Of course, fantasy fiction has always had its female writers. But, even in 2015, epic fantasy still has a reputation of being a male-dominated genre. Authors like Tolkien, Martin, Rothfuss and Sanderson are talked about on a daily basis and female writers tend not to be...with a few exceptions like a certain J.K. Rowling.
A Wizard of Earthsea
As related previously, a key bridging work between The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy explosion of the late 1970s was Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which was followed by four successors: The Tombs of Atuan (1972), The Farthest Shore (1973), Tehanu (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), along with the Tales from Earthsea short story collection (2001). The Earthsea series was set in a secondary world consisting of a vast, world-girdling ocean and numerous islands. Magic was real and treated as a science, with students learning how to use it in academies, whilst dragons play an important role. The human characters are also mostly dark-skinned, a result of the location of the Earthsea on its planet. SyFy's TV adaptation of the series in 2004 was largely reviled for "whitewashing" the cast. The setting and ethnicity of the characters also moved it away from the Tolkien model (and the one still prevalent in epic fantasy) of using western Europe as a primary influence.
Another author writing at the same time went in a different direction. When Katherine Kurtz set out to write a fantasy novel, she threw herself into European history (Welsh in particular) to map out the Eleven Kingdoms, the setting for Deryni Rising (1970) and numerous sequels. The Deryni series, as it came to be known, is set in a land reminiscent of Western Europe (the British Isles in particular) in the early Middle Ages, with a strong focus on religious faith. Rather then telling one large mega-story, Kurtz divided her story into smaller and more easily digestible trilogies, as well as treating the series like historical fiction. The series is sometimes called "historical fantasy" for the rigour with which Kurtz treats her story and setting, and is closer in style to the likes of Maurice Druon and Dorothy Dunnett than Tolkien and Howard. This type of "historical fantasy" has more recent successors in the likes of Raymond E. Feist and George R.R. Martin.
The Deryni series seems to have become fairly obscure over the years, which is unfortunate because it set the tone and format for many of the fantasy novels that would follow.
We've touched upon Anne McCaffrey before, but the epic fantasy boom of the late 1970s proved to be a boon to her career. She had published Dragonflight and Dragonquest in 1968 and 1970 but the books had not been big successes. She'd envisaged a trilogy, but held off on writing the final volume. Instead she wrote a companion series, The Harper Hall Trilogy (1976-79), for a different publisher. The nascent Del Rey reprinted Dragonflight and Dragonquest with a lot of fanfare and allowed McCaffrey to both complete the trilogy and write additional books in the series.
The Dragonriders of Pern series is rationalised fantasy, where the fantastic premise - humans riding dragons that can destroy an infectious substance called "Thread" that falls from the sky as the result of the close passage to Pern by a rogue planet - is given a hard SF explanation. The books are set two thousand years after the colonisation of Pern by humans, with human society having become more primitive due to the constant dangers of Threadfall. In numerous sequels and prequels, McCaffrey would explore the colonisation of Pern, the genetic engineering of the dragons to combat Thread and numerous other aspects of the world. Later books were written in collaboration with her son Todd. Despite its SF rationale, the Pern books played an important role in furthering the role of dragons as a key cornerstone of epic fantasy mythology.
The Mists of Avalon
If epic fantasy owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings, it may owe even more to the legend of King Arthur. Developed over centuries, the legend about the youth who rises to greatness as the King of England but is then overthrown by hubris, jealousy and (in some versions) incest has proven immensely popular. However, it is also a story in which the men, particularly the Knights of the Round Table, are usually given centre stage.
Originally published in 1983, The Mists of Avalon was a surprising change of pace for Marion Zimmer Bradley, up to that point known more for her lengthy Darkover series of science fiction novels and a series of horror novels. The Mists of Avalon is told from the point of view of Morgaine, usually presented as a villainous figure but here treated with some sympathy. The story also focuses on other female characters from the legend, presenting a familiar story from a feminist perspective.
Although arguably not epic fantasy itself, The Mists of Avalon would foreshadow other fantasy authors who would base their work on existing mythology and history before spinning it in original ways, such as Garry Kilworth's Polynesian-influenced Navigator Kings trilogy and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.
Likewise mixing fantasy and SF was Janny Wurts. In 1984 (after publishing a stand-alone novel called Sorcerer's Legacy two years prior) she wrote Stormwarden, the first volume in the Cycle of Fire trilogy, which is set centuries after a starship crashes on a planet whilst carrying alien prisoners-of-war. The trilogy pitches the primitive descendants of the human crew against the descendants of the aliens (now believed to be demons) in a trilogy featuring action, politics and numerous seafaring scenes.
Wurts's work came to the attention of Raymond E. Feist and they decided to collaborate on a trilogy set during the events of his seminal novel Magician. This became the Empire Trilogy, starting with Daughter of the Empire (1987), now considered to be one of the more accomplished words in the epic fantasy subgenre and arguably one of the best things either author has written. In 1993 Wurts began her immense Wars of Light and Shadow mega-series, which would eventually comprise eleven novels spread out over five sub-series; two more books remain to bring this huge undertaking to completion.
Arrows of the Queen
First published in 1987, Arrows of the Queen was the first volume of The Heralds of Valdemar. Author Mercedes Lackey had been a student and protege of authors such as Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley, contributing short stories to Bradley's Darkover shared universe, before embarking on her own epic fantasy series. Her debut novel revolved around a young farm girl who is chosen to become the Queen's Own Herald, gaining magical powers in the process and trying to win respect from her peers.
The Valdemar series now stands at 32 novels published in 13 distinct sub-series, with another eight collections of short stories and a companion volume, approximately tying it with Terry Pratchett's Discworld and Piers Anthony's Xanth as the most prolific fantasy series of modern times. Lackey's novels feature romance, adventure and magic, and her fans are happy to have an extremely prolific author: as well as the Valdemar series, Lackey has published at least another 120 novels, making her arguably the most prolific SFF author since Isaac Asimov.
In 1988 Melanie Rawn published Dragon Prince, a fantasy novel involving - yet again - dragons but this time in a desert setting (at least to start with). The book uses the traditional tropes of magic, a well-defined setting and political-religious intrigue, but combines it with romance, which resonated strongly with readers. This book spawned five sequels across two trilogies.
Rawn would later write other stand-alone novels and additional series, but her most popular work, the Exiles Trilogy, remains incomplete after almost twenty years.
Published in 1983, this was the debut novel by Megan Lindholm. Set in a harsh mountainous landscape, the book and its sequels focus on harpies (a popular mythological creature under-utilised in modern fantasy) and the humans who serve them. In its own terms, this was a solid debut but not a major work. Far more interesting, however, is the fact that twelve years later the author would launch a new series about assassins under a pen name which would rapidly become one of the most accomplished and famous in the fantasy genre: Robin Hobb.
In the mid-1980s fantasy received another major boost in popularity from another source. As already related, fantasy had inspired the creation of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game in 1974, but in 1984 the D&D game returned the favour and provided the genre with a trilogy which would become one of the very biggest-selling works of the decade.