The best 20th century fantasy books centering on powerful women

Deby Fredericks Author Of Minstrels of Skaythe: A Three Novella Collection
By Deby Fredericks

Who am I?

The books I recommend here have inspired me and shaped my work. You see, I have always been a writer, but for a long time I viewed it as just a hobby. I did a lot of fan writing (Pern, especially) that allowed me to follow my heart and just have fun writing. My current work questions some of the underlying assumptions in fantasy. Must every problem be solved at the point of a sword? Does magical power always corrupt? And is it truly possible for evildoers to be redeemed? I hope you'll visit my land of Skaythe and find it as magical as Estcarp, Earthsea, and Eld Mountain!

I wrote...

Minstrels of Skaythe: A Three Novella Collection

By Deby Fredericks, Tithi Luadthong (illustrator),

Book cover of Minstrels of Skaythe: A Three Novella Collection

What is my book about?

Mages vs. Amazons vs. Giant Badgers vs. Tyranny! 

Zathi's job is to capture renegade mages, but Keilos isn't like any other mage she's dealt with. Her drive to bring him in only leads them deeper into a cursed forest. Together, warrior and mage will face deadly beasts and grapple with decisions that compromise every principle. Until they stumble upon a place of ancient, forgotten magic. Zathi must choose—allow Keilos to claim it, or kill him once and for all.

The books I picked & why

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Witch World

By Andre Norton, Harry Bennett (illustrator),

Book cover of Witch World

Why this book?

As a young girl reading this book, I was gripped by the idea of women having rulership. Women's Lib was going on then, but girls like me simply weren't encouraged to take leadership roles.  

The viewpoint character is an Earth man who comes through a portal into the land of Estcarp. There he learns to respect the magical power of his witch companion, whose training forbids him to even know her name. They are joined by two warriors, a young woman in disguise and a hunchback exiled because of his disability. Together the four thwart an incursion by creepy technological invaders. 

Andre Norton often pushed boundaries by including disadvantaged groups in her fiction. Her distinctive voice, objective and yet powerful, inspired and shaped my own fiction.


By Anne McCaffrey,

Book cover of Dragonflight

Why this book?

Dragonflight is the first in the Dragonriders of Pern series, and the main character, Lessa, is one of my all-time favorites. She endures terrible losses, but survives through guile and grim determination. Her psychic gifts allow her to exact revenge, but then the dragonriders she manipulated invite her to become one of them. Lessa has to put aside her own goals for the sake of all Pern. 

Lessa's psychic abilities were de-emphasized in the later books of the series, and that always disappointed me. That's why this opening novel remains my favorite.

The Tombs of Atuan

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Tombs of Atuan

Why this book?

I encountered this book in the library, where I was trying to avoid a harassing classmate. Arha is the Eaten One, believed to be the reincarnation of a dark priestess. As a child she was taken from her family and dedicated to the service of the nameless gods who dwell in a subterranean labyrinth. Trapped in a round of obscure rituals, Arha discovers an intruder in the maze. She must defy a group of rival priestesses in order to escape with him.  

The setting of this book just blew me away. It is a world of darkness, where Arha moves by touch and memorization, inches from death if she takes a wrong step. The Tombs of Atuan is second in the Earthsea series, but for me it will always be the most distinct.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

By Patricia A. McKillip,

Book cover of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Why this book?

How should I describe the voice of Patricia McKillip? Her words are meticulously chosen to show an opulent and fantastical world. I have sometimes tried to imitate her, but I just can't keep it up for long.  

In this stand-alone novel, the witch Sybel lives alone on Eld Mountain. She has inherited or captured and tamed a handful of incredible, magical beasts. These are all the company she needs, until she is asked to care for a king's lost heir. Soon she is no longer able to remain aloof from the world. 

In subsequent readings, I've been struck by Sybel's frustration that people won't leave her out of their drama. They think she owes them her time and attention. Can't we all relate to that?

The Ladies of Mandrigyn

By Barbara Hambly,

Book cover of The Ladies of Mandrigyn

Why this book?

Barbara Hambly brings us rousing adventures that unexpectedly go into dark places. I love how she sets up the premise of hapless females begging for help, and then shows us they aren't so helpless after all.  

The viewpoint character is a mercenary captain, coerced by poison into training a band of misfit females who are determined to save their families from an evil wizard. Unbeknownst even to him, Sunwolf is developing magic of his own. It's great fun to watch the partnership grow out of an adversarial relationship between the scrappy women and the mercenary who finds himself suddenly vulnerable.

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