‘Tolkien is the greatest burden the modern fantasy author must labour under and eventually escape from if they are to succeed.’ So wrote Australian high fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, a decade and a half ago. Replace Tolkien with George RR Martin, and one might say the same principle applies today.
As a result of its television adaptation, Game of Thrones has become so popular and so beloved that Martin is often hailed as some sort of progressive genre genius. Fans point to his complex female characters, unpredictable plot lines, racy sex scenes and provocative violence. The high fantasy genre has long suffered a lack of cultural cachet, but it’s undeniable that Martin has made it ‘cool’ again. For many readers who didn’t grow up reading epic fantasy trilogies, GoT is their first real contact with the genre aside from nerdish Dungeons & Dragons stereotypes.
But I lament the fact that Martin is sometimes spoken of as though he invented strong women characters or shocking storylines in a high fantasy context. These generalisations erase much of the excellent work of other fantasy novelists – particularly women writers. By high fantasy, I mean stories with medieval-style settings, battles, dragons, magic and monarchies. I want to briefly mention some women writers who were contemporaries of Martin. These fantasy sagas may be of interest to those who have been exposed to the genre thanks to GoT.
Sara Douglass published over twenty fantasy novels; she was also a medieval history academic, so her stories are littered with interesting details. Her first novel BattleAxe (1995) sold nearly one million copies in Australia alone, and its sequels, Enchanter and StarMan, were joint winners of the Aurealis Award for fantasy in 1996. These books are some of the finest high fantasy I’ve ever read, with lots of magic, comprehensive battle scenes, excruciating tension, and plot twists that still blow my mind even though I’ve read the books five times. Douglass’ writing style isn’t the sharpest in the genre, but her characters are both insanely loveable and infuriatingly complex, and the world she creates is intricate and highly believable. Even though the purported ‘hero’ of the texts, Axis, is male, the story really belongs to Faraday and Azhure, the two female protagonists, who save the day time and time again with their power and humility.
Kate Forsyth is known for her bestselling historical novels, including Bitter Greens (2012) and The Wild Girl (2014). Seventeen years ago, though, Forsyth published her debut novel Dragonclaw(1997), the first in a seven-book series called The Witches of Eilannen that concerned a group of witches fighting to reclaim their power and status in a magical, medieval-esque land. Quests, mysteries, spells, dragons, talking animals – this book has it all, and the protagonists are all women. At its heart, Dragonclaw is a coming-of-age story for protagonist Isabeau, and the rest of the series explores themes of oppression, resistance and power. Forsyth has won the Aurealis Award five times.
Robin Hobb could be included on this list solely on the basis of her prolificacy: she’s published fifteen novels, a number of short stories, and a further ten novels under the penname Megan Lindholm. Her prose is among the fantasy genre’s most richly textured and evocative; her linguistic precision is particularly astonishing considering the volume of work she’s produced. Her first series The Farseer Trilogy about a royal bastard who soon becomes a royal assassin, is my favourite of her works.
I haven’t yet mentioned the USA’s Maggie Furey, or Australia’s beloved Isobelle Carmody and the wonderful Margo Lanagan. There are many more who could be cited: female authors who have been writing complex, imaginative and challenging fantasy novels for many years. These women deserve to retain their place alongside George RR Martin as exemplars of the genre.