The best SFF books with complex heroines

Susie Williamson Author Of Return of the Mantra (Blood Gift Chronicles)
By Susie Williamson

Who am I?

I adore the SFF genre for its scope of limitless creativity. In particular, I look to both read and write books that incorporate contemporary issues, represent marginalised sections of society, challenge stereotypes, and generally make you think – themes that don’t shy away from tough topics, while interspersed in plenty of colour. In my own epic fantasy series, Blood Gift Chronicles, themes include wildlife and the environment, social justice and marginalisation, magic, animism, and dragons. I have a definite soft spot for complex women and girl protagonists and am excited by the range of voices coming through in the genre. I hope you enjoy my recommendations as much as I have.

I wrote...

Return of the Mantra (Blood Gift Chronicles)

By Susie Williamson,

Book cover of Return of the Mantra (Blood Gift Chronicles)

What is my book about?

16-year-old Suni has always known she is different. She and her mother, Mata, live a secretive life on the edge of society, hidden from the tyrant King and his autocratic rule. Her father abandoned them to work in the King’s crystal mines. In a land ravaged by drought, where the natural world is forsaken for profit, Mata follows the old ways of the Mantra, which the King has outlawed. When tragedy strikes, Suni is cut adrift. She sets off to find her father. Will she also find the destiny Mata wanted for her?

This award-winning, character-driven fantasy adventure chronicles Suni’s search for justice and her own identity, as she finds herself at the centre of a desperate bid to save her homeland.

The books I picked & why

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Who Fears Death

By Nnedi Okorafor,

Book cover of Who Fears Death

Why this book?

Who Fears Death is one of my all-time favourite fantasy novels. Set in post-apocalyptic Sudan, this novel brings voices to the genre that are seldom heard. The story follows a girl called Onye, a child born of violence. I adored her from the first. Gifted with powers to change into any creature of her choosing, the power to heal, even the power to bring life back from death, she is loyal, flawed, and courageous, with fierce determination capable of immense love as well as focused revenge. Onyeneswu (translates to Who Fears Death), is most at home in the desert wilderness. I can still hear the sound of her singing voice communing with the desert.

The Tombs of Atuan

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Tombs of Atuan

Why this book?

The Tombs of Atuan is a wonderfully haunting and deeply memorable tale. The story follows a girl called Tenar, born into servitude to the Nameless Ones, destined to live out her days in a dark underground world; she is the epitome of self-reliant. When she first meets the wizard Ged, she thinks he is a thief. But instead of leaving him to die, as she should do, she starts to consider the world outside, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe. The truth shatters everything she thought she knew. Tenar leaves behind everything that is safe and familiar, to step into the complete unknown. It’s such a wonderfully understated example of courage: choosing truth over the lie.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

By Rivers Soloman,

Book cover of An Unkindness of Ghosts

Why this book?

This is an astonishing read, set on a generation ship ferrying the last of humanity through space to a mythical Promised Land. In a society organised like the antebellum South, the story follows our remarkable heroine, Aster. She is flawed, self-effacing, astonishingly courageous, with a huge heart and fierce hope despite what seems like hopeless odds. It’s a story of survival against the brutal reality of slavery, a journey of hope, and an enormous lesson in working with what you’ve got, never giving up, and appreciating that there are always choices to be found. Resourceful Aster never stops fighting, while taking care of those in need along the way. Awe-inspiring.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

By Patricia A. McKillip,

Book cover of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Why this book?

This is a magical read, following the story of Sybel, a woman raised on Eld Mountain among a fantastic menagerie called there by wizardry. At home with a swan, a dragon, a lion, and a boar, we see her wild nature reflected. She cares nothing for humans until a child, Tamlorn, is unexpectedly left in her care. She grows to be a flawed, self-critical, compassionate, and brave woman, who despite choosing to live alone in the wild, does her best to care for the boy. It’s an encounter that brings her into the world of men, where revenge becomes her motive. Her personal journey feels like a refreshing portrayal and reveals what it is to love, to betray, to be misunderstood, to let go, and ultimately to face yourself.

Ivory's Story

By Eugen Bacon,

Book cover of Ivory's Story

Why this book?

Ivory Tembo is a wonderfully dynamic character, brought to life with sensitivity and fascinating insight. The story is set in modern-day Sydney where a killer stalks the night, with Ivory Tembo the officer investigating the brutal murders. Extraordinary character development unfolds in just a few pages, from Ivory’s fractured youth growing up in foster care, to an emotionally vulnerable young woman, to her present-day tough, determined persona that serves her well as a detective. Forced to delve into her heritage, she is supported by a vibrant cast who bring folktale to life. With the help of a medicine woman, the mystery ventures into the supernatural, taking Ivory on an instinctive journey to unify two worlds.

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