Every fantasy author approaches worldbuilding differently—the choices made and the societies created can say just as much about the writer as the story itself. I always end up playing with gender roles.
Growing up on a steady diet of Tolkien, I longed to see myself as a member of the Fellowship (Eowyn is a fantastic character, but she’s surrounded by a sea of men). I began with a female-dominated society in my first series, and now in The Cerulean, I went all in and crafted a Sapphic utopia, a city devoid of men entirely. One thing I love about writing fantasy is that the norm can be whatever I want it to be—and I’m always fascinated by how other authors create their own norms. Here are my top five books that play with different gender/societal roles.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is a master of the genre and this book is likely the first on any list in terms of gender in sci fi/fantasy. On the planet of Gethen, the people are ambisexual, with no fixed sex—they are able to choose their gender during each mating cycle. Any Gethenian who decides to stay with one gender outside of that time is seen as a pervert, an aberration. This exploration of androgyny leads to much difficulty for the main character, who has been sent to bring Gethen into a loose confederation of other planets, but makes for one compelling read.
Dawn by Octavia Butler
In Dawn, Lilith Iyapo wakes up on a spaceship two hundred and fifty years after Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war. An alien race has saved what’s left of humanity and Lilith has been chosen to begin a new race of alien-human hybrids—the price of allowing her to return to Earth. The aliens, called the Oankali, can be male, female, or ooloi—the ooloi have no gender and are by far the more powerful of the Oankali, given their extra set of sensory arms that they can use to adjust human genetics.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
This book takes the premise that the Earth’s moon has inexplicably shattered and explores how humanity desperately tries to save itself in the wake of such disaster. A Cloud Ark is created in space and countries are allowed to choose a small number of young people to send to it and avoid the catastrophic Hard Rain that will destroy the Earth. But space is dangerous and unpredictable and eventually, there are only eight surviving humans left, all of whom are women but one of whom is post menopausal. Using the process of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction that does not require insemination, the seven other women become known as the Seven Eves—the creators of seven new, genetically modified human races.
Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
Mask of Shadows is a fast paced, YA fantasy about a thief who sets out to audition to become the newest member of the Queen’s assassination squad. The main character, Sal, is genderfluid, and is out for revenge upon the Queen who destroyed their homeland. Sal’s gender identity is woven expertly throughout the book, adding a unique perspective among more classic fantasy elements.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This book doesn’t really deal with gender so much, though the film adaptation does attempt to subvert traditional roles by casting the same actors to play multiple characters of varying genders and races (which doesn’t really work in my opinion, and also why anyone would attempt to adapt this work to film is beyond me). However, Mitchell is a master worldbuilder and the societies in this book are uniquely crafted, traversing several time periods before ultimately reaching a post-apocalyptic future that haunted me long after I had turned the final page.
Amy Ewing is the New York Times bestselling author of The Jewel, The White Rose, The Black Key, and most recently, The Cerulean (on sale January 29, 2019 from HarperTeen). She earned her MFA at the New School, where she has worked with Jill Santopolo (Penguin), Sarah Weeks, Tor Seidler, and David Levithan (Scholastic). Ewing lives in New York City. Follow her on twitter @authoramyewing.