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The Fearless Adventuress: 7 Bold Adventure Novels by Female Authors

When people think of “adventure fiction” as a genre, we tend to think of the those classic adventure stories of the 19th century, and of books written by men like Mark Twain, Emilio Salgari, and Jules Verne. As a result, it’s easy to think of adventure fiction as a very masculine pursuit, but there is a long established tradition of women writing adventure fiction, that runs back to 19th century female adventure authors like Charlotte Mary Yonge and Baroness Emma Orczy.

Once a popular genre, we now live in a world in which “adventure fiction” is more often broken down into other genres for easy categorisation, whether they be crime and thriller, fantasy, or science fiction. That said, there’s still a healthy thirst for adventure out there, and plenty of women writing it, regardless of which genre their books happen to fit into otherwise.

Adventure fiction generally tends to focus on pace and plot above all else. If their characters can sometimes seem a little one-dimensional, it seldom detracts from their appeal. After all, one-dimensional characters tend to get swept up on a thrilling adventure that much more quickly.

This reading list starts with some of the women who wrote what we might consider that “classic” Victorian-era adventure fiction, and works up to more modern books that, despite being considered more often in terms of other genres now, help to continue the spirit of thrill and excitement of all good adventure fiction.

The Lances of Lynwood (Dodo Press)

Charlotte Mary Yonge (1823-1901), was an English novelist, known for her huge output. She was devoted to the Church of England, and much influenced by John Keble, a near neighbour and one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement. Her novels reflected the values and concerns of Anglo-Catholicism. She began writing in 1848, and published during her long life about 100 works, chiefly novels. Her first commercial success, The Heir of Redclyffe (1854), provided the funding to enable the schooner Southern Cross to be put into service on behalf of George Selwyn. Similar charitable works were done with the profits from later novels. She was also editor, for nearly forty years, of a magazine for young ladies, the Monthly Packet. Among the best known of her works are Heartsease; or, The Brother's Wife (1854), The Daisy Chain; or, Aspirations (1856), A History of Christian Names (1863, revised 1884), A Book of Golden Deeds (1864), The Dove in the Eagle's Nest (1866), Life of John Coleridge Patteson: Missionary Bishop of the Melanesian Islands (1873) and Hannah More (1888).

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Somehow, The Scarlet Pimpernel has managed to survive as a household name without Baroness Orczy being brought along with it. This may be because her other work seldom proceeds with quite the same sense of bombastic adventure as Sir Percy Blakeney’s headlong rush through revolutionary France, swinging a sword at wrongdoers.

While The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fantastic adventure, it’s also a historical fiction novel. Its setting in the French revolution is a huge part of what makes the book so immediately engaging, and also situates its protagonist a setting rife with danger. The book is broadly credited with establishing the idea of a masked man, with a secret identity as an upstanding gentleman, making The Scarlet Pimpernel a precursor to characters like Zorro, The Shadow, and Batman.

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The Lost Prince

Many of our readers will already be familiar with Frances Hodgson Burnett as the author of children’s classics A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, but her adventure novel, The Lost Prince is no less impressive. The book follows Marco Loristan, whose father is engaged in efforts to overthrow the oppressive dictatorship that currently rules his homeland of Samavia. Early in the novel, Marco befriends a boy he comes to know as The Rat, and the two are entrusted with a secret mission that sends them across Europe.

This is all excellent adventure fare, even if it suffers a little in its depiction of class and gender. There’s also something charming in The Rat’s use of other people’s expectations of his disability. It’s an interesting twist, and one that feels surprisingly modern.

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Theodore Savage

Cicely Hamilton was better known as a feminist playwright than as an adventure novelist, yet her 1922 science fiction adventure Theodore Savage is as spectacular a post-apocalyptic dystopian adventure as you’re likely to find. Given the remarkable popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s fascinating to read an example of the genre from just after World War One, at a time when it seemed entirely reasonable to think that we might succeed in wiping ourselves out.

The protagonist, Theodore Savage, is a man who struggles to reconcile the man he was before the collapse of civilisation with the man he has become. We are told that he spends long hours in communion with his past self, attempting to draw some connection between the smooth-faced civil servant and the hardy survivalist he has become. Of course, part of the fun is seeing him survive in that world…

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No Good from a Corpse

Laurel Dane was no angel. She'd changed men as often as she'd changed her hair color, and there was plenty in her past she'd like to forget. But no one deserved to be beaten to death, and private eye Ed Clive didn't believe that her boyfriend had killed her. Pursuing her own lonely trail, he found out just how easily jealousy and twisted rage could turn a human being into a monster of violence.

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Mists of Avalon

While she is better known for her science fiction adventures, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1983 fantasy, The Mists of Avalon, is an alternative take on the Arthurian legend that reconfigures the narrative so that we are see the story from the point of view of Morgaine. This breathes new life into the legend, in which many characters are typically only introduced in terms of their relationship to Arthur, but who Bradley introduces as characters with more clearly defined and understandable motivations. In particular, The Mists of Avalon casts the love triangle between Arthur, Gwenhwyfar, and Lancelet as something of which the king is very much aware, but willing to ignore.

The book also focuses on the tension between an established Celtic religious tradition and the encroaching Christianity, and Morgaine’s status as a Celtic priestess. If all of this leaves it sounding moodier than some of the others, then that’s hardly surprising but as a feminine take on a well-worn masculine adventure story, it’s excellent. It’s also an excellent counterpoint to The Lances of Lynwood

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To Say Nothing of the Dog

Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in a world in which time travel is possible, but in which fundamental physical laws prevent the use of time travel to make significant alterations to history. Instead, the primary use of time travel is for historical research, as in the case of 20th-century expert Ned Henry, who is tasked with the retrieval of an object called the “Bishop’s bird stump.” As part of a convoluted series of events, Henry is sent back in time to the 1888, an area in which he has no expertise to speak of, to help avert a catastrophe that threatens to unravel the timeline.

To Say Nothing of the Dog follows the same rich tradition as books like Timeline, which use the past as an excellent backdrop for a fast-paced adventure. It also won the Hugo award in 1999, which is high praise indeed.

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Hopefully, there's been something on this list to suit the tastes of all adventure fiction fans. Obviously, no such list could possibly be comprehensive, but if you feel that there is a glaring omission then by all means add a note about it in the comments so that we can get swept up in our own adventure as we try to find out about them.

If we really fall in love, we'll add them to the list.

Professor George Edward Challenger first made a name for himself as a travelling adventurer and investigator. Unfortunately, he has never succeeded in solving the greatest mystery of all... and ... Show More

2 Comments

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June Wells
I have no argument with the novels you have listed...but where oh where is Jacqueline Carey and her beautiful "Kushiel's Dart?"  Or for that matter the 2nd and 3rd in her trilogy.  Now that, my friends, is adventure!
Deborah Starling
I wish this was a longer list! I think it’s great you’re focusing on female authors and I would love to be able to recommend another fantastic writer for a future list! I just finished the first book in a new series called, “Robbing the Pillars” by Kalen Vaughan Johnson. The main character, Scottish immigrant, James MacLaren has to flee Scotland with his family after killing a man and in hopes of a better life. They head to California during the Gold Rush and he takes on the very difficult job of mining. It’s a phenomenal family saga and you get to watch the family grow and definitely become attached to them all! I can’t recommend it enough. The author does a great job of bringing this family to life and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. You can read more about her, the book and the series here:http://kalenvaughanjohnson.com/

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