The best books with an unforgettable woman

Who am I?

I have always had a thing for strong female characters – I sought them in the books I read, and I created them in the worlds I wrote about in my own turn (my Secrets of Jin Shei was memorably described by a literary critic as “feminist fantasy”). Women who exist only so that their suffering and/or death can serve to push the (male) protagonist along in a novel’s plot have always been a personal bugbear – thus, when I find books about strong women who control their own destinies, I devour them. There are, of course, more than the five on this list. I strongly encourage all readers to seek them out.

I wrote...

The Second Star

By Alma Alexander,

Book cover of The Second Star

What is my book about?

Six crew members went out on the Parada, Earth’s first starship, lost for almost two hundred years. When the Parada’s successor found the drifting ship and somehow managed to bring it home, the six crew members were not only still alive but barely older, due to the time dilation effects of near-FTL travel. Their return was a miracle – but there was a problem. Six individuals went out to the stars. More than seventy fractured personalities returned.

Psychologist Stella Froud and Jesuit Father Philip Carter were recruited as part of the team assembled to investigate the mystery, and to try and help understand the crew’s condition and possibly reverse it. Very soon they found themselves forced to take sides in a conflict that nobody could have possibly predicted. Their world would never be the same again.

The Books I Picked & Why

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By Guy Gavriel Kay,

Book cover of Tigana

Why this book?

Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy books – ALL of them – are worth your time – the man is a word wizard and he creates astonishingly “alive” worlds which never really existed. I could pick any one of them – but I choose Tigana which I tend to proselytize for as the Best. Book. EVER. And part of the reason for that is the utterly unforgettable character of Dianora – wounded, noble, vulnerable, fragile, strong, driven, proud, tragic, complex, HUMAN. If there was nothing else of note in this book it would be worth reading for her alone. And if he wrote not another word in his lifetime, Guy Gavriel Kay is going to literary heaven for creating this woman and her world.

Here Be Dragons

By Sharon Kay Penman,

Book cover of Here Be Dragons

Why this book?

The first book in her Welsh trilogy, involving the two fabled Llewellyns of Wales, Here Be Dragons brings the medieval world to vivid trembling life – and it is an achievement all the greater because it was a time when women (aside from the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine and a bare handful like her) were largely historical footnotes. The female protagonist of this particular novel (and I will not elaborate further here on this but there are others like her in the books that follow) is Joanna, the daughter of King John (the hapless brother of the Lionheart). Against a glittering medieval backdrop that is rich enough to be fantasy but is actually real and meticulously rendered history, this princess, who is (like all of her kind) really a royal pawn in the game of thrones is handed off in marriage to cement a royal alliance… and finds an unlooked-for world which she can come of age in. You might fall in love with Llewellyn, as she did – but before you do THAT you will fall in love with her, because she is an incredible literary creation. (oh, and then go and read all the other Plantagenet books by Penman, in order. You’ll thank me.)

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

By Marie Brennan,

Book cover of A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

Why this book?

This is the first of a series of novels subtitled The memoirs of Lady Trent – an ongoing account of a lady scientist in a pseudo-Victorian setting, steampunk-ish but also full of sailing ships and monsters and voyages of breathtaking scientific research into massively improbable things, with a heroine who is implacably determined to prove that she is every bit as good a scientist as the sniffy male contingent who refuse to accept her natural abilities and fierce intelligence and keep circling the wagons against her – because – oh my god – a WOMAN!!! Marie Brennan is always a writer to bet on, and these books (starting with A Natural History of Dragons, but there are five volumes in this series, enough to keep you busy for a while…) are well written, have a pertinent message without being preachy about it, and are a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.


By Catherynne M. Valente,

Book cover of Deathless

Why this book?

Catherynne Valente is another of those writers whose books you can safely buy sight unseen because you just KNOW that you will get value for your money. I chose Deathless for this list because it is the story of Koschei the Deathless… through the person of Marya Morevna, the woman who is his bride and his undoing. In this re-telling of the Russian fairy tale, which is told through “modern” times and can be both harrowing and bitterly amusing in turn, Valente accomplishes what has been described as “a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death” – it is a story you will not easily forget, and Marya Morevna is the kind of heroine who will find a permanent place in your heart and your memory. Highly recommended.

Kristin Lavransdatter

By Sigrid Undsett,

Book cover of Kristin Lavransdatter

Why this book?

This is an older book, and as such the tone and style of it might be a chore to some of the more modern readers – but Undsett is a Nobel Prize winner in Literature for a reason, and for me, the rich historical setting of the Norway of Middle Ages and Kristin herself, the eponymous heroine of the novel, are more than enough. I first read this book when I was very young and it had a deep impact on me even then – and I’ve returned for occasional re-reads in the years that followed that first encounter, finding myself just as easily lost in Kristin’s story. If you like family sagas, if you like stories of choices made and paths taken (and not taken) and a woman who shaped that family through a willfulness that sometimes leads her astray, innocent youthful errors which then shape her entire destiny, and the strength with which she lives the life she is given, then this is very much worth a visit, and then a re-visit, and then a return… it’s one of those books that has lasting value for me, and has since I was not yet a teenager (which was when I first encountered it). Take it with a pinch of salt, if you must, if your tastes run to more “modern” stuff – but take it, anyway. It’s a treasure.

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