Women’s History Month: Good time to catch up on good reads

There’s something immensely satisfying about knowing the most popular book series of all time—I’m talking about Harry Potter, of course—was penned by a woman. Oh, I can already hear the naysayers deploring that “these are only children’s books, so who cares?”—they’re not—or that “accomplishments shouldn’t be categorized by gender.” Well, they shouldn’t, but they are.

We don’t live in a genderless society, here in America and, well, most of the world. We live in a male-dominated one, and many achievements are considered such because they can be attributed to a man. Why? Because for centuries, men were the only citizens with power.

I celebrate Women’s History Month because it’s a noble attempt, however limited in scope, to promote awareness and recognition of female contributions, at least for the duration of March. One of the most powerful vehicles any individual can have is a voice, and that’s why I prefer to show my support for my fellow women by investing in their work. In other words, I buy books written by women. I buy books written by men as well, but I make a concerted effort to seek out female authors year-round. I especially pay attention to fantasy and sci-fi, as female characters play a prominent role in these worlds (just think of Starbuck and President Roslin in “Battlestar Galactica”).

So here’s my list of my top fantasy/sci-fi books, written by women but hopefully not exclusively for female enjoyment. I like to think good literature can be appreciated by both sexes. I have not ranked these books, since the job would prove extremely difficult for a bibliophile such as myself.

Mary Doria Russell
“The “Sparrow” and “The Children of God”

Despite the recognizable premise—first contact with an alien civilization—this two-part series set in the future resonates on an anthropological scale level besides making a worthy contribution to the sci-fi genre. One of the main themes is how cultural misunderstandings between well-intentioned people can result in tragedy, which makes even the idea of an ethnography study sound too perilous to ever pull off. The central character, Father Emilio Sandoz of the Jesuit order, is the only one from the original crew to return to earth, although he is greatly damaged in body and spirit. The first book alternates between the story of the expedition and Sandoz’s interrogation by the Jesuit order’s inquest. The second book gives even more insight into what really happened on the planet Rakhat and further underscores Russell’s central theme. Russell is obviously a brilliant woman with extensive knowledge of music and mathematics, and she writes with clarity and understated elegance. But here’s a warning: These books are emotionally wrenching. When I gave it to a former boss years ago for Christmas, she told me she would have to take a break before tackling the sequel.

Mary Piercy
“He, She and It”

Fellow feminist Marcy Piercy is a poet, novelist and social activist. Be prepared to be challenged by her provocative thinking. “He, She and It”—quite possibly one of my favorite books, along with Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”—examines gender roles, human identity and artificial intelligence, environmentalism and the economy, through a love story between a human woman and the cyborg created to protect her hometown from corporate raiders, all of which takes place against a backdrop of post-apocalyptic America. Yes, it’s that deep and compelling. In contrast to this futuristic vision of the world and the role the Internet plays in it are interwoven elements of Jewish mysticism and the legend of the Golem. I think that’s what I like best: a conformity-oriented, corporate-driven society juxtaposed with a rich cultural history steeped in ethnic tradition and mythology. It’s a road we’ve already started on, with the emphasis we’ve given to the business world. Perhaps the only thing keeping us human in the future will be an ancestry that corporate America will be continually trying to obliterate. 

Rosemary Kirstein
“The Steerwoman’s Road”

If you ask, she will answer. If she asks, you must reply—or face a lifelong ban from her and her sisters. What a wonderful concept. I love the idea of these Steerswomen—and some Steersmen—traveling the world in search of knowledge, with the goal of sharing information with anyone for free. Now that’s democracy. “The Steerswoman’s Road,” which includes the first two volumes of the series, follows the highly intelligent, inquisitive Rowan on her journey as she seeks to discover the truth behind a small blue gem. Her curiosity about this geological oddity lands her in life-threatening trouble quite a few times, as well as gains her the loyalty and companionship of Bel, a warrior poet from a barbarian land known as the Outskirts. These women are strong and courageous in different ways, and they will easily find a place in your heart.

Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley
Whatever they pen (that’s not the title of a book, it’s just a statement of fact)

Whenever one of these women comes out with a book, I buy it regardless of what any reviewer writes. In fact, I’ve stopped reading reviews for them. They’re that good. From a writer’s perspective, McKillip is simply the most astonishing author I’ve ever read. Her writing is so gorgeous and graceful, I feel like every sentence is a lyrical gem. I love all of her books, but my favorites include “Alphabet of Thorn,” “Od Magic,” “Ombria in Shadow, “Winter Rose” and “Cygnet.” This woman could probably make a laundry list or bowel movement sound captivating and poetic. As for McKinley, I’ve followed McKinley’s her career since devouring within days “The Hero and the Crown” and then “The Blue Sword.” Much like McKillip, McKinley’s books have fairy tale elements. “Deerskin”—an unflinching tale of incest and rape, survival and recovery—in particular comes to mind

Kathleen Duey
“Skin Hunger”

Harry Potter, this is not. There’s plenty of danger and excitement in the Harry Potter world, but there’s also hope and love. In Duey’s darkly atmospheric, morbid novel, the first in a planned trilogy called A Resurrection of Magic, there is no hope and there is hardly any love. The children forced to attend this school of wizardry are starved to death if they can’t conjure up food or learn their lessons properly. The book centers on two characters told from different time periods: Sadima, a young woman grappling with her powers and her yearning to be loved and accepted, and Hahp, an unwanted son of nobility born generations later. You’ll find “Skin Hunger” in the young adult section, but it seems more appropriate for a funereal section, given the amount of death and despair between its pages. That said, I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, “Sacred Scars,” which is expected to come out in August (one month after the next Harry Potter movie is released—it’s going to be a good summer!).

J.V. Jones
“The Barbed Coil”

A magical ring known as the barbed coil transports shy, troubled Tessa McCamfrey from her present-day life here on earth to an alternate reality filled with magic and peril. With the help of Lord Ravis, she navigates the Kingdom of Raize, meets Cameron of Thorn and becomes involved with the other two in a mission to save the land from the armies of Garizon. What really makes this book stand out is the use of art—specifically magical illuminations like those of medieval manuscripts—to cast spells. The descriptions of these illuminations are fascinating and make you wish the book was illustrated. I also highly recommend The Book of Words trilogy by Jones.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman
“A Fistful of Sky”

Set the story around a frumpy young woman overshadowed by her siblings, throw in some magic in an otherwise conventional reality, and you have an enchanting formula in this offering from the prosaic Nina Kiriki Hoffman. The Lazelle family of southern California can do magic. In their teen years, they undergo a process ominously dubbed The Transition: a severe illness that will either kill you or leave you with magical powers. If you’re lucky, you gain a talent like shape-changing or wish-granting. If you’re not lucky, you die. Unlike her brothers and sisters, Gypsum Lazelle hasn’t undergone The Transition yet. She resigns herself to a boring, magic-bereft existence as a college student—one day she becomes gravely ill while her family is away. It’s a delightful coming-of-age story for those of us who want our adolescent angst made even more complicated by the presence of magic.

Sharon Shinn
Samaria series

Picture a world where angels abuse their power, swear and have sex. If that’s not an interesting premise, I don’t know what it is. Sharon Shinn has created a land where angels not only live beside humans, they cohabitate with them. Contrary to what some believe, angels are mortals—just genetically enhanced ones. They live on Samaria, a planet settled by colonists from a different planet some time ago. The colonists journeyed to Samaria on a spaceship named Jehovah, which possesses artificial intelligence and can modify weather patterns, send medicinal drugs or rain down death, giving the illusion of an omnipotent god. Eventually Jehovah is worshipped as a deity, with only a select few knowing and discovering the truth. In this religion, angels are considered superior beings because they can fly close to the heavens and sing the populace’s needs to Jehovah. From the very first couple—Gabriel and Rachel—to the last—Obadiah and Rebekah—I found myself fascinated by the romantic entanglements between angel and human. Shinn has a nice way with words and is particularly skilled at creating intriguing and endearing characters.

Edith Pattou

Edith Pattou’s “East,” set in Norway,” is a charming retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” combined with elements from “Beauty and the Beast.” I love a well-told fairy tale, especially reimagined ones. Told from multiple viewpoints, “East” focuses on the adventures of Nymah Rose, the last daughter of eight children born to a poor mapmaker and his superstitious wife, as she leaves home on a dangerous quest to learn love, lose it and rediscover it through perseverance and resourcefulness. Pattou, whose works include “Hero’s Song” and its sequel, “Fire Arrow,” shows a new maturity and richness in her writing here.

Cecilia Dart-Thornton
The Bitterbynde trilogy

This is a phenomenonal series reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—I can picture LOTR purists groaning, but Dart-Thornton’s creation is that epic, if not that originalset in the world of Erith, where an unnamed and unknown character falls into a thicket of paradox ivy and becomes horribly deformed. Rescued by an old and bitter woman, the foundling is then raised as a slave in the Isse Tower. But in this world, where faerie reigns supreme, nothing is as it seems, and as the ill-made mute discovers its real identity—and gender, for that matter—the story deepens in complexity and richness. Dart-Thornton has a vivid imagination as most fantasists do, and although I haven’t liked her subsequent books as much as I have “The Ill-Made Mute,” “The Lady of Our Sorrows’ and “The Battle of Evernight,” I will forever own this trilogy


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