New women’s worlds in fantasy fiction

Continuing the slow progress of archiving my pieces from The Guardian. It’s interesting to think that three years on from this piece, women writers now seem (to me at least) stronger than ever in all the genres of speculative fiction. I hope it’s a trend that continues. It’s also interesting for me to see how my own understanding of SF and Fantasy has developed over the same period. I hope that continues as well!

Originally published on 14th February 2008 on

Once thought to be a primarily male genre, women writers are expanding its frontiers in the 21st century.

The Secret History of Moscow, the new novel from Ekaterina Sedia is garnering widespread acclaim from readers of contemporary fantasy, and comparisons to some of the genre’s most respected writers, including Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. It also marks Sedia out as one of a number of women writers pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing.

Of course, women writers are nothing new in fantasy or even science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin’s work has long been one of the benchmarks by which others are judged. Alice Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree Jr) may have felt it necessary to adopt a pseudonym to penetrate the notoriously male-dominated arena of “hard” sci-fi before producing some of that genre’s best short fiction, but writers such as Connie Willis and Nancy Kress have proved that even among the rockets’n’rayguns brigade, women have achieved a level of equality. And in recent years, women have been at the forefront of an emerging brand of contemporary fantasy, very different from the mainstream epics of Goodkind, Feist or Jordan that many readers will associate with the genre.

Sedia’s novel is emblematic of much that is good about contemporary fantasy. It unites a classy prose style evolved through a string of small press publications with first-hand experience of a 90s Moscow crippled by post-Soviet economic decline. The story is infused with the tropes and traditions of fantasy, but set amid the grim reality of that decade’s turbulent politics. Sedia’s writing is a perfect example of the unique ways fantasy allows writers to examine reality.

A number of other, similarly distinctive voices are also refreshing the genre. One of the most influential writers of contemporary fantasy to emerge in recent years is Kelly Link. In just two collections, Link has shown herself to be among this decade’s most talented writers of short fiction, regardless of genre. Switching effortlessly between fantasy, horror, fairy-tale and literary fiction, her stories feature an odd assortment of young, marginalised characters who are often themselves obsessed with fantasy and fiction in its many manifestations, reflecting a readership as likely to quote Jacques Derrida as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Taking a different but equally striking approach to the fantasy genre, the wonderfully monikered Catherynne M Valente has characterised her own work as “mythpunk” (adapting the “cyberpunk” tag which has also spawned “steampunk”, “splatterpunk” and the wonderful “monkpunk”). Valente has built a reputation for retellings of myth and fairytale in contemporary settings, distinguished by their intense, almost obsessive approach to the crafting of words and language. In a genre where transparent prose is king, Valente’s opaque approach is both refreshing and confrontational, challenging the genre to wonder when it became so afraid of words.

Marly Youmans‘ work is rooted in American history, starting with historical novels such as Catherwood and The Wolf Pit, then evolving into the fantasy world of Adantis and her best known novel to date, Ingledove. Writing for the young adult audience, Youmans’ novels follow in the tradition of figures such as Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen; fantasy for children that adroitly dissects adult reality.

And these women are far from alone. In recent years a host of fascinating (and fascinatingly named) women writers including Theodora GossCat RamboErzebet YellowBoy (yes, real names all) and most recently Rachel Swirsky have risen to prominence as writers of distinctive, contemporary fantasy.

Underlying the emergence of these writers is a flourishing small press scene that in recent years has rejuvenated contemporary fantasy. Small Beer Press, through which Link self-published her short fiction collections (the second of which, Magic for Beginners, was later picked up by Harper Perennial) continues to put forward new talent in the influential fanzine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Both Ekaterina Sedia and Catherynne M Valente’s work has been championed by Prime Books, which has quickly become the leading publisher of contemporary fantasy with a literary edge. And Marly Youmans’ latest work will emerge later this year from PS Publishing, the UK’s leading genre small press. These publishers and many others have established a market for contemporary fantasy that transgresses the boundaries of the genre by serving an audience that mainstream publishers seem to have abandoned. May the writers they champion go from strength to strength.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

7 thoughts on “New women’s worlds in fantasy fiction

  1. The perception of spec fic as a monastry still persists. My mum couldn’t believe half of my Clarion class are female. ‘I thought it was all a boy-thing,’ she said.

    ‘You’ve forgot about unicorns and pretty vampires,’ I replied.

    ‘Oh, of course,’ she said, nodding.

    Made me smile.


  2. Bob the unicorn was all of a lather. He swished his tail impatiently.

    “Bother,” he said “every time I bend my neck to munch some grass, my head becomes stuck. Why is this happening?”

    “It’s because your ‘orn gets stuck in the ground, love.” a pretty vampire retorted. “Anyway its pasture bedtime.”

    “I know, vamp, you won’t grass me up though will ya?”



  3. Hi – I came across from Twitter (@jessicapatient) – I really enjoyed reading this article – I am currently on the Agent hunt for my Dystopian/literary novel. Thank you for all of the book recommendations – I can fill up my wish list.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s