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25 Best Fantasy Books with a Strong Heroine

Fantasy literature has come a long way since the boys club of The Lord of the Rings (which I’m a fan of, but let’s be honest here), but there’s still work to be done.

 

25
The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson – 2011
Book 1 of 4 in the Fire and Thorns series

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses. The one who has never done anything remarkable, and can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior, and he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young. Most of the chosen do.

“A smart, complex fantasy with stellar characters… Carson’s mature writing style, thoughtful storytelling, appealing characters and surprising twists add up to a page-turner.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

24
The Deed of Paksenarrion
by Elizabeth Moon – 1988

Paksenarrion, a simple sheepfarmer’s daughter, yearns for a life of adventure and glory, such as was known to heroes in songs and story. At age seventeen she runs away from home to join a mercenary company and begins her epic life.

Book One: Paks is trained as a mercenary and introduced to the life of a soldier, as well as the followers of Gird, the soldier’s god.

Book Two: Paks leaves the Duke’s company to follow the path of Gird alone—and on her lonely quests encounters the other sentient races of her world.

Book Three: Paks the warrior must learn to live with Paks the human. She undertakes a holy quest for a lost elven prince that brings the gods’ wrath down on her and tests her very limits.

“This trilogy builds in power and intensity… all the sweep and majesty of the finest heroic fantasy.”
—VOYA

23
Shadow and Bone
by Leigh Bardugo – 2012
Book 1 of 3 in The Shadow and Bone Trilogy

Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed.

Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite—and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift.

As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation.

“This is what fantasy is for.”
—The New York Times Book Review

22
The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson – 2006
Book 1 of 5 in the Mistborn series

For a thousand years the ash fell and no flowers bloomed. For a thousand years the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years the Lord Ruler, the “Sliver of Infinity,” reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Then, when hope was so long lost that not even its memory remained, a terribly scarred, heart-broken half-Skaa rediscovered it in the depths of the Lord Ruler’s most hellish prison.

Kelsier “snapped” and found in himself the powers of a Mistborn. A brilliant thief and natural leader, he turned his talents to the ultimate caper, with the Lord Ruler himself as the mark. Kelsier recruited the underworld’s elite, the smartest and most trustworthy allomancers, each of whom shares one of his many powers, and all of whom relish a high-stakes challenge. Only then does he reveal his ultimate dream, not just the greatest heist in history, but the downfall of the divine despot. But even with the best criminal crew ever assembled, Kel’s plan looks more like the ultimate long shot, until luck brings a ragged girl named Vin into his life.

Like him, she’s a half-Skaa orphan, but she’s lived a much harsher life. Vin has learned to expect betrayal from everyone she meets, and gotten it. She will have to learn to trust, if Kel is to help her master powers of which she never dreamed.

“Intrigue, politics, and conspiracies mesh complexly in a world Sanderson realizes in satisfying depth and peoples with impressive characters.”
―Booklist

21
Graceling
by Kristin Cashore – 2008
Book 1 of 3 in the Graceling Realm series

The YA book Graceling tells the story of Katsa, who is smart and beautiful and lives in the Seven Kingdoms where selected people are born with a Grace, a special talent that can be anything at all. Katsa’s Grace is killing. As the king’s niece, she is forced to use her extreme skills as his brutal enforcer. Until the day she meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, and Katsa’s life begins to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away… a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

“Cashore strikes a strong balance between adventure, drama and romance–bloody battles and sexual tension co-exist in equal measure.”
—BookPage

20
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.
by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland – 2017

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is brilliant, fast-paced, and will give you sore wrists because it’s a thick, heavy book, but you will not want to put it down.

An expert in ancient languages is hired by a mysterious government agency to translate some documents that suggest that magic actually once existed in the world. But the advance of science caused magic to disappear in 1851. However, the existence of a two-hundred-year-old witch and some fancy technology allow a limited amount of magic to occur in this world, and soon the language expert and others are being sent back in time to repair history. And, if they’re lucky, bring magic back to the world.

“Quantum physics, witchcraft, and multiple groups with conflicting agendas, playfully mixed with vernacular from several centuries and a dizzying number of acronyms, create a fascinating experiment in speculation and metafiction that never loses sight of the human foibles and affections of its cast.”
—Publishers Weekly

19
Soulless
by Gail Carriger – 2009
Book 1 of 5 in The Parasol Protectorate series

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire, and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and a werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

“Carriger debuts brilliantly with a blend of Victorian romance, screwball comedy of manners and alternate history. . . . This intoxicatingly witty parody will appeal to a wide cross-section of romance, fantasy and steampunk fans.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)

18
Wicked
by Gregory Maguire – 1995
Book 1 of 4 in the Wicked Years series

Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.

Elphaba’s name comes from “L. Frank Baum,” the author of the Oz books.

This New York Times bestseller is the basis for the smash hit Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

17
Fair Peril
by Nancy Springer – 1996

Buffy—a fat, 40ish, divorced mother—encounters a talking frog and, ignoring the warnings of fairy tales, does not turn the frog back into a prince. Trouble ensues when Buffy’s rebellious teenage daughter Emily does kiss the frog; soon she and handsome Prince Adamus disappear into the enchanted land of Fair Peril. It is up to Buffy to rescue Emily and, in the process, learn that magic does exist in the most ordinary of lives.

[A]n eccentric, charming fantasy that combines fairy tale with a smack of satire… a hilarious blend of feminism and fantasy in this heartfelt story of the power of a mother’s love.”
—Publishers Weekly

16
Ship of Magic
by Robin Hobb – 1998
Book 1 of 3 in the Liveship Traders Trilogy

Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships—rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. Now the fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia.

For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy. For Althea’s young nephew, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard the ship, the Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the ship—and the Vestrits—may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider: the ruthless buccaneer captain Kennit, who plans to seize power over the Pirate Isles by capturing a liveship and bending it to his will.

“A truly extraordinary saga… The characterizations are consistently superb, and [Hobb] animates everything with love for and knowledge of the sea.”
—Booklist

15
Moon Called
by Patricia Briggs – 2006
Book 1 of 12 in the Mercy Thompson series

Mercy Thompson is a shapeshifter, and while she was raised by werewolves, she can never be one of them, especially after the pack ran her off for having a forbidden love affair. So she’s turned her talent for fixing cars into a business and now runs a one-woman mechanic shop in the Tri-Cities area of Washington State.

But Mercy’s two worlds are colliding. A half-starved teenage boy arrives at her shop looking for work, only to reveal that he’s a newly changed werewolf, on the run and desperately trying to control his animal instincts. Mercy asks her neighbor, the Alpha of the local werewolf pack, for assistance.

But Mercy’s act of kindness has unexpected consequences that leave her no choice but to seek help from those she once considered family—the werewolves who abandoned her…

“In the increasingly crowded field of kick-ass supernatural heroines, Mercy stands out as one of the best.”
—Locus

14
The Screaming Staircase
by Jonathan Stroud – 2013
Book 1 of 5 in the Lockwood & Co series

A sinister Problem has occurred in London: all nature of ghosts, haunts, spirits, and specters are appearing throughout the city, and they aren’t exactly friendly. Only young people have the psychic abilities required to see and eradicate these supernatural foes. Many different Psychic Detection Agencies have cropped up to handle the dangerous work, and they are in fierce competition for business.

In The Screaming Staircase, the plucky and talented Lucy Carlyle teams up with Anthony Lockwood, the charismatic leader of Lockwood & Co, a small agency that runs independent of any adult supervision. After an assignment leads to both a grisly discovery and a disastrous end, Lucy, Anthony, and their sarcastic colleague, George, are forced to take part in the perilous investigation of Combe Carey Hall, one of the most haunted houses in England. Will Lockwood & Co. survive the Hall’s legendary Screaming Staircase and Red Room to see another day?

“The genuinely likable members of Lockwood & Co. persevere through the evil machinations of the living and the dead and manage to come out with their skins, and their senses of humor, intact.”
—School Library Journal

13
The Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett – 2003
Book 1 of 5 in the Tiffany Aching series

A Discworld novel

Armed only with a frying pan and her common sense, Tiffany Aching, a young witch-to-be, is all that stands between the monsters of Fairyland and the warm, green Chalk country that is her home. Forced into Fairyland to seek her kidnapped brother, Tiffany allies herself with the Chalk’s local Nac Mac Feegle, aka the Wee Free Men, a clan of sheep-stealing, sword-wielding, six-inch-high blue men who are as fierce as they are funny.

Together, they battle through an eerie and ever-shifting landscape, fighting brutal flying fairies, dream-spinning dromes, and grimhounds (black dogs with eyes of fire and teeth of razors) before ultimately confronting the Queen of the Elves, absolute ruler of a world in which reality intertwines with nightmare. And in the final showdown, Tiffany must face her cruel power alone.

“Like Celtic mythology fused with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’”
—New York Times Book Review

12
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
by N.K. Jemisin – 2010
Book 1 of 4 in the Inheritance series

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. When her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

“Multifaceted characters struggle with their individual burdens and desires, creating a complex, edge-of-your-seat story with plenty of funny, scary, and bittersweet twists.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

11
A Game of Thrones
by George R. R. Martin – 1996
Book 1 of 5 in the A Song of Fire and Ice series

Winter is coming. Such is the stern motto of House Stark, the northernmost of the fiefdoms that owe allegiance to King Robert Baratheon in far-off King’s Landing. There, Eddard Stark of Winterfell rules in Robert’s name. There his family dwells in peace and comfort: his proud wife, Catelyn; his sons Robb, Brandon, and Rickon; his daughters Sansa and Arya; and his bastard son, Jon Snow.

Far to the north, behind the towering Wall, lie savage Wildings and worse—unnatural things relegated to myth during the centuries-long summer, but proving all too real and all too deadly in the turning of the season. Yet a more immediate threat lurks to the south, where Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, has died under mysterious circumstances. Now Robert is riding north to Winterfell, bringing his queen, the lovely but cold Cersei, his son, the cruel, vainglorious Prince Joffrey, and the queen’s brothers Jaime and Tyrion of the powerful and wealthy House Lannister—the first a swordsman without equal, the second a dwarf whose stunted stature belies a brilliant mind. All are heading for Winterfell and a fateful encounter that will change the course of kingdoms.

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Prince Viserys, heir of the fallen House Targaryen, which once ruled all of Westeros, schemes to reclaim the throne with an army of barbarian Dothraki—whose loyalty he will purchase in the only coin left to him: his beautiful yet innocent sister, Daenerys (the strong heroine of this book).

“Martin makes a triumphant return to high fantasy… [with] superbly developed characters, accomplished prose, and sheer bloodymindedness.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

10
A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle – 1962
Book 1 of 5 in the Time Quintet series

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

“An exhilarating experience.”
―Kirkus Reviews

9
The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell – 2014

Following a terrible fight with her mother over her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes slams the door on her family and her old life. But Holly is no typical teenage runaway: a sensitive child once contacted by voices she knew only as “the radio people,” Holly is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena. Now, as she wanders deeper into the English countryside, visions and coincidences reorder her reality until they assume the aura of a nightmare brought to life.

For Holly has caught the attention of a cabal of dangerous mystics—and their enemies. But her lost weekend is merely the prelude to a shocking disappearance that leaves her family irrevocably scarred. This unsolved mystery will echo through every decade of Holly’s life, affecting all the people Holly loves—even the ones who are not yet born.

A Cambridge scholarship boy grooming himself for wealth and influence, a conflicted father who feels alive only while reporting on the war in Iraq, a middle-aged writer mourning his exile from the bestseller list—all have a part to play in this surreal, invisible war on the margins of our world. From the medieval Swiss Alps to the nineteenth-century Australian bush, from a hotel in Shanghai to a Manhattan townhouse in the near future, their stories come together in moments of everyday grace and extraordinary wonder.

“Intensely compelling… fantastically witty… offers up a rich selection of domestic realism, gothic fantasy and apocalyptic speculation.”
—The Washington Post

8
Who Fears Death
by Nnedi Okorafor – 2010

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region, genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means “Who fears death?” in an ancient language.

It doesn’t take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.

“Both wondrously magical and terribly realistic.”
—The Washington Post

7
Lady of Sherwood
by Jennifer Roberson – 1999

Robert of Locksley, the handsome son of a respected earl, has long battled the tyranny of Prince John—a man as weak as he is cruel. Now that power has shifted even more firmly into John’s hands, Robert has no choice but to fight as an outlaw… as Robin Hood.

Lady Marian of Ravenskeep has fled into the depths of Sherwood Forest. There, amid wild woods, she will be transformed from lady to warrior—as Robin Hood’s partner in stealing John’s gold. But all who breathe know the penalty for such theft is hanging. As the sheriff’s army pursues them, Robin Hood and Marian face danger at every turn, and discover a shared passion that will join their hearts forever.

“[An] excellent adventure about Marian and Robin Hood that combines aspects of the romantic, fantasy and historical novel… Exciting and satisfying.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

6
The Salt Roads
by Nalo Hopkinson – 2003

In 1804, shortly before the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue is renamed Haiti, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn baby. Led by a lesbian healer and midwife named Mer, the women’s lamentations inadvertently release the dead infant’s “unused vitality” to draw Ezili—the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love—into the physical world.

As Ezili explores her newfound powers, she travels across time and space to inhabit the midwife’s body—as well as those of Jeanne, a mixed-race dancer and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire living in 1880s Paris, and Meritet, an enslaved Greek-Nubian prostitute in ancient Alexandria.

Bound together by Ezili and “the salt road” of their sweat, blood, and tears, the three women struggle against a hostile world, unaware of the goddess’s presence in their lives. Despite her magic, Mer suffers as a slave on a sugar plantation until Ezili plants the seeds of uprising in her mind. Jeanne slowly succumbs to the ravages of age and syphilis when her lover is unable to escape his mother’s control. And Meritet, inspired by Ezili, flees her enslavement and makes a pilgrimage to Egypt, where she becomes known as Saint Mary.

“[S]exy, disturbing, touching, wildly comic… tour de force.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

5
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
by Hayao Miyazaki – 1982

This manga is by famed animator Hayao Miazaki, creator of such epics as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. He’s amazing.

Nausicaä, a young princess, has an empathic bond with the giant Ohmu insects and animals of every creed. She fights to create tolerance, understanding, and patience among empires that are fighting over the world’s remaining precious natural resources.

4
The Mists of Avalon
by Marion Zimmer Bradley – 1982
Book 1 of 7 in the Avalon series

In Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece, we see the tumult and adventures of Camelot’s court through the eyes of the women who bolstered the king’s rise and schemed for his fall. From their childhoods through the ultimate fulfillment of their destinies, we follow these women and the diverse cast of characters that surrounds them as the great Arthurian epic unfolds stunningly before us.

As Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar struggle for control over the fate of Arthur’s kingdom, as the Knights of the Round Table take on their infamous quest, as Merlin and Viviane wield their magics for the future of Old Britain, the Isle of Avalon slips further into the impenetrable mists of memory, until the fissure between old and new worlds and old and new religions claims its most famous victim.

“[A] monumental reimagining of the Arthurian legends… Reading it is a deeply moving and at times uncanny experience… An impressive achievement.”
—The New York Times Book Review

3
Poison Study
by Maria V. Snyder – 2005
Book 1 of 6 in the Soulfinders series

Locked deep in the palace dungeon for killing her abuser, Yelena knows she’ll never be free again. The laws in Ixia are strict, and murderers must be executed, no matter the reason. But just as she’s resigned herself to her fate, she’s offered an extraordinary reprieve.

As the food taster, Yelena will eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace—and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. To make matters worse, the chief of security deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust, and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison.

As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again, and in order to survive, she must unravel the secrets behind the past she’s been running from.

“[T]his is one of those rare books that will keep readers dreaming long after they’ve read it.”
—Publishers Weekly

2
Magic Bites
by Ilona Andrews – 2007
Book 1 of 10 in the Kate Daniels series

Kate Daniels is a down-on-her-luck mercenary who makes her living cleaning up magical problems. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, her quest for justice draws her into a power struggle between two strong factions within Atlanta’s magic circles. Pressured by both sides to find the killer, Kate realizes she’s way out of her league—but she wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Kate is a great kick-ass heroine.”
—Locus

1
The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman – 1995
Book 1 of 3 in the His Dark Materials series

Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal—including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.

Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want.

But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help one of them will be to betray the other…

“Superb… all-stops-out thrilling.”
—The Washington Post

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