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.
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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).
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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.
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).
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.
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!
And finally, Harry Potter. I won't bother explaining why.
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Similar recommendations: J.R.R.Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
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.
You might also try Sean Russell's The Swans' War .
This book is a classic with a complex heroine and plenty of subversions. The author is from the same mold as Le Guine.
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.
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 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.
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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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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 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 -- 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.
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.
Because...like Martin himself recommends Howard's masterpiece. What more could you say to that?
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 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 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.