It’s an unfortunate fact that I’ve many times seen strange comments on Twitter or Reddit about a lack of good epic fantasy written by women. Maybe the people making these comments just haven’t gone looking—because there’s plenty out there to find.
Not all readers will agree on what I’m qualifying as epic fantasy today, but the works I’ll mention below all fit a few main criteria: Large storylines and casts of characters, secondary fantasy settings (even when they feel more like historical locales and cultures), the involvement of godlike magical beings, or just magical occurrences on an epic scale.
With these criteria in mind, here’s a modest handful of outstanding epic fantasy written by women.
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb: Coming of Age Fantasy Written for Adults
Robin Hobb, also known as Megan Lindholm (and named Margaret in reality), has a huge library of hard-hitting fantasy to her name(s). Her Realm of the Elderlings series spans 16 books. The Farseer trilogy is where most readers discover the series and remains Hobb’s most popular work to date.
Farseer has plenty in common with other epic fantasy: A medieval setting, magical training and quests for the main character, mysterious enemy entities threatening the protagonist’s home, complex internal politicking, etc. Most epic fantasy readers will have read something with a similar macro plotline. What really makes Farseer stand out is Hobb’s unique delivery.
On one hand, Hobb is refreshing in her choice to tell an epic story—which features a big cast of involved characters—all through the first-person point of view of a single character. Hobb’s approach to the coming of age journey in Farseer is unique as well, following FitzChivalry Farseer from his childhood well into his adult years but doing so in a way that’s clearly written for adults in the first place.
I can’t say enough about Hobb’s ability to put distinctive characters and settings on the page. Skill for skill, I consider her at the top of the epic fantasy genre.
The Lotus Kingdoms Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear: Deep Works Without the Monstrous Wordcount
Like Hobb, Elizabeth Bear is a veteran author with a large library of works to show for herself. Bear has published over 65 short stories and 30 completed novels (all within just 20 years or so), demonstrating her skill across epic fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history, among other speculative subgenres.
Perhaps thanks to her serious work writing short stories, one of Bear’s notable powers is telling a story quickly. This skill is especially rare among epic fantasy writers, but Bear has put it into practice across multiple epic series, such as her Eternal Sky Trilogy and The Lotus Kingdoms.
Bear’s books feel as if they were written with a clear sense of what the author wanted to say. So rather than being just another series about a band of misfits running interference in an inter-kingdom war, The Lotus Kingdoms brings its own refreshing sense of perspective to the type of story many epic fantasy readers expect. The story stands apart as a result. And it’s worth repeating how consistently Bear manages to tell expansive stories in fleshed out settings without resorting to immense page counts.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin: Smart Books that Honor their Readers
I could just comment on how N. K. Jemisin is a MacArthur genius or the only author to win the Hugo award for all three books in one trilogy. But let’s talk writing quality as well.
I recall feeling a little underwhelmed when I first began The Inheritance Trilogy, but I soon realized it was because I had just read several books that insisted on explaining everything. Unlike many of her peer authors, Jemisin rarely dumbs things down for her readers. She writes with a great level of respect for the people picking up her books, skimming over parts they can figure out for themselves, leaving many (many) things understated rather than making them too obvious.
That’s not to say that she refuses to offer any exposition or that her books are impossible to follow. But it is to say that a) Jemisin (a lot like Bear) packs more inside by using fewer words, and that b) her books offer higher reader rewards as you figure things out, follow characters’ logic, make sense of the setting on your own terms, and so on.
Outside onlookers often comment first on Jemisin’s literary qualities—such as her audacity to write epic fantasy in second person. While, yes, this is an interesting thing about works like Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy use second person, I think there’s a lot more smarts and heart at work than just what this kind of surface level analysis will reveal.
The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart: Writing What the Author Wanted
I’ve read several Arthurian fantasies, but none as striking as Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy written in the 1970s, before epic fantasy as we now know it was much of a thing. Maybe this one stands out because it’s more about wizardry and technology and mysticism and less about being a king.
Stewart’s trilogy feels like a historical fantasy, given how carefully it’s crafted and how well put together the connected lore feels. But it also feels like the result of an author simply writing what she wanted to read, unrestricted by genre bounds and storytelling tropes. And maybe this is also a result of the timing, since so few fantasy works were mainstream yet, making the whole trilogy courageous and new.
The long and short is that Stewart’s trilogy is dark, political, tragic, inventive, sometimes astonishing, and always magical in tone and delivery. It’s not an easy tale to read, by any means, but it’s one I don’t think I’ll forget any time soon. And it’s already been fifteen odd years since I read any of it.
Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott: Epic Fantasy For Readers Who Want Doorstoppers
In the 80s and 90s, publishers really began to realize that many epic fantasy readers were looking for long, continuous stories that stick with the same characters over time. Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan is probably the most popular series giving rise to this, with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire following several years later, and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen coming soon thereafter. Kate Elliott was one of the first women to write such a doorstopper series, Crown of Stars.
While the first few volumes read fairly well on their own (in order, at least), the series quickly becomes one that demands a long reading journey to find answers. At seven large volumes, Crown of Stars is packed with large casts of characters, many different settings and cultures drawn from medieval Europe, and magical convergences on a grand scale.
Like so many other epics, Crown of Stars still manages to focus on coming of age storylines as well, following two young outsider characters who have to find their place in the world during the midst of these political, monumental events. In this way, particularly, the series feels a lot like what fans of Tad Williams or Robert Jordan were looking for as these books first came out.
Sword of Shadows by J. V. Jones: A Highwater Mark in High Fantasy
As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’m a big fan of J. V. Jones’s Sword of Shadows, a monumental series that merits a lot more reader attention. Sword of Shadows can rightly be compared to works like Malazan and A Song of Ice and Fire due to Jones’s remarkable skill establishing setting, populating her world with unforgettable characters, and digging deep into the story, not just spreading it wide—as often happens in multivolume works of fantasy.
Sword of Shadows is particularly significant in how consistently it humanizes both its heroes and its villains (some who are clearly horrible and some who are much more nuanced). While the story follows a few main characters on their quest to stop the Endlords from destroying the world, Jones spends a large amount of time in the minds of her antagonists as well. The stakes get high very quickly as a result.
Furthermore, Jones validates her high stakes quickly by letting the world make permanent marks on its characters. Like Erikson, Martin, and Hobb mentioned earlier, Jones lets her characters face serious consequences for their own choices and the actions of others in their world. The result is a setting that feels as dangerous and alive as the villains in whose heads we spend some serious time.
The Green Rider Series by Kristen Britain: A Friendly Entry Point to Epic Fantasy
Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series is fairly long (and still growing), but might offer the most accessible starting point on this list for readers new to epic fantasy. Britain bridges the gap between YA and adult fantasy in many ways, gradually easing into the series with smaller plots, fewer characters, and shorter books at first, but a good amount of expansion and depth with each new volume.
Like Hobb and Jemisin, Britain also does a lot to connect readers to the smaller storylines and less epic doings of her characters. But like everyone on the list, she brings in kingdom-crushing consequences and high stakes for her characters and setting as well.
Last but not least, Britain is one of many epic fantasy writers with a clear and abundant love for horses. There are many essays to be read on how writers do or don’t get horse facts right in their books, but I’d bet on Britain’s equestrian experience and know-how, based alone on the care she devotes to it in these books.
Many More Epic Options
There are far too many stellar works and authors for me to write about them all here. So here’s an additional list you might want to investigate:
- Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle
- Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky
- Melanie Rawn—just about anything she’s written, but the Dragon Prince trilogy for sure
- Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga, which won’t fit everyone’s definition of epic fantasy but is, in Lee’s own words, “an epic fantasy that was not set in medieval Europe,” (and is definitely epic)
- Barbara Hambly’s Winterlands series
- Kameron Hurley’s The Worldbreaker Saga
- Karen Miller’s Kingmaker, Kingbreaker
- Rachel Neumeier’s Tuyo
And all this isn’t even to mention my personal favorite high fantasy authors Patricia McKillip and Ursula K. Le Guin, both who have written some very epic stuff—in eras where their publishers were very dominated by male authors.
I’ll conclude as I started, plus one addition. First, Twitter and Reddit are full of people saying nonsense things. And second, if you want to find top-tier epic fantasy series, trilogies, or even standalone works written by women, there’s a lot out there to like.
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About the Author
Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future Fire, MYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.