Best Strong Female Heroine Fantasy Books

Top Strong Female Heroine Fantasy Books
Best Strong Female Heroine Fantasy Books |

Whenever friends lament that there are no strong, realistic female leads in fantasy literature; I am astounded. Not that I'm surprised that there is a prolific amount of novels in which women are solely there to seduce, be saved, or be stupid; I've definitely seen my fair share of that. To me, that's not just a mark of sexism, but of poor writing.

Characters in any book worth its salt are diverse and complicated, regardless of gender. The great thing about well-written fiction is that even a children's book can be enjoyable and full of meaning to adults when the author crafts something that draws you in and shows you the world in a whole new way with rich language and characters.

I have been lucky enough to read a ton of great books from childhood on that feature interesting, intelligent, powerful women of all ages. I'm talking about books where the main character is a kickass woman who drives the action and doesn't need to be saved, doesn't need help from someone who pees standing up to save the world. This isn't literature "for women," these books are fantastic stories period. So here is a list of some of the best out there. 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is listed by Stephen Betts as one of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die in his book of the same name, and I would go a step further. If you read only one comic in your life, read this one. It has received numerous awards since it's first publication, including the Japan Cartoonists Award Grand Prize, has sold over 10 million copies in Japan alone. It was adapted to film by the author himself, then adopted by Disney (so don't worry, it's actually a pretty good interpretation of his work, though much less complex than the original). The story is beautifully illustrated, and a fascinating puzzle to unwind as you discover what is really happening both politically and to their dying planet. Their post-apocalyptic world is being overrun with giant insects, toxic spores, and deadly miasma; oh and the emperor seems to have gone cooky-dukes and is attacking people who've always been peaceful allies. One of the things I love about this graphic novel is the awesome example of noble leadership. We have two strong, courageous, brilliant women who are respected and loved as leaders of their people. One on either side of the conflict. They are excellent military commanders, but are not "men in women's bodies" as some novels like to do. They may shed a tear when children die, or their loyal soldiers sacrifice themselves on their behalf… but it is evidence of their deeply felt convictions. Not conveyed as a weakness, but strength as they fully comprehend the value of the lives they command. They are capable of making tough choices about which sacrifices are necessary for their kingdom, and when such sacrifice is just a waste. Nausicaa's mysterious power is deeply rooted in what could be seen as feminine qualities; a desire to heal, ability communicate, and a passion for finding out the truth.
Brandon Sanderson is well-known for his magic systems, and Mistborn standshigh above the rest. In the Final Empire, ash falls from the sky, mist moves unnaturally through the night, and the Lord Ruler dominates all. Within his society, there are those known as allomancers, able to manipulate the world by consuming and ‘burning’ a metal. There are also those more powerful, with noble blood, who can use all of them in tandem. Mistborn can tear through armies, fly through the night, and manipulate emotions. Vin, a street child, is one of them, and with a group of rebels, plans to tear the empire apart. Joining her is Sayed, a Feruchemicalist who can store properties like physical strength or knowledge in bracelets and draw from them at any time. Unfortunately, the Lord Ruler has his own weapons. Steel inquisitors employ Hemalurgy to gain their own allomantic powers by brutally killing allomancers. All of it ties into a much bigger fight of good and evil, where two gods collide and a prophecy tells of only one who can unite them. When combined with its incredible action scenes and likable characters, Mistborn becomes one the best introductions to fantasy.

Books in Mistborn Series (12)

Paks is one of the earlier examples of a strong, realistic female heroine who appeals to men and women. She becomes a badass paladin in her world of dwarves, elves, and gods when an arranged marriage gives her a nudge out of her farmhouse door to join a mercenary band. She is passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to fight for what's right, discovering her talent as a paladin along the way. She never comes off as pompous or self-righteous, she's just out there fighting for her cause; though she does seem to be a bit of a lightning rod for incredible circumstances. She has her flaws, and doesn't always know what's going on as just a pawn in a larger strategy. Moon writes so vividly and clearly that the world is nearly tangible. If you're not into the trappings of high fantasy (good vs. evil, valiant warrior, evil monsters, etc.) you probably aren't going to dig this one. If you enjoy a heroic ride, realistic combat, magic and harrowing adventures, you probably will.
This collaboration proves that you don't have to wade neck-deep in magic to make a great fantasy. This series showcases the other side of Feist's Riftwar Saga, which is a great read, but pretty standard as far as fantasy lore goes with the typical magician, orphan, dragon, elf, combo. Empire is something entirely different. Set in Asian-inspired Kelewan, we ditch the medieval European landscape for once, and enter a world where Akoma Honor drives the politicking of the ruling class. Mara is the new empress after her father and brother are killed, and learns to navigate these deadly waters with alacrity driven by need. She is one of the most multidimensional and fearless characters I've read, rising from precariously clinging to her title to a truly powerful contender. The synergy between these two masterful authors yields up something richer than either alone. Even seemingly small characters have big ambitions and impact the story in surprising ways. Intrigue, murder, fantastic creatures, fervent love, and battle; Empire is everything that makes fantasy worth reading.

Books in The Empire Series (2)

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Books set in an Asian fantasy landscape are pretty rare. If you liked the sort of mystical Asian landscape portrayed in this series, you might Find Sean Russell's Brother Initiate and Gather of Clouds a good read as well. Guy Gavriel Kay also has a new book, Under Heaven, that's sort of an alternative version of China (with elements of magic to it).

The original "strong heroine" fantasy author, McKinley broke new ground with her work in the 80's. Harry Crewe feels restless, insignificant, invisible. Until kelar, a kind of magical force handed down through the royal bloodline, drives the local Hill King to kidnap her and carry her off to the desert to become Damalur-sol, lady-hero of the Hillfolk. She meets her challenges head-on and with a positive attitude. One of the things I love about this heroine is that for all her unfeminine habits, she is still wonderfully feminine in the ways she responds to her world. She is bold and courageous, and really knows how to use that sword.  The world of Damar is so richly developed, and The Blue Sword really showcases the different cultures by throwing a foreigner from the very British-feeling Outlands into it to experience the disparity. Yes, it's high fantasy with legends to live up to, and destiny to fulfill, and Harry is the ultimate wish fulfillment vessel, but the writing is so engaging, the world is so real, it's just transformative. Which is what landed the Newbery Honor Award, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and ALA Notable Children's Book awards, and why it is still beloved by adults everywhere.

Books in Damar Series (4)

Aerin is shy, clumsy, ugly, and mistrusted by the people she is supposed to rule. She is ridiculed for being the daughter of a witch with none of her witchy powers, and even when she eventually becomes a Dragon-Killer, it is because it is a task that needs doing; the dragons are small and numerous… like rats. It isn't exactly a heroic compliment. Yet her inner strength, her determination and willingness to learn that which does not come easily make her the hero she needs to be. She is tough and proves her worth again, again, and again no matter the obstacles or jeering from the sidelines she endures. While there is romance, it is most definitely on our heroine's terms, and not because she intends to snag him as a way out of her miserable life. It is organic and complex and believable, which is so very lacking in many fantasy novels. Hero and the Crown is still one of the best fantasy novels on the shelves today.

Books in Damar Series (4)

Garth Nix's Sabriel is marketed to the young adult audience but easily appeals to a wider readership. Fantastic world-building paints both the realm of Ancelstierre, and The Old Kingdom, where 'Free magic' reigns. Separated by the wall, its elementals, undead, and sorcerers are unknown to the general population. Sabriel lives in a boarding school in Ancelstierre, widely unaware of magic until a creature appears in her dorm room. In its arms is a message from her father and his bells, one of the few tools that can banish the dead. With a powerful sorceress rising across the wall, she must head back to her father in the Old Kingdom to begin her Abhorsen training. With a simple and incredible unique magic system, memorable characters, and a vibrant world, Sabriel is very hard to dislike. It's a simple coming of age story, a fight between good and evil, and great fun all the way through.

Books in Abhorsen Series (4)

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The Chronicles of Narnia

A classic series kids around the world have grown up reading is The Chronicles of Narnia. While Narnia is very clearly a Christian allegory, it can be enjoyed without reading too deep into the Christian subtext. The writing is decent and it's a great magical adventure for both kids and adults.

Keys to the Kingdom

You should also read Garth Nix's newest series, Keys to the Kingdom, is also a great read, both for the kiddies and adults, one of the better series for kids.


Don't forget to read Jonathan Stroud's very impressive The Bartimaeus Trilogy. It's an action-packed thrill ride about a magician's apprentice who manages to summon a powerful genie (Bartimaeus). Bartimaeus is less than pleased with this turn of events and tries to sabotage his young master at every opportunity. Hilariously funny, at times very dark, with great writing, a great cast of well-developed characters, and an interesting world, Bartimaeus is a must-read series (for both kids and adults).

His Dark Materials

You might want to take a gander at Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. It's uber famous and with good reason.


For a great steampunk fantasy for young adults/kids, read Scott Westerfield's Leviathan. I'm not usually into YA fantasy, but some of the concepts and the action present in the book had me hooked.

Accross the Nightingale Floor

You must read Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. It's a fantasy tale set in a Japanese milieu. It's got all you want in an epic fantasy WITH the addition of samurai's, ninja's, and magic!

Harry Potter

And finally, Harry Potter. I won't bother explaining why. 

Before famous director, Hayao Miyazaki turned Howl's Moving Castle into an animated film, it was an enchanting novel written by Diana Wynn Jones. This novel follows the life a young girl who is destined, as the eldest of three daughters, to fail if she ever pursues success. In a world where the tropes of most modern fairy tales are accepted ways of life, Jones' protagonist, Sophie, must learn to shape her surroundings instead of being shaped by them. Initially, Jones' Howl's Moving Castle appears to be clichéd. Sophie is cursed by an evil witch before stumbling upon a living, breathing castle inhabited by a wizard called Howl, on the outskirts of the magical Kingdom of Ingary. While this narrative may stay true to many classic tropes of the fantasy genre, such as magic witches and talking objects, Jones' novel features a memorable setting, unique characters and a striking plot. The subtle, Victorian prose, similar to that of novels like Jane Austen, allows the reader to establish a vivid and in depth image of each character. Furthermore, the magical Kingdom of Ingary is perfectly developed, with Jones giving just enough information to build a mental picture while still allowing her readers to run their imaginations wild. While Miyazaki's film and Jones' novel follow the same premise, they differ greatly in plot and characterization, making them almost two entirely different stories. If you've enjoyed either version of this tale, you'll likely enjoy the other as well.

Books in Howl’s Moving Castle Series (2)

"Yes! I'm *me*! I am careful and logical and I look up things I don't understand! When I hear people use the wrong words, I get edgy! I am good with cheese. I read books fast! I think! And I always have a piece of string! That's the kind of person I am!"  Tiffany Aching is the heroine I want to be. She's level-headed and practical, basing her conclusions only on evidence, not convention. She wants to be a witch because she wants to know things. That's my kinda girl. The family relationships here are believable and relatable. The pacing and oddball expedition are loads of fun. Pratchet's comical fantasy has charmed generations of readers, and of all his Discworld storytelling, he's been quoted as saying that the Tiffany Aching books are the ones he wants to be remembered for. There are four in the sequence, and in 2016 it was confirmed that his daughter's film adaptation of the book will be developed in association with the Jim Henson company. Wahoo! The books' matures along with our heroine, but even the final volume is firmly in YA territory. That said, there are layers of complexity here for adults to appreciate, especially the humor.

Books in Discworld Series (72)

In a post-apocalyptic rendition of Earth, civilization has returned to medieval technology, and the rightful queen who was hidden away as a child seeks to regain her throne. Johansen attempts several interesting and noteworthy moves in this series, beginning with the remarkably un-pretty heroine. Though she back-pedals on this premise by making her into an ugly duckling scenario later on in the series, it is rare to find anything other than a skinny, pretty woman in a lead role, so kudos for the attempt. She confronts many current social issues throughout the story, including rape, self-harm, and sex trafficking. Kelsea is 19 and struggling to learn who to trust, how to lead, and what kind of queen to become. Johansen's prose is engaging and the pacing keeps you turning pages throughout her journey. Kelsea is strong, even stubborn, and determined to rule with integrity, even when she risks losing her kingdom over it. She is a great role model, but while it's sometimes categorized as YA, readers should know that it contains a lot of swearing, deals quite explicitly with sex, child rape, war violence, and abuse of all kinds. Survivors of abuse have mentioned it should come with a trigger warning on the back cover, sooo… think carefully before recommending it to your 12-year-old niece. Emma Watson was so smitten with this series that she's taken on the task of producing and starring in a film adaptation.

Books in The Queen Of The Tearling Series (1)

Brandon Sanderson proves his expertise in magic once more with Warbreaker, a story of two princesses, separated and each trying to prevent a war. In theShardworld of Nathis, every individual is born with a single breath, similar to a soul, which provides a sixth sense and can be gifted to others. The breath can also be used for BioChromatic magic, which comes in several different forms. Those with multiple Breaths gain ‘heightenings’ like disease resistance, the ability to sense auras, and even agelessness. These all help magic users to gain more breaths over time, which can be used in other ways. Breath allows users to raise the dead, bring objects to life, and more. Use of breath is illegal in the country of Idris, where the princesses were born, creating a fascinating power dynamic and culture differences. Topping it off is Sanderson’s overarching lore that ties many of his novels together. As well as Breaths, Warbreakerhints at use of Stormlight, though in a very different way to what can be found inThe Stormlight Archive. As well as its ingenious action sequences, the magic system propels an overarching threatthat drives an engaging plot.

Books in Warbreaker Series (2)

Paladin of Souls is the only book I know of featuring a middle-aged, retired queen on a pilgrimage, who is chalked up as mad—though personally I think she's just bored and tired of being shoved aside. Ista is everything you need in a hero: complex and powerful in surprising ways. My favorite part of Ista's story is that she's not young and foolish (though her entourage does question her sanity at times). She is sensible resolute, and noble; just haunted. She knows how to get things done, and does it without all the fluttering of a younger heroine. She starts off with no real power or even purpose really, but the power she finds is divine rather than political and her purpose is conquering demons of the very real variety. Bujold has a way of taking an epic fantasy ride, and taking it deeper; making it more personal and significant. It's no wonder this masterpiece has landed Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novel.

Books in World Of The Five Gods Series (2)

A nautical fantasy featuring pirates, dragons, and magic? What's not to love? To top it off, Liveship Traders is filled with fantastic women. Ronica, the widow of the liveship's former captain is independent, resourceful, and instrumental in galvanizing her town in the face of disaster.  Her daughters, Keffria and Althea, and Granddaughter Malta, all have complex paths to walk, some only to be fleshed out in other series. All are interesting and complicated and central to the story. Even the liveship herself is a character, really. The people in this book are so well-fleshed out and grow so much throughout the trilogy; heroes might become villains and vice versa, you just never know where their paths will lead. Rape comes up in this series, but isn't introduced as some sensationalistic device as some male writers tend to do; it's realistic and gritty, but Hobb addresses the very real struggle of how rape is perceived in society, and how victims can go on to rebuild their lives after trauma. ]She weaves an incredible story told from multiple perspectives, creating layers of mystery and adventure. Each time she peels back one layer to reveal one mystery of the liveships, she reveals another. The intertwining of this series with all her others (Farseer, Rainwilds, The Elderlings) is just masterful and leaves no ends loose or without purpose.

Books in Liveship Traders Series (2)

By the Sword is full of kickass women. Kerowyn is the granddaughter of the sorceress Kethry, daughter of a noble house, runs the family keep, loves hunting and training horses. Unfortunate events launch her into a career as a mercenary, aided by Kethry, who introduces her to her magical sword, and her friend Tarma, a retired mercenary. All women. Her mentors are amazing, turning her into a deadly weapon. Kerowyn's mind is as sharp as her sword, and has a need to be self-sufficient and free. While this is technically #9 in the Valdemar universe, it is written as a stand-alone and it really is as self-sufficient as its protagonist is marvelous. It's a great place to introduce yourself to the very prolific Mercedes Lackey.   By the Sword stays true to typical Lackey style including incredibly noble people in an incredibly ignoble land, and intelligent, complicated romance. It is one of the few Valdemar books where the heroine is free of sexual violence. It may be mentioned, but Kerowyn herself experiences some of the most healthy, consensual relations and relationships in the series, which is refreshing.
Speaking of Classics, we cannot have a list featuring strong female heroines and leave out Wonder Woman. With the 2017 movie featuring Gal Gadot there's been renewed interest in her stories, and I can't complain. This boxed set was released by DC at the end of 2016 featuring the golden age of Wonder Woman in 400 pages of her best stories, and they really represent the best of what this iconic superhero has to offer. She is benevolent, prefers the route to peace, but uses force when needed. She is described as more beautiful than Aphrodite, wiser than Athena, faster than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules. Wonder Woman really is the ultimate feminist role model, sacrificing none of her femininity while exuding strength on every front. One of my favorite parts of the comic/graphic novel subgenre is the fluidity and acceptance of reimagining these characters' stories, and this collection offers a good representation of the variations explored through the years in her style, backstory, and tone, even though most are from the latter half of her career. Though really, that's a good thing.
Many fantasy-loving women got hooked on fantasy with Alanna as teens. She has her heart set on being a knight, even though it's not "what girls do," and that passion and drive puts every one of us on a horse and on the adventure of a lifetime with her. Alanna's stubborn determination and bravery carry her far, but she makes mistakes, doubts herself, and has a wicked temper. She's a thoroughly real heroine, unique in the canvas of white male knights in high fantasy. While it's written (or rather edited; the first 734 pages were reportedly scrapped because it was too racy) to be a YA novel, the plot is madly complex and captivating, thoroughly engaging readers of all ages. There is some romance in the series, and I love that Alanna is clearly in control of her sexuality. She chooses who she sleeps with and when, and takes precautions to be responsible. She's been an inspiring role model for generations and hopefully many more.
Couldn't leave this one out. Yes, it's another Tamora Pierce YA treasure set in the Kingdom of Tortall,; you can even cross paths with the Lioness herself. Yet Immortals takes us on a totally different thread. The fact that there are reading guides out there for this book should tip you off that it's more than a simple children's book. It's chock full of cultures, immortal creatures, and a pantheon who like to meddle. Daine is an abandoned child who possesses the wild magic, enabling her to talk with, even take the shape of the beasts of the forest. It's a light fun read featuring a compassionate, strong heroine who grows into her power throughout the quartet. I love that Pierce's characters tend to go against social convention and eventually carve out a life worth living.

Books in The Immortals Series (7)

Yelena is about to be executed for murder and is offered an alternative: food taster to the king. She herself is poisoned and must appear for her daily antidote or die a painful death. What she does with the hand dealt her is fantastic. She is a capable, educated heroine who takes responsibility for her own actions, and plans ahead the moment she begins to see options opening up, then works hard for her future. Watching her grow from desperate orphan into a competent, deadly fighter was fantastic, and strong character development anchors Yelena and Valek into your soul as you weave your way through this magic combo of assassins, spies, and intrigue. I love that romance took a seat in the background and let us focus on the action at hand. Themes of mortality, freedom of choice, and tests of loyalty predominate and make it more than just a fun read.

Books in Study Series (5)

Sybel is only sixteen when she is brought an orphaned baby to raise. She has little love for humans, having been raised alone on Eld Mountain with only the magical beasts her father summoned with magic for playmates, yet she accepts and is obviously transformed by the experience. Oddly enough, I love how detached and pragmatic she is. Her fearlessness awards her a vicious legendary bird, her ruthlessness when betrayed is not to be underestimated, and she is a beautiful, powerful, sorceress. In another story she could be the villain, but here she is thoroughly the heroine. This little-known gem landed the 1975 World Fantasy Award, and was nominated for many others. McKillip's elegant prose lends this dark fairytale a dreamy, mythic quality. A fantastic read featuring a fantastic heroine.
Monza Murcatto is out for blood. Known as the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Styria, she is betrayed by her employer and left for dead. Unfortunately for him, she's alive and fueled by vengeance. Flanked by a drunkard, a poisoner, a mass murderer with OCD and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing, she is a force to be reckoned with. With signature Abercrombie indulgence, Best Served Cold is a bloody, thrilling, expedition. Filled with harsh language, black humor, terrible sex, and broken characters, it's everything his fans have come to expect and love from his work.  Monza is a total badass and gets the job done; just don't mind the collateral damage along the way.

Books in First Law World Series (6)

This reboot is everything. Diversity FTW! I love that this incarnation of Ms. Marvel is a teenage Pakistani-American from Jersey, who's just as thrilled about her superpowers as she is about finding the right outfit for the job. Kamala is such an enjoyable heroine to follow in her debut. She is smart, funny, and fully embraces the superhero gig with all the enthusiasm of someone too naive to appreciate the danger. She is Muslim, and has strict parents who don't approve of all the fan fic she writes, let alone the outfits. The classic art style is fantastic, and ties in with the rest of the Marvel world.  It's not just about her kicking butt, although obvi, that's happening. It deals a lot with identity as she can shape shift and decides to look like Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel—tall, blonde, and nothing like herself.

Books in Ms. Marvel Series (6)

This intricate retelling of the Celtic Swans fairy tale takes an enchanting story and embellishes it with depth, believable backstory, ancient magic, and great characters.  It is painfully dark, at times horrifying, but also offers elements of hope, devoted love, and healing. One criticism is that while its rape scenes are incredibly graphic, actually loving consensual sex scenes are all but fade-to-black absent. Despite this, Sorcha is simply radiant as the heroine who accomplishes the fantastic tasks required to set things right. She is beloved by and shares a unique bond with her brothers, and while no warrior, her strength is in healing and in quietly (you have no idea how quietly) going about what needs doing with fortitude and courage. Despite her burdens, she is able to see the beauty in the world, and that takes a special kind of magic. Again, folks tend to shelve anything related to fairytale literature as YA or even Juvenile… Daughter of the Forest is definitely ill suited for children, due to the graphic abuse mentioned above. As Sorcha matures, she grows into her strength and intelligence, meeting each painful task with diligence and unfailing love. It is a beautiful story highlighting the power of small and simple things.

Books in Sevenwaters Series (6)

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Sequel Books by Juliet Marillier
Once you finish the Sevenwaters Trilogy, look at her other follow up books after the trilogy ends which is a sequel Trilogy called 'Sevenwaters'. The first book is Heir of Sevenwaters, the second is Seer of Sevenwaters, and final is Flame of Sevenwaters.

For more character driven female-centric fantasy or narratives with strong female characters:

Deerskin by Robin Mckinly 

The Wizard of Earthsea (Book 2 and Book 4 feature lead female characters)

Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb

Also consider looking at our list: Best Fantasy Books for Women
Katsa is a pragmatic graceling born with the ability to kill with her bare hands from the time she was eight years old. Graced as all gracelings are with unique superpowers and marked with two different eye colors, she was orphaned and becomes assassin to the King in her youth. With attachment issues and a very sterile view of murder, she is very flawed; which balances out that she's pretty much invincible, unstoppable as both a warrior and as a person. Light romantic interest flavors the story, but it's nothing so strong as to overpower the heroine and her purpose. The female relationships are so real and relatable, and I love that at times it's just women out there saving the world. No men in shining armor. Just two women as comrades in arms. It's not this huge gender issue that she's a warrior. She just is. Graceling has landed a dozen awards and was nominated for more. Definitely worth a read.

Books in Graceling Realm Series (3)

I can't do a list of the top 50 fantasy novels with strong female leads without including The Mists of Avalon. Considered one of the great classics of modern fantasy literature, it won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel the year it was published, topped Best Sellers lists for years thereafter, and has continued to transform perspectives for decades. Bradley won critical acclaim with this novel by taking the whole body of Arthurian legend and re-spinning the tale from the perspective of the women in Arthur's life. The Avalon of the title is the island home to a sect of Goddess worshippers attempting to hold back Christianity's growing influence over Arthur and the country at large. This world of mysticism and spirituality frames the life of Morgaine, not an evil sorceress here, but priestess of Avalon and Arthur's half-sister. She rides the tide of self-doubt and confidence as we span her life from practically birth to death. Here lives a haunting Camelot. A visceral, real Camelot that is simultaneously ethereal and mystical. It's not action-packed, but an emotional and compelling legend of adventure, prophesy, romance, betrayal, and witchcraft. The women here are complex, intriguing, loving, and manipulative. They live in a male-dominated world, so behind the scenes they are forever pulling strings, standing close to center stage, but never stepping a foot onto it, weaving their magic in the shadows. If the life of the author matters to you when reading a novel, know that Bradley has some skeletons that have thrown shade over her work.

Books in The Mists Of Avalon Series (2)

FINALLY. A high fantasy novel featuring someone whose beauty isn't one of her major selling points. I love that Elisa is a clever, resourceful, humanly flawed heroine who relies on her own strengths to conquer her life's tragedies. Like many teens she envies her sister who has the tall, willowy physique she wishes she could have and still eat all of the delicious food.  Her sister also happens to be the QUEEN, a genius strategist, and full of heroic duty. (Truthfully, she's pretty badass and I thought she was awesome.) Talk about big shoes to fill. Carson does a great job at painting a living, breathing world with Spanish influences, unique cultures, and sympathetic characters. I loved spirited Elisa's journey from insecurity and uncertainty to her own brand of heroism as a bearer of the Godstone. Yes, there is religious stuff but the religious elements just add depth and richness to the culture of the world. For those who enjoy slow burn romance this is like, SLOW, slow burn, and all the sweeter for it.  The frank and progressive approach to sexuality was awesome, I mean if you're in a relationship, birth control needs to be a part of the discussion at some point! While I'd say it's YA, the action isn't wimpy and can even get pretty gory. Full of surprises and deeply engaging people, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a great read if you're looking for strong female roles.

Books in Fire And Thorns Series (2)

Urban Fantasy excels at creating strong female leads, and this is one of the best. Mercy is a part Native American auto mechanic who also happens to be a walker; one who can turn into a coyote at will. Like the Grimm TV series, she's not the only anomaly and has a werewolf for a neighbor, her boss is a gremlin; you get the idea. Briggs creates awesome bantering dialogue that makes it a fun read. I love that it's realistic; gunshots are LOUD when you forget your ear protection. When you fight werewolves, you might just break your arm. Mercy can hold her own, but knows her limits. She's caring, not a doormat, and she's wicked brave. She makes mistakes, and owns it. Don't be fooled by the Harlequin-looking cover, the romance has a nice organic build, which is refreshing in a genre that's often obsessed paranormal sex scenes. The books are fast-paced, witty, tense, and addictive.

Books in A Mercy Thompson Series (9)

With the first novel of this series adapted from a fairy-tale by the Brothers Grimm, Shannon Hale has created an immersive and familiar narrative in The Books of Bayern. Hale's clear, concise and easy to follow writing styles paints a vivid and imaginative picture of an enchanting kingdom on the verge of war. With such lyrical prose and deep themes, Hale has ensured that the reader is too busy to wonder why the princess can talk to animals or how people are harnessing the power of the elements on a whim. The strong, independent heroine of the first novel, Ani, makes this series an excellent choice for young girls or women looking for inspiration to stand up for what they believe in.  Not only is this series not your typical princess fairy-tale, the fantastical elements of the story create a thrilling tale that's likely to have you engrossed in a world of deceit, love and betrayal. Hale's characterization of Ani is a roaring success, creating an incredibly likeable and genuine character for readers to empathise with. Similar praise can be levelled at the remaining three novels in the series, 'Enna Burning', 'River Secrets' and 'Forest Born', with every character developing an increasingly mature voice throughout the series. While the first novel, Goose Girl, is more light hearted, the second novel, Enna Burning, does deviate to heavier themes, with the protagonist facing a number of personal and physical struggles.

Books in Books Of Bayern Series (3)

Winner of the 2016 Hugo and nominated for a Nebula, The Fifth Season is a volatile combination of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Dystopian Fiction. Mythology comes alive in this hostile world where apocalypse is routine, and the cultures and inhabitants have adapted to survive above all else. Orogenes, with their fearsome power over the earth, are slaves to those in power who use them to abey cataclysmic earthquakes. Full of questions, this deeply woven story makes it feel as if the answers are all there, and have been for eternity, just out of reach. Jemisin pushes the boundaries of novelty into something truly extraordinary, even while she explores concepts of cultural conflict, oppression, and the glossing over of history. It is one of the few non-white dominated, not exclusively hetero, or even monogamous takes we see in fantasy. It is written from the perspective of three women, all gifted with the power to control seismic events, all forced to confront the painful ramifications of being what they are in a world the both needs, and fears them. Damaya, a child given to a Guardian when she is discovered to be an orogene; Syen, an ambitious higher caste orogene on a mission; and Essun, mother of two chasing after her missing husband all struggle, hope, and falter as we share their journey. The women here aren't necessarily heroic, but each have strengths that shine.

Books in The Broken Earth Series (2)

For romantic fantasy fans, A Court of Thorns and Roses has it all: mysterious men, tension, romance, magic, and steamy sex scenes. By the end of book one Feyre is the object of desire of virtually every attractive male in the book, and that means lots of fun. It makes this list because Maas crafts a strong, complex heroine who is the central figure throughout. She is a huntress who hates the fae, only to be dragged into their world for killing a wolf faerie while trying to feed her family. There she finds passion and purpose as the beautiful, dangerous world of the fae she now loves is overtaken by darkness. Lots of twists and turns, changing allegiances, and mysteries revealed make each volume an exciting ride. Feyre grows and develops as a person throughout, and that continual transformation moving her toward more healthy relationships is engaging and real. The lush, dynamic world-building absorbs your attention in the way that all good fantasy should. Be aware that while some market this as YA, it is definitely more on the erotica side of the romance spectrum.

Books in A Court Of Thorns And Roses Series (2)

A new classic has entered the literary stage. I know, a bit bold of a thing to say, but it follows in the tradition of Lewis Carol, A.A. Milne, and C.S. Lewis in creating a vibrant tale that can appeal to adults and children of all ages, landing it the Andre Norton award in 2009. With its smart, whimsical prose, clever and comical themes, and absolutely charming characters, it's a win all the way around. I was hooked on page one. Though it has loads to say, it's never preachy, there are no religious over or undertones, it's just a great treatise on circumnavigating life and all it may hold for us.  September, daughter of a machinist and a soldier (born in May) proves to be an  "ill-tempered and irascible enough child" to be snatched off by the Green Wind and shuttled off to Fairyland. September is strong enough to stand up to whoever stands in her way, practical, and resourceful. But she is a child, with all the weaknesses of too few years, which often leads her into trouble. Still, her strength of character, and the overall messages of empowerment are refreshing and inspiring.
With a foot in both Science Fiction and Fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time is a bridge between reality and fantasy, a meeting place for adult and child readers alike.  Meg leads the adventure with her younger, gifted brother and her secret High School crush on her heels. Though she is your typical insecure, average-looking teen she is clearly gifted, but grappling with her identity as anything effectual let alone valuable to anyone. Surrounded by her brilliant parents; her father recently disappeared while experimenting, her mother is the beautiful scientist slash stay at home mom; and her little brother the certified genius status and brainier than them all, she feels completely ordinary and unexceptional. While her little brother may "have all the answers" he is very much in need of her protection, and Meg isn't afraid to take a punch or swing one. The three mysterious, powerful guides through this fantastical journey are all female, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, though we also run into the "Happy Medium" who is genderless. With clear, humorous narrative and believable characters this series, which also includes A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilted Planet, are great examples of lit featuring strong female lead characters without it feeling contrived or like the author is making a "statement." They just are who they are and drive the story forward. It's no wonder it's a classic.

Books in Time Quintet Series (4)

I loved this wild and unruly story for its whimsical course, poetic prose, and indomitable heroine. She is a fiercely independent 7th grader who is so wonderfully Portland. She's vegan, her hobbies include yoga and single-speed bicycle repair. She's fantastic. While she grew up hearing stories of how she should never set foot in The Impassable Wilderness of Portland, she never dreamed it was because it encompasses Wildwood; a massive Narnianesque pocket with its own history, civilization, perils, and magic. Prue sets off into the wild in search of her baby brother, Mac, who's been abducted by a murder of crows. She is intimidated by neither royalty nor witchery and tenaciously discovers all she can to rescue Mac from the Wildwood. I love that the villainous Dowager Empress comes across as both miraculous, and realistic. Nothing is black and white in the Wildwood, and you eventually find that every story has many sides. With no objectionable material, this makes an excellent read-aloud and Audible's audiobook version is great.

Books in Wildwood Chronicles Series (2)

Here West creates a deeply original world, evocative of India, or the 1001 Arabian Nights, or ancient Japan; I really can't place it, as it is truly its own, with its unique dichotomy of cultures. Her prose is lyrical and descriptive, the ponderous pace of the story isn't for everyone, but this epic fantasy is replete with strong, charismatic women of all walks of life. From Diora, the world's most beautiful woman, gifted with a kind of siren song; to Jewel, and her reluctant rise to leadership of a different kind; to a street child and her gang who are adopted into one of the feuding noble houses; the strength of women abounds in these books. The series is massive in scope, being the story of a place as much as of the people and their relationships in it, encompassing six books, each weighing in around 700 pages. The Sun Sword novels are filled with complex political machinations, and themes addressing the power of choice, and the difference between heroes, and heroism.
How do you take down an empire that will wash away all traces of your culture and customs? From the inside. This provocative geopolitical fantasy was such a surprise. Don't let the talk of numbers and accountants fool you, Baru is a fascinating character who vows to free her home by becoming a tool of the empire she seeks to escape. She is beyond smart, a savant is more like it, pragmatic, and calculating. Her journey is brutal in a world where genocide and "re-education programs" are the means of unifying the nations, but she is determined to orchestrate a revolution. The prose is tense and tight, and sends you hurtling through events as you try to get your feet under you. There are sequels on the way, but this is an incredible beginning.
Such a lovely dark and enchanting series! Fair warning, you can't just read volume one and call it a day or you miss the great character and plot development this story has to offer. It really does get so much better with each edition. Kibuishi delivers fantastic adventure wrapped in interesting art. I love his style with very cartoon-looking characters living in very detailed scenery— and it's super fun to look for the Easter eggs in the background! It spent several weeks topping the NYT Best Seller's List for good reason. Our main characters are a sibling duo; Emily, the big sister, is more bull-headed and plows onward while her younger brother is a bit more cautious. She has been chosen as the next Stonekeeper, and struggles to control her powers, solve the mysteries, and save her mom. She is smart, brave, and kind-hearted. While this could appeal to pretty young readers as there is nothing offensive in it, adults who love graphic novels thoroughly enjoy it as well.
First thing to know? This is a high fantasy, complete with dark magic oozing into the world, valor, mysterious elves, magical artifacts, betrayal, triumph… all the good things that genre has to offer. If that's not your cup of tea, move along the list, but teen runaway Karrigan is very relatable, and grows into her role as a rider and the heroism required of her. She is intelligent, not perfect, but brave. She accepts her responsibility to keep her promise and sticks to it; though arguably some of that is due to being to naïve to do anything other than allow herself to be pushed along by the current of events. The story moves along at a good pace, keeping you invested in her future and that of the world she's just beginning to understand. It's a very family safe book, an excellent read-aloud choice as there is no swearing or sex, and even though there are many scenes of intense peril, some deaths, and many dangerous exploits, they are nearly always followed by a brief respite of some kind or other throughout the story. There is also a horse. A really awesome, almost magically intelligent horse that is seriously one of my favorite characters in this book.

Books in Green Rider Series (5)

Comparisons to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series abound when discussing Kushiel's Dart, but this novel isn't what you would think of as typical fantasy; it's much more focused on the sex, which is explicit throughout. However, it's still as chock-full of political intrigue and nuanced characters as any fantasy tale. Taking place on a slightly different version of the Earth we know, Phèdre nó Delaunay is a servant sold to a nobleman who realizes she's been marked by the gods. Phèdre's fate is to be a courtesan, special because of the bond she feels between pain and pleasure. There's more to the plot than just BDSM, though; Phèdre acts as both courtesan and spy, which leads her on a quest to save her country. From humble beginnings, she uses her cunning, loyalty, and compassion to become diplomat, spymaster, and an incredible tactician. With a strong female lead and extensive world-building, Jacqueline Carey's novel won the 2002 Locus Award and was nominated for the 2002 Gaylactic Spectrum Awards. If you're not afraid of some graphic sex, pedophilia, and abuse, definitely check out this first book in the Kushiel's Universe series.
This rendition of the classic fairytale inspired the Disney cartoon of the 90's, and the live action film in 2017. The fairytale I grew up with featured the typical ugly, selfish, mean-spirited sisters, and the beautiful, kind and good youngest sister, who was enviably Daddy's favorite. McKinley re-envisions the story with heart, making it a story of a loving family, torn apart by circumstance. We get loads of character development about Beauty herself, who is actually quite plain, but loves books and learning. Her sisters are actually quite lovely (inside and out), filled with affection for one another, including their youngest sister. Beauty's intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage drive the story forward here, slowly drawing the beast into something resembling civility. It's become the new standard framework for the story, and many younger readers don't realize Beauty was never bookish, strong-minded, or let's face it, all that interesting, before McKinley wrote Beauty.
His Dark Materials plunges you into an intriguing alternate universe that is both familiar, and strange. Imagine a world where we each have our own daemons (spirit animals) that are actually an extension of ourselves… but they change and fluctuate as we grow into ourselves… I love this concept so much.  I also love the nearly steampunk feel to the old-yet-new world Pullman constructs, replete with witches, armored bears, angels, and magic. Just because Lyra is a child does not mean this book is just for children, and Pullman definitely intended adults to connect to it. The Golden Compass (also published as Northern Lights in the UK) was actually the first children's book to win Whitbread Book of the Year. It went on to win the British Book Award, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and many others. Lyra is courageous and bold, even as she gets caught up in religious, political, and cultural conflict. She is the one to set off to rescue the young men of her life who are imperiled by the adults who should protect them; especially the nefarious Mrs. Coulter who is beautiful, intelligent, and dangerous. My favorite character (aside from Iorek Byrnison— a bear that commands the full use of his name at each mention) is the extraordinary Serafina Pekkala, Queen of the Witches. She is wise, compassionate, tough as nails, and an incredible shot with a bow.
Today, Ursula K. Le Guin’s magic system may not sound exceptional. Like many, it uses the knowledge of true names to control elements, creatures, and even humans. Consider, however, that this book was published in 1968, yet remains the most interesting execution of the concept. In Earthsea, every magical action has a consequence. Learning it is as much a practice in ethics as it is names, as even the smallest spell can change the world. Stop rain in one part of the world, and another may be hit with terrible storms. As a result, mages must have a deep understanding of the world. Learning an item’s name isn’t enough; the caster must understand how it fits into the bigger picture. As a result, wizards usually specialize. There are healers, enchanters, summoners, and illusionists. Each much consider the balance of the world so as not to upset it unnecessarily. Through the protagonist, Ged, the reader learns what can happen if that warning isn’t heeded. His overconfidence unleashes a terrible shadow upon the world; one that he must learn to both accept, and then defeat.

Books in The Earthsea Cycle Series (5)

Similar Recommendations

The Lord of the Rings

Similar recommendations: J.R.R.Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Riddle-Master of Hed

I also recommend Phillip K. McKillip's wonderful Riddle-Master trilogy, which features similar prose and a similar, though at the same time, very different, story. 

The Swan's War

You might also try Sean Russell's The Swans' War .

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

This book is a classic with a complex heroine and plenty of subversions. The author is from the same mold as Le Guine.

Lyonesse Trilogy

The Lyonesse Trilogy by the great Jack Vance. Plays quite a few of the same notes as does The Earthsea Cycle: beautiful, poetic writing, well developed complex characters, a magical world steeped in welsh/Celtic mythology that you want to move into, and some deep themes explored.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Starts with The Dragonebone Chair. From boy to man and from man to hero, this is a remarkable tale that's brimming with detail. It's a story where the journey's end is not the ultimate destination, but the journey itself is.

The Curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion won the World Fantasy Award and the author has won Hugos and Nebula awards already for her other series. Beautiful writing, complex characters, deep themes. Something about this book brings to mind A Wizard of Earthsea, even if the plot and story are not at all the same.

Based on an obscure Grimm fairytale, Hale weaves her magic here. If you've ever read original Grimm in all its glory, you know it's pretty harsh and cold. She stays true to the heart of this story, but molds it into something more complex and interesting and sets it on the central Asian Steppes. It won Cybils Award for Fantasy/Sci Fi as well as a Whitney for Best Speculative Fiction in 2007. Dashti, maid to Lady Saren, is locked with her in a tower for seven years as a punishment for refusing to marry the man Daddy picked. Soon the food left for them spoils, they are dealing with climate extremes with no resources, and struggling to survive. It's a story pretty much all about these two women in isolation, but the world building is actually very solid. The cultures here include regions ruled by women, as well as a unique religion that holds the "magic" of the story. Dashti is really the best part. She is resilient, educated, funny, caring, and loyal to a fault. Not your typical flawless beauty wielding a sword, which was refreshing. Despite her role as servant, and attitude of servitude, her voice is the strongest. It seems there would be a limited scope to the story given the circumstances, but it's full of surprises.
In this unique novel, our heroine is one of three people who have never met, yet share the thoughts and sensory experiences of each other unless carefully veiled. While they each have the ability to make their own choices, they all endure the consequences of those choices. This fantastically unusual premise is somehow beautifully executed, without being wildly confusing or overly simple. It is told from a single viewpoint, that of Evionia, an orphan girl who is all but feral through neglect and monstrous emotional abuse.  It is her coming-of-age story as much as a coming-to-yourself story, learning to truly see oneself is never an easy place to get to. Her The title makes reference to Plato's theory of the tripartite soul; meaning souls are made up of three parts, the logical, the spiritual, and the animalistic instincts. Take that with a grain of salt, though, as it isn't some high treatise on human nature. Heartache, injustice, prophecy, one heck of a love triangle, and fantastic twists will take you on a romantic fantasy ride you won't want to put down. Nicholson creates strong, interesting characters that keep you up one more minute, one more hour, to see what happens to them next!
The Protectorate offers a baby in sacrifice to the witch of the woods to protect them from her wrath, but when the witch accidentally feeds the baby moonlight, which is of course magic as everyone knows, it imbues her with power. This is a fairytale to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a beautifully written, engaging story. It's filled with humor, a large cast of quirky characters, and magical realism that encourages readers to think. Awarded the 2017 Newberry medal for mid-grade fiction, it was praised for its ability to inspire readers to harness their own power, and ask important questions about what keeps us apart, and what brings us together. Barnhill's prose is exquisite, creating a magical atmosphere where witches, creatures from the swamp, dragons, and talking animals all make an appearance without feeling childish. It is a weird (in a good way!) tale of a girl whose magic cannot be contained. Women like Xan, full of integrity and charity, Luna learning to grow into her own power, and the brave mothers who fight the system… all rock solid.
Ghosts walk the streets of London, and if they touch you, you die. Only children can see them, so what do the local Psychic Investigations Agencies do? Hire them, of course. Creepy, dripping with ghost blood, and that eerie London fog, The Screaming Staircase and the rest of this set will keep you on edge. Lucy Carlyle is a talented young agent who not only can see the walking dead, but can hear their voices, and experience their memories if she touches their belongings. When tragedy puts her out of a job, she joins up with Lockwood to solve mysteries surrounding the paranormal. Stroud's writing is atmospheric and spooky, but the banter is laugh out loud funny! Makes for a great combo. While Lucy is our narrator, and she is resourceful, brave, and talented, she is regularly upstaged by Lockwood himself and his sardonic wit, so it's not high on the list, but it definitely deserves a shout-out.

Books in Lockwood & Co. Series (3)

Kate Daniels. Tough, smart, and wonderfully mouthy. She's a perennially down-on-her-luck mercenary who cleans up paranormal messes. She's a complete badass, wielding a sword called "Slayer," but remains compassionate and loving. The best part about her is that she's so unpredictable. Except her sarcasm. She's reliably sarcastic. Atlanta becomes home to the paranormal, replete with magic here. Andrews throws in everything from vampires and mages to a gnarly Beast Lord. I admit, the world building is a bit weak, and Magic Bites is not the best intro to what is an enjoyable series, it's merely a functional beginning. I mean, for some unexplained reason there's this pendulum swing between magic and technology and that's out of whack. That's all we get. But the sprightly dialogue, and above all lively characters more than keep it afloat. Sexual tension doesn't dominate the story, but gives it some spice, and the plot pace is propulsive and engaging.

Books in Kate Daniels Series (8)

The Wheel of Time is known for its extraordinary characterization and epic plot, but it also features some of the best elemental magic. It integrates classic and unique components, crafting a detailed and cohesive system. At its core is the One Power, which splits into saidin and saidar, which can be used by males and females, respectively. Channelers can access up to five flows; air, fire, earth, spirit, and water, which can be woven to produce different effects. Weaves are similar to their textile counterparts, enabling a channeler to hold it, or knot it, in turn allowing it to persist when the user leaves. However, thanks to gender separation of the Power, there are further nuances. Saidin and saidar are likened to different halves of the same coin, meaning men cannot see women’s weaves, and vice versa. At the same time, they can cooperate. Men usually have a larger power pool than women, while females are gifted with more dexterity. Working together, they can overpower many of the same sex, leading to a natural dynamic. Unfortunately, there are other subtleties that make that difficult. A powerful entity has put a taint on saidin, meaning that men who touch it are likely to go mad and cause unparalleled destruction. As a result, male channelers are hunted down by women and cut off from their power, resulting in severe depression. Nobody is exempt, not even the Dragon Reborn, the most powerful channeler in history, and this well-known fact propels many of the series intricate sub-plots.

Books in The Wheel Of Time Series (14)

Similar Recommendations

You can literally recommend the entire epic fantasy genre if you like The Wheel of Time. Here's my guide to some of the most similar books to The Wheel of Time, or at least books I feel you will probably like if you enjoyed Jordan's work.

Classic Epic Fantasy with Magic, Swords, and Action Galore


The Way of Kings

If you loved The Wheel of Time, you absolutely must read Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, first book in his Stormlight Archive saga (a 10-book epic fantasy saga). Way of Kings is Sanderson at his best. This is HIS version of The Wheel of Time (and the man's certainly got the resume to write it, having directly penned the last 3 Wheel of Time books). This is the closest you'll find to Jordan's series, hands down, but updated for the 21st century. For another epic fantasy with a very interesting magic system, where a company of heroes fight against an evil god kin, read Mist Born by the same author (Brandon Sanderson).

The Death Gate Cycle

You might also try Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis's The Death Gate Cycle, a monolithic seven book saga that's reminiscent of Jordan's style: heavy on the magic, tension and action, but unique enough not to be a banal hack. By far it's the best stuff both authors have done up to this day (they usually write the sort of hack fantasy that I rail against on this site).


You might also try Raymond E. Feist's Magician (and the direct sequels), as he writes in a style and flavor similar to Jordan (heavy on politics, action, and magic). It has a callow youth vs end of the world plot (eventually).

A Man of His Word

For a high-fantasy series that's criminally under-appreciated, read Dave Duncan's classic A Man of His Word (starts with Magic Casement). The basic premise sounds pretty hackneyed, but it's far from that. Duncan takes many of the classic fantasy conventions and puts a unique twist on everything. Some of the best classic epic fantasy in the genre.

Codex Alera

Jim Butcher's Codex Alera is also another magic-packed, plot-driven, epic fantasy feast of a series you might like. It's got a really unique magic system and it's fantasy set in an alternate Roman Empire where magic actually works.

The Briar King

You can read The Briar King series by Greg Keyes for an epic "save the world" fantasy that starts with a big big bang but ends in a bit of a whimper. Despite the somewhat disappointing ending, it's a very well written series that's better than your average epic fantasy.

The Rune Lords

If you are hunting around for more action- and magic-heavy series, you might give The Rune Lords series. It probably has one of the more unique magic system I've seen; the story itself is pretty standard fare though, as are the characters and writing.

Chathrand Voyage

For an interesting epic fantasy that's big on adventure and exotic characters and landscapes and one that takes place on the sea aboard a giant ship, give the Chathrand Voyage series by Robert VS Redick a read. I was not a fan of the very last book, which I felt was a letdown, but the first few books are great reads. Wheel of Time on a boat of sorts.


Also read Amber (the first half) by Roger Zelazny. Not the same plot, but there are some similar things I feel. Better written, however. Its epic overall and combines modern elements with the fantastic. Really, this is a classic you should read.

The Belgaraid

If you like classic village boy vs dark lord fantasy of the 80's and 90's, then read David Eddings The Belgaraid.


You might try Dragonlance if you like action and magic and plenty of shallow characters. I'm not a fan, but there are quite a few. You might just like Dragonlance if you love The Wheel of Time.

Slow-Paced, Character Driven Epic Fantasy


If you are looking for epic fantasy that's not necessarily driven by pure action and magic and battles, these are some recommendations to look at

The Sun Sword

Try Michelle West's The Sun Sword, another large epic fantasy saga (six books) that shares some similarities with Jordan's Wheel of Time. West's writing style is drastically different that Jordan's, however -- far more subtle, and often ponderous. If you are an action freak, The Sun Sword pacing will probably be a bit too slow for you. Good for lovers of fine writing where every plot is meticulously woven together over a long period of time and characters are slowly built up. NOT for the action freaks.

The Wars of Light and Shadow

For a slower-paced, character-driven epic fantasy, give Janny Wurts "The Wars of Light and Shadow" a read. It's a huge epic fantasy that concerns itself with the actions of two opposing "heroes", one that's on the light side and one that's on the dark side. Much slower paced and more character driven and better plotted than the Wheel of Time -- which some will love and some will hate. But hands down, the prose is much superior.


Tigana by Guy Gaverial Kay. One of the best writers in the genre. This was his first series and it's a flawed one. But there's a lot to love. Some similar elements to Wheel of Time (dark lord, group of heroes fighting) but plenty of non-similar elements too (heroes are from our world transported to a magical world and it's actually WELL WRITTEN). Not as much action and magic as Wheel of Time though.

The Farseer

Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. Another classic fantasy that's character driven. Not as epic in scope (it's the tale of a bastard boy who becomes entwined in politics and eventually has to save the kingdom).

The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. High fantasy, not epic fantasy. But man, an astounding read. One of my favorite books of all time. Not the same as The Wheel of Time, but in regards to the magic system, a very systematic breakdown of magic (like Wheel of Time) usage and a wizard school setting (WOT features this in quite a few of the later books).

Modern Dark and Gritty Epic Fantasy


Fantasy has evolved the past 10 years. Now dark, gritty and sarcastic is in vogue. If you want a more complex fantasy where characters are often shades of gray and heroes are more anti-hero than hero, where heroes sometimes die and no good deed goes unpunished, these series are the best.

A Song of Ice and Fire

Give George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire a try. It's a massive epic like Jordan's The Wheel of Time (but not as long), and it's universally held in the highest esteem, a sort of paragon of what all Fantasy books should strive to be. You thought those "Dragonlance" books were good? Feast on Martin for a taste of what Fantasy books should be like.

The Mazalan Book of the Fallen

For a different style of epic fantasy, you may want to give Malazan Book of the Fallen a read. It's also a massive series like WOT, spanning 10 books and it's completed as well, so no waiting around for the sequel books. The series has a huuuuge cast of characters, magic galore, and features large-scale battles that are as vicious as they are exciting to read. But don't expect the WOT; Malazan is a different sort of fantasy that provokes strong feelings -- you will love it or you will hate it.

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. It's an epic series with different races, peoples, magic, and a dark lord. But for all the elements that are the same as Wheel of Time, there are as many differences. This series is arguably a subversion of the fantasy genre.

The Dagger and the Coin

A new fantasy series that's been making some pretty big waves in the fantasy world is The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham. It's sharply written with a cast of complex, grey characters. In the background, it has many of those epic fantasy conventions (world ending darkness coming into the world, many different races and creatures, mysterious magic, etc). It's not your typical epic fantasy though -- think of it as epic fantasy 2.0.

The Black Company

For a darker less "epic" fantasy where all the characters are completely grey (and evil is not necessary evil), give The Black Company by Glen Cook a read. There are a number of books in the series, but I recommend reading the (best) first series (called "The Books of the North") of the Black Company followed by the next best series (The Books of the South).

The Prince of Nothing

For a different take on the whole epic fantasy movement, one that's darker and more gritty where heroes are not always heroes or good guys, you might look at Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing series. Epic fantasy, wars, brutality, heroes and philosophy? If you love epic fantasy that does something different, read this one.

The First Law

In the same vein, check out Joe Abercrombie's The First Law series. And for a real subversion on the whole epic fantasy genre, give Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains a read. These recommendations are a more modern, "adult" take on the classic epic fantasy that Jordan wrote

The Dark Tower

And for my final "epic fantasy recommendation," read Steven King's The Dark Tower. It's a 7-book monstrosity that's taken King several decades to finally finish. In fact, many of King's books indirectly tie into the The Dark Tower in some way or the other. It's sort of like a cross between the western genre, the post-apocalyptic genre, and the fantasy genre. Well worth reading for a different take on the whole epic fantasy thing.

The Red Knight

You may find you like The Red Knight (Traitor's Son Cycle). Lots of action, lots of magic, a large cast of heroes, monsters to kill, lots of war, castles, knights, and ladies. This was one of my favorite reads of 2013. Book 2 came out this year.

Sword of Shadows

Sword of Shadows series. Classic Jordan style fantasy with a darker and grittier edge. Only, it's not finished and I can't remember when J.V. Jones wrote the last book. There are 4 of 5 books out.

For more epic fat fantasy recommendations in the vein of The Wheel of Time, check out the Best Epic Fantasy Recommendation list.

This series starts off with so much promise. Del, brave warrior-woman in the North has been training for five years to rescue her brother from slavers in the South and is in need of a Southron (no, that's not a typo) desert guide. Tiger, a sexist, womanizing, mercenary and best sword dancer of the South and former slave is the obvious choice. This odd pairing is part of the charm of this light sword and sorcery read. The two are often polar opposites, but when need is greatest come together as a perfect complement. Their romance is a slow burn growing organically out of their partnership. Del is fantastic. She is fierce, challenges every tradition that tries to force her away from her strength, and doggedly rises to every challenge that stands in her way. Robertson does a great job at conveying the desperation of the desert, and the almost solitary setting adds to the deeply personal feel of this quest. Being a child of the 80's, there are the typical eye-rolls involved; some questionable handling of race, and despite Tiger's growth as a character and bending to some degree on his attitudes toward women, it's still a pretty sexist book. Del never seems to accomplish anything all on her own merit, and it's undeniably more about Tiger than Del, being told through his perspective.  While Tiger does change some, book seven in the series is all about him rising to the challenge of his 25 year old son calling him, "domesticated" in his settled life.  So, it's not high on the list, but Del definitely deserves a mention!

Books in Tiger And Del Series (10)

A landmark step in feminist fiction, this dark fantasy series is unlike anything you've ever read. Bishop takes the physical and typical differences between men and women, highlights rather than diminishes them, and creates a world in which they are acknowledged and accepted. Her work is dark, though. The sexuality is especially dark. It's more of a tool of power rather than meant to be a loving act of any kind. From pedophiles, rape, and incest to torture… it's pretty heavy. Janelle begins as a child, destined to become the greatest witch queen that's ever lived, and this is her twisted, powerful, painful crossing into that role. She is at times cute, at other moments creepy, and at still others downright scary. The fact that she is continually being rescued by the men in her posse knocks it down a few levels on this list for me, but it's touted as a great triumph in feminist fantasy, and it's well-loved by those who enjoy some seriously disturbing storytelling, so it can hang out.

Books in The Black Jewels Series (10)

A World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel in 1996, Voya's 1996 SF, Fantasy, and Horror Books of the Year; The Golden Key is a submersive experience. The authors evoke a vibrant Old World feel through language derived from romance languages, and old patriarchal aristocratic social structures, and lightly brushed by magic. This multi-generational story spans nearly 400 years stalking two influential families; the Grijalvas (magical artists) and the do'Verradas (the royalty). The Grijalvas are forced to give up one female member of each generation as mistress to the reigning Duke, and one male member as official artist to the Court. The concept of art as magic here is meticulously executed, integrating principles of science and genetics into the passing on of these magical traits. The complex relationships, and political implications of each generation are fantastic. While it's clearly not a story that follows one heroine on her adventures, it's an interesting study of the way different institutions treat women, and the various ways women cope with it… or don't. While the women aren't exactly the heroes of the story, they do carry engaging, important supporting roles in the story.
Deverry Cycle is a twelve-book series, but don't panic, it's broken up into "cycles," so every four books or so you get a satisfying ending. The heavy Celt flavor is delicious, and its unique, non-linear style is pelted with flashbacks as Kerr tells the story of souls reincarnating through time, sometimes reborn into a different gender. At its core, it's about Nevyn working to set things right for Jill, not Jill as a driving force in her own future, so it's not high on the list. Being written in the early 90's it has some irritating stereotypes that persist, and the women are constantly tossing their heads in annoyance, but there are some strong heroines at times. Lady Gweniver, warrior of the goddess is fantastic. The dweomer magic, the Wildfolk, the Westfolk, and the dwarves are a nice comfort fantasy element, themes of incest, incidents of pedophilia and gay rape pop up, so it's definitely adult material.

Books in Deverry Series (14)

While Martin's epic contains a lot of brutality towards women, it also shows how women, surviving in a man's world, can use their cunning, charm, and looks to run the show. There are few fantasy fans who have not read the books by now and a significant number the of the general public has followed along with this series through the TV series.Now the TV series puts more emphasis on female heroines than do the books, but this does not take away the cast of strong heroines present in the series who, over the five books, carve out positions of strength and power.Martin can be brutal in his treatment of women but given the realities of the era (a fantasy version of the War of Roses period in English history) it's a true take on the role and treatment of women. But it's also fair in that women, often, indirectly can garner power.

Books in A Song Of Ice And Fire Series (7)

Similar Recommendations

The First Law trilogy

First Law by Joe Abercrombie. It's witty, intelligently plotted, the characters are all grey, and there's a ton of brutal action in the books. Abercrombie writes some of the best fight scenes in the genre, and his portrayal of war and battle is spot on (especially in his later books like The Heroes) and will make you really think about the ultimate cost of war. One of the best series that's come out in a few years -- one that actually tries to do something new in the genre. Even better, with every new book added to the series (or universe), Abercrombie gets better and better. It's similar to Martin's work in the sense that there is really a moral compass -- good and evil are just both sides of the same coin. Heroes are not made out to be noble paragons: they are just straight out meaner, stronger or more conniving than the rest.

Prince of Thorns

If you like the grittiness of Martin where the boundary between heroes and villains is thin, Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns is an interesting take on the Anti Hero. This is the singular tale of a hero on a quest for revenge and glory (which eventually involves saving the whole world) but the flawed humanity present in Prince of Thorns channel the shades of Martin's brutal take on a fallen and immoral knighthood.


Try David Anthony Durham's Acacia . It's has a somewhat similar feel to A Song of Ice and Fire. The series wasn't as good as it initially promised to be by the end of it, but it's still good enough to read; the author pulls some interesting plot threads out of the blue by the end of book 2. My major complaint about the series was that I never really found the characters all that interesting.


Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock. Elements are similar. You have incest, kingdoms on the cusp of decline and ruin, pacts made with monstrous powers. The landscape is dour and the heroes are partly villains.

The Godless Word Trilogy

Another series that had a somewhat similar feeling to Martin's work is The Godless World trilogy -- there are some shared elements between the works or at least the gritty, dirty feel of A Song of Ice and Fire is shared by both works. The Godless World is actually more like a cross between Martin and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I did find the quality of the series dipped by the end of the trilogy, but it's still a good enough read.

The Dagger and the Coin

Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin series. Rich characterization with characters you dislike who eventual grow on you as the story progresses; oh my god -- plot twists and turns, and magic that's not at all present until the story progresses. Not as much action and drama, but a more character driven saga.

Sword of Shadows Saga

Sword of Shadows is pretty close to Martin in terms of the setting and the portrayal of gruesomeness. The setting is a cold, brutal, Arctic-ice world. It's not as "grand" or "epic" as Martin and the cast of characters is not as morally ambiguous. Still a pretty damn good read, though the author is taking her sweet time finishing the damn series already.

The Black Company

I would be doing you a disservice if I did not recommend Glenn Cook's The Black Company series. It's gritty military fiction with a cast of grey characters, and great battle scenes -- something that Martin focuses on in his books. The focus of the series centers on a company of soldiers.

The Farseer Trilogy

If you like reading about Jon Snow, you might give The Farseer trilogy a read. There are some shared story elements (though the plot and world is NOTHING at all alike mind you). Farseer is pretty much the story of a young king's bastard who grows up in a castle full of intrigue. He doesn't have a lot of options and struggles to survive, and in the process gets tangled up in a series of political schemes. The main character also has a special relationship with wolves (he can speak to them mind-to-mind via a magical skill called the 'Wit') so you might read this one if you like the whole Stark and Direwolf thing. Some of the best characterization in the fantasy genre. Be warned: Jon Snow is a lot more bad-ass of a hero though.

Malazan Book of the Fallen

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is a must-read, and it's a finished 10 books long. There are some elements that are similar to Martin's work: it's got gritty and intense battle scenes, a cast of ambiguously grey characters, main character deaths, plenty of brutality that characters inflict on each other, and unpredictable (and utterly massive) plots. It's quite similar to Martin in the way that the line between villain and hero is quite blurred. You often end up rooting for characters on both sides of the war. No one is really "the hero" and every character is either trying to maintain their power status quo, or steal it from someone else. However, the work, as a whole, is a LOT MORE disjointed than Martin's work (even counting for the fact that Martin has lost his way a bit)

The Darkness That Comes Before

Try R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before, which features superlative prose, a unique, but fascinating storyline, and the gritty realism that Martin exhibits. It's got that world is ending element to it as well. It's also a heck of a lot more philosophical too, which may or may not be something you like. On a whole Bakker's work is sort of like Tolkien's Mordor invades Martin' Kingdoms and stirs up a lot of shit. Throw a fantasy wizard Jesus with kung fu abilities and stuff the prose subtext full of philosophy. On the surface it's a head-case trippy mix, but there is a certain power to this series.

The Grim Company

The Grim Company by Luke Scull. There are elements of Martin in this work, which I was very impressed with as debut novels go. It's very much so a dark fantasy, with brutal violence, death, magic, and some compelling characters who are all flawed. You'll feel right at home if you are a Martin lover.

Monarchies of God

Monarchies of God -- a vastly under-appreciated series. If you like the epic struggle between kingdoms, fierce battles, strange unexplored lands across the sea, and life aboard a ship. Paul Kearny writes a compelling tale here. Elements of grim dark too.


You might also like Tad Williams newest fantasy saga: Shadowmarch which has some similar plot elements (strange fey creatures coming down from the north behind a wall of magic mist, trying to take over the world). There's a rich cast of characters scattered across the world in completely different lands (much in the way that Martin features characters living in the frozen north, characters living in exotic deserts, and so on). The creatures the north, the Quar, are similar to the Others, but more developed as mysterious, yet somewhat sympathetic entities, rather than the zombie-making horrors that Martin makes the Others to be. You might say this is the story of "The Others" and how they came to be so damn pissed off at the world of men.

A Land Fit for Heroes Trilogy

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan, of Science Fiction fame. Marin can write villains as heroes and heroes as villains, but if you want to read about a dour world without a shred of goodness, check out Morgan's foray into the fantasyscape. Its a dark and blood and cold as ice, but there's a shit load of brutal action.

Coming of Conan the Cimmerian Martin himself recommends Howard's masterpiece. What more could you say to that?

Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Elements of ASoIaF's gritty and dark but at times hilarious. Well written. Think a book made up of the Tyrion chapters, centering around a band of thieving scoundrels in an Ocean 11 fantasy plot.

The Amber Chronicles

The Amber Chronicles by David Zelazny. Take a royal family who can walk into different realities. Gray characters, squabbling siblings, alternate realities, a prince in exile.

The Gap Cycle

The Gap Cycle by Donaldson. This is science fiction NOT fantasy and in no way is there any similar plot elements or themes, but Gap Cycle is darker than dark and features heroes who have more in common with villains. If you like the bleak outlook on flawed humanity taken up by Martin, Gap Cycle won't disappoint your disappointment in the human race.