Meet G.R. Macallister, Author of the Best Feminist Fantasy Series You Probably Haven’t Read

Books Features G.R. Macallister
Meet G.R. Macallister, Author of the Best Feminist Fantasy Series You Probably Haven’t Read

Big, epic fantasy series tend to feature a lot of similar elements: Complex, oftentimes labyrinthine plots, dozens of characters, a fair amount of violence, and, generally, a whole lot of men. Or, at the very least, a predominantly male-centered perspective that conceptualizes the world in a way that’s not always particularly friendly toward female characters or their stories. After all, many of the greatest female characters in fantasy fiction are memorable in spite of the male-dominated stories they star in, for all the ways they still manage to make their mark in a world that is too often loath to recognize them or their abilities.  

This is a big part of the reason that G.R. Macallister’s Five Queendoms series—-which currently consists of Scorpica, Arca, and a third in-progress novel with a title that is still to be revealed—-feels like such a breath of fresh air. An epic, generation-spanning tale set in a fully matriarchal society that’s not only dominated by but has been entirely conceptualized by women, the series is like almost nothing else on shelves at the moment. The world Macallister imagines is rich and expansive, full of intricate historical details, political rivalries, and traditions specific to each of the series’ queendoms and cultures. 

Yet, Macallister smartly resists the temptation to make her Five Queendoms some sort of aspirational utopia, just because the world is primarily seen through a female lens.. No, its women are allowed to be just as brutal, selfish, and manipulative as the male fantasy leads who have come before them. They each have their own motivations and agendas, and their goals frequently come into direct conflict with one another, often with violent results. (Though there is thankfully much less sexual menace involved. See, it is possible, George R.R. Martin!!) 

Scorpica begins with an event known as the Drought of Girls, a time when women across the five queendoms simply stop giving birth to daughters. As worry and unrest spread, the various tribes of priests, scholars, warriors, sorceresses, and diplomats begin to turn on and suspect one another, leading to betrayals, uncomfortable compromises, power brokering, and much more. And the story’s complex characters and unexpected twists will leave you wondering why you waited so long to give this series a try. Macallister’s epic is one of my most unexpected (and satisfying) surprises of the year—I only dug into the series when the second novel Arca was released in March—and it’s already one of my most frequently recommended to fellow fans of fantasy.

We had the chance to chat with Macallister herself about her marvelous series, from the inspiration behind her queendoms and her desire to write a specifically female-focused fantasy, to what we can expect to see next.


Paste Magazine: So first, tell our readers a little bit about your inspiration for the Five Queendoms series. Where did this idea come from, and what is ultimately the scope of this story you’re trying to tell? (Please tell me we’re getting five books—one about each queendom—is what I’m saying.)

G.R. Macallister: I really didn’t plan to start writing epic fantasy, but when an idea this big comes knocking… plans change. I’d been a huge fantasy reader when I was younger, up through my college years, but sort of drifted away after that. Then, like so many people, I got into the TV version of Game of Thrones. And then, also like so many people, I got cheesed off that Game of Thrones treated its women so terribly, and I thought someone should write something as epic and sweeping and thoroughly imagined as Game of Thrones, but set in a matriarchal world with lots of powerful, fascinating, flawed, complex female characters. So, I set out to do that. 

I would love to get five books, one about each queendom, into the hands of readers, and it’s not out of the question. But I’m doing a little have-cake-eat-cake thing where the two books that are already out plus the third, coming next year, form a somewhat self-contained trilogy. And readers can take a little breather… without losing hope that yes, we may be able to continue to do deep dives into the remaining queendoms. They’re all so different! There’s so much to explore!

Paste: I love how unapologetically feminist this series is, particularly because I think that’s something the world of fantasy fiction still struggles with in terms of these big epic multiple-book sagas. Tell me about why you felt it was important to tell this story through a female lens?

Macallister: It was partly reactionary, as you can guess from my answer above—while there’s lots of really interesting feminist fantasy being written these days, that wasn’t always the case, and we have decades of sidelining to make up for.

So I figured that, at least in the first book, Scorpica, I could sideline the men. All the POV characters in that book are women. I really wanted to explore a truly matriarchal society, where women are in charge and always have been—not as a utopia or a dystopia, not as a cautionary example, not as the backdrop for a male character’s story of triumph. (When I was reading all the matriarchal fantasy I could get my hands on before I started writing my own, I ran into quite a few examples in each of these categories.) By having a huge ensemble cast of women, from queens to farmers to priests to warriors to bandits and beyond, I could explore all the different ways women could function in a world like this. There isn’t just one way to be, either in our world or the world of the Five Queendoms. 

The other aspect I consider feminist (and unapologetically so, as you note) is that drawing a female-default, female-centered world points out a lot of the ways our world is male-default and male-centered, in language and culture and expectations, in ways that too often go unexamined. I figured if I could slip some social critique and commentary into readers’ hands alongside a bang-up story, that would be the most satisfying approach all around.

Paste: How would you describe the overarching story of these books? Where is this epic going? 

Macallister: I set up this matriarchal world where women are in charge, then immediately did the thing such a world would find most challenging: cut off their pipeline of future women, in the form of the Drought of Girls. There are countless stories that could be told in these queendoms, but the Drought and its effects form a really compelling arc that drives this particular series.

 While my brain is bursting with plots and characters on this timeline, I do have an endpoint, or actually two endpoints, in mind. There are a number of plotlines that pay off by the end of book three because that’s the end of the initial trilogy. But I also have plans for books four and five that pick up on hints and hooks I dropped into the first few books. Let’s just say that nothing in the queendoms, from the stories they tell to the songs they sing, makes it into these books without a reason. There are even things I put into book one to help me lay the foundation for a second series that would start after the end of book five. Will it all come to fruition eventually? Who knows, publishing is weird. But do I have a whole lot more Five Queendoms swirling around in my head? So much.

Paste: I am so impressed by the sheer amount of thought and care that’s clearly gone into building this world — from the history of the specific Queendoms to their political alliances and traditions and family lineages. How did/do you keep it all straight?

Macallister: I have a number of different tools to keep all my made-up stuff straight, from a series bible spreadsheet to boatloads of Scrivener files, and I’ve also been over a lot of these aspects of worldbuilding so many times that certain parts are just burned into my brain. I know my Scorpican queens cold. 

And when all of those systems fail, my secret weapon is a brilliant copyeditor who is an absolute genius at pointing out when I’ve failed to keep it straight. She catches these things in the review process so they’re not getting pointed out to me in angry emails and Goodreads reviews after the fact. There’s a small section of backstory in Arca about a half-dozen members of the Paximite royal family dying off, and I know I made an error recounting who died in what order until she pointed it out. Rest assured, in the final version, it’s all sorted.

 Paste: Where did the inspiration for the specific kingdoms come from? Do you have a favorite kingdom to write about/explore in this story? 

Macallister: I got to be a total magpie about it, pulling details from here and there and everywhere, making some things up from nothing. I pulled quite a bit from matriarchies throughout history. 

For example, the Sestians have something called “walking marriage,” which is part of the Mosuo matrilineal/matriarchal culture in China. The priest class in Sestia is inspired by Rome’s vestal virgins. The architecture of Daybreak Palace in Arca is based on the building called the Treasury in Petra, Jordan. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite queendom to write about—my favorite thing is that there are so many differences between the five that each one has a distinct character and culture.

Paste: I know you also write a lot of historical fiction as well — how has making the switch to epic fantasy been different or more challenging? Did working in a real-world setting help prepare you for creating your own? 

Macallister: It’s funny, when I switched to epic fantasy after years of historical fiction, I was thinking, “Yes! Finally! I get to make stuff up and no one can tell me I’m wrong!” Which is partly true, and I love that. But like you said earlier, there’s a lot to keep straight with all this worldbuilding, and that’s a new challenge, especially across multiple books in a series. 

But historical fiction is worldbuilding too; it’s just that you’re trying to build the closest possible approximation of a world that actually did, in a certain place and time, exist. And for me, fiction is all about the careful selection of detail. You can’t go on for pages and pages about a setting, whether that setting is the Biltmore mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, or the temple-palace of the Holy City of Sestia in the Five Queendoms. You need to convey to the reader the feeling of the place with some kind of economy. That doesn’t change for me as a writer based on which genre I’m writing in at the moment.

Paste: Do you have a favorite character to write about within the world of these books?

Macallister: I just love Fasiq to pieces. Characters who speak their minds are awfully fun to write, and besides, she’s a 7-foot tall pansexual bandit gang leader with a really big sword, so she’s even more fun than most. I gave her one of my favorite lines of the entire series so far, “Spending too much time with men makes you soft as a scrotum.” She was the right one to say it.

Paste: I love how…brutal isn’t quite the word I want here, but just the constant sense of tension throughout both books that no one in this world is really safe. No one has plot armor. Is it fun for you as a writer to have that kind of freedom? 

 Macallister: Oh, absolutely. As an epic fantasy reader, I love that feeling where there’s a big ensemble cast and I’m following multiple threads and I just know that someone’s thread is going to get cut off but I don’t know whose. And of course, when an author kills off one of my favorites, I’m the first to shake my fist and curse that author’s name. But as an author myself, I 100% love cutting those threads short. It’s one of my favorite things about writing on this scale.

Like you said, no one’s safe! And if you as a reader get so attached to one of my characters that their death makes you shake your first and curse my name, I am totally doing my job, and that makes me very happy. I never know quite how to respond when a reader tells me I made them cry, but the first thought that always pops into my head is, “Thanks?”

Paste: Is it too soon to ask what kingdom we might be focusing on next? I am fascinated by the idea of Bastion. 

Macallister: The queendom that the third book focuses on hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s coming soon! I can say that it’s one that didn’t get a huge amount of attention in Scorpica or Arca. And it’s one whose Drought-related plotline I had to excise from the book that became Scorpica when that book got simply too overstuffed. There’s a character I’ve been dying for readers to meet for a long time who runs the show in that particular queendom. So I think this will be a really interesting part of the world for readers to dive into next.

And you’re actually the second person this week to mention wanting more about the Bastion! Something about a mysterious, enormous fortress of unknown origin large enough to be its own country is tugging at people’s imaginations. The Bastion is one of the queendoms where what their official principles are and how people actually live can have, let’s say, some disconnect.

Paste: What else are you working on at the moment? The next Five Queendoms book? Something else?

Macallister: Speaking of things that haven’t been announced yet, heh. I’m working on a little palate cleanser while I wait for editorial feedback on the third Five Queendoms book. The pace of a book a year for the Queendoms series has been kind of exhausting, but it’s also energizing, which is why I’m not just collapsed on my couch eating bonbons while I wait for those edits. An author in motion tends to stay in motion.

 Paste: And my favorite question always: what are you reading right now?

 Macallister: I’m always reading a few things simultaneously, which is definitely true at the moment. On audio, I’m listening to Emily Henry’s Happy Place, which is just as bright and fun and swoony as her previous books. And it’s read by Julia Whelan, who’s one of the best audiobook narrators working today. 

On paper, I’m just starting an advance copy of Fiona Davis’s The Spectacular—her historical fiction always centers on famous New York City landmark buildings, and in this case, it’s Radio City Music Hall. That one comes out in June. And in e-book, I am deep, deep into Samantha Shannon’s A Day of Fallen Night, which you know I love because it has queendoms in it. And a large cast of powerful women, each of whom carries and wields her power in unique and fascinating ways—feminist fantasy at its best.

Scorpica and Arca, the first two books in the Five Queendoms series, are available now.  

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin