I need to read some grown-up books. With unicorns, preferably.
April 30, 2013 10:39 AM   Subscribe

After spending several years reading largely YA, I'd like to read some grown-up secondary world fantasy novels. Persnickety tastes below the fold.

My tastes run a bit girly. As a teenager, I loved Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey, and Jennifer Roberson's Sword-Dancer series. I also loved stealth science fiction or fantasy that felt like it; most compelling to me about Lackey's Valdemar books was the mystery behind the companions. Modern fantasy that I've enjoyed includes Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King (especially the parts set in Fillory), and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (encyclopedic! But with a wry sense of humor underlying it), but both of those titles are right on the line for my tolerance of clever vs. story. I like stuff best when it has strong characters, breezing pacing, nice romance, but more rigorous worldbuilding than a lot of YA fantasy (Graceling, for example, was too simplistic for me). Feminist themes and queer characters are great too. I hate rapey, grim-dark stuff.

I want to read the grown-up, recently published equivalent of Seraphina, I guess. Suggestions?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Media & Arts (57 answers total) 167 users marked this as a favorite
Seanan McGuire!! Feminist, queer, faeries and complicated alternate world-building (more and less related to the real world), and oh so much fun. There are periodic grim-dark things but she has pledged that no one will be raped in her books; that said, the stakes are high and bad things happen to characters you care about. I am looking at your list and she hits all the points.

She has two adult urban fantasy series running right now: Toby Day (urban faerie bloodhound detective) and Incryptid (monster chasing ballroom dancer). Both are sweet and delightful on the romance. Toby takes a while to get addictive but Incryptid is fun right off the bat. Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots is book 1 of 2, about a superhero who animates "totemic representations with species-appropriate weaponry" and is both awesome and heartbreaking.

This video review about sums it up.
posted by athenasbanquet at 10:50 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always recommend "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson. No summary is going to give you a good sense of the feminist/world building themes, but the _values_ at the core are intricate and worthwhile, I think. Please give it a try!
posted by amtho at 10:51 AM on April 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: YOU MIGHT LIKE my Unusual Fantasy bookshelf on Goodreads. I don't know if that link is public though...

I'd try Patricia McKillip, Patricia C. Wrede (especially with Caroline Stevermer--Sorcery & Cecelia), Laura Lam's debut novel, Paula Volsky if you missed out on her previously. I'm not sure if N. K. Jemisin would be too dark for you, but she's good on feminist themes/queer characters/worldbuilding.
posted by wintersweet at 10:51 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you'd enjoy Brandon Sanderson - any of Warbreaker (prologue available here), Elantris (his first book, and fun but weaker than the newer stuff) or the Mistborn series.
posted by jacalata at 10:51 AM on April 30, 2013

Oh I am so happy to recommend to you a new book by a new writer that may just fit your bill. This is a story that puts folklore characters into a real world (as opposed, say, to Jonathan Strange, which creates a world in which magic is a given), so that if normal people were to realize who these characters are, they would be horrified and disbelieving. So nothing twee here.

The book is The Golum and the Jinni. Lots of terrific plot and interesting characters.

There are a couple of books I'm also going to throw out there that may also suit you. Another Golum story, this one in a speculative fiction universe, called He, She, and It, which I've read several times and really really enjoy.

Also, one of my favorite books of all time, The Sparrow, just an amazing book about all kinds of thoughtful questions, supported by a terrific premise.
posted by janey47 at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist series? The first one is basically Jane Austen with magic (which I liked!), but the second two are a lot more interesting.
posted by leesh at 10:52 AM on April 30, 2013

I also loved The Golem and the Jinni, and heartily second that recommendation.
posted by leesh at 10:53 AM on April 30, 2013

You have read Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, right?

Also his The Folk of the Air.

Both are very good, gentle, funny, left-leaning, and Folk of the Air, though not perfect, actually has major characters of color in it - streets ahead of most other stuff.
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know that there was a novelization of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. His American Gods may also appeal.

And I haven't read it, but from what I know of it the book Winter's Tale may also fit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sharon Shinn's Mystic & Rider series were very nice. (Also her Archangel series, although it's been a long time since I read them, and my recollection is that they got a little weird later in the series.)
posted by leahwrenn at 10:57 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: oh, on preview - seconding Patricia McKillip. I just finished Alphabet of Thorn at 2am last night. Multiple interesting female characters and a solid story.

You might also like Dragonsbane, told by a witch in a land where magic and possibly technology are slowly fading from use.
posted by jacalata at 10:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and you might enjoy Lud-In-The-Mist - it isn't feminist though it's by a woman and its class politics are dreadful, but it is dreamy and strange and has lots of wonderful visual images; truly a tour-de-force of the field - and certainly no grimdark rapey stuff at all. I am a champ-at-the-bit anarchist who hates conservative books, but I love this one. (China Mieville also recommends it.)

Oh, and you should totally read Angela Carter's novel Nights At The Circus - feminism, queer characters, very sweet (straight) central romance, wonderful women characters, wonderful imagery. Very, very pleasant but not simple-minded.
posted by Frowner at 10:58 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe Holly Black?
posted by Kitteh at 11:03 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: Kage Baker's 3 books(not a series really, but set in the same world) that start with "Anvil of the World" have a lighthearted feel, are fast-paced, but feature some really interesting world building underneath them (particularly the second book, House of the Stag, which is FANTASTIC). Unfortunately the author passed away so there won't be any more.

David Anthony Durham's "Acacia" series has the fast pace and action of a popcorn fantasy series, but some interesting ideas and great, non-traditional worldbuilding underneath.

Neither is grimdark. I hate that crap too.
posted by selfnoise at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2013

Oh, I think that Sorcery & Cecelia and Pantomime might be shelved in YA some places, but ...
posted by wintersweet at 11:08 AM on April 30, 2013

The Last Unicorn.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:09 AM on April 30, 2013

Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series is an absolute delight!
posted by Hanuman1960 at 11:15 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I hesitantly recommend Dune, at least the first three books. I loved it, amazing world building, a great mix of sci-fi and culture/religion, and it's not misogynistic or reduce the women in the story to "things to have sex happen to" (afaik) (which is more than what I can say for some Neil Stephenson novels.) Dune has a male protagonist, but the story is so fantastic and even handed (women play a very important role) that it might be interesting to you. I only hesitate because it walks the fine line between sci-fi and fantasy.

Seconding Neil Gaiman! I've read American Gods and Neverwhere and both were excellent. He has a great way of writing gender that doesn't make you grit your teeth (another sideways glance at Stephenson...)
posted by absquatulate at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2013

The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin! The first one is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
posted by songs about trains at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. Two of them are out, the third comes out next year - they're so good I'll recommend them without waiting.

Cat Valente's Orphan's Tales are delicious - gorgeous, gorgeous writing in a fairy-tale structure. (Bonus: if you want to indulge your YA tastes, read the Fairyland books!)

Brandon Sanderson does a thing that you will either like or dislike. He writes books with really structured, logical magic systems and derives everything else from that. He's probably worth trying, and has a couple of standalone novels that would work. I read his first book Elantris first and liked it just fine; it's probably representative.

Mary Robinette Kowal's books are historical fantasy, not second-world, but they are lovely. (The first one mostly failed to work for me because romance bores me, but the worldbuilding is great and each subsequent book has been closer to my tastes. The fourth one will be a heist novel, and I can't fucking wait.)

Speaking of heist novels, Scott Lynch does some super fun things in The Lies of Locke Lamora and sequels.

If you haven't read any Tanya Huff do so immediately. She's like Mercedes Lackey with better writing and more queer themes. Still fairly fluffy, but fucking delightful, and her most recent book The Silvered is in fact second-world fantasy.

Jacqueline Carey is one of those you will either love or hate. Ornate language, complicated plotting, lots of sex of all kinds. Start with Kushiel's Dart if you try it.

Totally second N.K. Jemisin - I liked the Dreamblood duology better, but you can't go wrong.

A note for commenters: second-world fantasy is a term of art and refers to books that take place on A World Not Our Own. So, Seanan McGuire and Neal Stephenson are right out, likewise Neil Gaiman.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:22 AM on April 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

We seem to have a lot of the same favorites and lately I've been tearing through the Alera books by Jim Butcher.
posted by brilliantine at 11:26 AM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the excellent suggestions so far! I've best-answered some things that immediately jump out at me as awesome sounding. Patricia McKillip sounds right up my alley, as does Sharon Shinn, and I had no idea that Patricia C. Wrede wrote grown-up books! Awesome.

I like Gaiman lots (especially Stardust), but am familiar with most of his stuff. I read the first Dune and it bored me (sorry). And r_n nailed it about McGuire and Stephenson, though I know I really do need to try them--I'm looking for stuff that's explicitly not Terran.

(Marge Piercy is great, and some of these sound fantastic or have been on my list for years, like The Sparrow, so I really appreciate all these recs and would like to meet-up with you at my local coffee shop to chat about books, thanks.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:26 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suggest you give the translations of Max Frei (the pen name of Svetlana Martynchik) a try. The first three, starting with The Stranger are out in English and they're funny and charming.

They're about a man who leaves our real world and travels to a dreamlike world of Echo where he joins the police force in charge of regulating magic. It's not a police procedural at all, but an excuse to have the characters poke around the fascinating world that's set up. I like it for all sorts of reasons, but one of the things I like about it the most is that while the characters in it all say that magic has definite rules, it's obvious that it really doesn't and the author is having fun with it as it goes along.

The English translations seem, to me, to be very good and I really like the feeling of the writing, which is wry and sardonic. I imagine that if it's this good in English it just must be magic in Russian.
posted by bswinburn at 11:29 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hey, nobody has said Bujold yet.

I don't know most of the books you're referencing, but I think Lois M. Bujold will be right up your alley. She has a couple of fantasy series, the Sharing Knife series and the Curse of Chalion series. (Update, you may find Sharing Knife a little light--but still worth a try sooner or later.)

The first two books in the Curse of Chalion series are especially good, some of the best fiction I've read.
posted by mattu at 11:50 AM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Nicola Griffith's Ammonite might serve.
posted by rtha at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2013

The Riddlemaster Of Hed series (sorry no link but typing this on phone at stop light) by Patricia McKillip. I envy anyone discovering it for the first time. Great romance, orriginal world, magical storytelling! The second book in the series focuses entirely on the ladies side of the story.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:57 AM on April 30, 2013

Seconding Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees. Stardust is something of an homage to Mirrlees and Dunsany.
posted by Iridic at 11:57 AM on April 30, 2013

Oh, enthusiastically confirming The Sparrow!

Also, fun fact - I read it at the recommendation of a friend who spent a couple years in a Jesuit seminary, and he vouched for the accuracy of its theology (and even recognized one guy they described in a throwaway scene well enough to realize "wait, this guy was my monsignor!").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:58 AM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: Ellen Kushner's Riverside novels, including The Fall of the Kings co-written with her partner, Delia Sherman.

Laurie J Marks' Elemental Logic series.

Both of these have a queer aesthetic running through them.
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:59 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Robin McKinley is well known for her YA, but her adult novel Sunshine is wonderful and sounds right up your alley. And The Mists of Avalon is a feminist classic, although very sad in some parts.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:04 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I loved Point of Hopes and its sequel (and now there is a 3rd in the series, a novella). Great worldbuilding and also has gay and bi characters.
posted by pointystick at 12:10 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I forgot. Anything Martha Wells has ever written. My favorite by far is The Death of the Necromancer, which is available electronically, although I think it's out of print. (Her first, The Element of Fire, I know was available for free on her website after her publisher let it go out of print.) The next three books in the same world (beginning with The Ships of Air) are also very entertaining.

You should just buy and read The Death of the Necromancer today. You'll like it.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:21 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should try Pamela Dean's the Secret Country trilogy. There are kids and young adults as characters, but these are not "kids books." More on Pamela Dean.
posted by gudrun at 12:37 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Element of Fire is also on sale for Kindle on Amazon, as are City of Bones and Wheel of the Infinite, both of which would probably suit. I love all of her stuff, but Element of Fire is still one of my favorites because I love the characters and the swashbuckling so much.
posted by PussKillian at 12:37 PM on April 30, 2013

And r_n nailed it about McGuire and Stephenson, though I know I really do need to try them--I'm looking for stuff that's explicitly not Terran.

I would def give 'the Diamond Age' a shot, though...it's on earth, sure, but an earth transformed by nanotech until it's only vaguely recognizable...the first 40 pages or so are delightfully opaque (in a 'what the hell? where am I?" way)...his other books, maybe not so much...'the Diamond Age'? that one's for you.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:43 PM on April 30, 2013

We have similar tastes. I have just read Among Others by Jo Walton and might recommend it--it has a YA protagonist but is not YA, a bit grim but not rapey, and thought-provoking.

Oh, also, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern?
posted by epanalepsis at 12:55 PM on April 30, 2013

I was coming in to recommend Elizabeth Bear and Cathrine Valente, I especially like Valente's "Dirge for Prester John" series (I recommend reading On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears first to get an appreciation of the literary tradition she's referencing, but it's enjoyable without it.)

Also, it's a little light on romance, but Ekaterina Sedia writes some great urban fantasy.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:55 PM on April 30, 2013

No, thinking about it, I think my suggestions may be exactly not what you are looking for. Sorry.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:58 PM on April 30, 2013

I would def give 'the Diamond Age' a shot, though...it's on earth, sure, but an earth transformed by nanotech until it's only vaguely recognizable...the first 40 pages or so are delightfully opaque (in a 'what the hell? where am I?" way)...his other books, maybe not so much...'the Diamond Age'? that one's for you.

_The Diamond Age_ is so awesome for the first 80% and so crappy for the last 20% that I'm always hesitant to recommend it, though.

(I totally, totally loved _Anathem_, but it's not for everyone. On the other hand, if you want wish-fulfillment for mathematicians, plus a totally amusing awesome ending, give it a try. The first 150 pages or so are really slow, though.)
posted by leahwrenn at 12:58 PM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: If it makes you feel any better, epanalepsis, I loved Among Others. :)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: I hate rapey, grim-dark stuff

I would not ordinarily comment on others' suggestions, but since you mention it as one you're interested in, this is a crucial element of The Sparrow.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:23 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: I see nobody has recommended Kate Elliott or Sherwood Smith yet.

A good starter for Elliott is Cold Magic, the first of a trilogy in a genre of her own devising: icepunk! It's very much secondary-world fantasy, in which the Roman empire never really fell, and a 13th-C invasion of ghouls in Africa drove a diaspora of west African magic-workers to northern Europe. Also, there's an ice age and people have developed various types of magic, but it's now the dawn of the Industrial age and social change is in the air. The story itself involves two sister/cousins, an arranged marriage, mysterious powers, an endearingly enthusiastic shapechanger named Rory, escapes, captures, battles, sea voyages, and class conflict.

I can't recommend Elliott enough, and in a just world, she'd be as well known as GRR Martin. She actually knows how to plan, write, and finish an epic fantasy series. And without all the extraneous rapes, to boot.

Sherwood Smith has been writing stories set in her own invented universe for about forty years, so if you pick her up randomly, you'll find stuff that ranges from unimpressive juvenalia to really very professional tightly-written political fantasy. Her best known books are either Crown Duel (the story of a rebellion against a tyrant, led by a young woman who doesn't really know what she's doing), or the Inda sequence, four volumes that start off looking like a school/training story (the beginning is set at a military academy) but which go far afield, into pirates and politics and cross-universe invasions.

Both Elliott and Smith tend to have women driving their plots, and not solely warrior women, either. All types of women do all types of things in their books, from marrying for position to fighting on the battlefield to running a trading house on the edge of the wilderness. Neither indulges in the kind of gross fetishization of sexual violence one sees in some other fantasy.

I also recommend Ankharet Wells' Hawkwood novels, which are self-published and very good. They're technically SF--a lost colony situation--but there's a great deal of overlap with fantasy in the tropes used. I really enjoyed them a lot and my only complaint is that there isn't enough exposition regarding the world-building.

Finally, Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman novels are second-world fantasy, sort of. What they really are is for the reader to determine, but they are very well-written, with excellent thoughtful world-building. Rowan is a Steerswoman, whose job it is to discover things and share information--sort of like a traveling librarian/ecologist/cartographer/researcher. And one day she discovers some odd jewels that appear to have fallen from the sky. Her search for their origin changes her understanding of the world--and the reader's--in some brilliant and unexpected ways. I cannot recommend Kirstein strongly enough, and my only complaint there is that she hasn't finished the series yet! She writes agonizingly slowly.

I hope one of these strikes your fancy!
posted by suelac at 1:46 PM on April 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Oh, and one more! Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons is a secondary-world fantasy: it's the first of a series about the career of one of those grand dames who went exploring and tramping about in the far corners of the world, even if they had to do it in crinolines and carting along a silver tea-service to keep the wilderness at bay. The thing that makes it fantasy is that this is a world in which dragons exist, and our well-bred young heroine is completely obsessed with learning everything she possibly can about them. This, of course, is not considered appropriate for a young lady of good family...

In addition to the engaging story, the novel (it just came out a couple of months ago) has a marvelous series of illustrations of dragons.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series, I think it'll be very fun.
posted by suelac at 2:11 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear – with a third volume to come – are well-crafted fantasy, with a male protagonist but enough strong memorable female characters that they're not the usual sausage fest. Most fantasy rings false to me, but this was an exception.
posted by zadcat at 2:12 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oops, I messed up my second link, so here is the correct one for more on Pamela Dean.
posted by gudrun at 2:45 PM on April 30, 2013

Ooh yes, Cold Magic is fantastic-- I'm reading the second one now and it is pretty great. I'd also like to second the Swordpoint recommendation.
posted by NoraReed at 3:22 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: For what it's worth, I thought the Rothfuss books - though they had a great system of magic - were mostly juvenalia and the gender roles were sooper dooper traditional and the women basically existed as foils/fantasies for the young male protagonist. But they are very popular so maybe I'm just smoking a whole bunch of crack.

I am in the midst of reading Robert Redick's Chathrand Voyages quartet, and I am really enjoying it. I certainly wouldn't call it rapey and definitely not grim dark - though the overarching plot is fairly standish stop-the-apocalypse kind of stuff. What I am loving about it is a very retro feel that I can't quite put my finger on (a combination, I think, of no "gimmick" or note towards any trends in fantasy publishing whatsoever, and a commitment to adventurous story), a generally high standard of writing, and wonderfully three-dimensional characters including some of the most well-drawn women I've read in the fantasy genre by a male author. One of the two main characters is female, and there's no sense at all that the women in the book are merely accessories for men powering the narrative. I'm enjoying them quite a bit.

Oh, and I think I may have memailed you once about this, but the Roumania Quartet by Paul Park is really, really something else. The main characters are all women, complex and sympathetic. The prose quality is astonishingly high for the genre, and though they have the trappings of YA, they most definitely are not. It's bitterly disappointing to me that these books were not a commercial success because Park did something quite unique and powerful with them. Highly recommended.
posted by smoke at 3:57 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: We have very similar taste. I LOVED Seraphina! (I'm adding a bunch of these recs to my list.)

I've been devouring Guy Gavriel Kay's work lately. He is so, so good, and usually has good female characters. His work is so lyrical and really sticks with me. It's historical fantasy. He's got an Arthurian trilogy (Fionavar) which is really good, but I like his four loosely related Sarantine books best, and Ysabel, which is set now.

Laini Taylor is a little dark, but not rape-y dark (I hate that too)--really interesting, creative fantasy with some romance, good female characters.

Have you read Tamora Pierce? I know she's technically YA but her later work is actually pretty adult (the Trickster books and the Beka Cooper books), and even the YA-ier stuff is awesome.

Ursula LeGuin, especially her later EarthSea books---I love, love, love the female characters in the last few books.
posted by min at 6:11 PM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and Naomi Novik! Rewriting England's history with dragons. They're really fun.
posted by min at 6:12 PM on April 30, 2013

Best answer: Hey, nobody has said Bujold yet.

that's because I hadn't come into the thread yet, obsessive Bujold fan that I am. She has great female characters, sweet romances, and some kick-ass religion building in her Chalion-verse, and overall world-building in the Sharing Knife series.

If you feel like simple and romantic, then start with the Beguilement, but be sure to have the second book (Legacy) on hand, as the series really is two novels in one volume. The series is kitchen-sink in alterno-pioneer days rather than more typical fantasy; I found this refreshing.

Her other main fantasy world is that of Curse of Chalion: the landscape, clothes and manners are largely lifted from fifteenth century Spain, but the politics are given a fresh new spin with one of the best creations I've ever seen of a fantasy spiritual world: the gods, curses, demons, what happens after death. All three novels set in the world are excellent, and all three have great mystical mysteries to be solved.

The second novel, Paladin of Souls stands out for having a middle-aged widow for its heroine (definitely not a typical fantasy character) - without being political, it's always felt like one of the most feminist books to me because the female characters are so important to the story (basically the main characters; the men get to be love interests). Also, even more time with the awesome gods than the first book (I am so a devotee of the Bastard).

I would also second Tanya Huff: Sing the Four Quarters is sweet, and she's one of the best fantasy authors writing queer characters.
posted by jb at 6:51 PM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

DON'T read the Fionavar books, the gender roles are terrible and there is some rapiness. Kay's later stuff is better.
posted by leesh at 6:51 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry, OP, it seems that the GoodReads link is private, but if anyone wants to add me there, just let me know you're from MeFi.
posted by wintersweet at 7:01 PM on April 30, 2013


Not only is it rip-roaringly good and I think I have to go read it right now that it's been mentioned, but it has the single best and most moving description of a religious experience that I have ever read (and I went to seminary, I have read a lot of them!). Like seriously close your browser window and go read it RIGHT NOW. RIGHT NOW. (And I have never read Bujold's other stuff so I'm not a fangirl saying that.)

Sherwood Smith has made a lot of her work available in ebook format, very inexpensively, that isn't available in print, so if you enjoy "Crown Duel," you can kindle your way through a lot of novellas and short stories and lesser novels and so on that she's put out. Some are a little rough around the edges but most are quite enjoyable.

I did not like The Sparrow (for a variety of reasons), but I don't think it's rapey and grim-dark in the way that GRRM is; there is a major rapey plot point but it is plot-crucial and not just gratuitously thrown in to illustrate brutality.

Ursula LeGuin, of course. I think people don't read her short story collections enough! Of course if you haven't read her novels get on that instantly.

These are a little off the beaten path and hard to find, but Daniel Hood's Fanuilh series, which is about a detective in a magical world with vaguely Roman-ish stuff, is really fun. Male protagonist, but not off-putting to feminist fantasy fans I don't think.

Would you count Garth Nix's Abhorsen series as YA or adult? If adult, then that. :)

The Sevenwaters Trilogy, which I mentally categorize as "if Lackey were a much better author." Romantic fantasy, myths retold, strong female protagonist, Celticy, light, I think you'll like it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:21 PM on April 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If by chance you've missed PC Hodgell's Kencyrath books, I'll put in a strong recommendation (and advise starting with The God Stalker Chronicles, the first two books reissued in one volume).

The world building of the Kencyrath series is intense, enough that I bought the first two books literally decades after their release because I remembered their details so strongly. The protagonist, Jame, is incredibly mysterious (there's a huge mystery with what happened to her past and why her twin and she are no longer the same age and it's fantastic and my description isn't doing it justice at all) and I seem to recall her being somewhat fluid in sexuality/gender identity (more the latter, I think). It's a series that tackles religion and honor and responsibility and apocalyptic high drama while also being incredibly readable and somehow not as dark as the summary makes it sound.

I'm floundering here, but I truly cannot recommend the series highly enough.
posted by librarylis at 8:06 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate will be perfect for you! You must give her a try.

I also like Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series, and of course, #1 in my book is Terry Pratchett for sheer brilliance and entertainment. He's written a couple of books in conjunction with Neil Gaiman, but I personally prefer those without Gaiman.

Thanks to everyone for the new book list!
posted by aryma at 9:15 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding PC Hodgell's Kencyrath books. You really have to ignore the very trashy covers, the books themselves are nothing like that.

Diana Wynne Jones is usually more YA, but has written books for grown-ups. A Sudden Wild Magic and Deep Secret, for example, also Fire and Hemlock which is both an amazingly satisfying and funny adventure with fairy tale overtones (horses but no unicorns, sorry) but also an extremely deep meditation on love, loss and sacrifice. Highly recommended. Also The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin take all those fantasy tropes and send them up. Whee!

I don't know if they'll be your thing, but Steven Brust's Dragaeran books are awesome. The Vlad Taltos novels have a laconic sense of humour, frequently black, and despite having an assassin for a main character are remarkably non-dire. The Khaavren Romances are set in the same world but mostly earlier and seem to have begun with a joyous celebration/send-up of The Three Musketeers. Immensely fun.

Diane Duane is more well-known for her kids' Young Wizards series but also wrote some feminist/queer fantasy known as The Middle Kingdoms series (or I call them the "Door" books). These are largely out of print but I believe you can get them all as ebooks.

Finally, Sheri S Tepper does awesome feminist fantasy and science fiction. She has several series set in the world of the True Game which are probably the most fantasy books, but also were written fairly early on and I think she gets better. Anyway, there's the Peter trilogy, the Mavin trilogy and the Jinian trilogy - I think the Jinian ones are the best. Also stand-alone novels The Gate to Women's Country and Beauty, though actually may be better to avoid Beauty. Hm. Oh, and the Marianne trilogy, also sadly out of print, is awesomely awesome made of awesome. Discovering long-lost magical heritage, messing about with time, alternate worlds, spooky libraries, getting sucked into a board game with dire consequences, just so much fun! Ok, stopping now.
posted by Athanassiel at 11:32 PM on April 30, 2013

I wish there was a way to collate all these awesome suggestions for export, or to an amazon wishlist, or something... I've fav'd the thread, but I'd love to have a batch method of adding these to a wishlist for gift-giving times... Thank you everyone and the OP for the awesome suggestions!

OP: No worries on the Dune opinion; I get that.

Is the Mists of Avalon too... not otherworldly? It is Arthurain in nature, and so does take place on Earth (I presume that's what "Terran" means?) but it's a good story, an interesting remix of familiar tales, and lots of good powerful women.
posted by absquatulate at 2:42 PM on May 1, 2013

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