Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish blog!
The topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is: books that celebrate diversity/diverse characters!
I’m choosing to focus on the adult fantasy genre, and I’m aiming more at representation of diverse characters, and normalization thereof. You’d think that in the fantasy genre–where almost anything goes, including fairies, wizards, nonhuman entities, talking trees–we’d see a shit ton more diverse characters. AND YET. It’s actually quite difficult to find books with good representation of diverse characters–books that show diverse people as normal, ordinary people.
So here are 5 books/series that stood out to me for normalizing diversities. After that, I’ll list 5 diverse books I’m really interested in reading.
Many of these are series(es?) so I’ll use the first book as the picture.
1. Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch
Women! In equal positions of power as men! Unquestioned female leadership! Unquestioned acceptance of women in gangs, armies, nobility, magic–you name it. Gentlemen Bastards is one of the few series that doesn’t reproduce old, tired tales of women who are always lesser than men. And it challenges this very quietly. It’s simply there–the equality. No one questions it. No one has impassioned speeches about uppity females. And Lynch doesn’t make that old mistake of claiming to have diversity in gender, yet pushing the women to the background. They are important characters, they affect the progression of the plot, they are undeniably present and important. It was refreshing.
2. Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
Malazan does an excellent job of having tribal societies–many kinds of societies–and not having them be exceptional, weird, or out-of-place. I’d say that Malazan has one of the most diverse religions in fantasy–by which I mean it’s NOT just a totallyNot of a European religion, with the more stereotypical aspects of other world religions thrown in for flavor. Malazan doesn’t just have one tribal society, it has many–and they’re not bizzare savages, they’re just as legitimate as many of the non-tribal societies. They’re important. And there’s LOTS OF THEM. I love the way that Malazan doesn’t differentiate between very different societies in terms of their threat to the Malazan Empire–they’re all a threat. They’re all dangerous. And none are considered “lesser” because of some real-world cultural bias.
3. Kushiel by Jacqueline Carey
I can’t express how much I love these novels, and how sad it is that ALMOST NO ONE I KNOW has read them. Okay fine, they’re very explicit. STILL. Brilliant novels.
Kushiel is a society where any kind of non-heterosexual orientation is absolutely and completely normal. There’s no fuss over characters that prefer one gender over another, and the main character is clearly bisexual. It’s so normal that Phedre has both male and female contracts (she’s a courtesan). It’s so normal that several important characters are gay. It even plays a major part in the extremely complicated (and fucking brilliant) political plot. This is a beautiful book that is fundamentally about Love–the tragedies, the manipulations, the ecstacy, and the loyalty of love. And it doesn’t give a fig about how our society likes to divide love based on the genders of the lovers. It absolutely does not care. And that’s really, really beautiful.
(Kushiel also remains one of the ONLY BOOKS that is stuffed with romance that I ABSOLUTELY LOVED. I’m a weird person who usually can’t stand romance, relationships, and the drama within in novels–I usually just endure it and wait for the real plot to start. Man, was Kushiel an exception. Literally the entire theme of the book is love. You NEED to read this.)
4. Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you know that as soon as I finished this book I immediately went into a rant of epic proportions of HOW MUCH I LOVED IT.
Karen Memory is set in the American West during the Gold Rush, but it’s a steampunk alt/weird West. And it’s more exciting for the fact that it easily includes people of multiple ethnicities (Chinese, Black, and Indian–literally the first fantasy book I’ve read that actually has Indian characters), in a time that is, all too often, whitewashed.
I appreciated the way the author also normalizes the relationship between Priya and Karen, who are both women. Like Kushiel, it’s accepted by other characters just the same way a heterosexual relationship would be. One of the most beloved characters in Madame’s house is a trans MtF character, who is unquestioningly accepted by all to be a woman–it’s just not a big deal. Most of all, I loved the way that she had multiple characters of multiple diversities–and intersectional diversity!–that were just there.
Though the book is clearly steampunk fantasy, it paints a much more accurate picture of the American West than many history books do. Which is amazing, or sad, depending on the way you think about it.
5. Acacia by David Anthony Durham
This is a brilliant series based entirely on African culture, which I loved. I haven’t read any other novels which have such an immersive, well-developed, respectful African-based culture as Acacia and I really appreciated the way the society affected the characters, the plot, and the conflicts of the book. Remember all those books where the Good Pale People are battling those Weird Dark Savages, with their strange gods, unknowable customs, and undeniably backward culture? It’s a theme that fantasy repeats OVER and OVER and OVER again, to the extreme distaste of many. Acacia undoes this by making the African-based culture the main one, and removing the European-based culture to the outskirts. It’s a neat reversal which I wish I saw more of. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’m really enjoying it.
And now for the 5 TBR diverse books! Here’s some stuff I’m looking forward to.
6. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.
Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.
Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.
7. A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
The city-state of Saraykeht dominates the Summer Cities. Its wealth is beyond measure; its port is open to all the merchants of the world, and its ruler, the Khai Saraykeht, commands forces to rival the Gods. Commerce and trade fill the streets with a hundred languages, and the coffers of the wealthy with jewels and gold. Any desire, however exotic or base, can be satisfied in its soft quarter. Blissfully ignorant of the forces that fuel their prosperity, the people live and work secure in the knowledge that their city is a bastion of progress in a harsh world. It would be a tragedy if it fell.
Saraykeht is poised on the knife-edge of disaster.
At the heart of the city’s influence are the poet-sorcerer Heshai and the captive spirit, Seedless, whom he controls. For all his power, Heshai is weak, haunted by memories of shame and humiliation. A man faced with constant reminders of his responsibilities and his failures, he is the linchpin and the most vulnerable point in Saraykeht’s greatness.
Far to the west, the armies of Galt have conquered many lands. To take Saraykeht, they must first destroy the trade upon which its prosperity is based. Marchat Wilsin, head of Galt’s trading house in the city, is planning a terrible crime against Heshai and Seedless. If he succeeds, Saraykeht will fall.
Amat, House Wilsin’s business manager, is a woman who rose from the slums to wield the power that Marchat Wilsin would use to destroy her city. Through accidents of fate and circumstance Amat, her apprentice Liat, and two young men from the farthest reaches of their society stand alone against the dangers that threaten the city.
8. Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny (from Africa to the New World) unimaginable to mortals.
9. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means “Who Fears Death?” in an ancient African tongue.
Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny–to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.
10. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change – their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.
Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
(I should also mention Le Guin’s Earthsea, which I have read, which is amazing, and which also has a “reversal” with regards to what you expect the main character to look like. Bonus!)
Tell me your favorite diverse fantasy!