A bit of a stir in my corner of the internet about a New Yorker Book Bench list of seven essential fantasy reads. I will definitely say that I have read all but one of these books and they are almost all, in my opinion, pretty terrible and definitely not what I'd recommend to win over the slightly wary non-fantasy reader!
The list is quite self-deprecating, and I don't want to knock its author - it's difficult to make a list of personal recommendations without opening oneself up to the risk of seeming to define a canon which can then be charged with all sorts of omissions. So, in the spirit of the original list, I offer an off-the-top-of-my-head list of female-authored fantasies that have meant a lot to me over the years.
For the most part, I've omitted books that are clearly directed towards young adults (though Susan Cooper is certainly a crucial one for me as a reader, and a recent reread of The Dark is Rising persuaded me that that first volume of the series at least really is comparable with what someone like Ian McEwan tries to do in his novels); the important exception is Robin McKinley, who I really cannot leave off this list!
I've also left out some books I only came to recently and that thus haven't shaped my internal fantasy landscape to the same degree, but writers who would seem to me to belong on a list like mine and surely would crop up on a different reader's version of it include Ellen Kushner, Kathleen Duey, Jo Walton, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull and Naomi Novik. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting - this really is just off the top of my head. (Susannah Clarke! Caitlin Kiernan! OK, gotta stop...)
So, a list of seven female-authored essential fantasy recommendations for the fantasy novice, in no particular order:
1. Patricia McKillip's Riddle-master trilogy. Utterly magical - I had a one-volume edition from a garage sale that I read to pieces...
2. Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, but especially the Harper Hall trilogy.
3. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books, especially Thendara House. These are uneven, but at her best Bradley was exceptional.
4. Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword - yes, vaguely and squeamishness-inducingly orientalist at points, but still one of my favorite books of all time and a frequent reread in adulthood also.
5. Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy.
6. Perhaps too hyper-canonical to be even worth mentioning, but Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books were very frequently reread by me in childhood and teenage years. (The affiliation between fantasy and young-adult is more than just a matter of marketing categories - more thoughts on this TK.)
7. And, finally, a novelist who is not usually categorized as a fantasy author but who seems to me to be so firmly entrenched in the lineage of contemporary female-authored fantasy that she has to be recognized here: Georgette Heyer. An early twentieth-century example of rich worldbuilding, down to the invention of a "Regency" idiom that bears recognizable similarities to the language used in the period but is very much Heyer's own creation; the story told in These Old Shades and Devil's Cub is a good place to start.