It’s International Women’s Day, and I figured one of the best ways to celebrate it is to highlight five female authors who have, in one way or another, been fundamental not just to my love of the genre, but to writing as well.
So, in no particular order, here we go.
Carol Berg wrote some of the first fantasy books I ever read, and all these years later, I still go back to her books on the regular. Berg has a knack with telling a captivating story, but her character work is what really shines. She puts her characters through a lot, but their development and their personal growth throughout their arcs is second to none. She is a master craftswoman who knows how to not just make her characters hurt, but to make that pain, and the subsequent growth as a result of it, matter to her reader.
In a lot of ways, Berg has been fundamental not just to my love of the fantasy genre as a whole, but how I work my own characters in my writing. She taught me that pain is okay, and so is beautiful prose. Her landscapes are both familiar and fun to play with, often with her fantasy and reality balanced on the edge of a knife. Due to this, her stories resonate far beyond the page. She writes characters you don’t expect to find at the forefront of a story, and as such, are more interesting due to that.
Berg’s mix of beauty and pain, of known and unknown, creates a visceral reaction in her readers, and it’s something I’ve been fascinated by since I first started reading fantasy. However, Berg has really shown me, as an author, that not every story has to be emotionally gentle to matter. The books that impact me the most are the ones like hers, where the author breaks me, and heals me, as the story unfolds. In some ways, I think Berg gave me permission to make my own characters explore a wide gamut of powerful emotions.
Berg is currently writing under the pseudonym Cate Glass, but her books, no matter the name on the cover, are some of the best fantasy out there.
Catherynne M. Valente
Six-Gun Snow White is a novella I read at least twice a year. There is something about the way Valente uses words that just works with me on every possible level.
Six-Gun Snow White is a retelling of the story of Snow White. It’s captivating and bold, and Valente somehow manages to paint a lush picture of the Wild West with few words. The book itself is full of magic and mystery, of both finding and losing yourself, with an ending that is just perfect.
Valente is an author who has been on my radar for years now. Her stories are different than typical, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking but always written in a style that is nothing short of captivating. Valente uses words the same way a painter uses paint. They’re all part of the art, part of what gets the story told, but each word is in its place because absolutely no other word would fit there.
I often find myself reading Valente’s books not just to see how she takes command of the story she’s telling, but to admire the way she uses words in general. She’s an author who has been hugely informative for my own writing, not only because her stories venture from the predicted path, but because she’s unapologetically who she is. Her writer voice is an unforgettable mix of beauty and brutal, and I love it. She is, in my estimation, an unparalleled talent in the fantasy genre.
I edited Dragon Mage for ML Spencer, and while this author had been on my radar before, this book really solidly put her there. I’ve written a review of Dragon Mage, so you can see all the reasons I loved that book. However, since getting to know Spencer a bit better, I’ve not only come to admire her writing (which is incredible) but also the way she commands being an author, in general.
Spencer is one of those authors you can’t help but love. She’s nice, passionate, and incredibly smart. She’s got talent positively oozing from her. Her books are wildly, and deservedly, popular, and the stories she tells are not just interesting, but also shockingly human.
In another way, Spencer has been a pretty recent addition to my Formative Authors list. I’ve always been kind of afraid of her, because she’s so amazing and popular, a real fan favorite. The intimidation was strong, and even though I’ve edited for her, I still do feel a bit of that. However, Spencer is one of those authors who grabs her writing career with both hands and takes absolute command of it. She is always there to answer questions, to give me insight, to offer me tips or suggestions or just general help if I need it.
She’s one of those authors who is an absolute gem in the self-published field and shows what self-published authors are really capable of. Plus, she has the experience and knowhow to create waves wherever she goes. I have learned so much from her, not just on the business end of things, but regarding how to tell a good story as well.
A few months after I released Seraphina’s Lament, someone wrote me a letter about my book. She told me a story about how her family survived the Holodomor, and after some back and forth between us, she asked me if I have ever read Svetlana Alexievich. She told me my writing reminded her a lot of that author.
I was kind of amazed someone picked up on that, because I have read all of Alexievich’s books at least three times, and I study her use of language with an eye for detail. Her command of the written word is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Alexievich has won the Nobel Prize and once you read her books, you understand why. She writes narrative nonfiction. Sort of made her own path in that particular genre, in fact. She writes about tough subjects. The Unwomanly Face of War and Secondhand Time are my favorite books of hers. One is about the woman who fought on the Soviet side of World War II, and one is about the fall of the USSR. Both are powerful books that will change how you understand so many things.
The truth is, when people read my books and comment on my prose, Alexievich has been one of the most formative influencers in how I write, and why I write the way I do. There is a certain marriage of beauty, pain, and truth in her books that has been nothing short of inspirational. I have spent many long, long hours studying her prose, and learning from an absolute master of her craft how a subtle twist of one or two words can change transform a sentence from interesting, to unforgettable.
Most people will know Barbara Demick as the author who wrote Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. This was, in fact, how I learned about her. That book is extraordinary and I will recommend it to literally everyone with a passing interest in North Korea. However, last year she released another book called Eat the Buddha, and it really solidified why Demick belongs on this list.
I think, in fantasy, a lot of stories are told about people in power, and there aren’t quite so many about the common man (though that is changing). Demick takes not only places we know little about (North Korea, Tibet) and opens them up to the wider world, but shows how the plight of the everyman is dramatic and powerful enough to command an entire book. In Demick’s work, she has shown me, time and again, that power is interesting, but it’s not really the whole story, or even where the most interesting part of the story is.
And while power dynamics fascinate me and I do love toying with them while I write, Demick has been hugely informative as to where I place my characters in the social structures of the worlds I write within. Her book on North Korea was a powerhouse, and her book about Tibet rivals that one in every sense of the word, yet it’s her focus on people who are ordinary that has hugely influenced me. Somehow, those ordinary people caught in the drama of their everyday life end up becoming stories that are more captivating, illuminating, and powerful to me, as the reader.
What female authors have been hugely informative to you?