It may be something in the air or water, but I've just had an interest in female-focused fantasy stories this year. After writing my last post I realized that I have read a lot of books lately that take female representation to a social-norms challenging level.
Here's my short list for the first half of this year:
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb: Recommended by George R.R. Martin, I ate up this series via audio book (they get pretty lengthy for those readers who have a HUGE pile and little free reading time). These books revolve around a male main character -- FitzChivalry Farseer -- but the women in the story are amazing! There's a strong, witty candle maker; an aging sorceress; a mountain queen; a former wife to the future king who just kills with spirit and sass; a bard with sexual liberation on the mind...I could go on. For anyone who was ever disappointed that the Lord of the Rings series had like two ladies who said a couple lines ever, this is a great series.
Alanna: The First Adventure (Book 1 - Song of the Lioness)by Tamora Pierce: I am re-reading these after a long break. I first discovered them in the children's section at my local library, and probably didn't quite appreciate them for what they were. They spin around one of the main elements of Shakespeare: deceptive gender-bending. The first book (highlighted here) also has probably the best incorporation of sex education into fiction writing that I have ever read. The menstrual cycle is explained! Not shamefully! The older woman states that women enjoy sex! Not shamefully! It's great, and certainly something I'll want on my shelf if I ever have any young ones of my own.
The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black: These books are dark, and I ate them up. They're certainly horror-fantasy hybrids, and not the sort of sweet and boring fairy stories you may have found when you were young. To be fair, despite the modern settings of these books, the disturbing tricks and traps of the fairies described therein are quite classic (anyone heard of a bloodcap, or changeling?). I am excited to see fairy lore brought back to its darker roots, and even more excited to find alternative, angry teenage girls in protagonist roles. Yes, the angry girl type can go a bit far (not quite manic pixie dream girl far, but far nonetheless). Not all teenagers are brooding mounds of adolescent rage. What Black does that's so refreshing is give these girls something to truly be angry about! Their lives are pretty fucked up, and she's not afraid to have them say that. [Note: I am currently in the midst of book two, and I haven't read the conclusion yet, but I imagine from the extensive praise the books have received that Black keeps up the good work.]
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley AND Deerskin by Robin McKinley AND Sunshine by Robin McKinley (oh hell, anything by Robin McKinley): Despite the concussive hoopla on children' and young adults reading lists, I didn't get through a Robin McKinley book until I was almost in college. I read Sunshine as an antidote to feelings of frustration when finishing Twilight. I couldn't get through any more than the first book in that painful series, but Sunshine was a gorgeously-wrought vampire romance with a main character who enjoyed/embraced her sexuality and saved the day to boot. A few years later I was recommended Deerskin, a novel that is entirely too difficult to find in libraries given its incredibly important subject matter. This is a book that deals with paternal rape, something that occurs rather early in the story, then shows the heroine healing and (again) saving the world. As I keep up to date on Ms. McKinley's life by reading her blog, I found myself thinking it was high time to jump back into her books. This weekend I devoured The Hero and the Crown (a prequel to The Blue Sword). These two books are some of McKinley's older books, and are written in a stylized manner (one reviewer said "sword and sorcery" and I tend to agree), but engaging like the very best Princess Leia scenes in Star Wars (despite what some might say - not the Jabba the hut chain dress scenes). Outside of her feminist bent, I adore the relationships she builds between characters and their animals in her books. Call me a McKinley fan. I am consistently surprised, tantalized, and engaged by what she can do with genre.