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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’s The Lances of Lynwood is a little old fashioned, which is perhaps unsurprising given that it was first published in 1855. That said, it’s a fantastic book once you get into it. Set in the 14th century, The Lances of Lynwood is a classic story of an unremarkable and studious young man, Eustace, who first becomes a squire and later grows into a formidable warrior.

For those who really just want questing knights and some mortal danger, Eustace’s time on campaign sees him saddled with ever greater responsibility and facing ever more dangerous situations. The breaks from action tend to come only when we see Eustace embroiled in courtly intrigue…

Perhaps the best thing about The Lances of Lynwood is that, if you enjoy it, you’ll be able to sink yourself into the rest of Yonge’s considerable oeuvre. We’d also recommend A Reputed Changeling for its mythological resonances.

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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

Leigh Brackett is probably better known for her screenwriting than for her novels. Long before she worked on 1980’s space adventure The Empire Strikes Back, Bracket released a crime novel called No Good from a Corpse. Far from the science fiction that Brackett would later be associated with, No Good from a Corpse is a smouldering noir story that follows detective Ed Clive as he investigates the murder of a nightclub singer, Laurel Dane.

As in all truly great adventure novels, there is an excellent sense of a plot running away from the reader, and a sense that the setting itself is almost a character, and one acting in opposition to the protagonist. Brackett’s incredible sense of style carries it all well.

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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.


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