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Fantasy Has Always Been Female: 10 Women Authors Who Shaped The Genre

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BY March 9, 2020
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Female fantasy authors are often overlooked by both fans and critics. Over the years the realm of fantasy fiction has mistakenly been viewed as a predominantly male genre. Like many other literary genres, men tend to get more respect for their work in this area than women do. When many think about fantasy fiction, they bring to mind Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as the ‘origin’ of the genre. Or maybe you think about Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, and Raymond Feist. There is no denying that these male authors have made significant contributions to the genre. However, there is a long history of female fantasy writers who have been working as hard, and for as long as their male peers. For Women’s History Month, we are honoring the brilliant women who shape the genre, as well as those who are taking fantasy into the future.

For this top 10 list, I compiled a list of female authors who have had a significant impact on the fantasy genre historically. These women published the majority of their novels between the 1960’s and the 2000’s. However, many of those who are still alive are still working and publishing new books all the time. Check out our list below and discover some of the women who shaped the genre.

10) Juliet Marillier

Female Fantasy Authors Juliet Marillier Image via Author Website

One of the more contemporary authors on this list, Marillier published her first novel Daughter of the Forest in 1999. However something about her books hearkens back to an earlier age of fantasy fiction. Drawing heavily from mythology and folklore, Marillier’s writing has a formal elegant style that evokes bardic tradition. Several of her series are set in ancient Ireland, including her popular Sevenwaters series and her most recent novel Harp of Kings which came out in 2019.

9) Patricia A. McKillip

Female Fantasy Authors Patricia McKillip Image via Author Website

Patricia McKillip started writing fantasy in 1974 with the publication of her first novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which earned her a World Fantasy Award. Since then she has consistently published fantasy novels that often end up as winners or finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards. In 2008 she also received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. Her work is defined by her careful attention to detail, and finely crafted delicate prose. Her worlds are often medieval in nature and contain all of the usual fantasy tropes of castles, wizards, and mysterious magic beyond the realm of the protagonist’s understanding. Now in her 70s, McKillip is a female fantasy author who is still going strong. She recently published a short story collection Dreams of Distant Shores in 2016.

 8) Tamora Pierce

Female Fantasy Authors Tamora Pierce Female Fantasy Authors Image via Author Website

Tamora Pierce is best known for her YA fantasy series that have influenced generations of fantasy fans. Her protagonists are almost always female, and they are marked by intellect and courage. Her Song of the Lioness quartet gave readers a female knight in Alanna, a character who remains as timely and compelling today as she was when the books were first published in the 1990’s. This series is the first in her world of Tortall where all of her stories are set. Now in her 60s, Pierce is still writing and recently published the first book of The Numair Chronicles in 2018.

7) Melanie Rawn

Melanie Rawn Female Fantasy Authors Image via Author Website

Melanie Rawn has written half a dozen series and trilogies since her career began in the 1980’s. Although she is infamous for one of her unfinished trilogies, Rawn claims that she will someday write the third book in the Exiles trilogy. Fans (including yours truly) have been waiting for this final book since 1997. However there is still plenty of other material for readers to choose from, with her excellent Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies. Rawn is also still writing, with her last novel Playing to the Gods published in 2017.

6) Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee Female Fantasy Authors Image via Penguin/Random House

A highly prolific writer, Tanith Lee has written over 90 novels and more than 300 short stories over the course of her long career. Lee was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for her novel Death’s Master in 1980. Lee’s work is often characterized by young characters coming of age and achieving personal and spiritual growth. Her writing often deals with themes of sexuality and feminism, and a little known fact is that she also wrote lesbian fiction under the pseudonym Esther Garber.

A renowned female fantasy author, Lee’s work is often inspired by mythology, folklore, and history. Her evocative writing style is marked by richly detailed imagery and lyrical prose. Tanith Lee died in 2015, but she left behind a vast bibliography of work that still impacts the genre today.

5) Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley Female Fantasy Authors Image via Author Website

McKinley has written several excellent young adult fantasy novels such as The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Alongside this work, McKinley has also published many fairy-tale retellings with a feminist twist. She was one of the forerunners of this genre that has been popularized by female fantasy authors, with books like Rose Daughter and Spindle’s End. Although she has long been classified as a young adult writer, McKinley has never shied away from heavy topics in her work. Her lyrical and eloquent prose have transported readers to other realms for years. McKinley is still an active writer, her last novel Shadows came out in 2013.

4) Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynn Jones Female Fantasy Authors Image via Wikipedia

Jones is perhaps best known for her novel Howl’s Moving Castle, the source material for the beloved Miyazaki anime movie. However, there is so much more to her body of work that spans a 40-year career. Cited as an influence by an entire generation of female fantasy authors after her, Jones is highly influential in the genre. Much of her work blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy, with time-travel and parallel universes living side by side with shapeshifters and folklore. There are also strong themes of feminism and social justice in her work. During her career she received several lifetime achievement awards for her impact on the genre.

3) Robin Hobb

Female Fantasy Authors Robin Hobb Female Fantasy Authors Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most acclaimed female fantasy authors of the past thirty years, Robin Hobb is always at the top of any fantasy list. Her Farseer trilogy came out in 1995, and stands as the cornerstone of a massive world that has been built over the years. The series is officially known as Realm of the Elderlings, and covers a span of 16 books that center around the character of Fitz and a character known as the Fool. Hobb’s fantasy is strange and otherworldly, with diverse magic systems. She writes complex characters, whose strong bonds with one another are the foundation of her work. Although now in her late 60s, Hobb is still writing and published Assassin’s Fate – the third book in yet another trilogy about Fitz and the Fool – in 2017.

2) Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey Female Fantasy Authors Image via Penguin/Random House

Mercedes Lackey is another luminary of fantasy fiction whose work is incredibly prolific and diverse. The majority of her books take place in her world of Valdemar. The many series that take place in this world cover thousands of years of history. She started with her Arrows trilogy published in the 1980’s, and is still writing in the world she created. She is of the best-known female fantasy authors on our list, and for good reason.

Despite the huge nature of her fictional world, Lackey has also published urban fantasy novels. Her Diana Tregarde series has drawn praise for its positive portrayal of Wicca and Neopaganism. These books came out in the 1990’s when witchcraft was still derided as evil by contemporary society. She has also written about Native American magic in her novel Sacred Ground. Lackey’s dedication to the genre is impressive, and the variety of areas that she has covered in her work sets her apart from many other authors.

1) Andre Norton

Andre Norton Female Fantasy Authors Image via Open Road Media

Andre Norton has the distinction of being one of the earliest authors on this list. She first started publishing in the 1930’s, and to this day many people do not realize Norton was a woman. She adopted a male pseudonym at a time when few women were writing genre fiction. Another prolific writer, Norton wrote dozens of books in the genre. She is best known for her Witch World series, and got for a Hugo nomination for the first book of that series in 1964. Known as the ‘Grand Dame’ of Science Fiction, Norton was also a founding member of Swordsmen & Sorcerer’s Guild of America, and the only woman in the group. She was an inspiring woman who also acted as a mentor to other young female fantasy authors. There is no doubt that Norton paved the way for all who came after her.

What female fantasy authors have inspired you? Do you feel like we are missing some contemporary authors on this list? Don’t worry, we have another list coming soon featuring 10 women who are taking fantasy fiction into a new era. Be sure to follow Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter and stay tuned for more book recommendations.

BooksAndre NortonBooksDiana Wynne JonesEpic FantasyFantasyFantasy SeriesFemale AuthorsfeminismJuliet MarillierMelanie RawnMercedes LackeyNovelsPatricia A. McKillipRobin HobbRobin McKinleyTamora PierceTanith LeeTop 10 ListWomen's History MonthWriters

Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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