Good epic fantasy with heroines who matter?
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In April 2013, Jacqueline Carey wrote a blog for Fantasy Cafe, in which she noted the scarcity of female authors and good female characters in one specific subgenre of fantasy: epic fantasy written for adults. Female leads and protagonists are quite plentiful in YA and urban fantasy, but in epic and historical fantasy they can be difficult (though not impossible) to come by. Since I'm especially fond of epic and historical fantasy, this troubles me a bit.
The problem is not just with the male writers who dominate the subgenre. Female writers, too, tend to use male protagonists when they write epic fantasy. Here's a paragraph from my recent TGD blog on the subject:
"I expect male-heavy casts of characters from male authors. Yet quite a few women, when writing epic fantasy, choose male protagonists. Examples include Gail Z. Martin's Ice Forged, Laura Ann Gilman's Flesh and Fire, Elspeth Cooper's Songs of the Earth series, half the work of Carol Berg, half the work of Robin Hobb (though when Hobb does give us female POV characters, she does an awesome job), and everything by Sarah Monette, K.J. Parker, Naomi Novik, and Courtney Schafer. Of course these authors are free to write about any characters who take their fancy -- one of the first rules of literary criticism is "allow the author his/her subject matter," after all -- yet I can't help frowning at how many authors of both genders insist on putting men at the center of their epic fantasy and relegating women to supporting-role or background status, as if a compelling epic-fantasy world can't be built around a woman's story. When I read the reviews of the epic fantasy offerings coming up in 2014, I lost track of the number of times I read variations of the following: 'the only thing I didn't like about this book was the treatment of the female characters -- their scarcity/superficial portrayals/etc.'"
(I'm just now starting Melissa Scott's Burning Bright, and it reminds me: Even Scott, who gives us many a superb female protagonist in her science fiction, feels compelled to use male main characters when she switches genres to historical fantasy -- as if there were some irresistible instinct to put men in the lead in that genre, even if the fantasy setting you're creating is pretty egalitarian when it comes to gender roles.)
So I'm looking for a list of writers, male and female, who buck the trend and let female characters play important or leading roles in epic fantasy. I'll start with a few examples:
Almost anything by Juliet Marillier, especially the original Sevenwaters Trilogy;
Trudi Canavan's Black Magician Trilogy;
Most of Brandon Sanderson's work, including Elantris, the Mistborn series, Warbreaker, and Words of Radiance, the second volume in the Stormlight Archive series;
Kristin Britain's Green Rider series;
Jennifer Fallon's Tide Lords series and Medalon series;
Melanie Rawn's The Ruins of Ambrai and Dragon Prince;
Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders and Rain Wilds Chronicles;
Most of the work of Mercedes Lackey, Kate Forsyth, and Kate Elliot;
Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Triad;
Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts, etc.;
Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart series
The kind of thing I'm after in this thread:
1) no "crossover fantasy" in the mold of Kay's Fionavar Tapestry; I like a good crossover fantasy, but it's not what I'm looking for in this particular thread.
2) no YA. Again, as above, I like a good YA, but finding female lead characters is not a problem in YA.
3) an emphasis primarily on adventure rather than romance.
4) I'm looking for "heroines who matter," so no stories in which the major female characters are Bad News.
Next one that comes to mind: The belgariad by David Eddings. Unless we're going to claim that it's YA because the main character is young? I'll admit I read this as a teenager and it's not uber-complicated or anything. So maybe it is YA. Sorry, I'm not good at classifying YA unless it's in the mold of Divergent, The hunger games or Twilight. Some people claim Seraphina is YA too, and I totally didn't get that vibe. In any case, Eddings wrote Polgara. Certainly somebody who matters...
You haven't mentioned Tanya Huff yet, have you? She definitely fits on your list with Sing the four quarters and sequels. Then there's some books that I think you recommended to me at some point (or otherwise someone else here, in which case you probably already know them): Mystic and rider by Sharon Shinn and Scriber by Ben S. Dobson.
Then there's The ghatti's tale by Gayle Greeno. Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of wolves. L.E. Modesitt's The soprano sorceress (prepare to be irritated a little, though). Everything I know by Michelle Sagara West (I've never heard you mention her, I think. Have you read anything by her? If not, try The hidden city. It's very good.). And I'm not entirely sure how epic it is, because I only just bought it, but City of silk and steel by Mike, Linda, and Louise Carey might also fit.
3: I have West's The Broken Crown and The Hidden City on my shelves. I need to move those up through the TBR ranks.
I read Huff's The Silvered a couple of months ago, and I would definitely be interested in exploring her work further.
I've never heard The Belgariad called YA. More often, I've heard it mentioned as being of the same ilk as the Sword of Truth series (which I might want to try sometime) and the Wheel of Time series (which I have no intention of trying, ever). So it would belong here rather comfortably. I could see myself giving these a try, especially Polgara the Sorceress.
Mystic and Rider and Scriber -- great stuff.
The broken crown does have a very different style from The hidden city. It's a bit more stilted and stately. I do find it beautiful, but I think The hidden city flows better.
I've been trying to read Sheepfarmer's daughter but I haven't managed to get through it. Some bits are nice, but there were also pieces that I found extremely boring.
I struggle with Sword of Truth - I realise it's a nominal fit for this category, but there's so much awfulness directed at its female characters (in terms of violence, being undermined, needing constant rescuing regardless of having powers, or being stupidly evil). I eventually abandoned the series for being formulaic and leaving a very bad taste in my mouth.
I do have a feeling I'm forgetting something obvious though. I might have to go stare at my books and work out what it is!
It won the Hugo and the Nebula
Rachel Neumeier, borderline YA similar to seraphina but i enjoyed House of shadows which did not strike me as YA.
Daughter of Exile by isabel glass and bloodrights, by N. Lee Wood, both about female heirs fighting for their rightful places
Kristin Kathryn Rusch while better known for Sf did heart readers and the white mists of power
I have not yet read works by any of the following but belive them to be focused on female characters, sarah zettel, mary corran and helen lowe
ETA to add Wheel of the Infinite and Songspinners had female protagonists, but the rest of the respective authors' works have male protags (albeit with a strong secondary female presence) i have found this pattern quite frequently with many writers, writing men is simply more successful for some.
I looked up the Rusch books on Goodreads. Heart Readers would qualify here, but I saw no mention of a female character at all in the synopsis or reviews of The White Mists of Power.
Wells' The Fall of Ile-Rien also trilogy has a female protagonist, although at least one male character is presented as a co-protagonist. I've read the first book, and it's quite good, although it reads a little slow for some reason.
Jude Fisher starting with sorcery rising i really enjoyed this tale of a blacksmiths daughter swept up in an adventure after she went to a large fair with her family which come to think of it belongs in the trader thread too.
The Avalon series by Marion Zimmer Bradley with Pamela Dean is another. And yes, anything by Juliet Marillier is wonder-full.
10> How good is Kristin Kathryn Rusch fantasy? I've really enjoyed the first two books in her Retrieval Artist series (I've yet to find the rest), but her fantasy works don't seem to get as good reviews.
Bujold's Paladin of Souls
Chaz Brenchley's Outremer - Story is roughly equally split between two protagonists - one boy and one girl - both of whom carry an equal weight and agency in the plot. (Likewise the Moshui books by Daniel Fox have a 50/50 split between a couple of male & female leads.)
Glenda Larke - Stormlord series. Female character is co-protagonist and has her own journey... though the titular Stormlord is male, so it may count as being more "about" him than her.
Paula Volsky's Illusion and The Grand Ellipse have female protagonists. The Wolf of Winter switches from a male to female protagonist halfway through. They're standalones and set in fantasyland versions of different time periods from the usual pseudo-medieval stuff, so not sure if they count as "epic fantasy".
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's Songs from the Seashell Archives... probably classed as YA nowadays (?) but they were regular adult fantasy back when I read them. Likewise much of Patricia C. Wrede's stuff.
Carole Nelson Douglas's Sword and Circlet series has co-protagonists, with the story being ABOUT the woman. I read and loved these a looooong time ago. Not sure how they'd hold up today.
Donaldson's The Mirror of Her Dreams and sequel may also count? I could never get past about the first few pages of Thomas Covenant, but remember liking this duology a lot, and it's definitely a female protagonist's story.
A few that I'm not particularly fond of, but may be of interest due to the exclusively female protagonists:
- Indigo books by Louise Cooper
- Aurian books by Maggie Furey
- Bitterbynde books by Celia Dart-Thorton
Kirstein's series is science fiction not epic fantasy (or any other fantasy for that matter). It isn't obvious in the first book but becomes increasingly obvious as the series goes on.
That sub-genre tends to have female protagonists aplenty, though many stories tend to dedicate absurd amounts of page real estate to who they'll end up paired with.
A perfect example of a recent read that fits this thread precisely is Michelle West's Sun Sword series, starting with The Broken Crown. This story is full of women. The majority of the important characters are female. It's almost as politically twisty as A Song of Ice and Fire, though not quite as rough with the violence. (A lot of the violence is understated. It's simmering there, in the THINKING of men like General Alesso.)
For some reason, unlike kceccato (>35 kceccato:), urban fantasy really works for me, with War for the Oaks being the first I tried and enjoyed. Maybe I like it in part because I live in a big city (Chicago).
The Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series is one where the romance, what there is of it, is secondary (maybe even tertiary) to the character and plot development and always plays a vital part, rather than just being thrown in there for a selling point. And no gratuitous sex either, which is such a relief. Mercy's the strongest female urban fantasy character out there that I've found, though I like a few others (including Meg Corbyn of The Others series by Anne Bishop and Sharon Li of the Magicals Anonymous series by Kate Griffin).
I know this derails the thread a little bit, but since the question of female protagonists in urban fantasy has come up, I'm moved to ask-- Which urban fantasy heroines actually have female friends? I've heard that Anita Blake actively despises other women, and that Mercy Thompson, while not a "female misogynist" like Anita, doesn't have (m)any female friends either. Elena from Bitten also interacted only with men, which I found off-putting. (Did she really have to be the world's ONLY female werewolf?) The scarcity of friendships between women may be one of the reasons female-led urban fantasy has such a reputation for revolving around sex.
So, which female leads in urban fantasy actually have female friends and/or sisters who are important parts of their lives? I think Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels has at least one good female friend, and Myfanwy of The Rook has more than one. It's been a while since I've read War for the Oaks, but I recall Eddi McCandry having a female best friend. Who are some others?
Also if I remember right the YA urban fantasy The Grimm Chronicles by Isabella Fontaine & Ken Brosky starts a bit love-triangle-y, though less overwhelmingly so than others, there's at least one sympathetic female from the the start (older worker where the protagonist volunteers), and the cast enlarges to several teenaged friends of both genders as the series goes on.
I'd agree with the others about Meg in Written in Red - she's got Tess and a few girls who work in the shops.
While I didn't like Rosemary and Rue much, Toby did have some female friends.
Jilly in The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint has female artist friends.
The vampire protagonist of Cherie Priest's Cheshire Red books gets female friends in the second novel - Hellbent.
Chloe Neill's Dark Elite series is different than a lot of YA urban fantasy in that the protagonist's female best friend is actually important.
Sunshine by Robin McKinley has a best friend who's a librarian and her mysterious land lady.
Those are the ones I find when I go through the books I have urban fantasy. Stray Souls by Kate Griffin might to, but I can't remember much about it besides that a female shaman is the protagonist and that there's no or very little romance.
47, 48: I've had a few people recommend Written in Red and its sequels to me, and I always take recommendations under advisement, at least, even if I don't leap at them immediately; I try not to dismiss them out of hand. The reason I'm a little slow to try these is that while I expect I might like and take an interest in Meg's friends (especially Tess), I'm far from sure about Meg herself. Descriptions I have read of that character, in both positive and negative reviews, make her seem a bit too... well... Bella Swan-esque for my liking. The helpless waif just isn't a trope I favor, particularly when said waif is romantically paired with an uber-powerful male.
One reason that urban fantasy in general isn't to my liking is that it just doesn't give me enough of what I read fantasy for. I don't read fantasy just for the supernatural creatures. I read it for the opportunity to experience other worlds, places to which I could never travel in real life. I read it for the worldbuilding as well as the characters. Even when urban fantasy offers considerable richness when it comes to characters (e.g. The Rook -- I still smile when I remember how much I enjoyed that book), it is, by its very nature, lacking in the worldbuilding department.
THIS is why I want to see more heroines who matter in Epic Fantasy. I don't want to be told that if I want to read about interesting and capable heroines, I should just settle for reading Urban Fantasy instead. There should be room for such heroines in both genres, for the benefit of readers like me who prefer the Epic stuff and readers like jnwelch who prefer the Urban.
>49 kceccato: I agree with Marissa on Written in red. It might not be to your taste, but one of the things I like about it is that for as far as you can say that it contains romance, it is taking it as slow as a progressing glacier. And Meg may not be physically impressive, but I would not call her a helpless waif. I was rather impressed with how she builds a new life for herself and how she bounces back from bad experiences. She is a very strong character but not in a loud kind of way. But yeah, if you're looking for sheer power, then she doesn't have it. Neither does any male human for that matter. The power belongs to the terra indigene, not to the humans. Be that as it may, Meg stands her ground and, thank heavens, she is not feisty. I'm not very fond of the feistiness in urban fantasy...
"As I mentioned before, I like how slowly the romance plot is moving. Based on the events from the last book, Meg and Simon have become friends. It’s pretty obvious where the relationship is heading, and even one of the other viewpoint characters remarks on it.
As with the last book, how much you like it largely depends on your reaction to Meg. She’s not an action girl or snarky or sarcastic – she’s a sweet character who’s frightened of mice and who’s determined to make her own choices in life. She escaped from a terrible situation and is still coping with how to live day to day. I really liked her for how sweet and kind she is, and I found it believable how many other characters liked her too."
I've seen a lot of reviews that seem to be pointing at her and yelling "Mary Sue! People like her, she has friends, Mary Sue!"
Not every character has to be feisty or physically powerful. But I like heroines to have interests and opinions. I like them to be competent and capable, even if it's in areas other than fighting. And a strong moral/ethical sense is always a plus. I do like kindness in a character and think kindness tends to be underrated. But I like it to go hand in hand with competence.
>53 kceccato: I would call her competent, as far as she's able to be--she's been kept in isolation from the world before the start of the books, and basically has to learn to live. She's resilient in the face of overwhelming changes, and begins to learn to thrive in her new, much much bigger (and very complicated) world.
The "squeaky toy" business was actually kind of funny and didn't bother me at all, because the characters it originates with aren't human so it lacks the "baggage". I don't know--maybe you still won't like it...?
One thing would sell me on the Others series, though:
How are the female terra indigene portrayed, really? Are they bad news, or do some of them have some decency and kindness about them? Are THEY loyal friends? One of the things that I disliked about Stolen Songbird, one of my recent YA reads, was the portrayal of the female trolls; if you're looking for a book featuring a significant sympathetic portrayal or two of a female Other, this is NOT the one to go to. I'd like to know that at least a couple of the female terra indigene are developed in more interesting and sympathetic detail before picking up the series.
As far as the "squeaky toy" business goes, that came about when Meg and one of the wolf pups bonded, and it described the game they played sometimes where the pup would chase Meg. Another possible
ETA that I love some of the female indigene characters: Tess, Jenni Crowgard, Nyx Sanguinati, and Winter Elemental, though all of them (except Jenni) can be pretty damn terrifying if you get them riled.
Now I think I may read the series eventually, when I'm in the mood for a UF. I might want to check out one of Anne Bishop's epics/historicals first, though, just because those are my preferred subgenres.
And it's been said before, but whatever inequality there is between the different characters is a human-terra indigene thing, not a gender-related thing.
60: The Bishop work I had my eye on is Belladonna.
However the Tir Alainn trillogy starting with Pillars of the world it is about a clan of females, main character has a older female mentor and men are quite background untill the second book iirc. And you are right about Belladonna it does have a strong female showing in the characters mostly because of the female protagonist, it is a good book. Though it is a sequel to sebastian which despite the title has a strong female second lead character who has female friends.
I am just about to read Emilie and the Hollow World which is about a girl who stows away on a ship and is "Taken under the protection of the Lady Marlende" so this looks promising regarding female characters.
Thanks for you info on Pillars of the world, I haven't read that one yet...
I remember liking Tir Alain for the prominence of female characters who had the adventure and the fact that it was less concerned with sex than blood jewels or emphera. but it was 7 years ago now so i could be remembering wrong.
The emphera books are paranormal romance in a dreamworld which is something different and i didnt think the females were boring like some
69: Cinder is wonderful (though I absolutely despised Scarlet and haven't been able to bring myself to read Cress due to my massive disappointment with Scarlet, a non-heroine straight out of the Bella Swan school of
Something like Miles Cameron's The Red Knight would come a little closer. That one is definitely epic fantasy. I wish the women were a little more visible, but they do make a contribution. I particularly like Amicia, Sauce, and Mag.
Another recent read that would qualify here is Sam Sykes' The City Stained Red, which has two important female characters among the core group of mercenary anti-heroes. One of them is a female Other. Both are interesting.
The other three (Cinder, Cress, Winter) and Iko remain more prominent, though.
Does Cinder eventually win the love that she deserves?
I'm happy to know the rest aren't like Scarlet, and that Scarlet eventually grows a spine (of sorts), because like kceccato, I found her insipid and boring and, yes, a lot like Bella from Twilight. In fact, I never finished Scarlet after reading about 2/3 of it. Guess I'll finish it and go on to the rest.
Jennifer Roberson and her Sword-Dancer books
Katherine Kerr and her Deverry Cycle books
Marion Zimmer Bradley in just about anything she wrote
Mercedes Lackey in many things. Many know her main 'world', but also her Elemental series
Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series has some nice, strong female protagonists, and though his The Aeronaut's Windlass is steampunk rather than epic fantasy, it fits the bill.
79: I've been eager to get my hands on The Copper Promise, but the darn thing hasn't gotten a US release yet. Very frustrating.
80: Hambly is awesome and rarely gets the attention she so richly merits. I'm not sure about Codex Alera, though. I've read the first four books and they're quite entertaining, but I have some issues with them. While we do have multiple POVs,
My thread was inspired at least in part by what I see as a retreat from female-centered stories, or at least from proper attention being paid to them. So many of the most wildly popular and frequently talked-about epic fantasy series of the past ten years, the ones we hear about and read about whenever "Best Of" lists crop up, tend to be very male-heavy, and reviews say things like, "This is great except for the female characters." Look, for example, at this Goodreads list of Best Fantasy of the 2010s, and note how many female leads there AREN'T:
To be sure, the list includes some excellent titles with female characters in prominent roles (The Golem and the Jinni, The Girl With All the Gifts, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Thousand Names, Words of Radiance). But in terms of quantity, compare it with this list:
Epic/historical fantasy with heroines who matter is certainly out there, as all these suggestions attest, but I wish it could win the same kind of regard as works by Mark Lawrence, Patrick Rothfuss, Brian McClelland, Brian Staveley, Brent Weeks, Peter Brett, and R. Scott Bakker seem to. We're still up against the notion that stories like this have universal appeal, while works with women in central roles will appeal only to a female audience. Look at all the complaints on Twitter about Star Wars: Rogue One being the second film in the franchise to focus on (gasp) a female hero! Because for some fans, apparently, two is two too many. The complaints I've seen point out that when a story has a female lead, that automatically gives said story an overt political agenda. Gah!
It is to weep.
Another thing that rouses my suspicions is that nearly all the readers I've heard sing this series' praises are men. That doesn't mean those praises shouldn't be taken seriously in and of themselves, but when the fanship is skewed toward one gender or the other, I tend to wonder why. (When I'm reading Goodreads reviews for a particular book and I notice that EVERY five-star review is contributed by a male reader, I start to think the book may not be for me.)
Books that have a strong component of "battle of the sexes" and gender essentialism (all MEN are this way, and all WOMEN are that way, emphasis on "all") are the last thing I'm looking for.
Sanderson's Cosmere work is a different matter.
Some seem to say they get better later but it was already the 3rd door-stopper so back they went to the kind loaner. "There are other books I want to try."
Jordan was, it seems, strongly gender-essentialist, believing that men and women were different to the point of being mutually incomprehensible (a fact that both men and women remark upon to a truly grating degree- if you are looking for "men *eyeroll*" or "women *sigh*" this is your series); this is a series where power is explicitly tied to gender, with male wizards "seizing" their power and female wizards "embracing" it, and attempting to find a gender-neutral source of power let loose a great evil that destroyed the world and tainted the male half of wizardry so much that all male wizards are destined to go mad. (I wince at the thought that this was probably a conscious or not-so-conscious social commentary on feminism.)
Part of this is a view that women do things through manipulation and trickery, and throughout the series all of the various female characters that were different and actually fairly interesting at the beginning gradually turn blend together into a single caricature who happens to have different names. Male wizards become increasingly More Better than female wizards too (men are stronger, men get stronger elements while women tend toward talents like healing, if a group of both male and female wizards are working together in a group a male wizard _must_ lead, and so on).
Besides that, there are a number of non-wizardly irritations that also increase (weirdly sexualized rituals among the female wizards- lots of nakedness for no particular reason, lots of beating and spanking as punishment), in fact one of our three main male heroes spanks his love interest of roughly the same age like a child to punish her, and, the last straw that's kept me from reading out of sheer curiosity to find out what happens,
The idea that gender is an impassible barrier to understanding is a deeply depressing notion, IMO. After all, when someone claims, "I don't understand Women," or "I don't understand Men," that's simply another way of saying that all "Women" and all "Men" are essentially the same, that within our gender we don't vary, that whatever individualism one might stumble onto within those Groups is shallow and inconsequential. To meet one woman, or to meet one man, is to meet Them All.
I stand with Kate Elliott when she warns writers that we should "get rid of the word of 'them,' the idea of an unknowable Other with a mysterious psychology." I favor works by authors who follow this prescription.
It would be nice to see more female wizards, though. Aside from Diane Duane's contemporary YA series, the only series I can think of that uses "wizard" as a gender-neutral term is Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky Trilogy (Range of Ghosts et. seq.) We meet two female wizards; both are awesome; and even better, they're good friends.
I'm reading The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly, and I think it's used "wizard" to describe both men and women? I'm sure there must be more fantasy books out there that use "wizard" for both genders, but the two you named are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. Esk from Equal Rites is a female wizard, but in that case "wizard" is still a term that's usually considered male within the world of the book. From what I've seen, "mage" seems to be the go to gender neutral term for magic user, although Stroud's Bartimeaus trilogy did use "magician" for both men and women.
Hambly's The Witches of Wenshar, I seem to recall, includes a brief sequence in which the difference between "wizard" and "witch" is discussed, even though "wizard" is supposed to be a gender-neutral term. Technically Kyra from Stranger at the Wedding should have referred to by this term, but she rarely is.
I'd forgotten that about the Eternal Sky Trilogy. So I can have one less reservation about recommending it!
For me, the biggest problem was "bloat" after the first five. After their success, any editing apparently went AWOL, with the books getting longer and longer and minor plotlines getting way too much page time. I can understand the other comments made, including frustration with tics like braid-tugging. But it is a pretty remarkable and complicated world he created, and even with the annoying bloat (which Sanderson managed to streamline), I enjoyed the ride.
All the Windwracked Stars is a bit on the urban side, though it does include mythological characters. I tried to read it once and found it not quite to my taste. However, I didn't give it as much of a chance as I should have, and I've read and loved her Eternal Sky trilogy since then. I may need to give it another go in the fullness of time.
The only thing wrong with Hambly is that, as far as I'm aware, she hasn't come out with any NEW epic fantasy in recent years. (I think she's doing mostly historical mysteries now.) Too many of the most recent and the most highly praised works of epic fantasy let the side down where female characters are concerned -- though I'm anxious to get my hands on Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky. Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence is excellent, but it feels more like urban than like epic fantasy (admittedly it's VERY difficult to classify).
What got me thinking about this was Guy Gavriel Kay's historic fantasy novels. They are certainly epic in scope and plot, but not perhaps epic fantasy. Indeed the fantasy elements seem to fade away in his books, and if you're look for an “awesome” +10 chaotic good spellcast to save the day, he's probably not your author. I suspect that in all of his books you can find strong female characters. One that stands out for me is The Lions of al Rassan, because of the trio of viewpoint characters, one is a female doctor (set at the end of the Moorish rule in Spain, albeit loosely disguised in an alternate universe).
A Kay novel that works quite differently is the Sailing to Sarantium—Lord of the Emporers pair. (Sarantium is loosely disguised Byzantium.) To me, parts of this feel almost James Tiptree Jr-esque. The mosaicist, Crispin, who provides most of the viewpoint is male, but its his interaction with women (Alixana, Gisel, Styliane Daleina, Shirin) that make up the plot. Although the women are not primary characters, they drive the plot.
Ok. Back to my question. What Kay writes is epic and it's fantasy, but perhaps not what most people mean by epic fantasy. What would a fan of traditional epic fantasy find missing?
Epic fantasy even if it tends toward grand scopes is also often about a limited set of characters putting themselves out there and imposing a considerable slant or turn to events through individual talent and power, often toward a goal clearly identifiable as "good" or "as things were before and should remain / be brought back to". Individual consequences of the large scale events, especially on the antagonist side, are often swept under the rug by making the opponents some kind of irreconcilable Other, giving the protagonists a clear situation of defending themselves and others, or allowing those protagonists to work toward or luck upon opportunities for end-game surgical strikes against the Big Bad and his immediate cadre, or the Big Bad's weakness.
Historical or simili-Historical Fantasy depicts characters who may or may not rise to considerable power over the events around them, but who are ultimately riding/struggling against/unwitting participants of much broader circumstances. And while we may like to think of History as going in a general direction of greater opportunities for a larger number of humans, particular sequences of it may not be so clear-cut if you don't take only the victors' speech and its face value. And you're usually dealing with humans only or mostly, usually much closer to the baseline than Epic Fantasy protagonists or villains get to be. They have to have gotten where they are through plausible chains of events and motivations ("there's an Empire of Evil named Mordor conveniently surrounded by square-shaped mountains here on the map where 95% of the Evil in the world comes from" usually won't cut it). There's only so much hero-ing or other-ing or monster-ing them or sweeping the dead of Battle XYZ under rugs that you can do without slipping off-genre.
The terminology may mean different things to different readers.
I use the term "second-world fantasy" to mean any fantasy novel set in a time and place noticeably distinct from our own. These settings usually have a historical aura, taking us back to our mythic past. Juliet Marillier's Blackthorn and Grim novels, Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker Trilogy, and the Sun Wolf and Starhawk books of Barbara Hambly are second-world fantasy without necessarily being epic fantasy. Second-world fantasies may be "low fantasies," concerned with the fates of a small set of characters in a small-scale setting (my own novels are like this), or epic fantasies, concerned with the fates of nations.
Epic fantasy differs from "low fantasy" not in its quality (many "low fantasies" are absolutely beautiful) but in its scope. Epic fantasy is usually concerned with war, politics, or both, and as such, romance is kept to a minimum. That is precisely why I'm keen to see more women playing prominent roles in epic fantasy -- because I want good writers to show us that female characters are capable of so much more than falling in love and languishing on the sidelines while the male characters get to do vital, plot-affecting deeds. If the only way a female character can affect events is to get captured and need rescuing, NO, THANK YOU.
We are, quite delightfully, moving beyond this, but still it troubles me how few of the very wildly popular epic fantasies released in the past, say, ten years (by the usual suspects -- Lynch, Rothfuss, Lawrence, Bakker, Liu... okay, hammering the dead horse again) continue to relegate women to small, unimportant, and/or highly stereotyped roles. Everyone seems to adore Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, for instance. Yet in all the Goodreads reviews/ Reddit threads/ discussions surrounding this book, I have yet to read a single positive word about the female lead. She must surely be one of the most despised characters in all contemporary fantasy fiction, and she's the reason I have no interest in the series. Just how many brilliant writers are there who can do anything and everything EXCEPT create heroines a reader can admire and root for? (The popularity of grimdark also complicates matters, since in grimdark, not a single character, male or female, is capable of kindness or worthy of admiration.) Male writers aren't the only ones guilty of this, either. I just read a round of Goodreads reviews for Karen Miller's The Falcon Throne, and here again I find the repeated accusation that female characters are forced into minor and stereotypical roles while male characters overwhelmingly dominate the plot -- as if nothing more, nothing better, can be expected of epic fantasy.
I do love The Lions of Al-Rassan, and so far I'm enjoying Children of Earth and Sky as well.
Kay's earlier works, -- Tigana and The Fionavar Tapestry, are much more strongly fantasy based, and I like them equally compared to his later more "historical" novels. While the mechanics which underly the worlds/stories are different, the detailed-world, interesting characters and epic storylines are present in both cases. So I don't feel that any critical elements are missing.
I have not yet read Kay. I own several of his books because some of them intrigue me, and I have no doubt they will be quality, but I have such a vehement dislike of historical fiction that I can't bring myself to start one. I have never been able to articulate what sets me off, but I will try.
It's not enough that it be secondary world because any place I haven't been is already as good as secondary world to me. Kansas? May as well be Oz. It's not enough to have dragons or crazy creatures if they are treated simply as scary fauna or talking, flying horses, because the real world is already filled with crazy creatures you haven't thought of yet, many of which we could communicate with if only we knew how. And it's not enough to have a wizard casting magic missile or a fighter with a +2 flaming broadsword, that's just technology. My cell phone is as good as a spellbook. And pure allegory or substitution is enough to send me into fits of rage (I ranted up a storm after the ending of the Life of Pi movie.)
I think it's all about the way the story is told. Which things are abstracted and how and why. I had several paragraphs here originally, but they were neither articulate nor coherent so I deleted them. Maybe, which is the more appealing story to you? Rome founded by one of pair of brothers raised by a she-wolf, Rome founded by some descendants of Trojan War refugees, or Rome founded however it actually happened? That's the difference, I think. Either way, Rome was founded, but they say different things about Rome.
>103 macsbrains:, I'm noting the strong contrast between your insightful third paragraph concerning Rome, and your disliking the ending of Life of Pi: "Which is the more appealing story to you" seems to be the point that both are making. Incidentally I don't think Kay's work can be mistaken for historical fiction, it only contains more obvious echoes of real world history than most fantasy novels do. Citing George Martin again, he models his series on the War of the Flowers, but IMO you can't draw one-to-one parallels when you're reading it. In fact the more history you know, the less you might enjoy Kay. I knew a bit too much already about events of the T'ang Dynasty to really enjoy Under Heaven and I still regard it as his weakest.
As for my problem with the ending of Life of Pi, I was perfectly on board with a guy sailing the ocean for a year with a tiger in a lifeboat, but the moment the story says to me, (spoiler text, just in case:)
Also listed was Jaqueline Carey's Kushiel series, but her third trilogy the Naamah trilogy also has a strong female lead in Moiren.
A new fantasy series also has a brilliant female lead is the Twelve Kings of Sharakai by Bradley P. Beuleu (I probably spelled his name wrong) Ceda is a very strong addition to strong fantasy heroine's.
If everyone with a book to sell started mentioning it in every topic, we'd never be able to talk about anything else and the LT discussion forums would become advertising wasteland. You didn't know, I get it. It's not a comment on whether or not your book sounds interesting.
How large a role do these "disparate people" have to have before it counts?
In the LotR it's hard to point to any one character and say "protagonist" because Aragorn, even though he shows up late and leaves early, is just as important and plot driving as Frodo is for at least half of the total length of the story.
So what if there was only either an Aragorn or a Frodo... would the story still be epic fantasy?
One was the Tamir trilogy by Lynn Flewelling. This was pretty epic to my memory.
Also, Elizabeth Scarborough did some wonderful stories with strong female characters. They are a series but I'm not sure that the series has a "series name". The first couple books are Song of Sorcery and The Unicorn Creed which feature Maggie who is a hearth witch. Later on the characters' children (girls) from those first two books are featured in a couple other books. I really, really liked the first two books, but was so attached to Maggie and the other characters from the first two books, I had a hard time getting into the other stories with the kids.
I'm trying to be coherent, but I apologize if I don't succeed; writing is like pulling teeth for me and this post has already taken over 2 hours.
I have to admit that I have not read LoTR (not for lack of tries in my youth) but I have seen the movies several times, so I will use that narrative to answer the question.
I'll digress for a moment and say that I don't think traditional epic poetry and modern epic fantasy are the same kind of thing and that I wouldn't call (the movie version) of LoTR epic fantasy. I think the problem I kept having while trying to read the books in the first place is that I was trying to read them as if they were fantasy and not read it as I would the Iliad or Beowulf so I was getting stuck. When I try again, I think switching protocols will help a lot with my enjoyment and ability to appreciate them. I have tried to articulate to others before how this makes a difference, but I haven't convinced anyone yet, so obviously I'm not explaining it very well.
Ok, on to the question. If we do begin with the premise that LoTR is epic fantasy, I think just having Frodo's thread and Aragorn's thread would not enough to qualify. It would need at least the third thread of Merry & Pippin getting abducted and independently making some tree friends, and even that only because it connected to the other threads by removing Isengard from the picture. I can't think of any books only three threads off the top of my head (it may be hard to balance) but I can think ones with four, so that may be the minimum. I feel two just sets up a dialog or commentary. How big or how long these threads are I think should just be inversely proportional with the number of threads.
LoTR (movie) doesn't feel epic fantasy to me precisely because I consider it just Frodo's and Sam's thread with everything else as window dressing. If I were given the option to read just "Frodo & Sam's Story" excised exactly as it was already depicted, I would be satisfied. It would mean something a little different absent the larger context (you need to see how big the world is to compare how very small 1 pair looks against it), but it's their journey I find most compelling (and because I hadn't read the books, I actually didn't already know what would happen if/when they got to Mt. Doom, so that was intense). However, if it was just Aragorn's part (i.e. everything else not Frodo & Sam) I would not be very interested. In fact, before you brought my attention to the fact that Aragorn is important to the plot... I kind of didn't notice he was important to the plot... not because of the length of his screen time, but because I didn't know his history to feel the weight of it. He just seemed to be a nice guy who for reasons was the only one able to do a few things.
Maybe I'll feel differently about the books when I eventually read them, who knows.
A newer series which starts with the book Twelve Kings of Sharakhai stars a female protagonist who is pretty bad ass. There are elements of romance however, it isn't the only purpose Ceda serves in the book.
Some stand alone fantasy novels that have a female lead are Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie and Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames (This one is technically a sequal, but with new characters.)
While I agree they are rare, there are certainly a lot of amazing female protagonists out there in the fantasy genre. There are also a lot of amazing female side characters that I have often wished were featured more or made as the leads. Hopefully there is a shift in the genre to begin featuring more women in leading roles.