There are few things I love more than a butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners heroine at the helm of an epic feminist fantasy adventure. But honestly, there is so much more to feminist fantasy than warrior women and vampire slayers (though we do love them). At its heart, feminist fantasy sees its characters (male and female) as fully fleshed out human beings, with dreams and fears, skills and flaws, power and vulnerability. Rather than relying on old tropes of damsels in distress and evil step-mothers, feminist fantasy inverts these dynamics to show the depth and dynamism of all their characters. Even in worlds plagued by inequality, feminist fantasy doesn’t just brush by these facets, but actively recognizes them and gives us characters who seek to subvert the status quo.
So in honor of all the powerful women who’ve come before, here are 10 stand-out books, both new and old, that showcase feminist fantasy at its finest.
Yeah, yeah, I know I said top 10 feminist fantasy books, not authors, but Tamora Pierce is the necessary exception to the rule. In my mind, the veritable queen of feminist fantasy, she’s been writing her Tortall and Circle of Magic series since the 80s. These books have inspired literal generations of women to see their gender not as a limitation but as a power in its own right. From the OG heroine Alanna, who disguises herself as her twin brother in order to train as a knight, to the unflappable Beka Cooper, a rookie member of the Provost’s Guard chasing down the hardened criminals of Corus, Tamora Pierce gave us an entire world of powerful women to look up to. She forever changed the YA Fantasy landscape, and for that we’ll all be eternally grateful.
There’s absolutely no rule that says heroines must always be cuddly and kind, and yet so, so many of them are! In the dark YA Fantasy series, The Empirium Trilogy, we’re given two heroines, living 1000 years apart, whose stories intersect in the midst of a cosmic battle that will bring out the best, and worst, in them both. These are heroines who defy simple labels of good and evil, hero or villain. Rather they are people in their own right, every bit the product of their circumstances and yet still managing to rise above them. This series is an absolute must for anyone with a love for rich fantasy worlds, fast-paced plot, and of course, fierce feminist heroines.
Another slightly older series that remains a classic in the YA Fantasy world is Graceling. In this world, certain people, called “gracelings,” are born with natural abilities that, while aiding them in some aspects of life lead to complete alienation and at times, out-right hostility, from their non-graced neighbors. The heroine, Katsa, is fierce and independent, yet at the same time terrified of vulnerability. The plot itself is filled with twisty-turny adventure and plenty of political intrigue as Katsa slowly uncovers the deep treachery that has infiltrated her country. Definitely another mut-read!
In the Unravelled Kingdom series, we meet an enterprising businesswoman, a princely love interest, an idealistic brother, oh and a healthy dose of REVOLUTION. Sophie Balstrade, a dressmaker who stitches magical charms into her work, lives in Galitha City but grew up in poverty as the daughter of Pellian immigrants. She’s managed to drag herself out of poverty and into the world of the merchant class….just in time for her brother to lead a revolution threatening to topple the entire social order (#typical). The story tackled a surprising number of heavy-hitting themes, including race, class, the plight of immigrants, idealism, capitalism, and of course, revolution! But I think my favorite element was the complex character of Sophie herself, torn as she is between sharing her brother’s ideals and her own fierce desire to protect the people she cares about. Multifaceted indeed!
I absolutely love the increased diversity we’re seeing in the fantasy world, both in terms of authors and world creation! The Books of Ambha series takes place in a South Asian – inspired world filled with unique mythology, gods and goddesses, and a healthy dose of dream magic! The main character in the series, Mehr, is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an absolute powerhouse of a character. But unlike some other Fantasy heroines, Mehr exhibits a quieter ferocity. Having spent her life nearly powerless, she’s learned to survive. And over the course of the book she faces the type of moral quandaries that litter the real world as well as the fantasy ones. Mehr is flawed and certainly makes mistakes, but this is the type of story that is truly empowering.
by Thomas Wheeler (author) & Frank Miller (Illustrator)
Ok, so you might have seen this one on Netflix, but did you know that it was originally a novel? And while the central story line holds true across both, my take is that the Netflix series could use with some serious re-editing (way to many awkward scene jumps). But I digress…
Cursed turns the Arthurian legends completely on their head, making Nimue (later known as the Lady of the Lake) the heroine of the tale. And while the re-telling leans a bit too heavily on classic YA fantasy tropes for my taste, this is more than made up for by the fascinating character of Nimue. Between her personal struggles with her own dark magic, her desperate fight against religious fundamentalism, or her quest to save the refugee Fey folk, the girl’s got a lot going on. Plus the illustrations are gorgeous.
Another gorgeous fantasy world that breaks away from the tired tropes of the past. This West-African inspired fantasy features a gorgeous world filled with a new type of mystical magic.
Part of a larger series (Legacy of Orisha), we meet young Zélie, a fierce warrior whose strength only grows over time, but still manages to hold onto much of her innocence. Between fighting against systematic oppression and getting revenge on the ones who took so much from her, in Zélie we find a truly strong protagonist heroine. While the obligatory YA romantic angle felt a little forced at times, overall this is a book with real depth and characters you actually feel good about rooting for.
First, let me say that I will read anything written by Madeline Miller because her writing is absolutely gorgeous, reading as much like poetry as prose.
There, now that that’s done, we can talk about the fascinating protagonist that is Circe. Lacking the power of her godly relatives, Circe turns instead to the realm of mortals where she finds her own brand of witchcraft. Yet since this power is deemed threatening to those same gods she finds herself banished. Circe is time and again victimized and brutalized, but never loses sight of who she is. She may do terrible things, but we always understand why and while we may not agree, we understand. That is surely the sign of a wonderful character.
At its core, this book is about the role of women and their voice in the context of greek mythology. Circe has always been the villain, now we get to hear her speak for herself.
Yet another example of character-driven fantasy at its best. The Naming is a Tolkien-esqe tale with a powerful female protagonist whose strength lies not in brute force or un-earned magical power, but in quiet, thoughtful determination. Maerad grew up as a war orphan and as such knows the evil that can consume innocents in its wake. She is determined to help the downtrodden and stand against the rising darkness, even at the cost of all she holds dear.
Reader be warned, this is a slowly unraveling tale, filled with gorgeous description but with slow plot progression. The real beauty here is in the characters, these wounded souls who’ve lived lives filled with far too much death and darkness and yet somehow manage to find each other and begin to heal. Strength can take many forms, and this book is a beautiful example of that.
I know, I know, but you know I had to . In all honesty though, the books above have heavily influenced many of the themes and characters within Chaos Looming and the Legion of Pneumos series. I’ve always had a particular love for strong female characters who face up to adversity and manage to subvert some expectations along the way. So it’s only natural I’d want to write my own!
A YA historical fantasy adventure, Chaos Looming features a strong female protagonist coming of age amidst the turmoil of revolution and political intrigue. Keira has spent years training to become a Legionnaire, part of an ancient order dedicated to battling chaos in all its forms, channeling order out of the turmoil. But what if the price of order proves too high to pay?
Definitely worth the read if you enjoy fantasy, twisty-turny adventure, and of course, kick-butt powerful heroines!
Check it out here!
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Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C Wrede, Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto, and So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane.
Ooooh, Legendborn has been on my list for months. I definitely need to check it out, and these others look great!