Anyone who has taken a gander at my website will probably have guessed by now that I do love my fantasy fiction. And you know what else I love? Girls who kick ass and take center stage in epic adventures. This list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s pretty much a personal one. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments for any great books I’ve missed out with great female characters in the lead role!
1.) Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones
This entry won’t surprise anyone who knows me. Dianna Wynne Jones is one of my all-time favourite writers and Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my all-time favourite books – mainly because I love Sophie utterly to bits.
Sophie Hatter is a plain, quite mousey timid girl whose life gets turned upside down when she accidentally challenges the witch of the waste. What I like best about Sophie is that she’s not necessarily a very obvious heroine – yes she’s mousey and has a handsome man fall in love with her, which seems to be the standard set-up for most YA stories/romantic comedies/etc. and yet Sophie’s story is very different from all of that. For a start – she’s an old woman for most of the story, which means that for most of the story it isn’t like she’s all pretty but just doesn’t know it – she’s actually an old woman. I like how becoming an old woman actually liberates Sophie because she feels like she has nothing left to lose and everything to gain by becoming more assertive and forward, and best of all I like the fact that Sophie’s heroism is so understated. She doesn’t brandish a sword or physically kick-ass – and even when she’s at her most dramatic, nobly stepping aside so that Howl can be with Ms. Angorian because she believes it will make him happy she does it in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s easy to forget just how much she sacrifices in that moment. She’s extraordinarily brave and at the end of the day she is the one to save both Howl and Calcifer.
2.) The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle
I’ve probably said all that can be said about Kate and The Hollow Kingdom in my epically long review here – but to sum up: Kate is a clever and brave protagonist who looks out for her sister and regularly outsmarts the Goblin king. She resists all attempts by her vile uncle and by the Goblin King himself to remove her of her own agency and for all of these things I find her to be a very heroic character. (The less said about the two sequels, the better. I absolutely adored this book and couldn’t believe how disappointing Close Kin and In the Coils of the Snake were.)
3.) Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Our first sword-wielding heroine on the list! And also a Katherine. Apparently Kate is a very popular name for girl’s populating fantasy worlds. Anyway, Kate is on my list because aside from being a sword-wielding badass she also matures a ridiculous amount throughout the course of the story, in more ways than one. I also like that contrary to actually quite a few of the other stories here, Katherine doesn’t have a clear love-interest per se, [spoilers] and when she does end up sleeping with Marcus it’s not made out to be like this massive deal. She just did something she enjoyed and felt right doing at the time and that was that. Which I think needs to be done a lot more in YA. Seriously, people make sex out to be like this momentous, terrifying world-changing thing and in a way it is, but once you’ve actually had sex you kind of realise that all in all, it’s not nearly as world-changing as you thought it would be and that you’re very much the same person you were before. If we didn’t make such a big deal out of it all the time it wouldn’t cause nearly so much anxiety for so many girls (myself included, back in the day). [End spoilers] Also yey for LGBTQ representation!
4.) Tithe (Modern Faerie Trilogy) by Holly Black
If you like creepy faery-lore and you like urban fantasy you should go out and get this book now. Tithe tells the story of Kaye, who has always been able to see faeries since she was little, her discovery that she’s actually a changeling and how she ends up embroiled in a political plot between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Anyway, what I like about Kaye is that she’s flawed, but she’ll always call others (and herself) out on their bullshit. Also more LGBTQ representation!
5.) The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip
Changeling Sea is a nautical fairytale, of course I’d adore it. Peri grew up by the sea, and has always resented it for taking away her father and driving her mother into deep depression. Little does she know that she’s about to become much more familiar with the sea-folk and it’s denizens, including a pair of mistaken princes. Peri is resilient, curious and brave – though I remain unconvinced by the love story.
6.) Matilda by Road Dahl
I’m including Matilda on the fantasy list because of her telekinesis – and also just generally because how awesome is Matilda and how much did I want to be Matilda as a kid? (Answer: a lot). She’s crazy-smart, she loves books and she stands up for herself – even against bigger foes like her parents and Miss Trunchbull. What’s not to love?
7.) The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
It was honestly a very long time ago since I read this book, but I do remember liking it and Aerin (the heroine) does fight a lot of prejudices to go on and become a sword-wielding dragon-slayer. ‘Nuff said.
8.) Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Fire and Hemlock is a modern re-telling of Tam Lin, and true to legend it is the up to the heroine (in this case Polly) to save her beloved Tam Lin from the clutches of the Faerie Queen and her court. As with anything involving faeries, it isn’t enough just to be brave – you also have to be cunning, because outwitting them is your only means of survival and Polly does just that; despite a whole host of other real-world issues such as a disintegrating family life and the fact that the faerie-folk have messed around considerably with her memory. Interesting FYI about this book, DWJ was very conscious that while she wanted a female heroine she didn’t just want to write a girl into a traditional “boy’s” part. And this is why DWJ is awesome. Because strong female characters are well-rounded and defy stock-character-types and tropes.
9.) The Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones
There’s a lot of Dianna Wynne Jones on this list. I feel like some of her lesser-known work needs more love, and just generally I love her stories. The Dalemark Quartet was my favourite for the longest time – the story covers different time periods and spans four books with a rich cast of characters, a believable country and landscape that (unlike some fantasy novels) has all the political and cultural complexities of a real country; and a pantheon of gods that are every bit as fascinating and multi-faceted as the pantheons that exist in the real world. I think what I also like about Dianna Wynne Jones is that she doesn’t shy away from unlikeable characters – like actual people they always have a sympathetic side, it’s true, but she never falls into the trap of giving them some sort of “redemption” and they’re all the more realistic for it. Notable heroines include: Tanaqui and Maewen.
10.) Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marilier
Set in Transylvania and based largely off the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Wildwood Dancing tells the tale of a girl called Jena and her four sisters. While their father is away, he has left his estate in the care of his two eldest daughters – but when her father unexpectedly dies, their uncle steps in and relieves the girls of their responsibility, deeming them unfit to manage their own estate. Intrigues occur when the balance between the villagers, the creatures of the woods and the creatures of the night is disturbed. Basically this is an adventure involving Transylvanian legends, faeries and vampires, a talking frog and the awkwardest (read: cute) budding love-story ever.
And that’s it! My top ten. I realise there are some massive gaps, like I’m sure a few of you will cry “but how about Hermione?” (alas, she isn’t the main character of the story) or “where’s Lyra?” (alas, I’ve never read His Dark Materials – blasphemy, I know. But you want to know what’s funny? I’ve read every single other of Phillip Pullman’s novels. No joke.) All I can say is once again that this is quite a personal top-ten (also limited by what I actually remember – most of these I’ve read in the last couple of years, with only a few exceptions). Honourable mention goes to Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy, that I actually really love and find fantastically creepy but refrained from putting on this list because if I were to be honest I find the girls very dislikeable. This isn’t always a bad thing, but in this case I also found the friendship between the girls hard to believe – they’re almost always absolutely vile to each other, I find it hard to see why they’d bother remaining friends.
Also: Twilight will never be on this list. That is all.