I doubt that anyone who’s read any of my fiction will be surprised to learn that I like strong women, both in my own life and as characters and as authors. I expect most people would be unsurprised to discover that I like literary universes with strongly recognized world building and stories which explore individual responsibility, risk-taking, and price-paying characters. Or that I love the English language.
So, I thought I’d talk briefly about five authors, all of whom fall within several of those parameters: Anne McCaffrey, Katherine Kurtz, Patricia McKillip, Mercedes Lackey, and Barbara Hambly.
I first met Anne McCaffrey in Dragonflight, which I read in serialized format while I was still in high school, and I thought “Wow!” I realize the Pern novels sort of straddle the line between fantasy and science fiction, but that’s fine. In fact, that’s a lot more than just fine. Her Pernese characters—from Lessa and F’lar through Jaxom, Robinton, Aivas, Moreta, and scores of others—are the very definition of responsible human beings (even though one of them is an AI), all with believable traits, desires, and goals that are fully realized, inhabiting a fully developed, totally internally consistent world of the imagination. I’ve liked almost everything else of hers I’ve read, as well, from Restoree to the Helga stories, and I’ve never read a weak McCaffrey story, but it wasn’t until a few years before her death that I truly realized the debt I owed her for underscoring for me so well the importance of fully building worlds from the ground up.
I first met Katherine Kurtz in Deryni Rising in 1970, the year it was published. As a historian by training myself, I deeply appreciated the rich tapestry she built out of medieval history, and who couldn’t fall in love with characters like Morgan, Duncan, Kelson, Jehenna, Duke Ewan, Sean Derry, and Richenda … or despise villains like Loris and Gorony? The importance of accepting responsibility, of honoring commitments despite brutal personal costs, and the understanding of what makes someone human—and of the cost when hatred makes one side inhuman when it regards the other as unhuman—is really the heart of what these books are about, and I have loved them from the very first chapter of Rising. In fact, I just finished rereading the entire Deryni canon, and I feel richly repaid.
Patricia McKillip is, without a doubt, one of my two or three all-time favorite authors. When I first read The Riddle-Master of Hed in 1978, I immediately went out and found Heir of Sea and Fire and then waited impatiently for Harpist in the Wind. In many ways, the Riddle-Master’s world is less fully articulated than Pern or Gwynedd, but I think that’s because so much of the detail is cooking quietly away in the background behind the land rulers. There’s a sense of an entire consistent, coherent foundation and history/backstory behind all of it, but the struggles of Morgon, Raerdale, and Deth take front stage with an intensity that reaches out and grabs the reader by the shirt collar and shakes him or her to the bone. Patricia’s prose is absolutely gorgeous and evocative and her stories fully satisfy the deep love for the language my parents taught me as a very young reader. I literally don’t think it’s possible to over-recommend this series … and the rest of her stuff is pretty darn good, too.
Mercedes Lackey is another world builder, although my personal feeling is that her fantasy universes, like Patricia’s, are stronger in the characters and the conflicts than in the world building blocks. Mind you, if I have to choose world building or strong, passionate characters, I’ll take the characters any day, and Misty never disappoints in that respect. Like all of the other writers in this group, she pays careful attention to the rules of magic in her universes, establishing the limits of the magic-user’s toolbox just as firmly—possibly even more firmly—as she establishes the capabilities within that toolbox. I first met her work in Arrows of the Queen in 1988, which meant (oh, frabjous day!) that both Arrow’s Flight and Arrow’s Fall were available for immediate follow-on consumption. It’s apparent that Arrows of the Queen is a first novel, and none of the trilogy’s volumes are as “finished” as some of her later work, which definitely deserves to share shelf space with Patricia’s, but the characters grabbed me immediately. Talia, Dirk, Selenay, Rolan, Karen, and—especially!—Skif are all among my favorite literary friends. I think these books are a marvelous introduction to the universe of Velgarth, especially for younger readers, but my three favorite Lackey characters are probably the delightfully improbable partnership of Tarma and Kethry and Kethry’s niece, Kerowyn. Misty’s urban fantasy is also very good, although I personally prefer Diana Tregarde and her “real world” elemental masters stories. I have to admit to a special weak spot for Rose Hawkins!
And, last but by no means least, Barbara Hambly. I’ve liked just about everything of Barbara’s I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of it), but the Darwath books hold pride of place in my heart, probably because they were the first of her works I ever encountered. In fact, I found a copy of The Time of the Dark as a brand-new release with cover art by somebody who’s become one of my favorite artists over the years: David Mattingly. David has a wonderful gift for covers that actually reflect something that happens in the book, and any book with a cover that shows a robed, cowled wizard, sword-at-side, sitting at a dinette table with a glowing staff in one hand and a foaming-over can of beer in the other just has to be read, so I did. I loved it. It’s another example of wonderful world building, with Barbara’s special gift for characterization that deliberately cuts against the conventional tropes of whatever genre she happens to be writing in at the moment. Gil Patterson/Gil-Shalos, the history grad student turned woman-warrior; Ingold Inglorion, the utterly dedicated mage fighting a hopeless battle; Rudy Solis, biker groupie, airbrush artist, and wizard; Icefalcon, the barbarian Guard captain; Mindalde, widow of the king and mother of Altir, whose memories may (but don’t) hold the secret of defeating the Dark; and nasty villains like Uncle Alwin, who’s perfectly willing to betray anyone and anything in the pursuit of power. Who couldn’t fall in love with them? If pressed, I have to admit that some of her later work, especially her historical fiction, may be even better written, but Darwath will always be my favorite Hambly universe.
So there you have it. Five of my favorite female writers in the world. I could’ve added a lot more—Andre Norton, Carolyn Cherryh, Lois Bujold, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Leigh Brackett, Elizabeth Moon, Joan Vinge, and the list goes on forever—but they told me only five, so this is my pick. Any of you who have somehow managed to avoid meeting them should rectify that lack immediately!
Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
David Weber is the author of the New York Times-bestselling “Honor Harrington” series, the most recent of which was At All Costs. His many other novels include Mutineers’ Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance, Heirs of Empire, Path of the Fury, and Wind Rider’s Oath. His latest novel, At the Sign of Triumph, is book nine in the Safehold series. He lives in South Carolina.