4 Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Books You Should Read

3 years ago

Extended title: Feminist SFF books you should read that aren't A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.  

So what makes a book feminist?  Basically, the presence of strongly written, as opposed to "strong" in a masculine sense, female characters.

As in, writing women like they're people.  Multi-dimensional.  Flawed.  Not defined by a relationship with a man.

And why do SFF books so often maintain historical notions of masculinity/femininity?  You can create your own freaking world, damn it.  History is just a guideline.

Here are some books by authors who do feminism well:

Jaran by Kate Elliott.

Why is it feminist?  It's one of the few stories that's first and foremost about a woman going off and finding herself.

Kate Elliott is just really awesome at writing culture.  Jaran is an older book that could stand alone, but it's really a long introduction to a world and a (still unfinished) series; the next three books are intentionally quite different in scope.  It's about change, acculturation, and consequences.  There are two main contrasting storylines: nomadic tribes conquering an interdicted planet vs. humanity as a whole rebelling against an interstellar empire.  What's cooler than that?

Jaran is about a linguistics genius named Tess, running away from life and ending up on an interdicted (technologically isolated, primitive) planet.  She finds her place among a tribe of nomads, and ok, she does that thing where she's the only woman to learn "manly" occupations like fighting, but it works for her and her foreign status.

The cool culture thing that rocked my anthropology socks is that the nomads are matriarchal/matrifocal and Elliott really turns some gender norms around.  Men embroider and women are the homeowners, FYI.  Tess has this moment where she realizes that she's entitled to respect, just because she's a woman.  Oh, and rape is always an offense, unlike in real life.

2.  Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey.

Why is it feminist?  It's about an unconventional, brilliant woman who carries the story on her own.  Extended answer below.

First, I love Carey's writing, but only in this overall series of nine books.  It's this awesomely quaint, formal style that never breaks.  It's all "mayhap" and "must needs."

The overall world is based on our Renaissance world with a twist: France is the land of angels and prostitution is holy.  So in this world, you meet Phèdre, an orphan adopted into a noble's household, trained as a spy, who becomes a wildly patriotic courtesan.

One of the nifty things about this series is the way in which they're feminist.  Not in a here's this character who's special because she's dressing like a man/doing the things men do and isn't it so unique because she's so strong way.  Rather, it's set in a non-in-your-face egalitarian society, a construct that's actually kind of rare in the SFF novels I've read.  So this heroine, free from the need to break gender roles, is instead notable for her wit and, it has to be said, kinkiness. Novel rated 'R' for explicit pan-sexuality, though.

The drawback is that Phèdre never gets a cool female best friend.  But oh well, still wins.

3.  Poison Princess by Kresley Cole.

Why is it feminist?  It's about a teenage girl coming into her own power, making her own choices.

I don't like most YA novels because of the quality of writing.  Not writing for adults doesn't mean you have to make it simpler.  But Cole gets it.  Also, she always makes me literally LOL.  She has this super cool sense of humor that combines badass sass and wordplay.

The overall plot of the series is that a group of teens have powers and are fated to fight to the death.  The twist is that the teens are incarnations of Tarot characters, and this is all happening in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with zombies and cannibals.

It starts out like a typical teen book, following a few of Evie's high school days, but it picks up quickly, and soon it's the end of the world and strange things are happening.  The nifty bit is Evie's powers - her quaint/cool Tarot byline is Our Lady of Thorns -  especially when the usual thing for female superheroes is strength.  What's more stereotypically feminine than flowers?  Cole makes it badass.  And there may be a love triangle, but it's still Evie's story.

Go ahead, try it, the first seventeen chapters are free.

4.  The Broken Crown by Michelle West.

Why is it feminist?  It's about women finding power in seemingly oppressive situations.

West has an overall story arc broken up into a few different series.  The Broken Crown is part one of The Sun Sword.  There's a duology before this one, and a currently ongoing series after.  I've recommended this series to a few people, but some find it hard to get through.  The first half of the first book is basically all exposition - and it's a long book.  I started this series in 1997, but it wasn't until the fourth book came our in 2001 that I really "got" it and appreciated it.  I was young.  But once you get past the first book, it's awesome.

The very basic premise is the age-old dark god and his minions are trying to take over the world bit.  There's the usual gods and demons influencing the choice of mortal souls, but it's done well enough that it seems fresh.  There's a chosen dynasty with a magic sword.  Another twist is the time travel element weaving through the background of the storytelling - but you really have to read the books to get it; hard to explain.

West has a ton of great female characters with their own strengths and motivations.  Two examples: Kiriel is the daughter of the dark god, rebelling against her father and foster-father figure, learning how to be human.  Diora is living in a ridiculously male-dominated society, hiding her talents, and learning to gain power through subtlety.

Another thing I like about this series is that it doesn't focus on romance.  It's kind of crazy how novel that is.  It explores every other kind of relationship - siblings, parents/mentors and children, husbands and wives, servants and masters, unlikely friendships - but no one falls in love on screen and does crazy things because of it.  It's refreshing.

What are your feminist recommendations?

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