I like fantasy’s history. I like knowing about the semi-forgotten contributors, knowing which books and trends caught the public’s imagination, which people deserve a thankful nod. So why not do a tag that shares a little about them with other people?
So this is my great women of fantasy’s past tag. I have offered a choice of tags, the first riffing on the work and the second riffing on the author. Feel free to do either, both, make up your own as there are so many angles to all of them, skip a woman, add a woman – whatever makes you happy about representing the great women of fantasy’s past. The only rules are to spread it if you like it and give credit if you do it. Now let’s do this.
Marie de France
We don’t know the true identity of this 12th century poet, but believe her to be a French noblewoman who lived in England. She wrote twelve poems based on Breton songs known as the Lais de Marie de France, notable for their challenge to medieval sexual morality, and also translated many of Aesop’s fables
A book featuring women’s sexual freedom OR A book featuring a character with a hidden identity
What better way to celebrate a medieval creative than with a tale celebrating medieval creatives?
Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is not only an ode to the birthplace of the troubadors in Southern France, but also a whole-hearted defence of creativity and love in all its forms. Many of its women take the role of Marie with their creativity and beliefs as Arbonne fights for its life.
Bonus points too for multiple uses of hidden identity in the tale!
The daughter of 19th century radicals and writers, and the wife of the poet Shelley, Mary achieved her own literary fame with Frankenstein. Recent scholarship has also paid more attention to her other works such as Valperga and The Last Man, and is recasting her as a more radical figure as a result
A book featuring the creation of life OR A book featuring a character who bucks convention
Among the many myths and stories about created life, the golem still looms large.
Here Helene Wecker uses it in the tale of Chava, a golem created to be a wife (a highly unconventional move in itself) but who instead finds herself alone in late 19th century New York. That would be enough to make it a fine choice for this tag all in itself, but there is also her friend Ahmad.
Ahmad is the djinni, and his longing for a return to his natural state and the paths he takes to get there is a good choice for the second tag choice too. So lots of bonus points here.
A member of a different literary family, Rossetti achieved a towering reputation as a poet in her lifetime, particularly for the fantastical Goblin Market. She is also well known as being a model for her artist brother, bouts of depression and devotion to the Anglo-Catholic movement, and work at a refuge for ex-prostitutes.
A book featuring sisters OR A book with a character who faces mental health issues
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls stole my heart last year with its depiction of a middle-aged woman reclaiming her vitality and independence after periods of insanity, frailty, and being treated like a baby.
That she does so while fighting demons with wry good humour and immense courage just makes my damn day. Such a good book.
Alas, there are no sisters here, so no bonus marks today. Maybe doing both prompts with every one is hard mode? But I can’t do it, as I’ve not read the books I automatically think of as great choices. Curses and tarnation.
Described by Virginia Woolf as ‘the heroine of her own life – capricious, exacting, exquisite, very learned, and beautifully dressed‘, Mirrlees was a writer and poet mostly known for post-modernist work and her only fantasy work, Lud in the Mist, an influence on many writers of liminal faerie stories to come.
A book about visiting faeryland OR A book featuring a captivating heroine
It took me far too long to come up with a book for this before realising the perfect book was one I’d just read.
Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest features a very captivating heroine in the brave to the point of stupidity and well beyond Hazel – although she’s capable of being very smart too when not being overly brave. And what are Hazel’s problems?
The fae. Those tricksy charming murderous fae.
Back in bonus points territory. Huzzah.
CL Moore came to prominence as a writer in Weird Tales and other pulps. It’s hard to know all her works as she worked extensively with her husband, Henry Kuttner, who she first met when he sent her fan mail. But we do know she wrote Jirel of Joiry, the first heroine of Sword & Sorcery, and many other pulp classics.
A book featuring incredible mental resilience OR A book featuring a character who marries a fan
Few fantasy characters have Jirel’s force of purpose, but Granny Weatherwax is absolutely one of them.
In Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum she proves this by going toe to toe with a clan of mesmeric vampires that have big plans for Lancre and Granny herself, as well as a rather soggy but obstinate priest.
And while nobody gets married, the attempts of the suave vampire Vlad to woo Agnes Nitt are a wonderful wonderful subplot. Do I give myself bonus points? I don’t know.
Margaret Brundage had done newspaper art before landing at Weird Tales, where she became the primary cover artist. While her sexualised and sensationlist style attracted much criticism, it also formed part of the magazine’s commercial appeal and attracted much praise too, as well as supporting her family.
A book featuring graphic scenes OR A book featuring a character supporting their family through art
Goodness, now why did I pick a grimdark book for graphic scenes?
If you have read the book, I think you know which scene I’m thinking of.
If you don’t, then I won’t be ruining the surprise…
Not many happy families mind.
Hailed as the Queen of Space Opera and Planetary Romance, Brackett’s career as an author and screenwriter kept alive the spirit of pulp with her space fantasies, and was hailed as a huge influence by authors such as Moorcock and Bradbury, and also saw her work on several noir film classics and Star Wars
A book featuring the clash of civilisations OR A book featuring a highly influential character
At the very heart of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings is the ambivalent status that the Annamite Philippe feels towards Paris, and the house that rescues him.
That clash is part of what drives the book and indeed the whole series, as its tale of fallen angels and dragon spirits reaches its explosive ending.
And as for an influential character – well, the whole of the first book falls under the very large shadow of the Morning Star himself – even if he is missing…
Andre Norton’s exceptionally long writing career of seventy years produced over three hundred novels and a slew of awards and recognition, including being the first female Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy and SFWA Grand Master, and influenced many generations of fantasy writers.
A book featuring a portal between worlds OR A book featuring a character who excels at their craft for a very, very long time
I picked Katherine Kerr’s A Time of Exile, but really I mean the whole damn Deverry Cycle.
It features two sorcerers who live for four hundred years due to interesting choices and who keep on only getting more skillful and grumpy, as well as a host of other long lived and very capable characters.
And there are portals between worlds! More details I cannot give for spoilers, but definitely bonus marks here.
Ursula Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin started publishing in the 1950s and became perhaps the most influential woman in the genre with the Earthsea Series, the bildungsromans that deeply reflected her upbringing in an athropologist’s house and her interest in Taoism.
A book featuring a hard learning experience OR A book featuring a character deeply influenced by their philosophy
Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness Into Light feels a neat choice for honouring Le Guin for reasons beyond the tag. Brennan was an anthropologist herself, and a focus on learning and the natural world permeates both women’s work.
But the adventures of Audrey Camherst, granddaughter of the renowned Isabella, fits the tag very well indeed. Forging her own way in academia and life gives her plenty of hard learning experiences – and also shows off just how much her upbringing moulded her.
And that’s the tag. I hope you enjoyed it, I hope it inspires you, and I hope plenty of people do it – so consider yourself tagged if you wish!