I established earlier this month that I’m a feminist. I’m proud of that. Having been interested in SFF since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved female characters I can identify with and admire in the genre. It’s a sad fact that a lot of books I’ve read — and even books I’ve loved — just don’t have good roles for women. But it’s also a good fact that more and more every year I find a lady who makes my toes curl with joy between the pages of a fantasy novel. I’d like to hope that, with my own book coming out this summer, I’ll be contributing just a little bit to all the great fictional women out there. But for now, I want to take some time to write a love letter to some of the ones already kicking around.
To make this list a little more fun, I’m going to try to name five different female characters I adore who are all different kinds of awesome. Because I think even more than strong female characters, we need varied female characters. So here we go!
1. Malta Vestrit (Realm of the Elderlings Series // Robin Hobb)
Malta is my favourite iteration of the spoiled, willful princess type. She’s materialistic, petty, and self-absorbed. And while she has an amazing arc, slowly becoming more and more strong and independent and fierce, she keeps being all those things. Malta’s love for beautiful things, her unfair judgements of people, her penchant for primping in the mirror… They’re a part of her. Whether they’re good or bad doesn’t matter. Having those traits doesn’t keep her from having adventures, becoming a queen of an ancient race, and fighting tooth and nail for her family. Why can misanthropic assassins be heroes, but overindulged girly girls can’t? While she kicks ass left and right, Malta gives us the answer: there’s no reason at all.
2. Sabetha Belacoros (Gentleman Bastard series // Scott Lynch)
A con woman and spy, Sabetha gives us our roguish ne’er-do-well. Sabetha is a feminist dream. She’s politically savvy, brilliantly clever, frighteningly competent. She dresses down men who sexualize her, but is in charge and exercises agency with her own sexuality. A brilliant actress and con woman, she can play any role required of her with aplomb and loves every minute of it. Sabetha is so amazing that she almost feels like cheating to list, except for one thing — a lot of readers hate her! How did Locke Lamora ever lose his heart so completely to such a “shrill harpy?” She’s a “bitch!” And somehow, that makes me love Sabetha more, because I imagine how she’d treat the complaints: with a witty retort that left haters with their pants down while she rode away with all their money.
3. Irrith (Onyx Court series // Marie Brennan)
Irrith is my queen for the rough and tumble boyish type of character. She’s a sprite fae from northern England and is always seen with twigs in her hair, wearing tunic and leggings, making trouble. Irrith is completely unfeminine, and even prefers to glamour herself as a gentleman while walking among humans. While her arc is about understanding love and why we fragile human lives value it so much, femininity is never forced on her. She’s wild, fey, and strange, and she revels in it. The impish tomboy character isn’t uncommon in fantasy, but Irrith is one of my favourite iterations because she never resents either her own femininity, or the femininity in others. She respects the hell out of all other women and avoids that “not like those OTHER girls” trope I hate so much!
4. Phedre de Montreve (Kushiel series // Jacqueline Carey)
Ah, yes, the a curiously common erotic priestess of a strange god archetype. How can there be such an amazing version of it? Phedre is defined by her sexual appetites and preferences, her status as a prostitute, and her relationship with the god of pain and pleasure, Kushiel. And yet she’s the true mover and shaker for the most important historical events of her time and the sole narrator of her amazing story. One thing I love about Phedre is that she never learns to fight and has essentially zero action scenes. Her power all comes from her command over her sexuality and her boundless cleverness. It’s refreshing seeing a woman empowered by her story without needing to muscle her way through it.
5. Eshonai (The Stormlight Archive series // Brandon Sanderson)
And what would a list of amazing fantasy women be without a lady who wears armour and wields a magic sword? Of course, Eshonai isn’t in a chainmail bikini. Her armour is full bodied and half of it is built right onto her body. She’s not human, but she is human. She’s a conservative traditionalist in her society, but can be a bit of a maverick. She cares so much about her family and is defined in large part by her relationships with her sister and her mother, strong female connections. Eshonai is a warrior through and through, fighting and willing to die for her people. She’s the traditional fantasy knightly ideal type, only for once, that role has gone to a woman. There’s a lot of terrible things that could end up happening to this fierce bruiser lady, so join me in hoping she gets to keep her agency as the story moves forward!
I encourage everyone to check out these books! They’re all wonderful and amazing, and the women within them are incredible too. Five completely different types of women, all strong and fierce and empowered.