Reading (and watching) The Lord of the Rings as a child was a revelation and ignited a true love for high fantasy. There was a secret pleasure to escaping into a fantastical world with different rules and, of course, magic. But as much as I loved fighting orcs and marveling at Rivendell, I noticed a missing piece of the puzzle: female authors.
High fantasy novels are fascinating because writers are building worlds. And who builds and designs things? Men. In a high fantasy world, characters are busy overcoming challenges no one in the “real world” could dream of facing: fighting evil wizards, killing dragons, and learning magic. All the way back to Beowulf, it’s clear that these epic adventures are reserved for men.
Who stays at home waiting to hear the tales? Women.
Fortunately, many female writers have challenged the status quo by building remarkable worlds with complex female characters, some who have even dared to become warriors. Even the stories with central male characters contain female characters who challenge the notion of the damsel in distress, wise woman, and lover.
Here are some fantastic high fantasy novels with incredible female characters written by female writers.
Adult High Fantasy
House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas
Maas is famous for her two YA high fantasy series: A Court of Thorns and Roses and Throne of Glass. House of Earth and Blood is her first foray into the adult fantasy realm (although one could argue that Maas’s stories aren’t fully YA). The story follows Bryce Quinlan who, along with a Fallen angel aptly named Hunt Athalar, is hunting down the demon who murdered her friends. The adventure brings Bryce and Hunt to the darkest corners of their home—Crescent City.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
N.K. Jemisin is a Hugo Award recipient whose science fiction and fantasy novels address cultural conflict and oppression. In The Fifth Season, Essun, a woman living peacefully in a small town, comes home to three tragedies: her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter; the empire Sanze has collapsed; and a great red rift has ripped into the earth. Essun doggedly ventures through the wrecked land with the singular goal of saving her daughter.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang is a Nebula Award–nominated author whose debut The Poppy War has garnered numerous accolades such as the Crawford Award. In the story inspired by the bloody history of 20th century China, Rin has aced the Keju, an Empire-wide test that determines who can enter the Academies. Rin’s high scores earn her a place at an elite military school. However, she quickly learns that a dark-skinned peasant girl is a target. But Rin discovers that she has the rare gift of shamanism, which might be the only thing that can save her people from an impending war.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was a voracious writer of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, giving readers over 20 novels to enjoy. It’s impossible to put together any list of high fantasy books without mentioning her Earthsea Cycle. In the first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, readers meet Ged, a great sorcerer who was called Sparrowhawk as a youth. The story recounts how he tampered with magic that should have been left alone.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
I first read Shannon’s The Bone Season over five years ago and was awed at the incredible world she rendered. The Priory of the Orange Tree intertwines the lives of three women within a Queendom (you read that correctly). The current queen, Sabran the Ninth, has assassins knocking on her door and desperately needs to birth a female heir. She is secretly protected by Ead Duryan, a lady-in-waiting. Far way, Tané, a woman who’s trained to be a dragonrider, makes a difficult choice. While these three women reckon with their circumstances, the East and West turn away from peace, beckoning chaos.
Young/New Adult High Fantasy
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy displays some truly lyrical writing, so I was over the moon when Strange the Dreamer was finally released. The story follows Lazlo Strange, a war orphan and junior librarian who dreams of Weep, a mythical lost city. Fate intervenes in the form of the Godslayer and his band of legendary warriors, who need Lazlo’s help to discover why Weep was cut off from the world two centuries ago.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Sabaa Tahir’s first novel was an instant bestseller with her compelling female lead and rich fantasy world. In An Ember in the Ashes, Laia, a slave, and Elias, a solider, live under the rule of the militant Martial Empire. Laia and her family stay under the radar, but when her brother is arrested for treason, she makes a deal with rebels who promise to rescue him in exchange for her to spy in the Empire’s military academy. At the academy, she meets Elias, the star student who dreams of a different world.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
It has now become impossible to talk about YA high fantasy without mentioning Adeyemi’s incredible contribution, Children of Blood and Bone, which is set in a complex fantasy world inspired by West African mythology and Yoruba culture. Zélie Adebola is a young maji in the land of Orïsha, where those with magic are targeted by an extremist king. Although magic disappeared from Orïsha years earlier, an opportunity to bring it back appears, and Zélie seizes it.
Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce needs no introduction, with her books introducing so many young readers not just to high fantasy, but to capable female heroes. I discovered Tamora Pierce in my school library and was immediately drawn to the tale of Alanna of Trebond, a young noblewoman who dreams of becoming a knight. Unfortunately, only boys are trained as knights, but that doesn’t stop Alanna, who trades places with her twin brother. At the palace, Alanna must master all the skills associated with knighthood while artfully disguising her gender.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Roshani Chokshi is a writer after my own heart. As an Indian American growing up in the South, I dreamed of seeing myself in a high fantasy book. In The Star-Touched Queen, Chokshi tells the story of Maya, a cursed princess whose father marries her off to quell a rebellion. Now the queen of Akaran with her new husband Amar, she must dig into the secrets of her new home once she realizes that her life is in danger. But there’s an ancient mystery she must solve to protect her loved ones.