Robin Sloan Recommends 5 Books That Aren’t By Men

For our “Read More Women” series, the author of “Sourdough” suggests oddball adventure stories by (and mostly about) women

Robin Sloan’s latest novel Sourdough, newly out in paperback, has a female main character and is about baking—but don’t let that fool you into thinking he believes women belong in the kitchen. Sourdough is nominally about making bread, but it’s also a magical-realist romp about technology, startup culture, and dealing with forces beyond your control. The main character is female because, as the list below shows, Sloan just really loves oddball adventure stories by and about women.

Read More Women is Electric Lit’s biweekly series, presented in collaboration with MCD Books, in which prominent writers—of any gender—list their favorite or most formative books by women and nonbinary authors.

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

Like many readers, I can name, without hesitation, a bright clutch of books from my earliest days of reading, the books that delivered my earliest experiences of readerly delight, absorption, and — upon arriving at their last pages — loss. These are the books that made me a reader and, therefore, a writer, and first among them is The Westing Game.

For me to tell you The Westing Game holds up today is like a table telling you, “Turns out, wood is still pretty great!” The claim might be true, but I’m an unreliable source, because The Westing Game made me. If I ever found it lacking, it would be a sign that something fundamental inside of me had changed or broken. So I guess that’s part of it, too: every time I reread The Westing Game, I’m glad to find that part of myself intact, undamaged.

In its text, I can see the inventory of all the things I love most in books, and have tried (mostly unconsciously) to emulate: there’s Raskin’s matter-of-fact pluralism, her secret identities, codes and puzzles, intergenerational alliances, and, at the end, a fast-forward shuttle through time, warm and wistful, that I have cribbed for nearly everything I’ve ever written.

Just this once, listen to the table when it tells you: wood holds up.

The Earthsea Cycle, Ursula K. LeGuin

In a way, my experience with The Earthsea Cycle has been the opposite of my experience with The Westing Game. As a very young reader, I devoured its first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea — perfect proto-Harry Potter. But then, early into the second, The Tombs of Atuan, something just didn’t click. I abandoned it.

When I finally returned, about twenty years later exactly, I realized why: The Tombs of Atuan is different. Wizard school is long gone; this is a book about men and women and beliefs that become cages. It’s about power! Reading as a child, the book was nearly illegible — I wasn’t yet receiving on those frequencies. Reading as an adult, it blew up the radio.

So I kept going. With the last two books in the series, LeGuin completes her deconstruction. Remember, we started with wizard school and dragons, then moved into gender and power. By the time we reach Tehanu, the high fantasy has come home; the final Earthsea book is an epic of domesticity and care. (Of course, there are still dragons. In fact, a dragon figures into the book’s climax, and it’s one of the most breathtaking ever written.)

I’m grateful for my time-shifted experience with the Earthsea books. It’s a pointed reminder that books are patient, and there is real power — something close to the power of Earthsea’s true names — in the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

I’m someone who thinks a lot about the future, and generally I do so with curiosity and anticipation. If you pay any attention to the world, your response to the previous sentence might very understandably be: give me a break. World-weary fatalism is currently not only fashionable but reasonable.

For me, Octavia Butler is the antidote, because with Parable of the Sower, she wrote a book utterly unflinching in its understanding of suffering — of power and pain in the real world — BUT SIMULTANEOUSLY more soaringly optimistic than Star Trek. I don’t have the skills to describe how she pulls this off on the page; all I know is, it’s there, the bright duality, her optimism as urgent and organic as her realism.

What an achievement: to imagine a bright future without being for a moment naive or blase about suffering in the present. I’m not sure I can do it; not yet. Butler’s book is the lodestar.

Hild, Nicola Griffith

Novels can be good in lots of different ways, but there’s one that might be best among them, and it’s what I would call generosity. The easiest way to understand is simply to read an extremely generous novel, and I can’t think of a novel more generous than Nicola Griffith’s Hild. This is a book that sets up its capacious dream-spell with warmth and poise, then lets you get comfortable. It lets you live there.

Midway through, you feel as if you’ve been in Hild’s world (7th century Britain) for months. Then, you inspect the book — feel more than half of its 560 pages still unread in your right claw — so much yet to happen — miraculous. There’s not a moment of slog, never even the possibility of a skimmed paragraph. Everything savored, and so much of it.

This is deep, cat-purr pleasure, and if it’s the best way for a novel to be good, it’s the one I’m worst at. As a writer, I’m too stingy; I set up the dream-spell, then snatch it away. Reading Hild makes me want to write more, and better. Generosity!

SuperMutant Magic Academy, Jillian Tamaki

Here’s what I love about Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy:

  • It’s a digital project, originally a webcomic, now committed to paper so appealingly it feels like it must have been a book all along.
  • Its worldbuilding emerges subtly, at odd angles. Characters sneak into the sides of panels, then gradually attract the spotlight.
  • The spare, expressive cartooning is… perfect. What do you want me to say? It’s just perfect!

I’ve always appreciated compendiums of old newspaper comic strips, the fat ones that go all the way back to the beginning, because you can see the art evolve and improve as the years tick by. In SuperMutant Magic Academy, Tamaki’s drawings are as terrific on the first page as they are on the last, but there’s still that sense of venturing forth without a blueprint, maybe without a net. It’s personal, organic, a bit of a ramble — wonderful.

I learned to write by blogging, and I remember the feeling of starting a post before I knew what I was going to say, or what I even thought. It was a loose, generative way to think and write, and… I hardly ever do it anymore! So, for me, SuperMutant Magic Academy is — well, foremost it’s simply a delight, but besides that, it’s a reminder that you can create and publish in this looser way, have all that fun with digital immediacy and little chunks of humor and story, and still end up with something rich and coherent printed between two covers. How about that!

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