to it and a great way to get a sense of her writing. The second one, Midnight Robber, is an amazing book but a lot more challenging than Brown Girl in the Ring.

  5. Dorothea Salo permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Folks teeter (and justifiably so) on Lois McMaster Bujold on questions of gender and ableism. I can definitely see how the Vorkosigan books (which personally I can take or leave) have issues.

    I am terribly fond of Curse of Chalion and especially Paladin of Souls, however. (The third book in the series, Hallowed Hunt, was IMO a misfire, and I hope the long delay on the next book means Bujold is rethinking things a bit.) If fiction with a strong theme of capable women figuring out how to live in the patriarchy as actively and effectively as they can is your thing, you’ll like these.

    In the graphic-novel fantasy vein, Castle Waiting by Linda Medley is truly wonderful.

    Biology geeks may enjoy Nancy Kress’s Beggars series; I felt she got a little overinvested in her characters at the expense of plot and theme toward the later books, but definitely still worthwhile reads.

    I very much liked Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, whose protagonist is autistic, despite its “um… whut?” ending.

  6. Carolyn permalink
    June 3, 2010

    I recently re-discovered James Tiptree Jr (pseudonym for Alice Bradley Sheldon) and love her all over again. Many of her stories have aged well. She really gets into some interesting questions about what it means to be human, and about gender. Maybe start with the very feminist “The Women Men Don’t See”" or one of my favourites “Haploid”. Some of her plots have been used by many others, but I think there’s something special in her all female society in “Houston, Houston, do you read?”

  7. Tamaranth permalink
    June 3, 2010

    I read a lot of SF, and a lot of books by women: in fact I’m currently reading through an A-Z of women writers. (Dithering about Kim Edwards versus Margaret Elphinstone). I tried scribbling down a list of SF (and geekish) authors I like: it didn’t take long (though I hit gaps at I, Q, U and V — if anyone can recommend writers to fill these, I’d be grateful :))

    Meanwhile, a few suggestions: links go to non-spoilery reviews on my book blog.

    Kate Atkinson — crime / twisty literary fiction; very much aware of geek culture; I’d start with Emotionally Weird.
    Kage Baker — SF, time travel. Often extremely funny. Start with In The Garden of Iden.
    Pat Cadigan — ‘Queen of Cyberpunk’, and extremely good at showing how technology slips sideways into ‘ordinary’ lives. Synners is my favourite.
    Patricia Duncker — literary / historical. James Miranda Barry is an exploration of the life of a noted military surgeon, who was discovered after death to have been female.
    Margaret Elphinstone — if I say ‘magic realism’ don’t be put off! Hy Brasil is an adventure story set on an imaginary island, and also a thought experiment.
    Karen Joy Fowler — SF, literary. Sarah Canary is a book that excited considerable comment, because it’s utterly different depending on whether you read it as SF or not. Have to say my favourite is Wit’s End, about fiction (and fanfic) and blurring the boundaries of reality and identity.
    Greer Gilman‘s prose is simply … lexophiliac. She writes fantasy that is dark and mythic and lyric and raw. Moonwise is the place to start.
    Elizabeth Hand writes unsettling SF and fantasy. Not sure where I’d start, coming fresh to her work: maybe Winterlong.
    I am stuck for ‘I’ …
    Gwyneth Jones; SF and fantasy and works that are both and neither. She’s much-lauded for her hard SF but I am wholly in love with Bold as Love and its sequels: a near-future UK where magic works and the government is run by rock musicians.
    Elizabeth Knox; literary fiction, I s’pose; The Vintner’s Luck is about a fallen angel (Xas) and wine and love. It gets pretty theological but never loses sight of the characters.
    Kelly Link writes short fiction — SF/fantasy/magic realism/horror, what used to be termed ‘slipstream’ — and has won a Hugo and 3 Nebulas (amongst other things) for ‘em. (Both her anthologies are available free, via her website, under a Creative Commons license: links on Wikipedia. My review of Magic for Beginners …).
    Pat Murphy writes SF, and her There and Back Again is a transformative work based on The Hobbit.
    Audrey Niffenegger‘s novels so far riff on SF (The Time-Traveller’s Wife) and horror (Her Fearful Symmetry).
    Helen Oyeyemi is a British-Nigerian fantasy writer, though I haven’t read enough of her work yet to be sure if ‘fantasy’ is not too limiting a label. White is for Witching is about race, twins, eating, and a house. It’s marvellous.
    Sheenagh Pugh, author of The Democratic Genre, also writes poetry with an SF/geek sensibility (subjects include William Dampier, future history lessons, Farinelli). I love this one: Do You Think We’ll Ever Get To See Earth, Sir?. More on her website.
    I’m stuck on ‘Q’ too.
    Justina Robson writes SF, of varying hardness, usually with female protagonists, often with a cyberpunk flavour. I’d start with Natural History: cyborgs! terraforming! sentient technology!
    Tricia Sullivan writes SF with focus on the minutae of ordinary lives and the individual’s interaction with consumerism. Which makes her work sound rather less fun than it is. Maul is a good place to start.
    Sheri Tepper‘s SF and fantasy is extremely variable: when she’s good she’s very good, but when she’s sentimental / black-and-white … My favourite is Grass, though her recent book The Margarets is entertaining SF with strong fantasy elements.
    I’m stuck on U and on V, though could probably rec Joan Vinge for the latter …
    Connie Willis is another variable SF/fantasy writer: indeed, a friend posited that ‘Connie Willis’ is actually a cooperative involving a romance writer, a hard SF writer and a fun-loving historian. Lincoln’s Dreams is fab; Bellwether is also highly recommended.
    female writers beginning with X, anyone?
    Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is best-known for her Count St Germain novels (horror: vampires): I prefer her short fiction, especially the stories with an opera / music theme. A few linked here.
    Pamela Zoline (SF) has, as far as I know, only published one anthology: but it contains The Heat Death of the Universe, which has been collected all over the place as a classic of feminist (female) SF.

    • dave glasser permalink
      June 3, 2010

      For V, Catherynne Valente!

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    June 3, 2010

    For me, Georgette Heyer’s work is supremely geeky because it asks that I immerse myself totally in a world; her historical detailing is amazing, and if Regency isn’t a period you’ve studied much (my academic work stops short at 1750, with a few minor digressions into later movements), it can have the same feeling as trying to learn a new programming language. It’s sometimes hard to really binge on her work because it all starts blending together after a while, but Frederica is pretty much always worth rolling around in.

    Anne Carson’s classics essays have a similar appeal, the total focus on a single subject; when she writes about Sappho, it is with this amazing intelligence and sympathy all at once. It makes me feel like I’ve wandered into a graduate seminar and while it is over my head, the little I can understand is so cool I just hope the professor doesn’t notice me and throw me out.

    I love Diane Duane’s Spock’s World beyond all reason; Star Trek! With minimal misogyny in its bones! Genuinely alien aliens! Ambiguous intragalactic politics! \o/

    Joanna Russ’s short stories are wonderful and sadly overlooked; How to Suppress Women’s Writing kicked-started my commitment to women writers.

    Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires is a lovely, thoughtful exploration of the food critic’s work in New York in the nineties; she loves food the way most media fans love lim’s vid US. I love how she is endlessly fascinated by how ridiculous her job is.

    • Julia Rios permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Ruth Reichl’s other memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples are also full of delicious food geeking.

    • June 4, 2010

      Well, if we’re going for Heyer, I’ll mention that her military stuff — “An Infamous Army” and “The Spanish Bride” are probably the most obvious of that lot — are wonderfully geeky in a way that’s usually coded male. That is, IA (for instance) has a detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo, and lots of stuff about Wellington… I believe every line spoken by Wellington in the book is a direct quotation of words he actually said, which is awesomely nerdy.

      On a similar note, Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series is the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, and Susannah Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is Regency/Napleonic era with magic. I do love a good AU!

      Other historical authors I like include Mary Renault (mostly Classical Greece), Rosemary Sutcliff (mostly Roman Britain), and Sharan Newman (she has a great 11th century French mystery series, and an Arthurian Britain series focusing on Guinevere but not as fantastical/woo-woo as eg. Mists of Avalon). Many people seem to like Dorothy Dunnet’s “Lymond Chronicles” (16th century Scotland) but I never got into them.

      Julia mentions food geeking, so of course I have to mention Julia Child; if you read “My Life in France” you can’t help but be aware of what a huge geek she is. (I’m too young to have experienced her TV shows, not even sure they aired in Australia, but I read MLiF a few years back, before “Julie and Julia” came out, and loved it. The Julia bits of the movie are great too — Meryl Streep is amazing.)

  9. Raven permalink
    June 3, 2010

    @Trix — I cut my teeth on the Darkover books, and loved them. They were the first ones I had come across within science fiction to thoughtfully explore gender roles from a position where you could really see the effects of culture shaping the choices available to characters that I cared about. When I was 13 or so, I badly wanted to be a Free Amazon. (I think I did pretty well!) Now, to the bookshelves!

    Rosemary Kirstein’s “Steerswoman” books are similarly excellent, a good blend of science fiction in what seems like a medieval setting. The lead character is basically a member of a sisterhood of early scientists, whose job it is to go around discovering things about the world and sharing that knowledge with anyone who asks.

    Catherynne Valente writes lush, involved prose with female characters who happily and effortlessly kick the teeth out of expected gender roles in fantastic and fairy-tale settings. I liked “Palimpsest” best of her prose and “Oracles” best of her poetry, but I haven’t read anything of hers that I disliked yet. Also in the fantastical fiction category, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “The Mistress of Spices”, which is substantially mythical and character-focused, and N. K. Jemesin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”, which reminded me a bit of Amber and a bit of Elric in its fantastic worldbuilding, but with a very distinctive female protagonist making her own way through epistemological politics.

    I just recently finished Fumi Yoshinaga’s “Ooku: The Inner Chambers”. I was surprised to find myself linking a manga — I chased it down because it won this year’s Tiptree Award for interesting exploration of gender in literature. But its alternate universe where most of the men have died off and so women are running feudal Japan is fascinating.

    For fans of short stories, I really enjoyed Sheree Thomas’s “Dark Matter” anthologies. The stories are not all by women, but female authors are well represented.

    • cofax permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Oh, good, someone else mentioned Rosemary Kirstein. In my not-so-humble opinion, the Steerswomen novels have the best world-building I’ve seen in the last decade. It’s just fabulous: sociological, biological, geomorphological. So. Cool. Also, great smart stories with interesting plots and complex, cool, intelligent characters–most of whom are women. I love that series, and I wish I could make her write more quickly.

      • Erin permalink
        June 4, 2010

        I agree! I was coming over here to mention the Steerswoman books. They’re fantastic, I wish she would write more!

    • ConFigures permalink
      June 4, 2010

      I third the recommendation for the Steerswoman! Here’s my review of The Steerswoman’s Road on LibraryThing:
      “I loved this book and its smart, brave, honorable protagonist. Sometimes I was ahead of her in figuring stuff out, and sometimes she was ahead of me.

      Reasons to read: Open source knowledge navigators v. proprietary wizards! Women on a road trip, having conversations not involving dating! Bandits, goblins and warrior poets!”

  10. Vera permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Ursula Le Guin x 100,000 plus what everyone else said about her work.

    I’m currently reading Nnedi Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker, the kind of reading where you can’t put it down but you don’t want to get to the end. YA books are so short!

  11. Julia Rios permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Mainstream lit: I really enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s prodigal Summer, which was lovely and soothing to read and had some nice ecology geek elements in.

    Historical kidlit: Ellen Klages’s The Green Glass Sea, which has strong girls who like comic books and building things, and takes place in Los Alamos, NM during WWII.

    SF: Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, because she writes beautifully, and there’s al kinds of interesting things to think about in that book. From queerness to conventional standards of beauty to architectural design to space colonies and beyond.

    I’ll stop at three, because if I don’t, I will spend all day here.

  12. Caroline permalink
    June 3, 2010

    To mention only writers others have not yet:

    Cecilia Holland – Floating Worlds, her only SF novel has a female protagonist negotiating gender roles with aliens. Also my favourite ever historical, Great Maria, whose eponymous protagonist grows into a queen and political player in Norman Italy. And a couple of dozen other high-quality historical novels. The two named are those of most interest to this discussion.

    Maureen F. McHugh – China Mountain Zhang and other novels whose protagonists live on the undersides of future worlds.
    Patricia Anthony – Cold Allies and other hard sf novels .

    Elizabeth Lynn – The Sardonyx Net and others – gender and power relations in rich fantasy worlds..

    Jane Gaskell – Atlantis trilogy, and other fantasies.

    Shirley Jackson, whose precise deliniation of human beastliness renders every imagined monster utterly irrelevant.

    I’d write more and give more details, but I’m using a smartphone far from my library.

    Read and enjoy.

  13. Pyrodon permalink
    June 3, 2010

    In no particular order:

    Martha Wells has a fun fantasy trilogy The Fall of Il Rien (The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air,The Gate of Gods) that has a depressed snarky female main character. She does an excellent job of mixing very different cultures and having a believable magic setup for world-hopping. One of her earlier books in the same universe is freely available on her webpage, if you want a taste of her writing.

    Jennifer Fallon’s Hythrun Chronicles (Wolfblade, Warrior, Warlord) also feature a strong female lead, this time focusing on one princesses rise to power within a standard feudal society. Extremely good characterizations and fun plot twists. Her earlier Demon Child trilogy suffers from an unlikable main character (it was written first), but aside from her, provide a view of what happens after the events in Warlord. I just got her Second Sons trilogy but haven’t had time to read it yet.

    Lois M Bujold has already been mentioned (I’ll second the Curse of Chalion/Paladin of Souls recommendation – where else will you find an older women main character?), but I’ll add that she frequently straddles the line between romance and scifi/fantasy.

    Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses fantasy series again deals with society changing to deal with magic and a rising middle class, focusing on a small group of characters. They tend to alternate between romance and fantasy. Another of her books, Heart of Gold, explores racism and gender more directly, as matriarchal and patriarchal societies clash. (Haven’t read the Samaria series)

    Wilhelmina Baird has a cyberpunk trilogy (Crashcourse, Clipjoint, Psykosis) which deals with polyamory and gender.

    Barbara Hambley has a couple interesting series, Darwath (A Time of the Dark, + many others) and Windrose Chronicles (The Silent Tower). Both involve modern folk transported into worlds of magic, with Windrose’s protagonist a shy female programmer abducted into a world of magic and Darwath having a male and female protagonist being asked for help by a wizard (for once, the woman gets to do the swordwork and the man gets to learn magic). I couldn’t stand the sexism in the Dragonsbane/Dragonshadow series however.

    Jane Lindskold’s Wolf series (starting with Through a Wolf’s eyes) is not particularly deep, but does involve the clash between human kingdoms and intelligent animals, and the clash between different human cultures, revolving around an orphaned girl raised by wolves. Thirteen Orphans starts a new series using Chinese mythology and a magic system based on MahJong tiles, following the young female heir to the Rat avatar.

    Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta War series (starting with Trading in Danger) is a space opera with a young trader commanding her first tradeship while interstellar war breaks out. Her Serrano/Suzia series (starts with Hunting Party, or Herris Serrano which contains the first three novels) is military scifi exploring the changes to society as prolong becomes available (immortality). Her Paksenarrion series (starts with Sheepfarmers Daughter or Deed of Paksenarrion (first few)) is fantasy with an asexual female paladin as the lead.

    Kim Stanley Robinson has the Mars trilogy, starting with Red Mars, which is slightly future scifi with a large focus on the political manuverings within the colony.

    Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, aside from her collaborations with Anne McAffry (Powers that Be, Sassinak), has a wonderfully lighthearted Godmother series (modern fantasy, starting with The Godmother) is a modern riff on SnowWhite. Bronwyn’s Bane is also a another fairytale twisting, with strong female characters.

    C. S. Friedman’s Magister trilogy (A Feast of Souls) and Coldfire trilogy (Black Sun Rising) were both excellent, though Coldfire suffers from a lack of strong female characters. Both delve into gender differences, honesty, and friendship, with strong magic systems and good characterizations.

    Julie Czerneda has many interesting series, usually with scientific female protagonists, with biologically driven plots. Her aliens have strong evolutionarily driven motives, and within this rich scifi setting she focuses on the character interactions and friendships. My favorite series of hers is the Web Shifters (starts with Changing Vision), though Stratification and Trade Pact were also very good.

    Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series (start with Kushiel’s Dart) is well characterized fantasy which explores many aspects of gender and sexuality in alternate Renaissance Europe (not for the squeamish). The Sundering (Banewreaker/Godslayer) explores a Tolkeinesque world where evil triumphed, from the perspective of one of the captains.

    The Sword and Sorceress series of short story anthologies, edited by Marrion Zimmer Bradley, is a good source of new authors and female protagonists. I’ll also second the recommendation for the “Dark Matter” anothologies, which often explores gender as well as race.

    A useful resource is the Baen Free Library , which has many free scifi e-books, some by female authors. Many Baen books are available through Webscriptions in ebook form, though it has not caught on with the other scifi/fantasy publishers.

    • Jayn permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Julie E. Czerneda is hands down one of the best SF authors I’ve ever read for world-building. Her alien races are extremely unique, not only in appearance but in culture. She really takes the time to flesh them out–even the more minor races will have minor bits of cultural references, such as one which has three genders (none of which are referred to as ‘he’ or she’). I prefer her Trade Pact books, but her others are good too.

      Jaqueline Carey is damn good too. Her Kushiel/Naamah books are the only ones I insist on buying hardcover (although, as mentioned, not for the faint of heart).

      I’ll also toss Mercedes Lackey into the mix. She’s more of a sword-and-sorcery type author (not my fave) but still up there in terms of quality. My fave so far is the Obsidian Trilogy, which has some good female characters although the main character is a male.

    • Angela S permalink
      June 7, 2010

      Kim Stanley Robinson is actually a man. Sorry! Love the rest of your list.

  14. Restructure! permalink
    June 3, 2010

    If you are recommending books, please note whether it is sci-fi or fantasy. I am interested in sci fi but not fantasy.

    • Dorothea Salo permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Oops, my bad, sorry! Appreciate the reminder.

      Bujold: Vorkosigan books are (space-operaish) SF; Chalion books are fantasy.

      Medley: Fantasy, of the fractured-fairytale variety.

      Kress: Definitely SF.

      Moon: Speed of Dark is SF.

  15. Mackenzie permalink
    June 3, 2010

    My SF/F reading has always leaned toward the young adult section. Probably because I was one when I was reading a new book each day, and I haven’t felt a need to switch to “grown up” books yet. (Actually, I tried a couple grownup books, and one had so much sex in it that I decided I don’t like grownup books. Really, they ought to put a warning label on these for the sexual content so I can avoid them!)

    I absolutely love Tamora Pierce‘s books. It’s all historical fiction with girls and women kicking ass and taking names, set in the middle ages (so, history geeks? have fun).

    Also, Lois Lowry‘s “The Giver”, “Gathering Blue”, and “The Messenger” series is really awesome. Dystopian futures when science is either too involved or too removed from our lives.

    There’s another book I’m thinking of, but I don’t know the title or author, just the cover and remember tiny bit of the plot. Gah!

    • Mel permalink
      June 3, 2010

      Uh, Tamora Pierce’s books are all solidly fantasy. Medievaloid fantasy, but not remotely historical in any way.

      Love them to pieces, though (with the exception of the Trickster Duology of Colonialist Issues).

      • Mackenzie permalink
        June 7, 2010

        I was saying historical because it’s Medieval-ish not now-ish or future-ish.

        I remembered the other book series I liked. The Claidi Journals by Tanith Lee. However, upon reading the description of the first book on Amazon, I’m not sure how feminist this is. The lead character seems to be kidnapped and rescued by men a *lot*. On the other hand, she does become a ruler and bring a better life to her subjects.

  16. Brewergnome permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Hrm… I’m a dude myself, but read a looot of female sci-fi and fantasy authors…

    Elizabeth Moon, of course, who has a lot of both fantasy and sci fi. Paksennarion is always good.

    Anne McCaffrey, fantasy tinged sci fi and pure sci fi. A bit older fashioned in it’s gender dynamics. Dragonsinger and Lessa trilogies offer some nice strong women protagonists. The Lyons sci-fi trilogy also has some strong women.

    Lynn Flewelling, fantasy author of the Runner’s trilogy. No big female characters, but the main pair are gay/bi men.

    Robin McKinley, fantasy author of a swath of excellent books. Tend to be a little darker in many cases.

    Elizabeth Bear, urban fantasy. Several of my friends joke that only lesbians are allowed to be even minorly content in her novels. Range of protagonists.

    Patricia McKillip, old fashioned fairytale type of prose.

    Patricia Wrede, the Dealing with Dragons fantasy trilogy, with one of the best female protagonists I read when I was younger.

    Madeline L’Engle, fantasy author. Wrinkle in Time and Wind in the Door have a great young female protagonist.

    I don’t think I saw Octavia Butler listed either. A giant of sci fi. No list of sci fi authors should be without her, female or otherwise. Also a POC, which can be very difficult to find in sci-fi.

    Laurie K Marks with her fantasy “Logic” duology, strong female protagonists and multiple non-standard relationship structures.

    Elizabeth Haydon, fantasy author of Symphony of Ages series. The first trilogy is very strong with an awesome female protagonist. The second trilogy the main character loses a lot of her self-sufficiency.

    I can come up with a lot more, but those are some of my favorites off the top of my head.

    • Paige permalink
      June 4, 2010

      Just a brief note to say that Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic is a planned quartet, with three books published (Water Logic was released a couple years ago from Small Beer Press).

  17. thanate permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Martha Wells. All of her original works are fantasy, although she has a fairly logic-oriented approach to magic systems, and she’s also written a couple of Stargate universe books if you absolutely can’t stand fantasy. She writes strong and competent females (and others) as well as societies with refreshingly different but believable gender balances.

    I would recommend starting with The Element of Fire (a “romance” of the old-fashioned adventure sort, set in something vaguely resembling 3-musketeers era France), Death of the Necromancer (same world a couple centuries later, with spy networks & catacombs), or City of Bones (a stand-alone, set in a centuries-post-apocalyptic world with archaeology, intrigue, and a main character who isn’t human.)

    I’m also quite fond of Patricia McKillip, although I’m not sure she counts as geeky– she writes intense fairytale worlds in which who is competent and powerful has very little to do with gender. It’s probably safe to start with whatever your library has; most of her books are stand-alone.

  18. Epimetheus permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Can’t believe no one’s mentioned Patricia Anthony. Cold Allies is some good creepy military science fiction.

  19. C.L. Minou permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Can I tell you how many million times I <3 this thread!

    Thanks for the shout out, and the reading list here is fantastic and can fill in a bunch of holes in my own education.

    Tho Pyrodon, Kim Stanley Robinson is, (at least at last check) a dude–although as I demonstrate, you never know. However, the Mars Trilogy–which I recently reread–is a fantastic read and definitely worth an honorable mention just because it's so marvelously anarchist, anticapitalist, and antikyriarchical. Plus I'd never have heard of the Mondragon corporations without him.

    I'll stick in a word about Susan Cooper. She doesn't re-read so well as an adult (knowing that the Bad Guys can't really hurt the heroes takes out some of the steam), but the Dark is Rising sequence were some of my favorite fantasy books as a kid. Though, and in keeping with the theme of my Tiger Beatdown post, "Greenwitch" was the book I least liked back then.

    Now it's my favorite :)

    –CL Minou

    • Mary permalink
      June 4, 2010

      Loved your post too, glad to help expand your reading list (and everyone else’s).

    • Pyrodon permalink
      June 4, 2010

      Judging from the picture on Wikipedia, my bad on assuming Kim was female. My SO has subsequently informed me that is used to be more commonly male ~ 50 years ago.

      They’re still good books, and now I’m poking around with creating a searchable database for gender/sexuality clueful authors and books.

    • smadin permalink
      June 4, 2010

      I reread the Dark is Rising books about once a year, though the last time I picked them up, I was really struck by the leap in writing quality between Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark is Rising. Love ‘em, though! (Enough that I got very cranky about Harry Potter, on principle, as Pyrodon could tell you. :-)

      Last year, Red Mars was made available as a free ebook. I’m not sure whether it still is, but unfortunately some quick searching suggests not.

      I’m definitely going to have to save this thread, and your post at TBD, for future reference.

    • Mackenzie permalink
      June 7, 2010

      I love The Dark is Rising sequence! I still recite the poem to myself on occasion when I’m just wandering around.

  20. Megan permalink
    June 3, 2010

    I totally agree with the recs for Patricia McKillip, Julie Czerneda, Catherynne Valente, and Jacqueline Carey.

    Other suggestions:

    Caitlin Kiernan – I just finished her horror book The Red Tree, which is creepy as hell and features a main character that’s a lesbian.

    Natsuo Kirino – Japanese crime fiction, mostly set in Tokyo. She has a feminist slant to her literary mysteries, which usually involve women’s roles in Japanese culture. I suggest starting with Out.

    Suzanne Collins – I can’t believe no one’s mentioned her yet! She wrote the insanely popular young adult novel Hunger Games, which is set in a dystopian future (I guess that makes it sci fi?). It’s part Battle Royale and part Lord of the Flies, and it has a teen girl with as the main character. I’ve been recommending this one to all my friends, and we’re eagerly awaiting the third in the trilogy (comes out this August!). This is readable like Harry Potter, in the sense that you pick it up and don’t put it down until you’re done.

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman – in addition to her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, she wrote a short-ish novel called HERland, which is set in an alternate universe where women are in charge.

    Gotta go, but I’m going to keep my eye on this thread!

  21. Alyndra permalink
    June 3, 2010

    I fell in love with Sarah Zettel when I read her Fool’s War, a sci-fi book that deals subtly and well with feminism, religious and cultural diversity, and a few of the implications of AI. Also it is subtly awesome. I’ve since collected almost all her sci-fi books (all standalone) and one of her later fantasy series (different, I’m not sure yet how I feel about them, though still good) and I’m always puzzled by why more people don’t know her!

  22. alumiere permalink
    June 3, 2010

    Hmmm… trying not to post duplicates of other suggestions I caught (I only got about 1/2 way down the previous comments though) – all of these are SF unless otherwise noted:

    Caitlin Kiernan: A is for Alien, any of her other books are excellent too, but most would fall under the Fantasy/Urban Fantasy/Horror label.
    Elizabeth Bear: Bone & Jewel Creatures (Fantasy – one of the best books I’ve read in 2009/2010), Dust, Chill, the Jenny Casey books.
    Cherie Priest: Boneshaker (Steampunk)
    Margaret Atwood: Handmaid’s Tale, any of her work is good, most is shelved as Literature but for me it falls under near-future SF
    Isabelle Allende: House of Spirits (Magic Realism/Fantasy)

  23. Katherine permalink
    June 4, 2010

    Thanks ever so much for this thread! I’m going to pick out all the authors and print myself a list, so that I have some names to look for when I just want to pick out some stuff at pseudo-random from the library!

  24. Meg Thornton permalink
    June 4, 2010

    I’ll toss in an Aussie name – Marianne des Pierres. She’s written a cyberpunkish trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic vision of the Australian east coast; the first book is called Nylon Angel.

    In addition, if Elizabeth Scarborough is the same person as Elizabeth Anne Scarborough, I can recommend The Song of Sorcery and The Unicorn Creed as works which allow an unconventional heroine to show her scope.

  25. Gillian Brent permalink
    June 4, 2010

    Zenna Henderson! “The Anything Box” for short stories, and the “People” series for the connected stuff. But whatever you do – don’t watch the TERRIBLE movie made of it!

  26. C.L. Minou permalink
    June 4, 2010

    I went book shopping today, and got sci-fi books! Except they were by China Mielville and Iain M. Banks, so…errp? But also the latest Buffy graphic novel (Jane Espenson probably wrote something in it) and a Susan Brownmiller. Just so I don’t totally lose my cred :)

  27. Tansy Rayner Roberts permalink
    June 4, 2010

    If you’ve read and enjoyed “the big three” then I think there’s a lot of older women-authored SF as well as more popular recent books that might appeal.

    You could do worse than checking out this great list of female authors, and the vid that goes with it – funny and educational about all those women in SF you might have missed along the way

  28. Daniel Martin permalink
    June 4, 2010

    Since no one’s mentioned her yet, I should point out C.E. Murphy’s stuff. Her “Urban Shaman” series is good urban-fantasy junk food reading of the buy-and-consume-in-two-nights kind. Not stuff that’s likely to be revered as a classic, but it sucks you in, and there you are, and then you’re a few hundred pages later on, and suddenly you’re done. Sometimes, fluff is what I’m in the mood for, and it’s good fluff. Plus the female protagonist uses Linux on her home computer. (I think this only comes up once, but was a nice aside)

    She’s been amazingly prolific the past five years or so – there’s a whole other urban fantasy series she has going based around a woman discovering that things like Gargoyles and Vampires are real and live side-by-side with humans today, but then reacting sensibly and not like someone in a Twilight novel. (That series starts with “Heart of Stone”)

    She also wrote a series of three sci-fi-esque romance novels for the now-defunct “Silhouette Bombshell” imprint. Think James Bond but female and with less of a sense of smug entitlement. I don’t know if you’ll be able to find them anymore, but the first one (only one I could find – “The Cardinal Rule”) was a lot of fun.

  29. Soph permalink
    June 5, 2010

    I would definitely recommend Margaret Atwood if you’re interested in SF – The Year of the Flood was particularly good. You might want to read Oryx and Crake first, though, or else some of the events might not make much sense.

    If we’re talking more about fantasy stuff, I would definitely recommend Mercedes Lackey’s novels. I started by reading her Heralds of Valdemar series (starting with Arrows of the Queen – it’s a young adult series more than anything, but it is very good), and I would also recommend her Diana Tregarde series (starting with Burning Water – magic, Aztec gods, America during the 80′s, oh my!) and her Halfblood Chronicles series, which she co-authored with Andre Norton (start with The Elvenbane!).

  30. spz permalink
    June 5, 2010

    Just adding a new name:
    Robin Hobb (Fantasy pen name of Margaret Ogden); I’d recommend to start with Ship of Magic.

  31. Addie permalink
    June 6, 2010

    Agreed on Atwood! She has a real feel for dystopian futures but almost all of her books deal with women having real, complex relationships with each other. She even did a small book called “The Penelopiad” which presents The Odyssey from Odysseus’ wife’s perspective. Sharp stuff. I prefer the times when she ventures into sci fi over her more realistic fiction.

    The Handmaid’s Tale is her most well-known standard sci-fi but Oryx and Crake and its companion novel The Year of the Flood are her most well known and critically acclaimed recent work. A previous poster says that Oryx and Crake is recommended for reading before Year of the Flood but my memory of O & C was so rusty by the time I read Year of the Flood that it took me about 100 pages to realize they were set in the same universe. Year of the Flood focuses more on two female characters sticking it out through tremendous adversity; O & C focuses on two male characters who are much harder to relate to regardless of gender.

    I wish I had others that came to mind immediately but for that reason I’m with the rest on being glad that this list is being compiled.

    Related, although the author is male (I wince to share it in this thread, but it’s been on my back-burner for a couple weeks): I’d love to see a GF post / comment thread sometime on Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy; it has to be the most feminist series I’ve ever read that also tops the fiction best-seller lists – and it centers on a female hacker. Even though Larsson appears to be doing a bit of Gary Stu’ing with his male protagonist, the number of strong female characters is astounding.

  32. sky permalink
    June 6, 2010

    There are plenty of books I love that have already been mentioned, I wanted to quickly add:
    Marge Piercy, ‘Woman at the Edge of Time’: maybe not the best writing I’ve ever read, but still an engaging look at possible futures, dystopian and otherwise.
    Ysabeau Wilce, ‘Flora Segunda’ (PA): A strong female protagonist, a range of different gender roles, a hint of alternative relationship structures thrown in, and delicious writing.

  33. sky permalink
    June 6, 2010

    Oops. PA = YA.

  34. Merryn permalink
    June 6, 2010

    One that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb (same person).
    Wizard of the Pigeons (Lindholm) is excellent urban fantasy. Cloven Hooves, another real-world contemporary fantasy includes a really vivid protrayal of a woman being erased by her pushy in-laws.
    As Robin Hobb she has written some excellent fantasy novels.

  35. ifrik permalink
    June 7, 2010

    Doris Lessing
    “Canopus in Argos: Archives” :: A sequence of five science fiction novels but without a related story line : Shikasta – The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five – The Sirian Experiments – The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 – The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire.
    And of course “Mara and Dann” :: less science fiction but set on a future earth after the next ice age and worth mentioning because my website and nick are named after its continent “Ifrik”: “Africa” in the future.

  36. FreeDeb permalink
    June 7, 2010

    If you are interested in seeing just how far we’ve come, read Mizora, by Mary E. Bradley Lane. It’s one of the first sci-fi books written by a woman.

    I really enjoyed Joan Vinge’s books, Winter Queen and Summer Queen. Lots of musing on the various roles for women, how power changes the perception of women all set in a very unique universe.

    Joan Sloczewski’s Door into Ocean focuses on the what if women ran the world with less violence and used technology responsibly etc. thing. Many strong female characters of course.

    Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn stories are good so far, I’ve read the first three and just got the next two in the mail. Post-apocalypse/far future science that readers of LeGuin’s later work would enjoy.

    Highly recommended/seconded: Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (kickass mom-hero) and Caitlin Kiernan, most of her stuff is set in a connected creepy southern gothic present, with plenty of gender bending.

    • Trix permalink
      June 12, 2010

      Just a note – the first Vinge book in that series is The Snow Queen. There are a couple of other books in the series as well.

      For a male protagonist, her books featuring Cat (starting with Psion and Catspaw) are excellent. Yes, “magic” elements (in the sense of “any technology not understood…”), but very solid sci-fi.

  37. Mackenzie permalink
    June 7, 2010

    No idea if this is feminist or not, but it’s by a woman author, it’s umm… well it has werewolves…and the protagonist is female: “Claire de Lune” by Christine Johnson

  38. FreeDeb permalink
    June 7, 2010

    I thought of another (local for me) author who’s got a bunch of stuff online, if you can’t find her throughly enjoyable book, Spiral Hunt by Margaret Ronald. It’s a modern day tale of a magical Boston with a very dark underworld, file under urban fantasy with a kickass supernatural lady detective.

  39. takingitoutside permalink
    June 8, 2010

    Wow, there’s a lot of great suggestions here. If the ones I don’t know are anything like the ones I do, I’ve got a lot of reading to do. I’ll just add some more Japanese names to the list.

    Uehashi Nahoko’s Moribito fantasy series is divine (and also translated by a woman – Cathy Hirano). It’s an all-ages kind of series, aimed at kids but fun for adults. It focuses on a woman who becomes a bodyguard in order to save a certain of people’s lives (to pay off a loved one’s debt). When the first book opens, she is already an excellent bodyguard, and we follow her on her adventures. Incidentally, these books are FANTASTIC as presents. Arthur A. Levine has given them beautiful treatment – gorgeous covers, interior pictures and lovely scrollwork designs on every page.

    Fuyumi Ono writes fantasy. I highly suggest her Twelve Kingdoms series, which is set in an extremely well-developed fantasy world. Ono takes an interesting approach: where authors normally try to even out differences between the sexes by working on their female characters, she fashions a sort-of Confucianism that is role-based, with no gender component. The effect is that everyone in the book has the same expectations of male and female characters, and those expectations are clearly laid out by job/position.

    Banana Yoshimoto is an interesting author. Before reading her works, you need to know that her writing style is heavily influence by manga, or comics. In other words, when her book Kitchen came out in 1988, it was considered rather revolutionary for its emphasis on dialogue and use of blank space on pages. Her works tend to be a bit surreal and focus on contemporary Japanese life.

    Manga are often set up like novels or book series, so I’ll add a few artists as well. My favorite is Kaori Yuki, who writes gothic fantasy. Her two best series (God Child and Angel Sanctuary) are very long, so I would suggest starting with Fairy Cube.

    Yoshinaga Fumi writes fantasy and realistic fiction (and perhaps more that I’m not even aware of). Start with Ooku, an alternate history of late medieval Japan where a virus has killed off most of the men.

    Yazawa Ai’s works are about young women growing up. I’d start with Paradise Kiss, which has plenty of geeking out about fashion design, as the main character goes from a colourless shell of a girl to a vibrant young women who wants a career in the fashion industry.

    I can think of tons more, but I’ll stop here for now. Those three get you a good sweep of story types.

    Some additional authors you might want to try out:

    Agatha Christie, the grand dame of mysteries. If you haven’t read her Miss Marple books, give them a shot. I mean, a little old lady with a talent for murder – who wouldn’t love that?

    Sarah Monette’s Corambis quartet (starting with Melusine) is a great read. For a series that focuses on two brothers, there are a number of interesting female characters.

    Miyuki Miyabe has written crime fiction with social commentary and children’s fantasy. All She Was Worth is a good intro to her adult works, Brave Story to the kids’ fantasy.

    In recent years, the I-novel has been the big literary genre in Japan, and I totally hated them and didn’t get them at all – until I read Tawada Yoko’s The Bridegroom Was a Dog, a short story collection. I’m still not sure how I feel about I-novels, but Tawada at least made me get the appeal of the genre.

  40. Rebecca permalink
    June 12, 2010

    Kirsten Britain’s Green Rider series is pretty awesome. Set in a fantasy world, has strong female characters who can look after themselves, don’t need to be rescued and the main character (who is female), does lots of rescuing of others (more right time right place than nurturing and saving people.

    I’ve read the first two and just found the third.

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