While these lists say “Female Protagonists,” it would be more accurate to say that these are book’s with capable, well written female protagonists. I also try to take into account the presence of other female characters in the book, how they interact with the female lead, if it passes the Bechdel test, ect.
Note, I don’t have reviews for most of these. If I do, I’ll link to it. You can also check the tags “awesome female leads” and “female lead” or you can go to my Goodreads account and look at the shelf “Strong Female Characters”.
I read more fantasy, so for the purposes of this list, YA fantasy has been subdivided. Urban fantasy has also been subdivided, since it can be harder to find female characters in the more traditional epic fantasy.
If you have any suggestions, please say so in the comments!
Female Protagonists in Fantasy Books:
- Most books by Terry Pratchett, particularly the arc following the witches (Wyrd Sisters) and Monstrous Regiment. These are all satirical fantasy novels set on the imaginary world of Discworld.
- All the books I’ve read by Sharon Shinn. I’d particularly recommend Troubled Water and Mystic and Rider. She tends to write character focused, other world fantasy books. They’re usually lighthearted and not very dark.
- Brandon Sanderson has some good female protagonists, although too often they will interact with hardly any other women (Vin in Mistborn). However, The Way of Kings and especially it’s sequel Words of Radiance are better about this. These are the first two books in The Stormlight Archieves, a massive new epic fantasy series. Also look at the novella Shadows for Silence in the Forest of Hell.
- Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier is a retelling of “The Swan Brothers” with a strong female narrator at it’s core. Do note, the story may be too dark for some.
- Thorn by Intisar Khanani is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” I’ve seen it classified as YA, although I find it darker than usual for the genre.
- The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle has the titular unicorn and her traveling companion Molly. It’s a beautifully written story about the last unicorn who sets out to look for the rest of her kind.
- The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein is another that’s somewhere between fantasy and science fiction. The main character is a steerswoman, a profession dedicating to seeking and sharing knowledge. She’s investigating some strange jewels and runs into trouble with the wizards.
- Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is about a necromancer who’s been hired to revive the dead god of a city that depends on him. She also has to seek out the cause of his death. It’s set in another world, but I’d call it urban fantasy. Full Fathom Five is an indirect sequel with two wonderful female leads, in addition to some awesome female supporting characters.
- The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is a fantasy of manners with a bisexual female lead. She’s sent to stay with her uncle, the Mad Duke, to learn swordplay.
- The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb has around five female POV characters out out of about eight total. It’s an epic fantasy centered around a merchant family and their magical ship, Vivica. The first book is Ship of Magic.
- The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay is a historical fantasy based around the reconquering of the Iberian Penninsula by the Christian kingdoms. It has Jehane bet Ishak, a female physician.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is about a young woman who’s the potential heir to the ruler of the world.
- City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is about a woman who’s a high ranking intelligence officer and who is investigating the death of a historian. The sequel, City of Blades, follows a one armed, retired female general.
- Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear is an epic fantasy set on the steppes. It has numerous female characters, and the female lead is a wizard.
- Stranger at the Wedding by Barbara Hambly is a fantasy mystery novel.
- The Broken Crown by Michelle West is the start of an epic fantasy series with a focus on political intrigue (from what I’ve read). There’s multiple important female characters in a variety of roles.
- Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho is an alternate history fantasy novel set in Regency England. The female lead is a clever and strong willed sorceress.
- Brood of Bones by A.E. Marling is about Hiresha, a narcoleptic enchantress who’s returned to her hometown only to find that all the women there are mysteriously pregnant.
- The Thousand Names by Diango Wexler is a military fantasy novel with multiple important female characters.
Female Protagonists in Urban Fantasy Books:
- The Kate Daniels series by Illona Andrews is one of the best urban fantasy series out there. In addition to a compelling heroine (and multiple other female characters!), the books tie in mythology from all over the world and a detective type plot. The first book, Magic Bites, is the weakest, so I recommend starting with the companion book Gunmetal Magic instead, which focuses on Kate’s best friend Andrea, a shapeshifter. (Edited – or maybe not. I tried this with a friend, and she said she was confused. Oh, well. Take the risk on Gunmetal Magic, or start with subpar Magic Bites. I’ve also now reviewed the seventh book in the series, Magic Breaks).
- The Cheshire Red books, also by Cherie Priest and which start with Bloodshot, are about an OCD vampire cat burglar who takes on an unusual case. The second book especially has a number of important and sympathetic female characters, besides the lead. The first book doesn’t do so well on this front. It’s a fun series.
- The Rook by Daniel O’Malley is an urban fantasy where the heroine wakes up after an attack with no memory of who she is or what her strange powers are. It’s a delightful book with a number of strong female characters. Also, there’s no romance.
- Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is an 1871 vampire story centered around a female vampire by the same name. The story is female centered, with Carmilla and the narrator Laura being the most important characters.The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is about a boy who with the help of Lettie, a very remarkable girl, deals with the fallout when a man commits suicide in a car down the road. It’s interesting in that it’s a book with a male narrator that still has some really strong and plot integral female characters.
- A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer has two wonderful and competent female characters at it’s center, Jane and Ferris. It’s sometimes marketed as YA.
- The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker has Chava, a female golem as one of it’s two leads.
- Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein is an urban fantasy following a policewoman in Tokyo. There’s no romance.
Female Protagonists in YA Fantasy Books:
- Many books by Patricia C. Wrede, but I’m only really familiar with Dealing with Dragons. It’s a YA book about a princess who runs away to live in a dragon’s cave.
- The Tiffany Aching series, starting with The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett is about a young girl who wants to become a witch.
- The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black is an urban fantasy about a town surrounded by an enchanted forest. The protagonist, Hazel, wishes to be a knight.
- Tamora Pierce is renowned for writing groundbreaking feminist YA fantasy series, particularly the Alanna books, which are about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to become a knight. However, she doesn’t always have more than one important female character, and her romance plots can be squicky – particularly the quartet that starts with Wild Magic.
- I’ve always considered the Young Wizard series by Diane Duane (starts with So You Want to Be a Wizard?) to be this. They have multiple important female characters, especially as the books go on. They’re on the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, but lean more towards fantasy. There might be magic, but there’s also aliens.
- Seraphina by Rachel Hartman has a really wonderful, half-dragon, female lead. However, there aren’t so many other sympathetic female characters, although that starts to change by the end of the book. It’s set in a city where tension is rising between the humans and the dragons.
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a wonderful retelling of “Cinderella.” The book is a thousand times better than that horrible movie they made out of it.
- All books by Robin McKinley. I’d recommend Sunshine (the best vampire book ever) and The Hero and the Crown, which is about a dragon killing princess. Most of McKinely’s books are YA – Sunshine is the exception, and it’s sometimes shelved as YA. She also has some fairy tale retellings, of which I’ve reviewed Spindle’s End.
- Shannon Hale writes many of these. I’d recommend The Goose Girl, which is a YA retelling of the fairy tale of the same name.
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a YA book set in a fantastical world. Sophie Hatter is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and makes a deal with the wizard Howl’s fire demon to break the spell. The second half is very different from the movie.
- Sabriel by Garth Nix is a second world fantasy about a girl necromancer who has to put the dead to rest.
- Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer is very difficult to describe book, but the heroine’s a musician and the world’s based around medieval Italy. The review has a much longer and better description of what the book’s about.
- Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani is the first in a planned series of novellas all following Hitomi, a street thief with untrained magic.
- Marking Time by April White is a time traveling urban fantasy with a very engaging narrator.
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor is about a twelve year old Nigerian girl who finds out she has magic powers.
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik is an original fairy tale where the heroine has magic powers. I wasn’t happy with the romance situation, but the heroine is not weakened for it.
Female Protagonists in Science Fiction Books:
- God’s War by Kameron Hurley has a wonderful anti heroine in the forms of Nyx, a former government assassin who’s tasked with finding a woman who may be able to end the centuries long holy war raging on her planet.
- On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard is a story of two women on a space station during a far future galactic war.
- Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a haunting story of a time traveler who is stranded in England at the time of the Black Death.
- Boneshaker by Cherrie Priest is a steampunk book set in a zombie filled Seattle.
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is a dystopian book inspired by The Scarlet Letter.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is the quintessential feminist dystopian. It’s about a version of the United States that has been overtaken by a authoritarian theocracy and one woman who is trying to survive in a horrible situation.
- Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel is a space opera dealing with Artificial Intelligence. There are multiple heroines, including Al-Shei, a Muslim woman who runs her own spaceship.
- Afterparty by Daryl Gregory is a techno-thriller about smart drugs. The protagonist is lesbian.
- On a Red Station Drifting is a very well written space opera novella with two female leads.
- Dawn by Octavia Butler is is the story of a woman who wakes up in an alien spaceship centuries after the Earth is largely destroyed by a nuclear war.
- Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang is an action packed, speculative fiction thriller. The anti-heroine protagonist has special abilities based on math.
Female Protagonists in YA Science Fiction Books:
- Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a wonderful YA steampunk book, with a brave heroine as one of the two protagonists. The other major female character in the first book is an adult scientist – this being a YA book, the teenagers don’t interact or confide to closely with her. Another teen-aged heroine shows up in the second book, Behemoth. Also note that the Deryn, the main heroine, is disguised as a boy so she can join the air force for the majority of all three books.
- The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is a YA book set in the future about a teenage girl who awakes from a car accident with no memory of who she is.
- Orleans by Sherri L. Smith is a YA dystopian set in the wreckage of New Orleans. I didn’t care for the book as much as I thought I would, but it’s one of the few YA stories I’ve seen where the heroine doesn’t have a love interest.
- Ultraviolet and Quicksilver by R.J. Anderson are science fiction set on contemporary earth.
- The Temple at Landfall by Jane Fletcher. kediamond: “set in an all-female, all-lesbian world”
- “Speculative Fiction that Passes the Bechdel Test” (Goodreads list)
- “Best Sci Fi Books with Female Main Characters” (Goodreads list)
- “Best Sci-fi/Fantasy Books About Female Friendship” (Goodreads list)
- “Speculative Fiction Heroines Who Are 40+” (Goodreads list)
- Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Utopia (website)
- “Old(er) Women in SF/F” (list)
I’ve also seen a number of comments on how women don’t write fantasy or science fiction, or some particular subgenre in question. If you’ve come to this page looking for female authors, not protagonists, try this gigantic ranked list of female authored fantasy and science fiction novels. Or this list of 100 must read female SFF authors.