This week’s column began as a tribute to my favourite fantasy novel heroes, inspired by my current read, David Gemmell’s Legend. The book is often listed as Gemmell’s most famous. It also serves as our introduction to the legendary hero Druss, who goes on to be featured in several other books by the author.
Legend is my first book by Gemmell, and I find it extremely absorbing so far – even though it does lean much more towards that epic fantasy style that I’ve not been reading much of late (with the exception of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series).
Druss got me thinking about the various heroes in fantasy novels I’ve come to love over the years: Roland from The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Shadow from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Belgarion from David Eddings’ Belgariad, Frodo from The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Which was when I realised how very male my early exposure to fantasy books was – partly because fantasy writers were much more likely to be male at that time, and partly due to my introduction to fantasy literature coming from my father and uncles.
I am very glad to say, however, that my reading list of fantasy authors has since expanded to include many more women. Here are a few whose authors and works I’ve fallen in love with.
Diana Wynne Jones
Wynne Jones (1934-2011) is the very first female fantasy author I remember reading, and over the years my love for writing has only increased. The more I read of her works, the more I realise how wildly imaginative and incredibly bold she was as a writer. While her books are usually classified as children’s literature, I can’t think of many authors whose works cross age boundaries as effectively as hers do.
I began with her Chrestomanci series, which still holds a special place in my heart, but Howl’s Moving Castle is an absolute classic with one of my favourite romances ever committed to a page. And then there are the weird, quirky stories that somehow manage to blend humour and darkness: The Time Of The Ghost, Archer’s Goon, Dogsbody, and many more.
From the high fantasy stylings of the Dalemark quartet and the satirical Dark Lord Of Derkholm to the compellingly grim The Howeward Bounders or Fire And Hemlock, there isn’t much Wynne Jones couldn’t seem to do with the fantasy genre. So while she is hardly a recent discovery for me, she is one writer I can see myself reading forever.
G. Willow Wilson
I came across Wilson’s Alif The Unseen purely by chance – if you can call Kindle’s suggestions of “Books you might enjoy” chance – but never have I been happier that I did. Alif The Unseen is one of those works of fantasy that feel instantly important and so very much of the moment that you wonder if it should be called fantasy at all.
Wilson combines the world of high technology with that of effrits and jinns, setting her story of a mixed-race hacker in an unnamed Middle Eastern city. Religion, modernity and revolution are all woven together in one imaginative and thoroughly unusual novel.
Wilson also writes the Ms Marvel comic series, which introduced the world to Marvel Comics’ first Muslim superhero, Kamala Khan.
Anderson’s conception of a secret faery world that exists alongside the human one is both delightful and innovative. In her Faery Rebels trilogy, Anderson draws on familiar British faery mythology but expands and evolves it into something unique and thoroughly modern. From the moment I first read about the badass faery named Knife, I was hooked.
Anderson is particularly skilled at creating characters, and she uses this to her advantage. Each book in Faery Rebels, as well as the related Swift series, headlines a different character. It is an unexpected decision, as readers need to get to know and identify with a new protagonist with each new book, but it ends up being one of the series’ biggest strengths. The detailed structure of the faery world, meanwhile, provides subtle parallels to issues of inclusion and equality that we grapple with in today’s human world.
My introduction to Cho’s writing was through her short story collection, Spirits Abroad. What struck me was how adept she was at using the short story format to tell stories that were deceptively simple. Her interweaving of a Western-informed writing sensibility with Asian – specifically Malaysian – legends, folktales, and myths is almost seamless. Most of all, while fantasy is so often occupied with deep, dark themes, Cho’s stories manage to be light and yet layered with subtext.
Her debut novel, Sorcerer To The Crown, is a delightful story set in an alternate, Regency-era England that uses magic and fantasy to comment on a whole host of weighty issues, including racism and sexism. The book remains one of my favourite reads of recent times.
I read Okorafor’s Akata Witch for the first time last year, and while I’ve yet to read more of her work, the book was enough to convince me that I definitely want to.
Okorafor writes with an energy and imagination that leaps off the page.
Her story of a 12-year-old albino girl living in Nigeria is wonderful, taking us into fantastical worlds that she manages to make both familiar and utterly strange. I particularly love how she brings a specifically West African approach to writing about magic.
Beneath the magical elements, though, Okorafor tells an immensely human story that deals with prejudice, exclusion and loneliness.
Ursula K. Le Guin
And as a final note, a reminder to myself to read more works by this grand dame of both fantasy and science fiction. The first – and so far, only – thing I’ve read by Le Guin is The Left Hand Of Darkness, and it did not appeal to me. As a result, I haven’t read anything else by her since. There is something about her books, though, that keep calling to me. The Earthsea series, for instance. So I’m putting her on this list, both because no list honouring female fantasy authors could be complete without her, and because I want to finally take that second chance with her books.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.