Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fantasy Females

I just started re-reading Jennifer Roberson’s Cheysuli books, a series I started years ago but stopped collecting due to a lack of funds (a frequent occurrence in my high school and college years). They’re pretty darn good…I had originally thought they’d make a decent B/X campaign setting (and still think that), but now I’m enjoying them just for themselves. Back in high school (my non-D&D years) I attempted to emulate the setting with SSI’s DragonQuest RPG (DQ has a lot of “ups” on D&D for a Cheysuli setting, including shapechanger characters, more accessible magic-use, and knife wielders that don’t totally suck), but in the end no one really wanted to play DQ, not even me.

[side note: If anyone would like to see the equivalent of a literary justification of “all weapons do D6 damage,” check out the Cheysuli books…these guys are like Apache knife-fighters extraordinaire!]

Anyhoo, I was thinking to myself this morning: what the hell is it with all the chick fantasy authors?

That is to say: why do I seem to be drawn to the fantasy writings of women authors? And how has that colored my ideas of fantasy and story and the application of both to my gaming?

Because (after all), the baseline foundation of the DM craft is emulating the stuff that you enjoy or read or watch in the various media available to us: books, comics, film, TV. You can say “well, I base MY D&D campaign on actual history” but I would say you are STILL getting that version of “history” from something: books, comics, film, TV (or possibly university lecture hall).

I think it’s nigh impossible to create something out of a vacuum…and SINCE I’m drawing on my own “memory banks” of fantasy to run my campaigns, and SINCE I’m reading so much fantasy written by female authors, HOW is that influencing me?

Because I do think there are differences in story-telling technique and priorities between genders. That may just be me (I was never an English major, as you may be able to tell from my blog-writing style, so I don’t know if there’s any study/analysis of this kind of thing)…but I certainly tend to gravitate to the woman story authors. Allow me to list some of my authorial inspirations (in no particular order):

Jennifer Roberson (despite only having read 2-3 of her books, she turned me into a knife fan many years ago…also prefer her version of “high fantasy” to others).

Elizabeth Boyer (duh…Vikings. I’ve blogged about this many times; she had major influences on the B/X Companion).

Marion Zimmer Bradley
(the Big MZB…one of the All Time Greats. Her books are wonderful and pretty much un-translatable to a visual medium making them real “book books”).

Margaret Weiss (I know she only co-authored Dragon Lance, but her name does get first billing, and not out of alphabetical order…the DL books renewed D&D for me in middle school).

Wendy Pini (artist and writer of ElfQuest comics…probably the most engaging and gripping fantasy graphics of all time).

[Colleen Doran, artist and author of the weird sci-fi comic A Distant Soil has also had some small, if strong influence]

Anne McCaffery (mixing SciFi and fantasy is a good thing!).

J.K. Rowling (not an influence in my formative years, and certainly fairly cheesy compared to my usual literary fare, but I admit I have read all seven Hairy Bottom novels…probably the most books I’ve read from a single author in the last ten years).

[regarding my formative years, I will say that before I started reading fantasy, I read quite a few (10 or more) of the old Nancy Drew books at my school library. Although “Carolyn Keene” is a pseudonym, the authors of most of these books were women, with Mildred Benson and her daughter Harriet Adams being the ones primarily credited]

Susan Cooper (this one WAS during my formative years…read the entire Dark is Rising series. Wouldn’t mind revisiting that one, one of these days).

Robin McKinley (another one from my youth; author of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword. The plots of these books impacted much of my early D&D gaming).

Now this isn’t to say that I haven’t read and enjoyed the works and writings of male authors over the years…however, most of these guys (like woman author Anne Rice) are folks that I’ve read once and not returned to…or authors I’ve grown beyond. For example, I read quite a bit of Piers Anthony back in my youth, but I can’t stand his stuff anymore, and none of it has impacted my gaming (I don’t do puns of the Xanth variety, and his Apprentice Adept series is the kind of simplistic fantasy/scifi that makes me wretch)…despite the sex and violence of his books, they seem squarely aimed at the age 12-15 demographic.

Sometimes, it seems like male fantasy authors only fall into two camps: the humorous/whimsical and the ugly. Humorous/whimsical would include Robert Aspirin’s books (which, like Anthony, can get tired after awhile), while “ugly” is the term I use to describe, say, Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. The latter is a series I read compulsively/raptly as it was published, but as with all of King’s books, it doesn’t shirk from the coarse, the gross, the gritty side of life, instead delighting in showing off just how bad things can be. Reading his books isn’t always “fun.”

However, there ARE male authors that fall into the “inspiring, impactful fantasy” category for me: Howard, Moorcock, Lovecraft, Tolkien, George Lucas, Lloyd Alexander, and C.S. Lewis (especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I have read half a dozen times at least). Interesting that of these authors, Howard, Lovecraft, and Tolkien had very strong female influences on them from a young age (Tolkien’s father died when he was 3 years old and he was raised by his mother)…but then, who’s to say that the female authors I cited didn’t have strong masculine influences?

The point is: it is the female fantasy authors that have had the larger impact on my concepts of fantasy (and directly translated to my fantasy gaming). ESPECIALLY with regard to gaming, only the Big 3 (Howard, Moorcock, and Tolkien) have had as much impact; the first two with regard to tone, the third with regard to mythology (and I would cite the Silmarillion and Children of Hurin as the main influence, not LotR). “Character,” “setting,” and “plot” (for what that last is worth; call it “scenario”), as well as “theme” (if any) comes from my female authors with the occasional random dude (Beagle’s Last Unicorn, Ellison’s Run for the Stars, Steakley’s Armor, and Boyett’s Ariel) sometimes throwing up an especially noteworthy piece of fiction.

[this, of course, is only in reference to my fantasy fiction influences; history and folklore also has a major impact/influence on my gaming and “fantasy life”]

Well, anyway, I thought it was interesting. I'll think about the subject a bit more and see if there are specific things about woman-penned fantasy that I really admire or if the whole discussion is ridiculous...more (hopefully) later...
: )


  1. I think Tracy Hickman is a male Tracy.

    I read Cooper's series for the first time since I was a child a couple of years ago, and it didn't really hold up nearly as well. A lot of stuff still came through, like that real sense of age she puts into the settings, but the stories themselves were a bit choppy.

    Still, they deserve better than that awful film adaptation, which I saw yesterday. Eek.

  2. C.L. Moore is fantastic, if you haven't read her books.

    I also really enjoyed The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee, but I haven't read much else by her.

  3. Just finished C.L. Moore's Jirel stories published by Paizo, and they are quite good. I was also a big fan of Mercedes Lackey's Oathbound, though the other books in the series not so much.

  4. Ursula K. Le Guin and Tanith Lee are, for me, in the solid second tier of fantasy writers, just below the true greats. Flannery O'Connor is my favorite 20th century author in any genre.

  5. Leigh Brackett is more sci-fi, but perhaps worth mentioning as many of her stories are space fantasy-like.

  6. I completely forgot Leigh Brackett, but yeah, she's one of the good ones as well.

  7. Julian May wrote an excellent 'fantasy' series called the Saga of Pliocene Exile. i always thought it would make an great non-traditional traditional fantasy setting.

  8. I've met Mr. Hickman, I assure you he is a dude. A rather interesting fellow with time and to spare for a fellow gamer.

    As far as the topic of your post? I know of many female romance novelists with stories set in a fantasy milieu, but few female fantasy authors. YMMV.

  9. Lois McMaster Bujold has a some solid fantasy works which you might enjoy. I thought the Chalion books (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, Hallowed Hunt) were better than the Sharing Knife series overall.

    Robin Hobb is a female writer that can certainly write ugly.

    And as a B/X fan you definitely need to check out Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksennarrion if you have not already. It's the best D&D novel ever written, even if its not officially a D&D novel.

  10. @ All:

    Wow...thanks for the great suggestions. I know LeGuin is great, but I've only ever read Lathe of Heaven. And I've heard a lot of Leigh Brackett, just never sampled it.

    Catherine L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry is a character I've been intrigued by ever since I read about her in Ron Edwards's "Sword and Sorcery," I just haven't been able to find a copy of the stories. I'll make a more concerted effort to find 'em.

    @ Drnunch (specifically): I will definitely check out Elizabeth Moon. Thanks!

  11. I've actually had the opposite feeling. With the exception of Susan Cooper, I've had a hard time reading female fantasy writers.

  12. Be sure to also check out Weiss' "Amber and Ashes", "Amber and Iron" and um, well I haven't got to the third one yet... Anyways, good stuff!!!


  13. I am familiar with only about half the women on this list and their books. Thanks. I will look at the books of the others as well.