fun fantasy that's not.. bad.
March 14, 2016 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations for fun fantasy with solid female leads? I've happily gone through all the wonderful recommendations in my last question (Books of friends saving the world) and finished A Discovery of Witches-- which almost destroyed my love for fun fantasy.

Apologies in advance if you're a fan, but the book was awful. I was really looking forward to a fun fantasy romp with a smart (PhD-holding!) female character, but I felt I was trapped in some Twilight story as I persevered to the end. Any recommendations for something like A Discovery of Witches but better written? Less swooning?

Nothing young adult, unless you think it'll be amazing. I'm not up for reading adolescent development (that's what my dissertation was about!).

posted by inevitability to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed the dry, British humor on display in the Soulless series by Gail Carriger. The protagonist, Alexia Tarabotti, has no soul. This means she is immune to the charms and powers of the vampires and werewolves inhabiting Steampunk Victorian London. It's a romance series but fairly unusual in the way it's written. One description of the hero:

"Lord Maccon was built like a brick outhouse, with opinions twice as unmoving and often equally full of crap."

The first book is part cozy mystery, part romance.
posted by xyzzy at 3:07 PM on March 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

So, you've read all the Bujold, and all the Rosemary Kirstein, and all the Kate Elliott?

What about Martha Wells' work? She's got quite a backlog, and it's fun, creative storytelling. Not all of her work has female leads, but she always has female characters.

I'm not sure if I'd call them "fun", but Laurie Marks' Elemental Logic series certainly has strong female characters.

If you like straight up old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery, Violette Malan's Dhulyn & Parno novels are great fun. A male-female mercenary partnership of equals, where they fight, investigate, judge, and save the world a few times. Fun stuff.

I'm quite fond of Melissa Scott and Jo Graham's Order of the Air series. They're not brilliant, but the characters are smart and vividly drawn, and they do a good job of portraying the early days of aviation in the American west. (Stargate fans will find the character dynamics particularly familiar.)
posted by suelac at 3:08 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oooh yeah, Discovery of Witches was BAD.
How about Uprooted by Naomi Novik, or Graceling by Kristin Cashore?
Oh! and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison has a male protagonist but somehow a female sensibility, if that makes any sense.
And once again I always recommend (or second, apparently!) the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein...they start out fantasy but kind of morph into SF.
Also seconding Elemental Logic!
posted by exceptinsects at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

I love Mercedes' Lackey's Valdemar series for fun and escapism. They're not fine literature by any means, but they're entertaining with good female leads. Check out the Vows and Honor trilogy in particular.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisen is great.
posted by saturngirl at 3:14 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I nearly threw my phone out my car window somewhere in New Mexico at the end of that goddamn book. I stuck in to the end too because I was driving from Texas to California and had a looot of time to kill. This was 5 years ago and I'm still mad.

Still. Mad.

What I recently listened to and loved (in the way I expected to love DoW) was The Accidental Alchemist. I'm chomping at the bit for the next one to come out.

I may have already recommended the Connie Willis time traveling historian books in that other thread - start with To Say Nothing of the Dog (funny and dramatic), then the Blackout/All Clear set (tense but rich), and optionally Doomsday Book (much sadder) which is in the same world but not directly related to the other books. To Say Nothing has a male narrator but a female co-lead, the others are narrated by the primary female character(s).
posted by Lyn Never at 3:14 PM on March 14, 2016 [8 favorites]

Oh - I second Kristen Cashore's Graceling! And if you like assassin nuns, check out Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.
posted by saturngirl at 3:15 PM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rook by Daniel O'Malley maybe.
posted by miyabo at 3:18 PM on March 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy is brilliant.
posted by lumensimus at 3:27 PM on March 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Any of the witches books from Terry Pratchett's Discworld would suit. The Tiffany Aching Discworld ones would also fit, but they are a bit YA. Monstrous Regiment, also Discworld, is great.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:28 PM on March 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Nthing Uprooted and the Connie Willis novels. I really like Willis' shorter, humorous novels too (like Uncharted Territory and Bellwether), though they aren't fantasy - sci fi and contemporary satire, respectively. I also liked many parts of the Steerswoman books, and The Goblin Emperor is wonderful too.

It looks like the Bujold recommendations on the other thread were for the Chalion series and the Vorkosigan Saga, which are both excellent (!!), but you might also like her Sharing Knife series (the first one is Beguilement). I love both Fawn and Dag in those books.
posted by bananacabana at 3:43 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might enjoy Ilona Andrews, who writes super-awesome fun urban fantasy -- lots of action and wisecracking and adult relationships, along with interesting world building and research scenes.

I'd start with their Kate Daniels series. It's their most popular. If you like that, they also have the Edge series and some online stuff and the Hidden Legacy series (which is actually my favorite, but they only have one book out so far and the next two aren't out until 2017, so, y'know, don't start there).
posted by pie ninja at 3:51 PM on March 14, 2016

Sun Sword series is amazing - there's no one lead, but almost all the leads are female and awesome! It's a disparate-people-save-the-world-with-ladies fantasy.
posted by corb at 4:13 PM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Charles Stross series The Laundry Files (which is excellent) is mostly about the lead male protagonist, but the most recent release, The Annihilation Score, switches POV to the character of his wife, who is more of a badass character.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:15 PM on March 14, 2016

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:15 PM on March 14, 2016

Any of the witches books from Terry Pratchett's Discworld would suit.

Yes, the Witches books and even though it is the wrong time of year, Hogfather.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:38 PM on March 14, 2016


Do not read unless you want to fill your brain and eyeballs with Heinlein's raging misogyny. For crying out loud (trigger warning) the strong female lead is raped, decides to "just enjoy it," and later becomes buddies with her rapist because LOL why so uptight and ARRRRRGH I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS BOOK IS A REAL FUCKING THING
posted by duffell at 4:40 PM on March 14, 2016 [15 favorites]

Grave Mercy was great fun. Light as a sponge cake, but great fun. I stumbled across it accidentally, it is not my usual thing, it was so fun. (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a seven-course meal. Fantastic but not light, if your version of fun includes light.)

I just read Steerswoman last month, liked it a lot.

Caroline Stevermer's "A College of Magics" is a favorite when I want fun, smart, girly fantasy, but part of it is set at college and while not YA, may not be the wheelhouse you're after this week.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:53 PM on March 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've enjoyed Mur Lafferty's Shambling Guides. They might be a little lightweight, though.
posted by scruss at 4:59 PM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

> I may have already recommended the Connie Willis time traveling historian books in that other thread - start with To Say Nothing of the Dog (funny and dramatic), then the Blackout/All Clear set (tense but rich), and optionally Doomsday Book (much sadder) which is in the same world but not directly related to the other books.

I have enjoyed some of Willis's writing but I didn't much care for Doomsday Book, for reasons explained in this LH post; since one of your requirements is "better written," you might want to read that before suffering buyer's remorse.
posted by languagehat at 5:11 PM on March 14, 2016

I disliked the Discovery of Witches, all Gail Carrigers books so far (though I read her second, YA series as the lesser of the evils when I was desperate). I was not a huge fan of the Graceling books (Fire particularly bothered me in a rape-culture-y way.)

But I loved Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I enjoy most Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, and Kelly Armstrong. Terry Pratchett's Witches books are so much smarter than pretty much any other, even though they (might?) qualify as YA, but only in a Pratchett-y way. The last one is pretty dark, though worthwhile.
posted by instamatic at 5:21 PM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
posted by jillithd at 5:22 PM on March 14, 2016

I love you Mefites. Discovery of Witches was AWFUL.

I liked the Savannah Witches trilogy pretty well, and love anything by Diana Wynne Jones (like Chrestomanci). Sing the Four Quarters by Tanya Huff and Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman. Deerskin and Sunshine by Robin McKinley. These are all the books I read and enjoyed to get the taste of that Harkness book out of my mouth.
posted by annathea at 5:22 PM on March 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Books 1 and 3 of Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence have kick ass female leads. (Three Parts Dead and Full Fathom Five). The setting is magic-as-technology urban fantasy.
posted by monotreme at 6:23 PM on March 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

Shelly Dina has a steampunk series called Magnificent Devices. The heroine is a highly intelligent chemist, and resourceful as heck when she finds herself in a bind. The series does have a bit of romance here and there, but it's definitely not the focus and this lady isn't the swooning type, she has goals and priorities.
posted by lizbunny at 6:39 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

*Shelley Adina...
posted by lizbunny at 7:05 PM on March 14, 2016

I really enjoyed the dry, British humor on display in the Soulless series by Gail Carriger

FYI, I hated these books. I thought they were terribly written, like really bad. If anachronism bothers you, keep moving, I wanted Georgette Heyer with magic, these aren't it.

Nthing Violette malan, Martha wells, Addison, kirsten. Adding Amanda Downum's necromancer books (more fun than they sound!), daughter of the sword by Steve bein, Babylon steel by gaie sebold, and I've not read it but it's in my queueueand made a lot of lists last year, gunpowder alchemy by jeannie Lin.

Not of all of those books are like the best fantasy I've ever read, but they all clear my minimum standards and some are downright good.
posted by smoke at 7:10 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, the Abhorson Trilogy, by Garth Nix, is all strong female protags! It's not zany, but it's a very nice bit of world building.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:13 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

If graphic novel sword and sorcery fits the bill- Rat Queens! An all female kick ass mercenary group. Violent, funny, and oddly sweet.
posted by canine epigram at 7:22 PM on March 14, 2016

I have a soft spot for Katharine Kerr's Nola O'Grady books. They have a lot of urban fantasy tropes, like the narrator who always tells you what kind of T-shirt she's wearing, but Kerr keeps getting distracted by actual world-building, and her taste in romance tends less toward swooning and more toward "This guy is hot, but I have problems with commitment".

If you want meticulous research plus women with swords, check out Heather Rose Jones' Daughter of Mystery.
posted by yarntheory at 7:42 PM on March 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

So it's more rompey scifi, but -- and I recommend this to EVERYONE, I loved it -- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

I'll second the Max Gladstone, Cashore, O'Malley, Addison.

I don't know if it's fun enough, but Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs was excellent.

Ursula Vernon's adult stuff as T, Kingfisher is very good, more traditional fairy tale than fantasy. Her middle grade novel Castle Hangnail is also amazing. Carry On is charming, but less heavy on the female characters. I liked Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone, Helene Wecker's Golem and the Jinni -- both might be a little serious. VE Schwab's Vicious was also very good. I'm pretty whatever on Jo Walton in general, but Tooth & Claw is a lot of fun.

Rachel Aaron's dragon books are fun, Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard books (male-heavy), Rachel Hartman's Seraphina.

Karen Dudley wrote these almost unknown murder mysteries set around Greek gods.
posted by jeather at 8:04 PM on March 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Jemisin is solid. Her world building may seem totally ridiculous at first - but she makes it work.
posted by superior julie at 8:04 PM on March 14, 2016

Umpteenthing Cashore for wonderful books with smart women, but hers are not light or fun books.

Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho might fit the bill!
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:24 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Did someone say Georgette Heyer with magic? Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix is what you need. It really is a Regency romance with magic, and it is delightful.
posted by mogget at 8:36 PM on March 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Totally different than the other recommendations you're getting so I may be WAY off base on the type of "strong female lead" and "fun" you're looking for... but I'd suggest Cameron Jace's Insanity series. A very twisted sort-of sequel to Alice in Wonderland, the story is crazy, but plausible, at least in the crafted storyworld, and despite Alice's possible unreliability as a narrator, she comes across as anything but a Mary Sue.
posted by stormyteal at 9:14 PM on March 14, 2016

I love Bujold, I love Kate Elliott (though her fantasy is more epic than fun) --

but for fun fantasy, definitely check out Tabya Huff, especially The Keeper Chronicles. Hilarious fantasy set in the exotic land of Kingston, Ont.
posted by jb at 9:55 PM on March 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another vote here for N.K. Jemisin - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Fifth Season all have strong female leads.

The Fifth Season is my favorite of the 3, but it's the first of a series and the other books aren't out yet.
posted by asphericalcow at 12:12 AM on March 15, 2016

Ellen Kushner!
posted by Coaticass at 12:55 AM on March 15, 2016

Seconding the recommendation for City of Stairs.
posted by neushoorn at 1:08 AM on March 15, 2016

Some great recommendations here! I also loved City of Stairs (and am right now reading the second in the series, City of Blades), though I'm not sure about "fun," which, for me, can mean different things. In other words, some very disparate works might be fun to me for different reasons ... sometimes "fun" is light and maybe a romp, sometimes fun is "whoa, whoa, cool, I love this unusual character, setting, or plot device. City of Stairs is fun for me in the latter way, and so is Archivist Wasp, which might scratch your itch, depending. (Having already read it, I like this not-too-spoilery Archivist Wasp review from Liz Bourke, though if you're like me and really don't like any plot details revealed before reading, it's too detailed.)
posted by taz at 7:22 AM on March 15, 2016

Uprooted is great. I got genuinely upset when I finished it and went online to find when the next one was coming out, only to see the author had said she wanted it to be a standalone and planned no sequels :(
posted by DynamiteToast at 7:38 AM on March 15, 2016

What I’ve heard about All the Birds in the Sky (Charlie Jane Anders, January 2016) makes it sound like it might fit the bill; I haven’t read it yet. Meanwhile, heartily nthing Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. The adventure plots are quite engaging, and there’s a lot more going on (with gender, and science, and worldbuilding) than first appears.

And I say this all the time: anyone who hasn't read Walton's Tooth & Claw is in for a real treat.
posted by miles per flower at 7:49 AM on March 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Helene Wecker's Golem and the Jinni and that it is not whimsical, but it is fun. It starts bit slow but it builds.
posted by soelo at 8:10 AM on March 15, 2016

And I say this all the time: anyone who hasn't read Walton's Tooth & Claw is in for a real treat.

My wife and I both read it in the past week and have been gushing over it ever since. So much fun! So well done!
posted by duffell at 8:22 AM on March 15, 2016

In addition to the Valdemar series mentioned above, I like Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series for light reading (both series have a mix of male and female protagonists).

Robin Hobb is also great. My favourite of her series has a male protagonist, but her Rain Wild (dragon keeper) series is also pretty good and has a female lead.

I absolutely loved C.S. Friedman's Magister Trilogy, which has a fascinating female lead and a really interesting magic mechanic, but it might be a little too dark if you're looking for something fluffy (but not much more dark than Brandon Sanderson's books, which I also love).
posted by randomnity at 9:03 AM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will second Max Gladstone's Craft sequence #1 and #3, both excellent, as well as N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance books.

A word of caution on The Fifth Season by Jemisin though. Solid female lead, brilliantly written, one of my favourite books of 2015, but I would be hard-pressed to refer to it as 'fun' fantasy. It's seriously heavy stuff in places, emotionally. Not in a half-assed grimdark sort of way but there's some heart-wrenching stuff there.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 9:30 AM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Uprooted (there is romance, it is mature and respectful), Rat Queens, Tanya Huff and Pratchett. (Seconding that you stay away from Heinlein too.)

Seanan McGuire's InCryptid series is lighthearted (Discount Armageddon is the first in the series) although there is kidnapping and threats to kill the heroes in every novel.

NK Jemison is fantastic, but there is a scene in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I had to skip for violence. I wouldn't describe it as light (thought-provoking, intense, one of the best sci fi novels I've read, not light or fun). Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine is not lighthearted but it is uplifting.

I liked Amber Benson's Witches of Echo Park, even if I wanted to smack the male villain and the grandmother who is dying of cancer at the beginning of the book is not miraculously cured by the end.

I also liked Paul Cornell's novella Witches of Lychford, which I think could easily have been a fantastic novel. His urban fantasy series (start with London Falling) is also good but dark.

Thanks for asking this. I know what I'll be reading on vacation!
posted by JawnBigboote at 10:07 AM on March 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Steerswoman
I really enjoyed the story, and the style - not exactly great prose, but fun and readable.

I also really liked the Tanith Fairport novels.
posted by krieghund at 11:05 AM on March 16, 2016

I'm not sure if any of these completely match what you are looking for, but I would enthusiastically second the recommendations of Rat Queens, Goblin Emperor, City of Stairs and also I'd add its sequel, City of Swords.
posted by Artw at 12:46 PM on March 16, 2016

Barbara Hambly Silicon Tower and sequels are good, as are the Walls of Air and Dragonsbane series.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:10 AM on March 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mercedes Lackey also has a 500 Kingdoms series which is mash-ups of fantasy stories - delightful, woman centered, and I tend to giggle my way through them.
posted by Deoridhe at 6:38 PM on March 17, 2016

Thank you everyone! Such great recommendations. I've been holed up reading Max Gladstone and Patricia Briggs--very much so enjoying myself in the fun fantasy realm once again!
posted by inevitability at 8:00 PM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm super late to the party but Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey and sequels are Jane Austen with Magic and very fun!
posted by azalea_chant at 12:23 AM on September 23, 2016

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