The best fantasy books led by brutal female characters

Who am I?

I hesitate to call myself an expert on anything, except perhaps how to eat too many Pringles and Twizzlers while trying to plot a novel. But if there’s anything else that I’ve spent my life devoted to, it’s the idea that “strong female characters” don’t all fall into one category or another. Give me a world populated by both Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper. Give me smart and calculating and deadly force. Give me brutality in all its forms, because men don’t hold a monopoly on viciousness. For a very long time, the heroines we got were Susan Pevensie and Eowyn, accidental sweethearts in a beautiful gown – and I love those characters, too. But frankly, I’m all for wearing that gorgeous dress while you disembowel your enemies and take over the kingdom from your evil step-uncle.

I wrote...

The Queen Underneath

By Stacey Filak,

Book cover of The Queen Underneath

What is my book about?

The Queen Underneath tells the story of the city-state of Yigris, purposefully divided into two sects – Above and Under. Under, home to thieves, assassins, sex workers, and pirates, has long taken care of the people of Yigris, while Above, populated by nobles and merchants, has ignored them. But there’s no chance that they can ignore what’s coming when the leaders of both factions die under suspicious circumstances on the same day.

Gemma wasn’t born to rule, but she’s trained for it her whole life. Tollan was born to be king, but he’s in way over his head. Together with an unlikely band of friends, they’ll do what it takes to save Yigris. Or die trying.

The books I picked & why

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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

By N.K. Jemisin,

Book cover of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Why this book?

Jemisin has *absolutely deservedly* gotten a lot of attention in recent years for her Broken Earth Trilogy, even being called “the most celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer of her generation” by the New York Times, but my favorite book of hers is still her debut. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tells the story of Yeine, a young woman trying to make her way in the confusing political landscape of Sky, who stumbles upon the plots of both gods and man.

Throughout the story, Yeine comes into her own, and in doing so, finds the sharp-edged brutality that she will need to survive. Mixing Game of Thrones level political weavings with Kushiel’s sexiness, Jemisin sets the pages on fire. Yeine is violent when she needs to be, brutal when she has to be, and this story can live in my head rent-free for an eternity, if it wants to. (I’d also recommend the other two books in the Inheritance Trilogy. Still spicy, still brutal, still totally awe-inspiring).

A Crown for Cold Silver

By Alex Marshall,

Book cover of A Crown for Cold Silver

Why this book?

There is not a thing about this book that I don’t love. Marshall (a pseudonym for Jesse Bullington) tells the story of Zosia – Cold Cobalt, The Banshee with a Blade, First Villain – who is just a few steps past her prime. Twenty-some years have passed since she led her notorious band of generals – The Five Villains – in a war that put her on the throne. A throne she walked away from. She was done with it all, until fate and mistake shatter her retirement, drawing her back into the world and war. Marshall does some really cool things with gender norms, looks aging right in the face with an unvarnished mirror, and gives readers a cold religion, bug-drugs, and all the violence you could want. But he also gives readers the sort of anti-heroes that you can’t help but cheer for, a cast of minor and major characters that each have amazing story archs, and so many brutal women that I can’t begin to count them all. Every book in the trilogy only helps to build on the Legend of Cold Cobalt, and I will turn to these books time and again for a fix, much like Muroto tuns to the stinghouse.


By Kristin Cashore,

Book cover of Graceling

Why this book?

Firmly in the YA camp, Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman in a world where some people develop magical abilities, called Graces. The gracelings – those who have these gifts – have only one superpower, sometimes innocuous, like being able to count exactly how many of something there is in a heartbeat, and sometimes less so. Katsa is very firmly part of the less so group, graced with the ability to kill. Graceling is partly a story of discrimination and abuse, partly the story of a girl finding romance, and partly the story of resistance in the face of seemingly unbeatable odds. While Graceling features a mostly male cast of characters, Katsa shines as a violent, often angry, often scared female character. Cashore does a lot of really great things with female characters throughout her Graceling series, including addressing the always secretive menstruation in FIRE, but Katsa remains my favorite of her brutal women.

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsin Muir,

Book cover of Gideon the Ninth

Why this book?

There is so much to love about this book. Necromancy! Humor! Death cult nuns! Enemies to Lovers to… well, no spoilers, but it’s got it all. Gideon has been raised in indentured servitude on the planet of the Ninth House, and she is really pretty sick of it. She makes a plan to take her sword and her dirty magazines and get the hell out of dodge, but Harrowhark Nonagesimus, heir to the Ninth House and Gideon’s least favorite person has different ideas. She needs Gideon to go with her to answer the Emperor’s call, to battle it out as her cavalier with the other houses in hopes of winning Harrow’s immortality as a Lychtor. Mayhem, mystery, and murder follow, along with Gideon’s trademark sexuality and humor, creating a fantastic, super-smart blend that will leave you wanting more. (And good news, there is more! Harrow The Ninth is available when your thirst for bloody violence isn’t yet quenched.)

Best Served Cold

By Joe Abercrombie,

Book cover of Best Served Cold

Why this book?

It was really hard for me to choose which of Abercrombie’s books I’d suggest, since all of his female characters – scratch that – all of his characters in general, no matter their gender, are pretty brutal and violent. But Best Served Cold gives us the story of Monzcarro Murcatto, the Snake of Talins. I don’t know if I can sum it up any better than Sajaam does, when he says to Monza, “You were a hero round these parts. That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short,” but I’ll try.

Monza wins the war for Grand Duke Orso, garnering herself acclaim and wealth, and Orso’s fear that she’s become more popular than he is. So, like all good leaders, he throws her down the side of a mountain… And like all great and brutal protagonists, Monza survives to come after him. Fueled by rage and her undying need for revenge, she destroys half the country to achieve her goals, and in doing so, puts together a band of unlikely comrades, all joined in their collective murder skills. It’s hard to like Monza. In fact, it’s hard to like most of Abercrombie’s characters. But the First Law World has me by the scruff like a terrier with a rat. I’ll read anything the man writes, because you can be sure it’ll be brutal, it’ll be bloody, it’ll have moments of sublime humor, and he knows how to write a philosophical barbarian like nobody else.

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