I love fantasy books. However, my favorite genre doesn’t always treat its female characters well. But luckily, there are series out there which do include multiple, well developed, capable female characters. Here’s a spot light on some of those fantasy book series. For the purposes of this post, I’ve chosen to focus on fantasy books set in other worlds, although not all of the books on this list would necessarily be characterized as high or epic.
10. The Manifold Worlds by Foz Meadows.
This fledgling series debuted it’s first book this year, An Accident of Stars. Based off the first book, the series shows a lot of promise. An Accident of Stars is a queer feminist portal fantasy told from the point of views of four female characters. Saffron is a high school student in Australia who follows a strange woman through a portal and enters another world, Kena. While born on earth, Gwen has been traveling to Kena for over thirty years and considers it home. She even became involved in local politics and made an unwise choice in supporting a man called Leoden in his bid for the throne. Now Gwen and her allies are hunted by him, including Zech, the adopted granddaughter of an exiled matriarch, and Viya, Leoden’s runaway consort. In its first volume, The Manifold Worlds series provided a greater focus on relationships between women than I’ve seen almost anywhere else in the fantasy genre.
9. The Abhorsen Series by Garth Nix
In 1996 Garth Nix introduced his readers to the world of the Old Kingdom with Sabriel, the story of a girl necromancer just coming into her powers. Sabriel is a student at a boarding school in Ancelstierre, a world that feels much like England during the 1940’s. Across the wall is her home world – the Old Kingdom, which is wracked by dark magic and necromatic monsters. It is the Abhorsen’s responsibility to use the powers of necromancy for the good of the kingdom, to put the spirits to rest and to defend the ordinary people from the world beyond. There’s the original trilogy (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen), a prequel (Clariel), and a new book which came out this year (Goldenhand). Across the span of the five books, the series presents at least three generations of capable and courageous female characters.
8. The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Earth trilogy may very well be one of the most revolutionary fantasy series I’ve ever read. It’s like nothing else out there – a dark fantasy novel set in a world constantly beset by frequent environmental catastrophes. People have grown used to a world of disasters and prepared, storing food for hard times ahead. But when a giant rift in the earth rips apart the continent, annihilating the capital of the empire, enough ash is released into the air to block out the sun for thousands of years. Amid the chaos, Essun finds that her husband has murdered their son and left with their daughter. As the world collapses around her, she sets off across the dying land to find them. The women in The Broken Earth Trilogy are not necessarily likable or even good. Essun is easily one of the best anti-heroines I’ve ever come across in the SFF genre, a woman shaped by the constant tragedy of her life.
7. The Divine Cities by Robert Jackson Bennett
Currently two books long and with at least one more on the way, The Divine Cities is set in a world where gods once lived. For centuries the cities of the Continent were able to dominate Saypur through the might of the Continent’s Divinities. Then, a Saypuri man called the Kaj figured out how to kill the gods. Now, the gods are dead and Saypur controls the Continent. Only, how dead are these gods really? The first book in the series, City of Stairs, gives us Shara Komayd, a high ranking Saypuri intelligence officer, as a whip smart protagonist. The sequel, City of Blades, gives us General Turyin Mulaghesh, possibly one of the most unique protagonists I’ve encountered in the fantasy genre. Mulaghesh is over sixty years old, bitter, cynical, disabled, and quite likely suffering from PTSD. In a word, she’s wonderful, and so are all the other women of this series.
6. The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler
This military fantasy series begins with The Thousand Names and seems to add ever more female characters as it progresses. The first book has two POV characters, one of whom is Winter, a young woman who disguised herself and joined the army to get away from a bad situation. Winter is a fantastic female lead – smart, a tactical thinker, clear headed, and capable. Even while in the army, she’s consistently interacting with other female characters. And since she’s a lesbian, her love interests are female as well. The second book introduces a new POV character, the young queen Raesinia who’s trying to free her country from the iron grip of the Minister of Information. One of the later books in the series got a negative review complaining that their were too many women, which is always a sign that I should try reading something.
5. Eternal Sky Series by Elizabeth Bear
The Eternal Sky series has a classic epic fantasy plot line but a setting based around Central Asia. Temur is the grandson of the Great Khan, who’s empire is being torn asunder in a civil war. As a potential heir, Temur’s sought by assassins sent by his uncle. Samarkar was once a princess of the Rasan Empire, before she gave up her position to become a wizard of the Citadel. When a secret cult sets out to topple empires, it is Temur and Samarkar who are caught in the middle. The series includes multiple female characters who interact and are even (*gasp*) friends with one another! The female members of the cast include Samarkar, a wizard who acts as her mentor, a warrior from a tiger-like race, and a mysterious assassin.
4. The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb
Liveships are sentient, speaking ships fashioned from a special wood and used to navigate the dangerous Rain River Wilds. The Vestrit’s family ship is about to awaken, just as the patriarch of the family is dying. Althea Vestrit has been sailing her entire life and believes she is the natural captain of the liveship Vivacia. But when her father dies, she discovers that the ship has been left to her odious brother-in-law, a fact she cannot accept. The trilogy centers around the Vestrit family and includes POV sections from Althea, her sister, her mother, and her niece, all of which are well developed characters. Also, there’s pirates!
3. The Sun Sword Series by Michelle West
I’ll admit, I haven’t finished this series yet. It is looooooong, classic epic fantasy of the doorstopper tradition. The first book, The Broken Crown, introduces two countries, the Dominion and the Empire. The Dominion is ruled by a hierarchy of war lords who gain honor on the battle field. But the current ruler of the Dominion is weak, and his war with the Empire was a disaster. Some of the men who vowed to serve him embark on a conspiracy to overthrow him, and caught in the middle of all of this is Diora, a girl who grows up to be the Flower of the Dominion, the most beautiful and graceful woman of all. Yet this is not all, for the Lord of the Night and the demons who serve him have their own plans concerning these affairs, and both the Empire and the Dominion will become involved.
In the Dominion and the Empire and later the Voyanni, West presents three cultures with vastly different gender norms. The Dominion is a highly patriarchal society where women have no choices or legal rights. The female characters from the Dominion don’t wield a sword on the battlefield, but Diora and her aunt Teresa’s careful political maneuverings make them a force to be reckoned with. The Empire is a much more egalitarian setting which gives us some female characters involved in military pursuits, including a female fearsome female general and a girl Chosen One. Meanwhile, the Voyanni are a wandering group of travelers who journey through the Dominion, each tribe ruled by its Matriarch. The point I’m at in the series right now focuses a lot on a new Matriarch and her struggles at adjusting to the weight of responsibility left to her by her mother.
2. The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone
I really love the Craft Sequence. Max Gladstone imagines a world where magic is the economy and necromancers are like lawyers (craftsmen and craftswomen). Most of the books have unrelated plots, taking place in different areas of the world. And all of them include multiple significant female characters. The first ever book in the series, Three Parts Dead, tells of a young craftswoman, Tara Abernathy, who begins working for the prestigious craftswoman Elayne Kevarian in a case involving a dead god. Elayne Kevarian is in turn a central character in the prequel novel, Last First Snow.
However, the best Craft Sequence book for female characters is undoubtedly Full Fathom Five, which focuses on two very different women. Kai’s a transgender woman working for a her firm which creates idols to store clients belief. When Kai takes a dangerous risk to save a dying idol, she’s removed from her position and sent to work in sales. But she suspects that the idols may be coming to life. Izza is a refugee living on the streets, desperate to leave the island before she gets old enough that she’s imprisoned in a stone body if she’s caught stealing. Both Kai and Izza become wrapped up in the mystery of the living idols, and the book even brings in supporting female characters from Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise to create an all star line up of heroines.
1. The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett
For sheer breadth, you can’t rival the Discworld series. With forty-one books, it has plenty of space for a wide variety of awesome women, many of whom are among my favorite ever characters. Rather than one continuous story line, it’s multiple groups of characters all over one fantasy world which often parodies our own. These form their own “arcs.”
The best arc for female characters is undoubtedly the witch novels. Starting with Equal Rites and continuing with books such as Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett creates a series of stories centering around several witches living in a rural mountain kingdom. Among these witches, Granny Weatherwax is the unofficial leader (witches don’t have leaders, but if they did everyone knows it would be her). Confident to the point of arrogance, Granny Weatherwax is wholly capable but not very nice. She’s usually accompanied by her best friend, Gytha Ogg, a genial witch who’s outlived several husbands and has an enormous family, and several younger witches including Agnes Nitt and Magrat Garlick. Among this number is eventually included the steely and intelligent Tiffany Achings who leads her own young adult subseries, starting with The Wee Free Men.
But I don’t want to make it sound like the witches books are the only Discworld books with noteworthy female characters. On the subject of female focused fantasy, it would be remiss to ignore the stand alone Discworld novel Monstrous Regiment, where Polly Perks disguises herself to join the army and discovers she’s not the only woman there. Even novels with a male protagonist, such as the city watch books, still tend to include some wonderful female characters among the supporting cast. Angua and Cheery’s burgeoning friendship is one of the best things about Feet of Clay, and Glenda and Juliet of Unseen Academicals are wonderful as well. The ever logical Susan, granddaughter of Death, is also another favorite of mine.
How many of the series on this list are you familiar with? Do you agree with the books I put here? Disagree? What are some fantasy series that you think are great with female characters? Tell me in the comments!