Best Books Lists: Revisited

About this time last year, I wrote a blog post called The Alleged Universality of Experience, in which I criticized popular “Best 100 Books of All Time” lists for overwhelmingly featuring white male authors and white male protagonists. These were overall lists, not confined to any one genre or subject, just general fiction. Recently, there was a list featured in Paste Magazine of the best 30 fantasy series of all time, which I saw reposted probably 30 times across facebook and twitter. Maybe this is just the time of year that I get all riled up about this, because here I am again. I have some thoughts.

One of the first things I did when I read the list was count how many of the thirty authors featured were female. Four. Technically there were twenty-nine authors, because Brandon Sanderson was on there twice (I don’t blame them; I’ve certainly enjoyed his books). The four series by female authors were:

  1. Harry Potter by JK Rowling – Duh. This one is almost a no-brainer.
  2. Temeraire by Naomi Novik – I have not actually read this, and thus have no comment on it. It sounds interesting though.
  3. The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K LeGuin – Another no-brainer; this is one of the most classic fantasy series for young readers.
  4. The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey – I am convinced that someone put this one on the list specifically to throw me a bone to apologize for some of the shittier inclusions on this list. Me, personally.

I had this whole tirade planned out. How some of the books listed were plainly undeserving of the title (no, I have not moved from my position that The Magicians is a garbage fire of a book), and how many excellent female authors were being overlooked in favor of mediocre male ones, and so on. The problem is, I already wrote that blog post. A year ago. If you want to hear me talk about that, go read that post. Instead, I decided that I wanted to stay positive today, and instead just list some books and series by female authors that I feel are too often overlooked. “It’s easier to curse the darkness than to light a candle” and all that.

  1. Whenever I find a “best fantasy books” list, I am hoping and praying for one inclusion in particular – the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce. I’ve already gone into my feelings about her books in-depth, so I won’t be too lengthy here. But her books are written in plain, clear prose, without any loss of vividness. They speak evenly and kindly to younger readers and older ones alike, with no condescension or moralizing. And even though the goalposts of feminism have moved since the 80s, when these were first written, they still stand on their own as distinctly and ardently feminist works. I silently (or not so silently) shame any “best fantasy books” list that does not include them.
  2. You know what’s another great classic fantasy series from the 80s (much like Tortall, Earthsea, and Pern)? The Heralds of Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey. This is another series in which the stories are generally simple and straightforward, but they are beautifully woven. Lackey is, to my mind, an incredibly skilled writer and although I prefer some of her other works personally, I’d say that overlooking her contributions to the genre is a serious oversight (coincidentally, my dream book series is a collaboration between Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey).
  3. You know which books I read at a young age and did not appreciate until I reread them when I was older? The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black (co-written by Tony DiTerlizzi, but still). I don’t know if these books are really as quintessential to all teen goths as they were to me, but I like to think they are for many of us. Seriously, this stuff was right up there with Edward Gorey for me. The idea of children moving into an old Victorian-style home and discovering fairies there is not a new one and it’s been done hundreds of times, but Black’s take on it feels fresh and new every single time.
  4. On a similar note, I read another girl-discovers-fairyland series much more recently that I fell in love with – the Fairyland books by Catherynne M Valente, starting with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. God damn, that title. This is also an inventive and original take on a classic story, but what really makes this book stand out is the quality of the writing. It is exceedingly rare that I would say that a book quite honestly enchanted me. It is even more rare that I could confidently say that it had done so within the first paragraph.
  5. The last few books I’ve listed have been either intended for or at least appropriate for young readers. So let’s switch gears and go to some that are decidedly not, starting with The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. This book is epic fantasy. This book is grimdark. This book is several things that I profess to dislike and it was so damn good that it made me make exceptions for all of them. I hear a lot of people say “GRRM put zombies in a classic fantasy setting! So different and unique!” No. No, my dears, that is not different and unique. Different and unique is man-eating trees and a five-gender system, and I’ll take that over stale-ass zombies, in any setting, any day.
  6. One that I read really recently (I mean within the last month) but that completely and utterly stole my heart, is The Hidden Sea trilogy by AM Dellamonica. Pirates and magic, you might think, we’ve heard it all before. Isn’t it just a ripoff of Pirates of the Caribbean? No, no it is not. Several years ago, I decided I wanted to write a “pirates and magic” book. This is the book I wanted to write, this one specifically. The entire time I was reading it, I was thinking “holy shit someone beat me to my book”. And I couldn’t even begrudge her, because it was so damn good. (I will also note some similarities to the 50 Fathoms Savage Worlds campaign, not that I know aaaanything about that)
  7. Dragons are big deal right now, right? They’re always kind of a big deal, but especially right now because of Game of Thrones. So I don’t know why more people aren’t reading The Memoirs of Lady Isabella Trent series by Marie Brennan. These books are unlike anything I’ve read before. They are written in the style of a memoir, a personable and lively one, of Lady Isabella Trent, a natural historian of dragons. I usually don’t like books written in the first person, but these are different. The tone is both frank and inviting, reminding me almost of Tamora Pierce for an older audience. Brennan, writing as Trent, deals with everything from sketching dragon bones and attempts at making gliders to miscarriage and young widowhood with the same emotional depth and maturity.
  8. Hey, remember when I said I was going to focus on non-young adult books? Nah, forget that. Young adult is my home turf. Last year, the first of the Cirque American books by Gwenda Bond was featured as a free Kindle First selection. I picked it up, thinking that I enjoyed her The Woken Gods well enough and maybe I’d read it sometime. On the advice of a friend, I read it sooner rather than later and I am extremely glad I did. This book served as a very large part of the inspiration for a book I wrote last year, so obviously that means something to me. Let’s put it this way: it takes something extremely special in a book to make me not realize that it’s a modern day Romeo and Juliet retelling until two-thirds of the way in. (I debated about including this as the second book is coming out later this year, but whatever, it’s my list)
  9. Well, this one isn’t even a series. But it started as a serialized webcomic, so I’m going to go ahead and count it! Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. This is a super important book, in my opinion. Several of the series I’ve mentioned already, the ones that are good at lessons and morals, even they tend to tread the same waters in terms of the lessons they teach. Not Nimona. Nimona is there to say that it is okay to be a monster. You can be a monster girl and not be any less valid as a person. And I think that’s such a different lesson for younger readers, one that I wish I’d seen long before I read this at age 22. Of all the books on this list, this is the only one I’ve bought multiple copies of – one for myself and several as gifts.

So there’s another nine fantasy series by female authors that I think you should check out, because I think they’re amazing. I know, it’s not thirty. But this is nine off the top of my head. I thought about this list for maybe ten minutes in idle conversation with my boyfriend before thinking “maybe I should write a blog post”. Because four female authors out of thirty is a little shameful, guys. Come on.

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