3 SFF Novels by Women of Colour

Without precisely meaning to, I notice I’ve read quite a few novels that are fantasy or speculative fiction recently, and quite a few novels by women of colour, and at least three where the categories overlap. One of these is a hangover from February that I never got around to writing about; the other two are March reads. I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping thematic links between them, a) because they’re all quite different, and b) because that seems reductive, but something they do all seem to offer is a vision of alterity, whether that’s in terms of foregrounding non-European-inflected societies, women and non-binary people creating or exploiting unexpected societal niches for themselves, the promotion of radical community, or the casual, at-face-value inclusion of supernatural occurrences in otherwise apparently realist worlds.

Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think there’s also something in here about the power of absolute conviction in your own greatness combined with very hard work. It’s certainly there in the Butler (with Lauren’s quietly growing certainty in the rightness of Earthseed and what she must do to nurture its growth), and the Parker-Chan (which is very fresh in my memory: Zhu’s entire life is a result of her intense effort to reach a destiny she wholeheartedly believes in), and the Roanhorse too has a character who becomes a kind of Chosen One partly because he’s so unshakeably sure that he’s meant to be one.

Anyway, here they are.

Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse (2020): A fantasy based on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures and mythologies, this begins with a banger of a prologue in which a woman ties her pre-adolescent son to a chair, sews his eyelids shut, then jumps off a cliff. I’ve rarely read something that so instantly had my attention. Her reasons for doing this are revealed as the book goes on; Serapio, the boy, has a destiny to fulfill. Two other primary point-of-view characters—pansexual, hard-drinking, highly skilled sea captain and part-mermaid Xiala, and slum-girl-made-Sun-Priest Naranpa—aid and oppose that destiny, though neither’s story is made subservient to Serapio’s. Roanhorse is good on pre-colonial gender and sexuality, from the Western-assumption-destabilising men’s fashions (skirts, leggings) to the range of non-binary gender identities. Lots of drama, lots of political intrigue, just enough snark: this was hugely enjoyable, and I’m frustrated that the sequel, Fevered Star, isn’t in my local library system in any medium.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler (1993): I had read the sequel to this, the almost painfully apt Parable of the Talents, in mid-2020. You don’t have to have read Sower to enjoy it, but having read Sower, Talents felt deeper and richer to me in retrospect. Talents is about a self-sufficient commune called Acorn in northern California during a period of intense social unrest in a speculative version of the early twenty-first century, after a nakedly authoritarian President is elected and instates a form of theocracy. Parable of the Sower shows us how the Acorn community is founded: by an eighteen-year-old woman named Lauren Olamina, whose loss of Christian faith has been replaced by a slow discovery of the truths of what she calls Earthseed, and whose entire family is killed when their walled neighbourhood—which has been providing intra-community support as the world has gotten worse—is attacked. Most important among the Earthseed tenets is “God is Change”, and the belief that humans can shape God, as well as vice versa.

Sower is the kind of book I couldn’t have read a year ago, because it would have played straight into my then-pathological expectation of civilisational collapse via incremental worsening of climate crisis and income inequality. The early chapters of Lauren’s narration show with sickening clarity just how such a thing could come about. It’s great, but it’s tough: there’s a lot of violence, though it’s not terribly graphic. Butler was also interested in transgressive sex throughout her oeuvre, and Sower is no exception: Lauren takes fifty-seven-year-old Bankole as a lover, and later a husband. This development manages not to be creepy, mostly because Lauren is so unshakeably self-assured in her desires. It’s entirely her driving force that brings together the band of refugees that becomes the first Acorn, and she drives it because she wants a place from which to propagate her new religion. She is as sure of her rightness as any prophet has ever been. It’s fascinating and slightly terrifying stuff. I do love Butler.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (2021): This is definitely strongest in my memory, since I finished it this morning (and only started it the morning before!) It’s a queer retelling of the rise of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming Emperor. In Parker-Chan’s retelling, Zhu is a girl who takes her dead brother’s identity after her whole family starves in a famine. A fortune-teller has predicted “greatness” for her brother’s future, and “nothing” for hers, so in taking his identity, she also decides to take his fate. How she survives in the local monastery, and rises after the monastery’s destruction—by General Ouyang, a eunuch who fights for the Mongol emperor despite being ethnically Han Chinese (yes, there’s a big backstory there)—makes up the meat of the book. I absolutely loved this, I should say right now. Zhu is a fantastic character: something that often ruins historically-set novels for me is the authorial desire to make their characters somehow removed from the cultural values and priorities of their society, and Parker-Chan never does that with Zhu. She believes in the necessity of tricking Heaven—that there is another world and her deceit might be noticed by it, but also that it might not. The fantasy element helps here. Zhu can see ghosts, as can all of those who have the Mandate of Heaven (the right to rule). There’s never any doubt that the coloured fire springing from the hands of the Prince of Radiance (a child said to be the reincarnation of a Manichaean divinity, based on Han Lin’er) is real; the same is true of the pure brilliance that Zhu develops the ability to emanate. It’s a really satisfying, convincing way to write historically-set fiction, I think. Of course it’s true; it was true for them.

There are other great characters: the profoundly empathetic Ma Xiuying, who becomes Zhu’s wife (and will become Empress); General Ouyang, whose family’s destruction fuels his quest for revenge at the same time as it destroys him from within; Esen, the kind but entitled Mongol prince whom Ouyang serves and betrays; Wang Baoxiang, Esen’s adopted brother, whose administrative talents keep the army and the region afloat but who is dismissed as a non-warrior by everyone around him. So much to think about in terms of power, violence, and fate! There’s a sequel coming out this year and I will definitely read it.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?


12 thoughts on “3 SFF Novels by Women of Colour

    1. I’ve somehow managed to read quite a lot of her in the span of only a few years: both Parable books (there were meant to be five but she died before finishing the series), Kindred (absolutely and utterly amazing—start there), and Fledgling (completely bananas, disturbing but brilliant, ancient vampire who looks like a child, weird sex stuff). I’ve got an omnibus edition of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy which will be the next thing of hers I read. Highly recommend! (Your Eldest Child is obviously a person of great discernment and intelligence…)

  1. Black Sun and She Who Became The Sun both sound amazing! Straight on my TBR. I absolutely love Butler but I’m afraid Parable of the Sower was the only thing I’ve read by her that was a miss for me. It felt like dystopian YA (I recognise all these later writers are copying Butler, so a bit unfair on her!) and Lauren felt so creepy and fanatical, so I just couldn’t buy into it all. I have heard that Parable of the Talents is very different, and I do wonder if it would have been better to read that one first – I’m definitely going to give it a shot.

    1. Yeah–to be fair, I do find Lauren an alarming character in a lot of ways, but I also absolutely believe that people with this kind of spiritual certainty are a bit alarming, so that just makes the novel work even better for me. Parable of the Talents is quite different, mostly told through the perspective of her daughter Larkin (I think by that point Lauren has maybe died? Can’t remember. Should reread…)

      1. Yeah I think getting some perspective on her would be great – the diary entry format didn’t really work for me either (rarely does…).

    1. Absolutely. Something I really love about it is how it engages with the cycles of history within its own text: the idea of “company towns” is discussed by characters as reminiscent of C19-early C20 practices, to take just one example.

  2. Yes, I’ve read She Who Became the Sun (anzlitlovers.com/2021/10/26/she-who-became-the-sun-2021-the-radiant-emperor-1-by-shelley-parker-chan/). I liked the way it challenged the stereotyping of meek Asian women…

    1. Yeah it’s great on busting stereotypes. Even Ma (who might seem to be meek, from one perspective) is shown to be complex, intelligent, and often frustrated

  3. I don’t read a lot of fantasy but She Who Became the Sun is intriguing me. That sounds like a really interesting way to delve into historical fiction.

    1. It’s certainly one that I think people who prefer historical fiction would enjoy—the fantasy elements are dealt with in such a way that they really don’t present that much of a stumbling block!

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