Recently I read fantasy novel The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley and was intrigued by the gender systems of the different cultures in the world.
In one country, Dhai, there are five genders and each person gets to pick theirs: female-assertive, female-passive, male-assertive, male-passive and ungendered. In Saiduan there are three: male, female and ataisa.
I’m always interested to read more diverse SFF which breaks from binary thinking about gender, patriarchal societies, conventional fantasy tropes and medieval European settings. (Have a read of my listicles for some inspiration: 20 SFF books with a matriarchal society, 12 SFF books with African inspired settings, 15 Fantasy Books with Desert Settings)
So, I thought I’d compile a list of fantasy and science fiction that I’d like to read one day with gender-neutral, gender-fluid or transgender characters, or that include societies with non-binary gender identities.
I scoured the internet and Goodreads and also asked the Reddit fantasy community to find these 25 SFF books with interesting takes on gender to add to your #TBR.
Listed in no particular order.
The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #6) by Ursula K. 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.
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1) by Ann Leckie
On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.
My note: this one has been on my TBR for a while and I’m definitely going to get to it soon!
Bone Dance by Emma Bull
Sparrow’s my name. Trader. Deal-maker. Hustler, some call me. I work the Night Fair circuit, buying and selling pre-nuke videos from the world before. I know how to get a high price, especially on Big Bang collectibles. But the hottest ticket of all is information on the Horsemen—the mind-control weapons that tilted the balance in the war between the Americas. That’s the prize I’m after.
But it seems I’m having trouble controlling my own mind.
The Horsemen are coming.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1) by Becky Chambers
Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.
Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.
Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.
Golden Witchbreed (Orthe #1) by Mary Gentle
Orthe - half-civilized, half-barbaric, home to human-like beings who live and die by the code of the sword. Earth envoy Lynne Christie has been sent here to establish contact and to determine whether this is a world worth developing. But first Christie must come to understand that human-like is not and never can be human, and that not even Orthe's leaders can stop the spread of rumors about her, dark whisperings that could cost Christie her life.
And on a goodwill tour to the outlying provinces, these evil rumors turn to deadly accusations. Christie is no offworlder, Church officials charge: she is a treacherous and cunning descendant of Orthe's legendary Golden Witchbreed - the cruel, ruthless race that once enslaved the whole planet. Suddenly, Christie finds herself a hunted fugitive on an alien world, where friend and foe alike may prove her executioners. And her only chance of survival lies in saving Orthe from a menace older than time...
Lock In (Lock In #1) by John Scalzi
Not too long from today, a new, highly contagious virus makes its way across the globe. Most who get sick experience nothing worse than flu, fever and headaches. But for the unlucky one percent - and nearly five million souls in the United States alone - the disease causes "Lock In": Victims fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. The disease affects young, old, rich, poor, people of every color and creed. The world changes to meet the challenge.
A quarter of a century later, in a world shaped by what's now known as "Haden's syndrome," rookie FBI agent Chris Shane is paired with veteran agent Leslie Vann. The two of them are assigned what appears to be a Haden-related murder at the Watergate Hotel, with a suspect who is an "integrator" - someone who can let the locked in borrow their bodies for a time. If the Integrator was carrying a Haden client, then naming the suspect for the murder becomes that much more complicated.
But "complicated" doesn't begin to describe it. As Shane and Vann began to unravel the threads of the murder, it becomes clear that the real mystery - and the real crime - is bigger than anyone could have imagined. The world of the locked in is changing, and with the change comes opportunities that the ambitious will seize at any cost. The investigation that began as a murder case takes Shane and Vann from the halls of corporate power to the virtual spaces of the locked in, and to the very heart of an emerging, surprising new human culture. It's nothing you could have expected.
Shadow Man by Melissa Scott
Five human sexual identities are spread throughout the galaxy, and humanity has adjusted to this new culture. Except on Hara--there everyone must choose to be a man or a woman and that decision is final. Warreven, a Haran man, could have married the son of the ruler of the planet--if he had chosen to be a woman. The result of the conflict is one of the most bizarre identity crises in science fiction.
Lilith's Brood (Xenogenesis #1-3) by Octavia E. Butler
Lilith Iyapo is in the Andes, mourning the death of her family, when war destroys Earth. Centuries later, she is resurrected -- by miraculously powerful unearthly beings, the Oankali. Driven by an irresistible need to heal others, the Oankali are rescuing our dying planet by merging genetically with mankind. But Lilith and all humanity must now share the world with uncanny, unimaginably alien creatures: their own children. This is their story...
River of Gods (India 2047 #1) by Ian McDonald
As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business--a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is Aj--the waif, the mind reader, the prophet--when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.
In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.
River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and cultures--one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on.
Diaspora by Greg Egan
By the end of the 30th century humanity has the capability to travel the universe, to journey beyond earth and beyond the confines of the vulnerable human frame.
The descendants of centuries of scientific, cultural and physical development divide into three: fleshers — true Homo sapiens; Gleisner robots — embodying human minds within machines that interact with the physical world; and polises — supercomputers teeming with intelligent software, containing the direct copies of billions of human personalities now existing only in the virtual reality of the polis.
Diaspora is the story of Yatima — a polis being created from random mutations of the Konishi polis base mind seed — and of humankind, Of an astrophysical accident that spurs the thousandfold cloning of the polises. Of the discovery of an alien race and of a kink in time that means humanity — whatever form it takes — will never again be threatened by acts of God.
Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1) by Yoon Ha Lee
The first installment of the trilogy, Ninefox Gambit, centers on disgraced captain Kel Cheris, who must recapture the formidable Fortress of Scattered Needles in order to redeem herself in front of the Hexarchate.
To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
Ice Song (Ice Song #1) by Kirsten Imani Kasai
There are secrets beneath her skin.
Sorykah Minuit is a scholar, an engineer, and the sole woman aboard an ice-drilling submarine in the frozen land of the Sigue. What no one knows is that she is also a Trader: one who can switch genders suddenly, a rare corporeal deviance universally met with fascination and superstition and all too often punished by harassment or death.
Sorykah’s infant twins, Leander and Ayeda, have inherited their mother’s Trader genes. When a wealthy, reclusive madman known as the Collector abducts the babies to use in his dreadful experiments, Sorykah and her male alter-ego, Soryk, must cross icy wastes and a primeval forest to get them back. Complicating the dangerous journey is the fact that Sorykah and Soryk do not share memories: Each disorienting transformation is like awakening with a jolt from a deep and dreamless sleep.
The world through which the alternating lives of Sorykah and Soryk travel is both familiar and surreal. Environmental degradation and genetic mutation run amok; humans have been distorted into animals and animal bodies cloak a wild humanity. But it is also a world of unexpected beauty and wonder, where kindness and love endure amid the ruins. Alluring, intense, and gorgeously rendered, Ice Song is a remarkable debut by a fiercely original new writer.
Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota #1) by Ada Palmer
Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer – a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world's population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.
And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life...
The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
My note: read my review here. This book is also included in these articles 20 SFF books with a matriarchal society and Eight must-read female grimdark authors
Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy #1) by Robin Hobb
In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.
Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.
So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.
My note: this one is also included here Eight must-read female grimdark authors
River of Teeth (River of Teeth #1) by Sarah Gailey
In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
The Black Tides of Heaven (Tensorate #1) by J.Y. Yang
Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While his sister received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What's more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother's Protectorate.
A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother's twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?
The Cloud Roads (The Books of the Raksura #1) by Martha Wells
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is — a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself... someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn't tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power... that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony's survival... and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell! Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself... and his newfound kin.
The Bone Palace (The Necromancer Chronicles #2) by Amanda Downum
Death is no stranger in the city of Erisín-- but some deaths attract more attention than others.
When a prostitute dies carrying a royal signet, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and agent of the Crown, is called to investigate. Her search leads to desecrated tombs below the palace, and the lightless vaults of the vampiric vrykoloi deep beneath the city. But worse things than vampires are plotting in Erisín...
As a sorcerous plague sweeps the city and demons stalk the streets, Isyllt must decide who she's prepared to betray, before the city built on bones falls into blood and fire.
Wraeththu (Wraeththu #1-3) by Storm Constantine
In this powerful and elegant story set in a future Earth very different from our own, a new kind of human has evolved to challenge the dominion of Homo sapiens. This new breed is stronger, smarter, and far more beautiful than their parent race, and are endowed with psychic as well as physical gifts. They are destined to supplant humanity as we know it, but humanity won't die without a struggle.
Here at last in a single volume are all three of Constantine's Wraeththu trilogy: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, and The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire.
Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (Eon #1) by Alison Goodman
Swordplay, dragon magic--and a hero with a desperate secret
Twelve-year-old Eon has been in training for years. His intensive study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology, involves two kinds of skills: sword-work and magical aptitude. He and his master hope that he will be chosen as a Dragoneye--an apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons of good fortune.
But Eon has a dangerous secret. He is actually Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been masquerading as a boy for the chance to become a Dragoneye. Females are forbidden to use Dragon Magic; if anyone discovers she has been hiding in plain sight, her death is assured.
When Eon's secret threatens to come to light, she and her allies are plunged into grave danger and a deadly struggle for the Imperial throne. Eon must find the strength and inner power to battle those who want to take her magic...and her life.
The Bone Doll's Twin (Tamír Triad #1) by Lynn Flewelling
Sometimes the price of destiny is higher than anyone imagined....
Dark Magic, Hidden Destiny
For three centuries a divine prophecy and a line of warrior queens protected Skala. But the people grew complacent and Erius, a usurper king, claimed his young half sister’s throne.
Now plague and drought stalk the land, war with Skala’s ancient rival Plenimar drains the country’s lifeblood, and to be born female into the royal line has become a death sentence as the king fights to ensure the succession of his only heir, a son. For King Erius the greatest threat comes from his own line — and from Illior’s faithful, who spread the Oracle’s words to a doubting populace.
As noblewomen young and old perish mysteriously, the king’s nephew — his sister’s only child — grows toward manhood. But unbeknownst to the king or the boy, strange, haunted Tobin is the princess’s daughter, given male form by a dark magic to protect her until she can claim her rightful destiny.
Only Tobin’s noble father, two wizards of Illior, and an outlawed forest witch know the truth. Only they can protect young Tobin from a king’s wrath, a mother’s madness, and the terrifying rage of her brother’s demon spirit, determined to avenge his brutal murder....
A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab
Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.
Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.
Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they'll never see. It's a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.
Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they'll first need to stay alive.
My note: Read my review here. I didn’t immediately notice that Lila is a gender-fluid character, but there’s an interesting article here that brought it to my attention.
Pantomime (Micah Grey #1) by Laura Lam
In a land of lost wonders, the past is stirring once more . . .
Gene's life resembles a debutante's dream. Yet she hides a secret that would see her shunned by the nobility. Gene is both male and female. Then she displays unwanted magical abilities - last seen in mysterious beings from an almost-forgotten age. Matters escalate further when her parents plan a devastating betrayal, so she flees home, dressed as a boy.
The city beyond contains glowing glass relics from a lost civilization. They call to her, but she wants freedom not mysteries. So, reinvented as 'Micah Grey', Gene joins the circus. As an aerialist, she discovers the joy of flight - but the circus has a dark side. She's also plagued by visions foretelling danger. A storm is howling in from the past, but will she heed its roar?
Have you read any of the above? Or have you got any more suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!
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