Looking for new novels - flavour: slightly epic fantasy, SF or historical, with good female characters
July 16, 2012 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some new books and/or authors to read, probably fantasy/SF or historical, dramatic but not dark and preferably with female characters.

Some of the authors that I've read recently include Lois McMaster Bujold (everything I can find in print), Joan Vinge (I especially liked her Snow Queen trilogy), and Ken Follett's World Without End (historical novel set in the 14th century). I also just read the YA novel Strandia - I would highly recommend that. The Golden Key was also great, and I was enjoying the first few books of Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince series, but then the plot really fizzled. I'm also a fan of Mary Brown and her slightly obscure and strange YA fantasy novels.

I'm really in the mood for more books like these - something on the slightly epic side but focused around one or a few strong main characters that I can hang onto and not get lost. Just for my own taste, I'm inclined right now to prefer female characters, though I love reading about a great male main character (Caz, Miles Vorkosigan) - and I'm perfectly happy if, as in Follett's book or in Bujold's Paladin of Souls, the women are strong characters in traditionally female roles, or in not so traditional roles (I adore the Alanna YA series).

Strong characters and character development is more interesting to me than action (I'm quite happy when Bujold has the battles happen off-the-page). I like a good literary style, but I don't want to have to struggle to figure out what is going on. I love imaginative world creation (ala Vinge) - but it has to hold together and not trump the character development (as in Larry Niven books). I get confused by cyberpunk and prefer my characters to inhabit corporeal environments. I like historical novels a lot (especially pre-industrial), but I don't like to read fiction about real people (as a historian, I worry I'll start mixing up fiction with the history) - so no kings, queens, bishops, or Thomas Cromwell, no matter how good I've heard Wolf Hall is. (I'm saving that for after I've read a biography or two).

And I'd be especially interested in fiction that focuses on middling or lower sorts of people, especially farmers. (I don't know how much of this exists, but farming is exciting).

I am familiar with and/or have already read books by Robin McKinley (I should check out her new ones), Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm, Kate Elliott, Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Joe Abercrombie, GRR Martin (not interested in Martin at all). I started reading The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick and I thought it was brilliantly written and also so depressing that I had to put it down before I went clinical. So, while I'd rather stay away from the bubble-gum, everyone loves everyone else books (e.g. later Lackey), I'm also not so interested in the dark fantasy where you don't like anyone (or anyone you like promptly dies, horribly).

I'm also mining this recent AskMe about non-European set fantasy, but I'm happy with European set as well.
posted by jb to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is awesome, strong female character. You won't be able to put it down.
posted by 3dd at 11:54 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I may as well recommend Jacqueline Carey before anyone else does - the initial Kushiel trilogy and the Naamah trilogy have female leads (Kushiel's Dart is one of my favorite books ever, and I am so glad I finally got past the slightly offputting romance-y back cover copy to read it.)

Elizabeth Haydon is, I think, right up your alley. (You and I appear to have very similar tastes.) Her Symphony of the Ages series is based around a credible strong female character and it's totally palatable midrange epic fantasy.

Jo Walton's King's Name/King's Peace duology is fantastic if you have any taste for Arthurian fiction. It's a recasting of the fairly standard early Arthurian mythos with a woman as Lancelot.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:56 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really liked Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak. It's a novel about the rise of Catherine the Great, told from the perspective of a lady-in-waiting/spy at the Russian court.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:57 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whoops, I missed your "no monarchs" proviso!

What about Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass? They're Austenesque fantasy set in an alternate universe where magic is a parlor art like painting or music.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker (along with everything else she wrote, btw). Also if you haven't read Tamora Pierce's Immortals series I highly recommend it - I love it even more than the Alanna books!

I'd also recommend Tigana and The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay for awesome character development. They can be sad at times but I think it's well worth it for the rest.
posted by brilliantine at 12:00 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

This just came out, and--disclosure--was written by a friend of mine, but Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is absolutely fantastic, character-driven, feminist YA fantasy with strong adult cross-over appeal. Hartman is a Bujold fan and her work has a great, classic fantasy quality and worldbuilding that slays. Also, dragons. Math dragons!

Seraphina is a musician at court, but Hartman started the universe by writing a few indie graphic comics about the daughter of a farmer and she seems to really get the complexities of class in a medieval world.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:02 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can't go wrong with Discworld.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:03 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'll modify my historical note: it's really just British figures c1400-1900 that I need to avoid. They are so super-popular right now (all those Tudor books), but my field is British History c1500-1700, so I stay away from them. (Don't do monarchical research, so I don't like to mix up what little I know).

Also, I should have included Kay in the list of books I am familiar with (and really like). I should reread Tigana. I've also read most of Terry Pratchett (I think I'll dress up like Tiffany Aching for Hallowe'en).
posted by jb at 12:05 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: Also if you haven't read Tamora Pierce's Immortals series I highly recommend it - I love it even more than the Alanna books!

Blasphemy! Actually, I've quite enjoyed all of Pierce's books (I've read all the Tortall books, also the Circle of Magic), but the Alanna books are the only ones that were out when I was a child and will always be so much more special to me because of that.
posted by jb at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2012

I really enjoyed the Fever series by Karen Moning, definitely a strong female lead. I also really loved The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Divergent is another good series with a strong awesome female lead, although I'd say its not really fantasy and more dystopian. And then more in the guilty pleasure YA vein, the Hollowland series by Amanda Hocking, I was skeptical to read a YA book about the zombie apocalypse, but I quite enjoyed it, and I really liked the protagonist.
posted by Quincy at 12:08 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: On the historical side, you might like Louise Erdrich. Many of her novels take place in/around an Anishinaabe reservation and a nearby small settler town. Of course it's dark in that we all know where colonization is going for the characters, but they're not depressing. I started with Tracks, but I don't think it's at all important to read them in order. (I'm usually a stickler for order in series.) The writing is quite literary, and there are shifting perspectives, but I find them easily readable and enjoyable. I just picked up The Antelope Wife, which is why Erdrich pops to mind at the moment, but I think you'd like that she writes about small town/reservation people, very strong female characters, and with a hint of magic realism for the fantasy itch.

(But don't read The Crown of Columbus.)

And of Robin McKinley's recent work, definitely check out Chalice and Sunshine.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:10 PM on July 16, 2012

Louise Erdrich is great, and so is Isabel Allende--The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite books ever (please don't watch the movie, it's awful despite some good actors). Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is also great. It's a bit lighter, but well-written.
posted by smirkette at 12:16 PM on July 16, 2012

Have you tried trawling through Tor.com or the Baen free library? I've read (and later purchased) all sorts of SF that I might not have picked out from a store because hey, why not skim the first chapter when it's free?

Was going to suggest this AskMe but realized it was you! I will leave it here for reference since it has a bunch more awesome suggestions in the same vein.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:19 PM on July 16, 2012

Kate Morton's books are great, and her three novels all feature a female protagonist and a vague historical mystery.
posted by something something at 12:20 PM on July 16, 2012

Seconding the Jo Walton recommendation, and I also wanted to mention her delightful book Tooth and Claw; think Jane Austen/Anthony Trollope with all the characters as dragons. Trust me, it's a really fun book.

You might also enjoy Waking the Moon or Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand.

In the Garden of Iden, the first Company book by Kage Baker, is set during Mary Tudor's reign, and the characters listen the wedding over a radio (don't ask), but the royals themselves don't appear, as I recall. It's also hilarious and heartbreaking.
posted by mogget at 12:24 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Since you're a historian, you may love Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, or you may throw it against the wall. It's the grungy sort of medieval, with increasingly confused contemporary historians as a bonus.

On a similar note, try Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. Though that's almost in the time period and location you want to avoid, I don't remember there being any important historical figures involved.
posted by asperity at 12:34 PM on July 16, 2012

Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders?
posted by elizardbits at 12:35 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Jo Walton is fun, though I would avoid her Farthing trilogy.

Seanan McGuire? It's not that epic, but it's filled with strong female characters. Megan Whalen Turner's Thief books are fun, but are probably less filled with female characters than you want. Jim Hines wrote a fun trilogy about Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

Seraphina was fun, but it's book one in a something-logy. Laini Taylor's book was the first in a trilogy, also very good.
posted by jeather at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2012

I'm a fan of L.E. Modesitt Jr. and his Spellsong Cycle could be exactly what you're looking for.
posted by zinon at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: I have read and very much liked Connie Willis's Doomsday Book -- I keep meaning to read the rest of hers, but I think I need to read Jerome K. Jerome first.

I would love to read more medieval historical novels (ala Doomsday) or Follett's two Kingsbridge books -- it's not the whole time period I would like to avoid, but just the royals/famous people - so that means no Antonia Fraser, Phillipa Gregory, etc -- someone gave me Gregory's Red Queen, but I can't bring myself to read it.

But I really enjoy well-researched historical novels about fictional characters - like Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. But I prefer fictional characters, so as to keep the history and fiction straight (Wellington being only a minor character in Sharpe).

Thank you to everyone who has posted so far - I started marking best answers, but then I realized I was marking every single post.
posted by jb at 12:45 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: So it's YA, but I love the Abhorsen trilogy (link to Sabriel, the first book) by Garth Nix to death and want everyone to read it, so I shall suggest it to you! The two primary characters are both girls (teenagers), and they get to do Exciting Things and have Special Purposes in Life.
posted by that girl at 12:47 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you would definitely like Garth Nix's Old Kingdom Trilogy, starting with Sabriel, which contains some pretty solid fantasy and relatable female characters. Plus, dead spirits!

Also, no one's mentioned Ursula K. LeGuin! Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea?
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 12:47 PM on July 16, 2012

that girl beat me to it!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2012

I know you said you want to wait on more Connie Willis, but the more you're saying, the more I think you'd like Blackout/All Clear -- especially if you're willing to swap farmers for shop clerks.
posted by gnomeloaf at 1:07 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow, I'm having a shockingly late-in-life "I am not alone?" moment here that not even Goodreads could provoke. Thanks for starting this thread! I'm pilling on for Carey, McKinley and Kay. Try his A Song For Arbonne if you haven't read that yet - the role of the female characters is nuanced and interesting. Ditto for The Last Light of the Sun.

To actually add something to the discussion... Patricia C. Wrede. Her Dealing with Dragons is probably too young (but awesome nonetheless), however The Raven Ring will please any fan of the Blue Sword, and if you like the world of Lyra there are several more to play with.

Patricia McKillip is also fantastic. Od Magic, and the Riddle-Master Trilogy are two favorites, although her reinterpretations of classic fairytales are great too.
posted by copacetic at 1:11 PM on July 16, 2012

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley ( A retelling of the King Arthur legend as viewed by the female characters)

The Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carriger ( A Steampunk adventure with a very strong female lead character)
posted by Hanuman1960 at 1:21 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: Patricia C. Wrede. Her Dealing with Dragons is probably too young (but awesome nonetheless)

So I was too old to buy the box set in my late 20s? But I didn't know her other books - I will definitely check those out.
posted by jb at 1:39 PM on July 16, 2012

Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede coauthored an epistolary Regency-with-magic trilogy that is delightful. The first book is Sorcery and Cecelia: Or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot.
posted by zoetrope at 1:41 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Poison Study books by Maria Snyder might fit the bill. A really great female lead, a badass ensemble of side characters. Also wide-reaching scheming that is presented through a small cast -- I never felt lost over who liked and hated whom.

Lots of stabbing dudes and magical combat that goes to some grim places (the main character has been raped in her past) without going into gruesome details. It's a good medium between grimdark Game of Thrones and Lackey's fluffiness. (Though if I had to be honest I'd say it's more on Lackey's end of the spectrum than Martin's.)

There's a pleasant thread of romance in there, too -- I've never been into fantasy-romance novels, and this is the only example of the genre that's really gripped me.

There's a sequel trilogy as well (starting with Storm Glass), but I haven't read them yet.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 1:44 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: The Innamorati By Midori Snyder. It's historical and fantastical and has great female characters.

Her Oran trilogy is also a great read, epic fantasy starring strong female characters who experience growth.
posted by Requiax at 1:53 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Windup Girl
posted by mkultra at 1:55 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: You might find this Ask interesting, too.
posted by EvaDestruction at 2:03 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: You might like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin
posted by tobiaswright at 2:32 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really, really liked Liz Williams' Winterstrike. I also liked Nadya, by Pat Murphy (a girl who's a werewolf is also a pioneer. She and another woman have to survive crossing mountains and stuff to go west.). You MIGHT like Emma Bull's Territory. I also really, really loved Madeline Howard's Rune of Unmaking series. Here's a quote:

‎”When you meet Sinderian Faelloneos, observe her well, for then you will be privileged to see the most gifted young wizard of her generation… [Her teachers] let her go off at an early age to break her heart on the battlefields of Rhethun, leaving all her other talents lying fallow.”
posted by spunweb at 2:55 PM on July 16, 2012

Also, I second the Oran trilogy. It was my first introduction to epic! female! characters!

Adding in Patricia C. Wrede's Lyra novels, particularly Caught in Crystal. They're a little dated, but the new editions include her talking about how and why she edited them the way she did, which is totally fascinating. It's really interesting how different they are from her YA work.
posted by spunweb at 2:57 PM on July 16, 2012

Best answer: Margaret Ball's Flameweaver is also really great; it's about a woman who's barren in a culture where women learn to control their magic through giving birth. Like, you can't really master your powers (IN THEORY) unless you can have babies. So even though she's wicked talented, she can't join the council, and might even be exiled, because she's a danger to herself and others. There are shenanigans.

Also, if you like short stories, Hellebore and Rue is a new anthology on queer women and fantasy -- some great selections in there. I found it really readable.
posted by spunweb at 3:00 PM on July 16, 2012

I would love to read more medieval historical novels

How about 12th - 14th century? Ariana Franklin's four novels about anatomist and doctor Adelia Aguilar - Mistress of the Art of Death, The Death Maze, Relics of the Dead and The Assassin's Prayer if you're in the UK; Mistress of the Art of Death, The Serpent's Tale, Grave Goods and A Murderous Procession if you're in the US - are excellent. So are Karen Maitland's three (so far) mediaeval novels, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers and The Gallows Curse.

I also enjoyed Sylvian Hamilton's 13th-century trilogy, The Bone Pedlar, The Pendragon Banner and The Gleemaiden, but their protagonist is male, and this review of the first one suggests that its historical setting is actually a little lacking. So, a tentative recommendation, I guess. I promise they're not as dark as synopses tend to make them sound!

Ariana Franklin was a pen-name for Diana Norman, and under her real name she wrote a variety of historical fiction, generally or possibly always with a female protagonist, ranging from the 12th to, I think, the 18th century. They're well worth seeking out. If I had to pick a favourite I would probably plump for The Vizard Mask, set at the time of the Great Plague - but please don't make me choose! I have a suspicion the later-period ones might fail your "no real people" rule, though; Queen Anne is certainly a character in at least one, and they're definitely in your key period.

On to fantasy: Have you read anything by Barbara Hambly? I've lost count of the number of times I've reread her books, The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage especially, putting her right up there with Bujold, Connie Willis and Diana Wynne Jones in my all-time favourites list. She has a degree in mediaeval history and imbues her fantasy worlds with a real sense of place. I'd also like to recommend the wonderful Martha Wells and (straying towards the SF boundary) Rosemary Kirstein, who is slow to write but so very worth waiting for.

Finally, if A Civil Campaign puts you in the mood for some Regency romance (with spaceships! magic!), then I second Mary Robinette Kowal and also Caroline Stevermer, both by herself and in conjunction with Patricia Wrede.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:23 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I nth Wrede (I love the Lyra series), Stevermer (I love College of Magics) & McKillip. I'd also recommend Andre Norton's Scent of Magic, Meljean Brook's Iron Duke series (takes place in a different version of England), Moira J. Moore's Heroes series (starts with Resenting the Hero), and Delia Marshall Turner's Of Swords and Spells and Nameless Magery duo (if you can find them).
posted by bluesapphires at 4:25 PM on July 16, 2012

I just finished Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, and really enjoyed it. The star is the magic system of Allomancy - he's really thought it out and does some very fun things. The main character is a tomboyish peasant female. Focus on the struggles of peasants v. nobility and the difficulties of achieving societal change after the revolution occurs. Only thing is that it might be a little action-heavy than you're after, but its not like there's a sword battle every other page or anything.
posted by Wulfhere at 4:55 PM on July 16, 2012

Some more excellent historical fiction I've not seen mentioned here, with strong female protagonists:

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters (England)

Shadow of the Moon - MM Kaye (India) (okay, the male protag is more heavily featured, but Winter can hold her own)

Olivia and Jai - Rebecca Ryman (India)

A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray (England)

Here Be Dragons - Sharon Kay Penman (medieval Wales, the start of a great trilogy)
posted by artemisia at 8:02 PM on July 16, 2012

Kristin Cashore! If you like Tamora Pierce, I cannot recommend Cashore's books highly enough. All three are spellbinding and incredibly satisfying, full of characters that stay with you (including all female protagonists) and prose that won't quit. In fact I'm surprised that no one seems to have mentioned her, since she tends to get a lot of buzz and her third book is still new.

The three books are interconnected, and while the middle one is sort of a prequel to the others, I recommend reading them in the order they were published: Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue.
posted by zadermatermorts at 9:09 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out this review by Jo Walton of Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books. They're sort of fantasy and SF, have awesome women characters, and develop into something completely different than they seem at first. SO GOOD.

I also highly recommend the Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:10 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know you said you want to wait on more Connie Willis, but the more you're saying, the more I think you'd like Blackout/All Clear -- especially if you're willing to swap farmers for shop clerks.

Oh gods, no. Anybody who thinks the Jubilee line was in place during WWII is not an author a historian needs to read. sloppily written, sloppily researched, not very good. Avoid the Windup Girl (orientalist, sexist, first page already has a whopping great Thai language error) for similar reasons.

Dorothy Dunnet's historical novels are too close for your time period to be recommended, but Mary Renault's stories set in ancient Greece are deserved classics.

Nicola Griffith's first two novels are science fiction with strong female characters; the first, Ammonite, is a planetary romance set on a planet with only women, the second, Slow River is set in Leeds, sometime in the future and is about a kidnap victim trying to build up a new life after rejecting her old family.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:02 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All of your answers are great, thank you - I'm overwhelmed with where to begin. I've marked as "best answer" those suggestions that sounded the most interesting to me for in my current mood.
posted by jb at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2012

NK Jemisin is one of the best new voices in sf in recent years. Her debut, a hundred thousand kingdoms was Hugo and nebula nominated. She hasn't yet done any historical, but she's a very strong writer. She reminds me somewhat of Ursula Le Guin.

Yes to Kage Baker too. In The Garden of Iden, recommended above, is an amazing book and is the first of her many "Company" novels. She passed away a couple of years ago, but left quite the body of work behind her.

Emma Bull, if you haven't encountered her, is well worth seeking out. Bone Dance is one of her best.

Mary Gentle is a lot of fun. A Sundial in a Grave and Ash: a Secret History are probably most to your liking. Grunts! is one you may want to avoid unless you share her very... earthy sense of humour.

Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan and City on Fire might also be up your alley. These two are head and shoulders still his best work-a megalomaniac or maybe a saviour from the point of view of a woman who might love him.

A Lee Martinez writes light fantasy and sf, but can genuinely pull off funny. Good comedy in fantasy is really rare. A Nameless Witch and Divine Misfortune fit your criteria best.
posted by bonehead at 5:04 PM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: I can't believe I forgot about her, seeing as her Sevenwaters trilogy still haunts me years after I read it, but Juliet Marillier might really fit the bill. She too takes nuggets of fairy tales as a starting point, but makes them much richer and more complex than you could have thought by the time she's done. She does like to tug your heartstrings - I sobbed my eyes out over Daughter of the Forrest - but in a good way.
posted by copacetic at 9:11 AM on September 7, 2012

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