I love the current sci-fi and fantasy trend of kick-butt female main characters. But beyond that, if we examine the trend further, we see that these women are more than just female warriors or heroes. What really excites me is the bevy of well-rounded, multidimensional female characters that we’re seeing. More and more, women warriors in speculative fiction have strengths and weaknesses—and interests outside of war.
It is so valuable to show the broad range of individual strengths that are possible as a woman. While it's exciting to see female warrior characters who may possess traditionally male attributes, it's too often then assumed that any attribute that isn’t male is therefore a weakness.
The heroines on this list cross that barrier by showing feminine or alternative attributes add to strength and happiness rather than subtract from it. It allows readers a broader (and likely more realistic) range of strong and successful female characters with a focus on unique abilities and personal beliefs versus straight brawn. Here are my personal top 10 favorite sci-fi and fantasy books with complex women that give me hope that this “trend” is here to stay.
The Broken Earth Trilogy
We start with the (unofficial, but in my humble opinion) reigning queen of SFF, N.K. Jemisin. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note The Broken Earth Trilogy — the first trilogy to ever win consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards — simply for its presence in the genre. Bonus points, it’s simply full of powerful and multidimensional female characters. Anything that starts off with a warrior who is also a mother losing her child is no “typical” book. The trilogy goes on from there, drawing on a wide range of human emotion to spin an unforgettable saga.
Children of Blood and Bone
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adyemi follows Zélie, who comes to her power through a web of oppression, loss, denial, family ties, and no small amount of resistance. I love that our main female characters care about their friends, their family, and their culture—and that several of them avoid violence where they can.
Perhaps my personal favorite example of a multidimensional female character is Agneiszka from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Again, we have a woman with fierce and unmatched power, but what I especially love about her is that she also embraces some more traditional cultural roles. Her strength and magical prowess doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy baking and cooking. It's an important lesson for girls to learn that they can love a variety of things, even those seen as traditionally female, and still be a strong warrior.
This Savage Song
Kate Harker of This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab — also known by V.E. Schwab — was a huge game-changer for my reading. She's a richly-written character who struggles with her family duty, feelings of inadequacy, mistrust, and the desire to do what is right. We struggle with Kate as she faces what her family inheritance means, befriends the enemy, and ultimately tackles monsters within herself.
If you haven’t read Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2), run—don’t walk—and pick yourself up a copy. It’s full of female characters who break the mold of the cardboard female warrior. We have Inej—a former slave turned spy. She’s a woman of color, a woman of heart, and a woman of deadly skill. Then we have Nina, a former courtesan who wields an immense power. She struggles with her power, with addiction, and with her heart… these characters are so real, so full, so well-written they feel like they could jump off the page.
A recent re-read of mine (in preparation of the release of the 2nd book in the series!) is Warcross by Marie Lu. In this book we have Emika Chen—she’s scrappy, she’s skilled in hand combat, and she’s driven. She's also a gamer, a coder, and a rather adept strategist—all traits usually given to male characters. She wears them well alongside her also-present heart, making her an intriguing and multi-layered character worth investigating.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
If dark and morally gray sorceresses are more your type, then Xifeng in Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is the book for you. This book is surprisingly dark. Xifeng’s journey takes twists and turns through some uncomfortable territory, as she struggles with complex issues like fate, identity, social class, ambition, and the meaning of friendship. In the end, she’s a character you sometimes love to hate, but you always root for her.
Karen Marie Moning
I truly adore MacKayla Lane in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. Like many on this list, she’s a woman born with a powerful magic, but what sets this book apart is McKayla’s voice. She’s her own person, complete with a long list of favorite songs, favorite foods, and foibles. Whether you dislike or love this romance crossover, MacKayla Lane is a well-written and compelling character full of wit, southern charm, a tender heart, and just enough sarcasm to make her fun to read.
Crossing to the more sci-fi side of SFF, one of my favorite space-faring ladies is Maria Arena in Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes. Not only are we tossed into a future whodunnit in space with clones, we go on this ride through the perspective of a woman who has to come to grips with the fact that she may not be a very good person. Again, she’s a woman of formidable skill, but I love that she’s got abilities outside the warrior norm—she’s handy, brainy, and a good hacker.
A Thousand Nights
Rounding out my favorite books with great women characters is E.K. Johnson’s A Thousand Nights. This book is a feast for the imagination, but the true gem is the main character (who is never given a name in the book). She’s a storyteller and a quiet warrior, and she embodies the fact that strength and power aren’t always a yelling voice. I love her devotion to her family, and that fact that her family — rather than romantic love — is the source of her power.
About the author:
Meghan Scott Molin comes to writing by way of a Masters in Architecture, a minor in Opera, a professional career as a barn manager, and three years’ crash course as a mother. She currently resides in Colorado with her fellow zookeeper (husband), two sons, two horses, cat, and corgi. She is an avid lover of everything nerdy from Wars to Trek, Hobbits to Who, and beyond. When she’s not writing, she’s cooking, dreaming of travel, coveting more corgis, and listening to audiobooks while hanging out at the barn. If you’d like to know more about Meghan, feel free to follow her on Twitter (@megfuzzle) or on her website (www.meghanscottmolin.com).