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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Why did I love 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).

By N. K. Jemisin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

After her mother's mysterious death, a young woman is summoned to the floating city of Sky in order to claim a royal inheritance she never knew existed in the first book in this award-winning fantasy trilogy from the NYT bestselling author of The Fifth Season.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into…

A Crown for Cold Silver

By Alex Marshall,

Book cover of A Crown for Cold Silver

Why did I love 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 Alex Marshall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Crown for Cold Silver as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For fans of Joe Abercrombie, Robert E. Howard and Scott Lynch comes a diverse and action-packed tale of a warrior out for revenge, from a bold new voice in the fantasy genre. Readers will fall in love with the Red Sonja-like Zosia and her Five Villains. Kameron Hurley says 'an epic fantasy that will surprise you . . . if you think you know what's coming, think again.'

Cold Cobalt, the Banshee with a Blade, First Among Villains . . .
When there were no more titles to win and no more worlds to conquer, the warrior queen Zosia faked…


By Kristin Cashore,

Book cover of Graceling

Why did I love 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.

By Kristin Cashore,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Graceling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover the Graceling Realm in this unforgettable, award-winning novel from bestselling author Kristin Cashore.

A New York Times bestseller
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature Winner
Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal,Booklist, and BCCB Best Book of the Year

"Rageful, exhilarating, wistful in turns" (The New York Times Book Review) with "a knee weakening romance" (LA Times). Graceling is a thrilling, action-packed fantasy adventure that will resonate deeply with anyone trying to find their way in the world.

Graceling tells the story of the vulnerable-yet-strong Katsa, who is smart and beautiful and lives in the…

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir,

Book cover of Gideon the Ninth

Why did I love 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.)

By Tamsyn Muir,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Gideon the Ninth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

15+ pages of new, original content, including a glossary of terms, in-universe writings, and more!

A USA Today Best-Selling Novel!

"Unlike anything I've ever read. " --V.E. Schwab

"Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!" --Charles Stross

"Brilliantly original, messy and weird straight through." --NPR

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth, first in The Locked Tomb Trilogy, unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as…

Best Served Cold

By Joe Abercrombie,

Book cover of Best Served Cold

Why did I love 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.

By Joe Abercrombie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Best Served Cold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso's employ, it's a damn good way of making money too. Her victories…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in revenge, gods and goddesses, and magic-supernatural?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about revenge, gods and goddesses, and magic-supernatural.

Revenge Explore 99 books about revenge
Gods And Goddesses Explore 35 books about gods and goddesses
Magic-Supernatural Explore 551 books about magic-supernatural