Intersectional Fantasy Novels?
May 30, 2019 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Trying to find fantasy novels addressing contemporary issues. Help?

A friend of mine loves science fiction but dismisses fantasy almost entirely. He says it doesn't deal with issues of class, gender/sexuality, and/or race (to take a few examples) the way science fiction does. Now I know fantasy, like any other genre, has plenty of junk in it, but I know that it's also evolved a lot in the last, say, twenty years.

I'm wondering if you all have book recommendations for him that meet any of the following criteria:

- Subverts or otherwise deconstructs the whole "chosen one" narrative
- Deals with class, gender, sexuality, and/or race in a thoughtful way (so Bright but good)
- Is not a multi-volume epic that just sprawls needlessly

I'm hoping for fantasy novels specifically, but short stories, film, and/or graphic novels are also fair game.

Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: - Subverts or otherwise deconstructs the whole "chosen one" narrative

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville is a good deconstruction of this - the chosen one's best friend ends up being the protagonist of the story.

- Deals with class, gender, sexuality, and/or race in a thoughtful way

I'm just going to throw NK Jemisin out there as the obvious example, and might come up with more later. One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Fifth Season are both fantasy series that have come up with a bunch of press and stop at a trilogy.

The Dream Quest of Velitt Boe is a really thoughtful reimagining of Lovecraft through a feminist lens.

This is a comic, but I've really, really enjoyed Delver, for what it's been doing around race, class and the (adventuring) gig economy.
posted by dinty_moore at 10:17 AM on May 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Poppy War sort of subverts the magical academy trope. It’s fantastical history of 20th century China. So it deals with some tough stuff, e.g. genocide, racial discrimination, sex-based discrimination, etc. Hell of a hard hitting debut novel, RF Kuang got it published before she headed off to grad school in the UK.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:20 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For Jemisin, I would recommend your friend start with The Fifth Season, which is both more explicit about such issues and, frankly, considerably more sophisticated. (Hundred Thousand Kingdoms had a princess who was somehow ranged on the "non-powerful" side and who also was apparently able to wield power back home in a totally innocent and tea-party-like fashion, except the one time she was forced!!! to do something bad.)
posted by praemunire at 10:22 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Tiptree Award is a yearly award for speculative fiction (so fantasy or sci fi) that critically addresses gender and often race and class also. 2018's winner is a short fantasy story about murdered women in Mexico. Here's the list from this year:

Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death addresses genocide and violence against women.

Anna-Marie McLemore's "When the Moon Was Ours" is a really sweet fantasy romance where one of the characters is a trans man.
posted by esker at 10:34 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Augh your friend is so, so wrong, I'm sorry. Your friend has not read deeply or attentively enough.

The Winged Histories is about how class, colonialism and gender intersect. (Among other things.)

Travel Light, by leftist feminist surrealist Naomi Mitchison, is about gender and power and materialism and it was published in 1952.

You can start with Nalo Hopkinson by reading Brown Girl In The Ring.

Marge Piercy's He, She and It has two stories - a fantasy/folktale retelling of the Golem of Prague and a near-future SF dystopia/utopia - which intersect and interrogate each other. Over the years, I've come to be more deeply moved by the fantasy side of the book.

Zen Cho's books, including Sorcerer to the Crown, undercut a lot of chosen-one-ish things.

Your friend might productively read some writing about fantasy and science fiction written by leftists - I'm particularly thinking of China Mieville's short piece in Red Planets where he basically says that the distinction is social and conservative rather than structural. (I think the whole NK Jemisin thing gets at this - her books are amazing, but are they SF or fantasy? They're kind of....both.)

And while we're on the "science fiction or fantasy" question: Kai Ashante Wilson is the best, the best, and his books have a little gloss of science fiction but are obviously actually fantasy.

Or Samuel Delaney's Neveryona books (a pretty clear influence on Wilson).

And then we get into all kinds of questions like "what about ghost and vampire stories" - many written by women, many directly about gender and class.

Jeez, what about Marlon James's new book? That's as fantasy as all get out and deals with social issues at many, many levels.
posted by Frowner at 10:36 AM on May 30, 2019 [11 favorites]

I think it would also be useful for your friend to think carefully about what he means by the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. There is a very obvious distinction when you're talking about The Lord of the Rings versus the Foundation Trilogy, but there is far, far more grey area than people tend to consider.

For instance: Ninefox Gambit and its sequels are formally science fiction - space ships, laser battles, etc. But the "calendrical warfare" which structures the books is basically "space magic", as the author himself acknowledges. The "science" in the fiction doesn't do the work that a lot of SF fans assume it does.

Or what about a dying earth/far future series like The Book of the New Sun, which has aliens and future technology and a basically non-magical explanation for its events, but does not even remotely read like a science fiction novel? (It's really good - I would not go to bat for it as a political book, but it is on the list with Lord of the Rings, the Lilith's Brood trilogy, etc.)

Very often, what we really mean by science fiction versus fantasy is "things figured as Very Serious And For Men And Women Who Are Not Like The Other Girls" versus "things that are considered stupid because they are coded female".

Like consider New Wave science fiction in general - take Moderan (very bizarre, published in the sixties and seventies, a takedown of all kinds of stuff about masculinity and written by a dude). Is that science fiction or fantasy? Or M John Harrison's Viriconium books - dying earth, aliens, etc, but also knights and a general seventies metal glam feeling.
posted by Frowner at 10:51 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Fantasy right now is undergoing something of a queer, multicultural, and globalization revolution as authors from around the world are getting mainstream attention. 2011 was the year when African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean writers dominated the World Fantasy Awards, Redemption in Indigo (Parallax), Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Hugo Nominee), Zoo City (Clarke), and Who Fears Death (World Fantasy Award). Jemisin's "City Born Great " is available online as a novella and positions New York in the 21st century as the latest to become magically self-aware (after Buenos Aires, I think). JY Yang and Anette de Bodard are award-nominated authors who sorta get grouped in "silkpunk" and also do LGBTQ SFF. Everyone seems to be raving about Roanhorse's Trail of Lighting.

Lightspeed magazine just published "The Ocean that Fades into the Sky" which is science fiction about colonialism. "Portals" in the same issue deals with compulsory heterosexuality and mental illness, not an easy read. Lightspeed and Strange Horizons frequently covers LGBTQ, feminist, and multicultural SFF. Both are good sources for short-form work. I'll also plug Liz Bourke and Bogi Takacs as reviewers who routinely cover LGBTQ fantasy and science fiction. In anthologies, Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time collects LGBT, queer, and two-spirit first nations stories (both fantasy and science fiction). Takacs also edits Transcendent, transgender speculative fiction.

Historically, I don't think it's quite fair. A big part of what put Neil Gaiman on the map as a leader in comics and urban fantasy were the LGBTQ characters of Sandman. Anne Rice's fairy tale erotic arguably paved opened the door to a lot of conversations about sexuality in fantasy. Le Guin revisited Eathsea with a stronger feminist lens, although I'd argue that it's already subverting some of the dominant hero tropes, as did The Last Unicorn. Butler and Delaney did some fantasy as well, although I've not had the opportunity to get into either. Mieville is pretty explicitly Marxist and a critic of Tolkien, and it shows. He's probably the most visible advocate that fantasy can also serve as a framework for big thought experiments about social problems.

Oh, and P. Djeli Clark's jazz-age fantasy including "Dead Djin in Cairo" is deconstructing some of the ethnocentrism of steampunk. Alix Harrow does something similar with Weird West in "Autobiography of a Traitor and Half-Savage".

In film, I'd count Russian Doll and The Good Place as good, although as with anything they're not to everyone's taste. I'd argue for Sandman as having a big influence on contemporary fantasy. Musically, Zeal & Ardor have been covered on metafilter.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:12 AM on May 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh, less intersectional but still interesting. Mieville describes fantasy as an experiment where moral and ethical abstractions are reified in concrete terms. No one does this more explicitly than Terry Pratchett in Diskworld, where ghostly future bacon slowly materializes in the Pork Bellies Futures Warehouse. Diskworld sort of starts off as a self-aware parody of fantasy tropes, but turns its social constructivist lens to our own myths about the nature of civilization. The more self-aware characters like Death, Weatherwax, and sometimes Vimes will even say this explicitly.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:48 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can certainly look farther back than twenty years ago and find socially conscious fantasy literature. In 1990, Ursula K. Le Guin revisited her Earthsea trilogy with an explicitly feminist followup novel, Tehanu.

As mentioned above, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a 600+ page African fantasy epic about toxic masculinity.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a political drama tackling colonialism and centering queer characters.

Spinning Silver is a fairy tale retelling that centers female protagonists, including the daughter of a Jewish moneylender and a young peasant woman escaping an abusive household.

Or you could just show your friend the Tiptree Awards, which feature scores of fantasy novels about gender. For that matter, many of the fantasy novels that have been nominated for Hugos in the last 10 years fit your criteria.
posted by toastedcheese at 11:49 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Like Frowner, I'm ????????? about your friend's having such strong opinions about a genre he clearly has minimal familiarity with.

If he respects Octavia Butler's overtly scifi work, has he read Kindred? I mean, it's Octavia Butler writing about the antebellum US South, so you know it's unflinching. And you can point out to him that its central trope is shared by one of the fantasy novels he probably looks down on, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

And Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is a synthesis of slave escape narratives with Borges-style magical realism, where the Underground Railroad is an actual, physical train that runs underground, taking slaves north.

If he doesn't accept "actual historical contexts with fantasy or magic elements" as being fantasy, whatever that means, I'm seconding Jemisin's Fifth Season over any other entry point into her work. It definitely subverts the chosen one narrative, definitely deals with class, gender, institutional oppression, and Heavy Stuff, and makes Jemisin's point in the very first book, although your friend can continue on if he wants.

And if you want something short and punchy, Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers did for my section of ladydom what Cat Person did for a wider audience, but it wears its discussion of gender and trope-subversion a little more subtly.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:50 AM on May 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I highly recommend Eden Robinson's Trickster Trilogy (two books so far - Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift)!

It majorly subverts/deconstructs the chosen one narrative and European/colonial constructions of human beings' relationship to the world of magic. It deals very specifically with race, class, gender and sexuality, not just in terms of the main characters' present lives but also within the legacy of residential schools and conversion. It's also just plain excellently written, with deep veins of emotion and humour running through some rock-solid storytelling.
posted by northernish at 11:51 AM on May 30, 2019

Best answer: You know, I've been thinking on this and I'd probably just throw a link to The Secret Lives of Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington in his face and run away.

Like, there's more out there, especially if you allow for horror to be fantasy. But what I suspect is happening, and is something that I run into from time to time, is that anything outside of Western European Epic Fantasy probably doesn't register as fantasy to him, which is on him. As Frowner mentioned, the line between fantasy and science fiction is awfully nebulous and pretty much meaningless, and neither genre is inherently liberal or conservative. And this is still the case if you subscribe to the 'science fiction is about the future, fantasy is about the past' definitions of the genres - because it's how we define our futures and our pasts that make the works liberal or conservative, not the settings themselves.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:03 PM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was like your friend - loved science fiction, hated fantasy. It wasn't because I coded fantasy as female (I'm a woman and actually coded it as very much the opposite) but because I mistakenly thought most fantasy books took place in that classic medieval, dragons and barrels and burlap environment. After I started doing some research and reading, I found that I actually really do like fantasy but I just don't connect with that particular setting.

So, alongside a lot of the very excellent recommendations above, I really enjoyed Jade City by Fonda Lee. I'm Asian and it was nice to see an Asian-inspired environment represented in fantasy for me. Just that shift in representation was a subversion, personally.
posted by thebots at 12:26 PM on May 30, 2019

Without delving into your buddy's definitions of fantasy I want to recommend a friends book Hollow Oaks which is urban fantasy set in Ireland and features a trans main character, members of the travelling community, and deals with exploitation of minority cultures through the main characters "poaching" of faerie energy. It's on kindle and regular. I read an earlier draft and loved it, hope the final draft hasn't changed too much.
posted by Iteki at 12:28 PM on May 30, 2019

Also do check out Ann Leckie's Raven Tower. No spoilers, but there are some ambiguous genders in the book which are barely commented on and not really treated as a big deal, and I'm not sure if "sentient godlike rock" is a class, gender and/or sexuality.
posted by signal at 12:48 PM on May 30, 2019

The Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks . Bonus: the fourth book is finally coming out this week after 12 years since the previous one!
posted by exceptinsects at 4:21 PM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just read Sam Sykes' "The City Stained Red," which is very much about race, oppression, and inequality. (I'm a little surprised it took me this long to find a fantasy series that explored race through the metaphor of literal race but I honestly can't think of another example right now.)

Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu is a collection of short stories set in worlds inspired by African mythology. The prologue is a flash fiction of a literal magical Negro abandoning the protagonist.

I forget the author right now, but "An Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria" is a collection of short stories drawing from Cuban mythology (and recent history).

Also, +1 for Poppy War. It is very much Harry Potter and the Rape of Nanjing. I'm sad to hear that RF Kuang has gone to grad school, because that probably means there won't be any sequel for a good long time.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:40 PM on May 30, 2019

I forget the author right now, but "An Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria" is a collection of short stories drawing from Cuban mythology (and recent history).

Carlos Hernandez

I’d also like to recommend Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria.
posted by azalea_chant at 10:40 PM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Um, what sort of fantasy has your friend been reading? Because there's tons that DEFINITELY does.

Nthing NK Jemisin. She's the first three-time Hugo winner for a reason.

Zen Cho's Sorcerer To The Crown series, absolutely.

S.A. Chakraborthy's City of Brass series deals with class and gender, and looks at history and the conquered/conquerers in a way I haven't seen a lot of fantasy novels do. Bonus: Heavily Islam-influenced secondary world fantasy by a Muslim author!

I'm currently reading Priory of the Orange Tree and it's wonderful - subverts the Chosen One narrative, is feminist (actually feminist, not GOT/Whedon BS) and deals with issues of class and religion, and has on-page queer couples who are treated the same as straight ones. And while it's a hefty 900-odd pages, it's a standalone.
posted by Tamanna at 6:10 AM on May 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nthing NK Jemisin, again. I didn't realize how badly this was missing from fantasy until reading her works.
posted by talldean at 10:17 AM on May 31, 2019

Also, +1 for Poppy War. It is very much Harry Potter and the Rape of Nanjing. I'm sad to hear that RF Kuang has gone to grad school, because that probably means there won't be any sequel for a good long time.

You're in luck! It's out in August.
posted by ultranos at 10:32 AM on May 31, 2019

Steven Brust is an IRL Trotskyist and all the worldbuilding for his Dragaera books comes out of an explicitly Marxist perspective, so it's definitely hard to say they ignore class issues.
posted by waffleriot at 3:09 PM on May 31, 2019

Best answer: I will put my feelings and rants aside and just leave these recommendations:

- Nthing Un Lun Dun, The Dream Quest of Vellitt-Boe, Steven Brust's work
- Emma Bull's Bone Dance has a sci-fi veneer that suddenly becomes very magical, and it deals with issues of gender identity (the protagonist is explicitly agender).
- Veronica Schanoes' Burning Girls plays hardball with gender, anti-antisemitism, immigration, etc.
- J. Tullos Hennig's Wode series is a fantasy romance/drama, but deals explicitly with homophobia and religion.
- Ursula K. Le Guin's Voices and Powers deal with colonialism and slavery.
- Catherynne Valente's Six-Gun Snow White explores the fairytale through the lens of gender and race.
- Valor is a fantasy comic anthology whose whole thing is exploring gender and subverting tropes

And those are just the good ones off the top of my head. Hell, Mercedes Lackey isn't at the top of my recommendation list but she definitely super duper dealt with sexuality/homophobia in her Last Herald-Mage series so it's not like this is a new development. Honestly, pick up any LGBT fantasy novel and you've got an 85% chance it'll heavily explore homophobia/transphobia, it's kind of inescapable.
posted by brook horse at 7:47 PM on May 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw manages to sneak in a lot of social commentary just by having eating each other be such an important part of dragon culture. It automatically provides a certain amount of feeling of alienness to the rest of dragon culture, which is copied wholesale, not from actual human society but what some people think human society should look like.
posted by Cozybee at 6:41 PM on June 1, 2019 [1 favorite]'s ebook club is giving away four lgbtq fantasy novelas this week.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:37 AM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I knew you all would come through on this one. Thanks so much!
posted by xenization at 9:07 AM on June 4, 2019

Just finished this one: Every Heart a Doorway deconstructs what happens "after" a portal fantasy (e.g. when a kid like Alice comes back from Wonderland). The main character is asexual and one of the major characters is trans.
posted by brook horse at 6:14 PM on June 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

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