For a long time, feminist was considered something of a dirty word. My mother told me not to call my upcoming novel, Grace and Fury, about two sisters fighting for agency—and each other—in a patriarchal world “feminist,” for fear it would turn off potential readers. But with the #MeToo movement, the increased interest in and timeliness of The Handmaid’s Tale (both the novel by Margaret Atwood, and the Hulu show inspired by it), and the general state of the world, it feels like the word feminist is becoming more and more a call to action—and a promise.
Personally, I love feminist books, especially those that reexamine and subvert traditional stories, giving their female characters the full range of experience and emotion that male characters have always been allowed. Here are some of my favorite (and a couple I’m dying to read!) science-fiction and fantasy retellings, written by five talented female authors who re-imagine classic novels, fairy tales, and history itself through their powerful feminist gazes.
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
I have been a Robin McKinley reader and fan since the eighth grade, when my teacher asked us to read her first novel, Beauty, a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” I would argue that all of McKinley’s writing is feminist, full of female characters discovering their own power and place in the world, but Spindle’s End is particularly reflective of this. It retells a tale that’s notoriously unfeminist—the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”
The original fairytale strips all power and agency from its heroine, reducing her to a body waiting for the kiss of a handsome prince, a kiss she cannot even consent to. McKinley upends the tale completely. She gives us a princess who is saved not by a man but by her own resourcefulness, the power and love of the women who have raised her, and her friendship with another teenaged girl. It’s difficult for me to think of another story that gives friendship and support among girls such an important role, and yet these friendships are vitally important to the girls and women reading her books. And when, at last, it’s time for the kiss to wake the princess, McKinley puts an entirely new and powerfully feminist spin on that moment.
Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Much like Sleeping Beauty, the fairytale of “Cinderella” is not known for having a proactive protagonist. Cinderella is traumatized by her evil stepfamily before being whisked off to the prince’s arms by a kindly fairy godmother and a makeover. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder gives the fairytale a science-fiction edge, reimagining Cinderella as a cyborg who earns her keep not by sweeping the fireplace but by working as a mechanic in a dystopian, futuristic New Beijing. Meyer gives Cinder full agency and a much larger role, both in her own future and the future of her planet. She still has an evil stepmother but meeting the prince is just the beginning of Cinder’s story.
Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund
In Across a Star-Swept Sea, Diana Peterfreund retells The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy in a fresh, feminist way, recasting the titular character as a teenaged girl. In this case, no one on the islands of New Pacifica suspects that the “Wild Poppy,” a ruthless, clever spy, is actually vapid socialite Persis Blake. Peterfreund subverts female stereotypes by using the very assumptions people have about Persis as the tools she uses to become a successful spy and to keep herself safe.
The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
In Tessa Gratton’s epic fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king’s daughters take center stage, and they are allowed all the complexity, ambition, and bloodlust of their male counterparts. Gratton plays with and subverts the original material, creating a masterful tale with its own sharp-toothed feminist bite and a twist on Shakespeare’s ending.
Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott
Nebula award-winning author Kate Elliott is known for her inclusive, feminist writing, and I’m chomping at the bit to get my hands on the novel she has coming out in Fall 2019. She describes it as a gender-bent Alexander the Great set in a space opera, and she says it fulfills one of her long-held desires: “To write a woman as a truly charismatic leader of the legendary kind so much of our literature (and historical memory) reserves only for men.” I am here for this feminist, science-fiction retelling of one of histories most storied figures.
Tracy Banghart grew up in rural Maryland and spent her summers on a remote island in northern Ontario. All of that isolation and lovely scenery gave her the time to read voraciously and the inspiration to write her own stories. Always a bit of a nomad, Tracy now travels the world Army-wife style with her husband, son, cat, and sweet pupper Scrabble. She wrote Grace and Fury, now available from Little, Brown, while living in Hawaii. Its sequel will follow in July 2019.