Growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the United States was equal parts terrifying and mystical. The new country, language, food, and culture was hard to understand, so, as a young girl, I often turned to fantasy novels to escape. I loved the magic and wonder and fun of discovering new worlds and powers one book at a time.
It wasn’t until middle school that I realized that it was always men and boys going off on adventures and saving the world. Unfortunately, almost none of the fantasy books I loved growing up had female protagonists, let alone ones that looked like me or shared my culture.
Now as an adult, that disparity has driven me to seek out and try to focus my reading on female-led fantasy books and to also finally write my own fantasy novel featuring a kick-ass Black woman! Until that’s finished and published, I’ve rounded up classic reads, recent favorites, and some new fantasy books I’m looking forward to reading (not in any particular order) featuring amazing, flawed, kick-ass women. So grab any of them, a nice fruity drink (with whiskey), kick back, and enjoy!
A Great and Terrible Beauty
Even though I read this book almost a lifetime ago, I still remember the beautiful imagery and prose. Set in 1895, this gothic fantasy book is about a lonely girl, plagued with visions that keep coming true, who is shipped off to boarding school after her mother’s suicide. The book builds slowly but unveils itself beautifully at the end, and the good news is that it’s a trilogy!
I remember exactly where I was when I first read this book: sitting cross-legged on the floor of one of the isles of my favorite bookstores in Seattle. I was obsessed. By the time I got home, I was almost half-way through the book. Sentenced to die, Yelena decides to take the offer to be the commander’s food taster. She is fed a poison that insures that she would show up every day to work to receive the antidote. But the biggest danger to her life might be the magic she can’t control. This book has great character development, magnetic romance, and—most importantly—magic!
This classic book is dark, spicy, and bloody. First of a long series, it introduces Anita Blake, an animator who also moonlights as a supernatural investigator, and her journey to discover that not everything about the supernatural is black and white. This book—and series—is perfect for anyone who enjoys a bit of horror, gore, and sexy romance all in one package.
This book (and the following series) usually tops the list for anyone looking to get into the urban-fantasy genre. An easy read with a fun and hardworking protagonist, I definitely recommend this for anyone looking to explore the genre. Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a Volkswagen mechanic with the power to shift into a coyote, and an even greater power to get into all sorts of trouble with creatures that go bump in the night.
Alanna: The First Adventure
For many people who love fantasy, adventure, and girl-knights, this was the book that kick-started that love. Originally published in the '80s and written for a younger audience, this book inspired countless women to defy the limitations of our genders and chase our wildest dreams.
A Court of Throne and Roses
Sarah J. Maas really made a name for herself with this series and her famed Throne of Glass series, which I have put high on my list to read. Unexpected with twists, romance, and world-building, you are in for quite a ride. When Feyre is captured and taken across the wall to the land of the faerie, she is expecting all the things people said about them to be true. What she discovers is that they are more beautiful and more dangerous than she could ever imagine.
One of my favorite urban-fantasy series of all time, the Kate Daniels series is full of the best combination of world-building: an amazing protagonist who stabs first and questions later, a high-stakes plot, tension-filled romantic interests, and that special spark that makes fantasy books addictive. Set in a world impacted by a magical apocalypse, Kate Daniels battles the supernatural of Atlanta while trying to hide her true nature from being discovered.
This was one of the first books I ever read by Tamora Pierce. I didn’t know about her other books, but I picked it up randomly from the shelf and found myself finishing it the next day! Trickster’s Choice follows the daughter of Alanna on her own adventure after she is kidnapped and sold as a slave to an exiled royal family. She finds that she’ll need every bit of training she learned from her father to survive feuding gods and political intrigue.
Children of Blood and Bone
I was so excited to read this book when I first heard about it. This debut novel is a beautifully written, original, Afro-centric tale about a young woman on a mission to bring back magic to help her people overthrow a ruthless king, all while fighting her growing feelings for that king’s son. The ending will have you reading at the edge of your bed, but the good news is that the second book came out last December!
The Fifth Season
This book has been on my list for a while and I’m so excited to finally have time to read it soon! It won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel, the 2015 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel, and so many others! It’s about Essun, an ordinary woman who finds out that her husband murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. She has to battle through a land that’s dying and a mounting war, but she’ll do anything to save her daughter.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
I love Chinese folktales and mythology! A lot of popular fantasy books are usually focused on Western storytelling tropes and conventions, but there is so much to explore and love outside of that. This story is about a young woman sent off for a political marriage and her rise to power.
Certain Dark Things
My last recommendation is a horror-fantasy-vampire novel set in Mexico City. Domingo, an orphaned trash collector, is swept into the world of the Aztec blood drinkers by the beautiful and dangerous Atl. This book has narco-vampires—what’s not to love?