Five Female Authors That Prove Dark Fantasy Isn’t Just For Boys

Edit: 4/21/15 –  As KJ Parker’s identity has been released as one Tom Holt his inclusion on this list is an obvious major error. Oh well, live and learn.

Simple enough list brought on by a forum discussion that I saw recently, but really have seen pop up in one form or another since I started visiting the various fantasy forums around the web.  A poster says something like this; “I don’t usually read female authors because I prefer darker fiction.”  Of course it is ridiculous, but it seems to be a common thought.  For many readers, often newer to fantasy, dark fantasy = GRRM, Abercrombie, Lawrence and Weeks.  Females write YA and UF, right?  Crazy talk, so perhaps a quick and easy list would provide a starting point otherwise.

Then while I peruse my favorite blogs I notice Bookworm Blues has posted a list of her favorite female authors from various sub-genres within speculative fiction, brought on by a realization that when she thinks of epic fantasy she often thinks of male authors first.  It was a nice post, with some great comments (as of time of writing).

And I thought, I have wanted to do these five point style lists for quite a while, so what a perfect place for me to start one.

Listen, I don’t want to bring up the tired argument over who is nobler than whom due to the percentage of their reading material coming from one gender or the other.  This is not that kind of blog.  I just want to celebrate good books, and that is what I am going to do here.

Without further ado, I present five female authors that prove dark fantasy isn’t just for boys.

1.  God’s War – Kameron Hurley-  Perhaps the poster child of great dark fantasy.  Take away the humor present in Joe Abercrombie’s works, add in some guns and a whole lot of bugs, and add some of the most realistic relationships between characters I have seen and you will have an idea of what Kameron Hurley has going here.  A fantasy style book in a sci-fi setting all the prerequisites of darkness are present.  Never ending war?  Check.  Protagonist that walks the line between good and bad? Check.  Large body count, including several of the main cast?  You betcha.

Followed up by a sequel that was perhaps even better, Hurley’s series is well worth the time of anyone who enjoys their fantasy dark and dangerous.  I have got to remember to buy the third book in the series next time I head the bookstore, this is one of the few series I am insisting on paper copies of.

2.  Empress – Karen Miller- Ok I will be perfectly honest.  I did not enjoy this book at all.  But Miller has a strong following, so please don’t let me detract you from trying it on your own.  Because let me tell you, I can’t think of a darker book written by a male or female.  This book starts with the “protagonist” watching her father assault her mother.  The “protagonist” then grows into one of the most unlikable characters I have ever read about, worse than the villain of most books (which makes perfect since, as she apparently becomes the villain for the rest of the series).

A religion in which absolute obedience to a very demanding god was something that kept me reading this book to the end.  Disagreements were often settled in a scorpion pit.  Sometimes doing the “right thing” by the gods involved doing something that would scream “wrong, very wrong” to the rest of us.  There was a lot to like about the book for sure, so go ahead and try it.  You may like it better than me.

3. Firethorn Sarah Micklem- It has been a couple years since I have read this one, and the details of it are admirable murky in my mind.  But I couldn’t leave it off my list, after all I rated it 5 stars in my pre blog days.  I don’t want to misrepresent the book, so I will stick to what I remember and hold there.

Firethorn was story in a smaller scale book that the others on the list, dealing with one camp follower on the trail of a war that isn’t really seen in the text.  It is the book about one girl’s struggle.  It is about the OTHER people we don’t see in fantasy; those who are not rich, powerful, or destined to change the world.  It is a dark, low magic tale with absolutely beautiful imagery.  Perhaps not the high action dark adventure that everyone is looking for, but anyone looking for something a little different but still dark (because that’s the damn theme today) should give it a try.  I remember the title character being amazing and the book having one of my two favorite fantasy religions (the other being in The Curse of Chalion).  Mostly I just remember the book being damn good.  I may have to read this again this year, the site deserves a proper review.

4.  The Last Stormlord– Glenda Larke- The book that is directly responsible for this site coming into existence; Pauline found my plea for a co-reviewer after reading my clumsy review of this book.  A Dune like vibe where water is king, what first got me about Larke’s tale is the tropes she didn’t use.  A young girl raised as a prostitute is never actually raped!  A young man with a chance to go on a revenge fueled rampage doesn’t fall into that trap.

But beyond that it was a great opening book to a strong series.  It had duel main characters that were both strong enough to carry the book on their own, and together they were so much better still.  And yes, the book was dark.  Brutal was the word I used in the review the first time.  High death count, a real feel that time is running out (and dehydration for all seems to qualify for any darkness test we could apply.  All the magic is based around water, and if a magic user instantly taking all the water out of a person’s eye doesn’t make you cringe, well, your tastes run even darker than mine.

5.  The Killing Moon NK Jemisin- So incredibly unique, so incredibly good.  I had a hell of a time describing this one in my review; I think I went with vampire assassin dystopia.  Then backed out, because if there were vampires involved they were so cleverly hidden I didn’t realize that was what I was reading about until half way through.

In no way could I do the book justice in two paragraphs, so please go read it.  It has an Egyptian vibe, assassination in the name of religion, corruption at all levels, and a coming war.  Wrap that in incredible world building.  Oh ya, and to fit the theme it was plenty dark.  After all I did say assassin right?  Night time gatherers who provide euthanasia to keep a land relatively crime free, but at what price?

6.?  Anything by KJ Parker – Twice we have seen someone involved in publishing refer to KJ Parker as a her.  If her identity, or at least gender, was known for sure the author would be at the top of the list.  But as it is the best kept secret in fantasy…  I guess I shall have to save Parker for another list.  YOU, however, should put it at the top of your reading list if you enjoy dark fantasy.

Honorable Mentions
– Courtney Schafer, whose series has its share of bad men doing bad thing.  Aliette de Bodard, who wrote a nice blood sacrifice filled fantasy trilogy set in an Aztec Empire.  Linda Nagata, known more for hard sci fi but her “scoundrel lit” is what sucked me into her writing.

I am absolute positive I missed a lot of peoples favorites, so please tell me, who else should be on this list?

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