Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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50 must-read fantasy novels by women

This is a Book Riot post, so I’m quite curious to see what fifty novels they’ve chosen from among the thousands and thousands of potential titles. I seldom overlap much in my personal tastes with Book Riot posts, so here’s what I’m guessing: very few older titles (say, written more than 20 years ago) except by LeGuin. Almost no overlap between the fifty I might pick and their list. Nothing that I’d personally place in the top ten.

To make those predictions fair, let’s see which ten I might actually put at the top, which I grant making selections is essentially impossible, but let me try real fast.

Okay. Fantasy, not SF. By women. Top ten of all time. Off the top of my head, in no order except how I thought of them, plus making an effort not to just list a bunch by Patricia McKillip:

  1. The Book of Atrix Wolfe by McKillip
  2. The Changeling Sea by McKillip
  3. The Goblin Emperor by “Katherine Addison”
  4. The Shape-Changer’s Wife by Shinn
  5. Beauty by McKinley
  6. The Lens of the World by MacAvoy
  7. Fortress in the Eye of Time by Cherryh
  8. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill by Clarke
  9. Inda series by Sherwood Smith
  10. The Raksura series by Martha Wells

Gosh, that was … random. I feel like I could easily pull half the books (and series) off that list and replace them with others. I feel like I could do that half a dozen times with no trouble. I suppose for once I feel like fifty is not too long for a list and than ten is too short. But fine, I’ll go with the above just so I can move on, look at the Book Riot post, and see (a) if there’s any overlap between those ten and their fifty.

Also, I want to count:

b) How many of their fifty I’ve read;

c) How many of their fifty I’ve liked / thought were great even if I didn’t like them;

d) How many of their fifty were published more than twenty years ago.

And …. looks like ….

a) One book appears on both lists: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrill. I can’t say this was actually my favorite book of all time. I liked it, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again. Nevertheless, I think it is great literature and deserves to be a true classic.

b) I’ve read twelve books of their fifty.

c) I liked eight of those twelve; but I do think some of those are overrated.

d) The dates of publication aren’t listed, but offhand I’d say that zero of the works listed were written more than twenty years ago. Oh, I take that back. Mercedes Lackey’s title was published way before that. I think that’s the only one. Never read it myself (Arrows of the Queen). Everything else was published more recently, mostly much more recently.

Well, there, then. That’s officially my biggest problem with the Book Riot list: a near-complete bias against older works. It’s a real shame to see older authors forgotten and older titles ignored.

If you were going to put one “must read” title on this kind of list — fantasy, woman author — and the title had to have been published before 2000, which single title would you choose?

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10 Comments 50 must-read fantasy novels by women

  1. Robert

    I’d probably cheat, and choose McKillip’s omnibus Riddle-Master, which contains the Riddle Master trilogy. And the volume was published in 1999 so it still qualifies!

    Or perhaps I’d cheat with another omnibus, LeGuin’s The Earthsea Trilogy.

  2. Craig N.

    I’d want a McKillip, too, but that’s too obvious. So, leaving her off…

    I tend to go with early imprinting, so The Earthsea Trilogy (1977) strikes me as a fine choice too. Or maybe The Dark Is Rising Sequence (1984). If it has to be single volumes, #1 and #2 respectively. For a true singleton, I have very fond memories of Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain.

    For “must-reads” — well, the most influential book fitting those criteria is unquestionably Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you exclude juveniles, it’s probably Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat, which pretty much defined a whole subgenre of modern fantasy. Neither of them is particularly to my taste, but they really ought to be on any such list.

  3. Diana

    Something by Diana Wynne Jones, definitely. I think she wrote most of her books before 2000. Picking just one is difficult. :-) Maybe Charmed Life (1977), as the start of the Chrestomanci series?

  4. SarahZ

    Madeline L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, and Megan Whalen Turner would all definitely be on my list.

    The more recent authors I was missing was Maggie Stiefvater. Some of the YAs they picked I was definitely not into – hated The Belles, and some others were fine but not all time classics.

  5. Kathryn McConaughy

    Susan Dexter – The Prince of Ill Luck. Although Wind-Witch and True Knight are also excellent. All from the mid 1990s.

  6. Evenstar

    I agree it’s hard not to say McKillip’s Riddle Master trilogy, but for a single recommendation I think it’s better not to be part of a series. I’ll go with Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.

    On the Book Riot list, I think Assassin’s Apprentice, Kindred and The Left Hand of Darkness are older too.

  7. Alison

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion and The Hallowed Hunt should go on there. It’s hard to pick with some of the authors. I might choose Sunshine over The Blue Sword for example, and The Wind Witch over The Prince of Ill Luck. Definitely Turner’s The Thief, and the Dalemark Quartet for Diana Wynne Jones. I also love Rosemary Kierstein, Violette Malan and Pamela Freeman’s Casting Trilogy.

  8. Pete Mack

    This might have made more sense in the 1970s. But by the 1980s, there was nothing unusual about women fantasy authors, so a list of “best 50” or whatever will look a lot like the list of “best 50 fantasy novels”.

  9. Elaine T

    I’ve read (and finished) nine, started several more and dropped unfinished. Lots of obvious writers missing and lots of ‘what were they smoking?’ reactions. The criteria sounds like basic publishing puffery, so to me this just looks like a random grab of someone’s shelves.

    I was going to suggest Vernon’s Digger, but it started in 2003… drat. Oh, how about an Andre Norton Witch World entry – Crystal Gryphon from 1972. Very influential writer and series, and this one stands alone fairly well.

  10. Rachel

    So many choices, whatever one picks is going to seem nearly random. Pete Mack is right: there were oodles and oodles of female fantasy authors in tbe 80s, so it’s essentially impossible to narrow down a list.

    I thought of DWJ, for example, but threw up my hands at the thought of picking one. Charmed Life is a good one, though I understand the suggestion for the Dalemark quartet. Those don’t feel like a cohesive work, though. Such disparity of style.

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