Good fantasy novels have a way of sweeping the reader away to a magical place. Great fantasy novels do the same but allow real life to creep into the plot, themes, and characters. Of course, all books are a reflection of the world the author lives in, but only the best fantasy novels use that truth to their advantage.
Fantasy may not have always been this cool, this relevant, and this filled with badass warrior women. But it is now, so let’s enjoy five novels featuring the warrior women who make our hearts sing. Every single one is an absolute must-read, so stop whatever you’re doing and pick up a copy—you won’t regret it.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Yeine’s mother was once heir to the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but now that she has died and the ruler grows old, it is Yeine who must face her birthright and fight to inherit the throne she never wanted in the first place. Far from her home kingdom of Darre where the women are warriors and leaders, Yeine consorts with the old gods, now enslaved, and her relatives, who all bow to the one true god.
As she struggles with life inside the capital city, Sky, which is just one big castle suspended in the sky, Yeine finds that nothing is what it seems. She becomes an unlikely friend and ally to the enslaved gods whose powers are severely limited. Only Yeine’s warrior spirit and determination can help her survive the backstabbing politics and caste system of Sky.
Pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin for a fantastical exploration of race, class, gender, and why we fall in love with the people we do.
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
The world is ending. Again. The same catastrophic event that has reshaped the planet in the past and upended many people’s lives is coming to pass. And, no one even expects the invasion coming with it.
Lilia, Zezili, Roh, and Ahkio navigate their war-torn and crumbling world while their individual societies clash, pointlessly grappling for control. As each experiences power, loss, victory, and shame at their own actions, they find that they aren’t the people they thought they were—and things are only getting worse.
Between blood mages, semi-sentient, bloodthirsty trees, genocidal generals, and constant betrayal, The Mirror Empire is truly a must read. Fans of fantasy and science fiction alike will enjoy this novel where author Kameron Hurley explores what would happen if a high fantasy society clashed with enemies from another dimension. Furthermore, Hurley treats gender as the social construct, and yet lived reality it truly is, with characters using multiple pronouns and others respecting the use of those pronouns.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
When the dead rise from the fields of Gettysburg, the U.S. chooses unity over slavery. Well, kind of. After shamblers, aka zombies, threaten to decimate the human population, Black and Native American youth are forced into combat schools where they train to serve as Attendants to wealthy white families. (The combat schools are modeled after the real schools Native American children were forced into in the U.S. beginning in the 1860s.)
Jane McKeene trains at Miss Preston’s, just one such school, where she becomes best known for her bad attitude and her use of sickles to reap shamblers. While the people of the “Civilized East” begin to grow comfortable, believing the shambler threat to be contained, Jane knows that’s not the case. When she discovers that the mayor and his political party, the Survivalists, are up to something evil, Jane’s life and the lives of her friends are changed forever.
Justina Ireland’s alternate history young adult novel, Dread Nation, is a riveting tale of the power of one girl and how far white people will go to keep Black, Native American, and Chinese American people subjected—even with literal zombies at their door.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
In the kingdom of Orïsha, magic has been tamped out. Divîners, the descendants of the maji who were slaughtered 11 years ago, live in fear or in chains, subjected to the ruthless rule of the king.
When the king kills his daughter Amari’s best friend, a divîner, Amari steals the scroll that holds the power to bring magic back to every divîner. Desperate to get away from the palace where she wilted under the heat of her father’s rage, Amari runs into the market and finds Zelie, a divîner who is trying to keep her head down for once. The scroll awakens Zelie’s power over the dead and she and Amari set off on a quest to save magic—with the captain of the guard, Amari’s brother Inan, nipping at their heels.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is an epic journey across Orïsha where Zelie, Amari, and even Inan learn about the power of friendship, love, and the fight against oppression.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
When the world of the bilagàana is devastated by the Big Water, caused by a combination of fracking and the burning of fossil fuels, the sixth world begins. The Diné, aka the Navajo people, build a magical wall around their land, Dinétah, to keep themselves safe. With the beginning of the sixth world comes the return of the old gods, supernatural powers, and monsters.
A witch and his monsters kill Maggie Hoskie’s grandmother in front of her and suddenly, her clan powers are awoken. A monster slayer is born. A god named Naayééʼ Neizghání takes her under his wing but eventually abandons her because he thinks she’s too bloodthirsty. After spending nine months alone in her trailer, only the kidnapping of a young girl can get her back into the monster-slaying game. What she finds brings back the horrors of her own narrow survival and a quest to stop the witch creating the monsters.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning centers the stories of Navajo and Black people while exploring both supernatural and human questions: How do you fight a god when you’re mortal? Perhaps more importantly, how do you heal a heart?