Examples of ambitious women in fantasy lit?
December 1, 2016 5:31 AM   Subscribe

After finishing the penultimate novel in The Queen of the Tearling trilogy I have a sudden desperation to read about ambitious and competent women in fantasy. I'm thinking anywhere along the lines of the ruthlessness of Cersei Lannister to the intelligence of Hermione Granger. I'm not looking for books that follow the familiar Young Adult trend of someone being thrust into a responsibility they are reluctant to take on. I want to read about women who are driven and set out to accomplish what they want, with no preference to YA or adult fantasy.
posted by queenrelan to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
The women of 'The Wheel of Time' series come to mind, but they are not the 'main' protagonists. Which isn't to say they arn't very very important to the story.
posted by deadwater at 5:42 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is really good and has several characters like this. The sequel, City of Blades, has a great female protagonist who is more reluctant at first but really gets into her mission as the book goes on.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:42 AM on December 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

Clarification: City of Stairs has several characters like this, including the protagonist.
posted by zeptoweasel at 5:44 AM on December 1, 2016

I just read Ammonite by Nicola Griffith which actually has an all female cast. The main character is very driven and undertakes a few serious quests. It leans more towards SF than fantasy but there's some really great possible world prognostication in it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:44 AM on December 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

The Dandelion books by Ken Liu has shitloads of them, particularly Gin Mazoti and Jia. Particularly in the second book, where it's all palace politics, Real Shit Cersei Lannister stuff if GRRM had given cared about her, and two ambitious younger women coming into their powers/recognizing their place in the world with a major character in the second half being a really smart rework of Danerys that is so smart it has to be intentional.

Also seconding City of Stairs.
posted by joyceanmachine at 5:48 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Traitor Baru Comorant fits this well - -Baru ruthlessly seeks out power and her journey is fascinating!
posted by saturngirl at 5:49 AM on December 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

Tamora Pierce's The Song of the Lioness series. Alana's ambition is to become a knight, no matter what.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:59 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is a retelling of the King Arthur legend told from the viewpoint of the women in the story. Many of them are very driven, especially the Lady of the Lake.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 6:01 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ancillary Justice. You could argue about whether Breq is a "woman," because she's AI and there's kind of no gender in their world. But for quite a few reasons, I think of her as female (though her gender is irrelevant). And you could argue with "ambitious," because she's not trying to get ahead; she's trying to assassinate someone. But she has chosen this path and is amazing and determined and proactive and the best thing since sliced bread. What Would Breq Do is seriously what's getting me through these days.

Roses and Rot
is a modern fantasy novel about artists competing for a prize that has a huge cost but guarantees their success; most of the main characters are women, and it's very much about artistic ambition and how it affects people differently.

If you'll take comics, Nimona wants to be the best villain ever and is very determined. And on the other end of the Serious scale, Monstress is an incredible, gorgeous, dark story that is all about women of ambition.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:15 AM on December 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Oh, also, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Lauren's ambition--starting a new religion--is a huge part of her story and character.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:23 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Pretty much anything written by Kameron Hurley - particularly the World breaker Saga [the Mirror Empire is the first book in the series]. Nearly all the main characters are women or genderfluid and there is a whole lot of ambition and ruthlessness.

I would also second the recommendations of Liu's Dandelion series and The Traitor Baru Comorant.
posted by nolnacs at 6:29 AM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Esk in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites would qualify, I think. Young woman with magical powers sets out to break into the male-dominated world of wizardry.
posted by peacheater at 6:36 AM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead and Full Fathom Five, from his Craft Sequence series. Also, I second the recommendation of City of Stairs and City of Blades.
posted by neushoorn at 7:01 AM on December 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Cordelia Naismith (later Cordelia Vorkosigan) in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. She first appears in Shards of Honor.

She breaks a blockade, survives assassination attempts, and is generally fierce and very driven.
posted by minsies at 7:15 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The arthur clarke series Rama books 2 and on feature a very strong smart competent woman, nicole de Jardins. She doesnt appear in book 1 however.
posted by chasles at 7:20 AM on December 1, 2016

Jacqueline Carey's "Kushiel's Legacy" series, particularly the protagonist Phédre and her lover Mélisande. Caveat: sexuality is a large part of ambition here, which may or may not be what you're looking for.
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 7:33 AM on December 1, 2016

I really like the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, whose heroine is determined to become a naturalist, and manages very competently in a fantasy world which maps fairly well onto 19th century colonialism.

The series starts with A Natural History of Dragons
posted by Azara at 8:09 AM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Saga of Pliocene Exile - Felice Landry.
posted by plep at 8:15 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Empress by Karen Miller. Be warned--it's a dark world, and the main character is *not* a nice person. But she certainly is driven and ambitious.
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 8:20 AM on December 1, 2016

Mary Gentle is good at this. Probably her most relevant novel to your question is Ash: A Secret History, a strong and heroic lead, but one not without her own issues. What would it take for a woman to lead an early renaissance army? Where would she have to come from and what would she have to be like?
posted by bonehead at 8:36 AM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Kim Newman's work contains some great female characters who fit the bill I think - Life's Lottery (a choose-your-own-adventure for adults) : Mary Yatman (Scary Mary) and Victoria Conyer(there are different versions of them in different timelines, but they are always very strong characters); The Quorum: Sally Rhodes, the private investigator (who also makes an appearance in Life's Lottery).
posted by plep at 8:43 AM on December 1, 2016

Have you read Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars septology? So many strong women, ambitious women set out to make their goals happen. Liath, Hannah, Rosvita, Antonia, Adelheid, Anne...The list goes on and on!
posted by Excommunicated Cardinal at 8:53 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett would fit the bill? It's been a while since I read them but I remember her as 100% proactive.
posted by bluebird at 9:00 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm enjoying Kate Elliot's fantasy novel Black Wolves. Two of the main female characters and one of the males are motivated by a strong desire to rise above their limited roles and have more active, adventurous lives.

Also, I just read on J. Scalzi's blog that Rosemary Kirstein has the ebook rights back for her Steerswoman series. I've only read the first two of four, because I lucked out and found them at a library sale, but I think they are books that Hermione would love. (Hogwarts a History doesn't have enough swashbuckling.)
posted by puddledork at 9:14 AM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

CJ Cherryh: Downbelow Station, Cyteen. Just hitting the very highest of points here---both are multiple award winners.

Tanith Lee: The Birthgrave. Again, just one example of many for this author.

N. K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season. A major achievement by possibly the best SF writer working today. The second in the series just came out as well.
posted by bonehead at 10:14 AM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, pretty much anything by Tamora Pierce, not just the aforementioned Song of the Lioness.

For someone politically ambitious, how about Moira Katson's Light & Shadow trilogy? (That is no longer a trilogy, I think.)
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2016

I just finished and loved Jo Walton's Thessaly books (The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity), which feature several major characters who might meet your criteria. They're not ruthless, and their ambitions aren't greedy or warlike, but they're incredibly competent and thorough in pursuing what they want.

Heartily seconding Jemisin's Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate, Griffith's Ammonite, and Kirstein's Steerswoman books.
posted by miles per flower at 12:28 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pirate Captain Tiana, in Andrew J Offut's War Of Wizards series was the first real bad ass heroine I ever encountered. I think the books were written in the 1960s by a man so, you know, blatant sexism through out, but Tiana is a brave, smart, unappologetically sexy, greedy and very successful pirate captain. As a young girl, I adored her.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 1:43 PM on December 1, 2016

Uprooted by Naomi Novak is really good and features a great, if reluctant at first, woman protagonist. I thought it was really fun.
posted by DynamiteToast at 2:48 PM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Attolia! The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner features my favorite (almost) ruthless queen. Attolia herself shows up in the second book in the series, The Queen of Attolia, and is also in The King of Attolia. The books' other main protagonist is Eugenides. I'm treading carefully here because of spoilers (and you probably shouldn't read even the summaries of the books after the first book in the series The Thief to totally avoid spoilers), but the more you learn about Attolia, the more you'll like her, I promise. The series starts with The Thief, which is decidedly middle grade if with a somewhat surprising for its genre twist, then after that becomes a Dunnett-esque fantasy series set in a fantasy Greece analogue.
posted by yasaman at 3:09 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Elizabeth Bear and Seanan McGuire (also writing as Mira Grant). Many women, all with their own strengths (and weaknesses), most with a goal beyond the plot. Ursula Vernon's Digger graphic novels, or her fairy-tail retellings as T. Kingfisher. Daniel Jose Older's Bone Street Rumba trilogy, especially the second book (Midnight Taxi Tango), and the YA spinoff (Shadowshaper), and short story collection. Binti, Nnedi Okorafor, heroine runs away to college on another planet (and that's not a spoiler).

Seconding N.K. Jemison, and any Pratchett, especially Thud!, which focuses on Sybil Vimes, and anything with the witches, or Susan, granddaughter of Death (ooooo, Hogfather is seasonally appropriate!)
posted by JawnBigboote at 5:40 PM on December 1, 2016

Charlie Stross's Merchant Princes series, starting with The Family Trade. impetus: heatherlogan, who is on her phone and recommends this as highly as I do.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:38 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Aiah from Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan and City on Fire. So good. http://www.tor.com/2011/09/27/transformative-in-this-as-everything-else-walter-jon-williamss-metropolitan-and-city-on-fire/
posted by wobh at 6:40 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Raven and the Reindeer by Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) is a lovely reworking of the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Snow Queen" with a resourceful protagonist.

Come to think of it, most of Vernon/Kingfisher's works would probably suit. As NPR said in a review, "Vernon's protagonists — often young, usually female, and generally in way over their heads — are sometimes terrified and sometimes angry. Some… are just finding their identities. Others… have survived long lifetimes of putting their heads down and muddling through problems as best they can. But… they're almost always homey people who at heart just want to get the laundry done, the pets fed, and the biscuits made. Adventure comes to them whether they want it or not, and it's up to them to figure out how simple, grounded skills like gardening and kindness can keep them alive."

Bryony and Roses is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast; The Seventh Bride is based on an early version of the Bluebeard story. Toad Words is a collection of short stories; the title story almost always brings tears to my eyes from the passion and anger of the main character.

From other authors, the protagonist of Cidney Swanson's Saving Mars is plucky, resourceful, and determined. I also really liked On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis.
posted by Lexica at 8:16 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Space Pulp is a funny, occasionally raunchy, and quick-paced webcomic about Iridium Lake, a psionic, plasma-sword-wielding fighter who's tightly focused on bringing down an evil empire, in a cat-and-mouse game with other clarivoyants.

"There are many clear paths into the future. They clearly lead to death. So we go to where the chaos is too deep to predict."

It's a lot better than it sounds, and you can read the complete run in an evening or two.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:08 PM on December 1, 2016

Robin McKinley's stories don't feature ambitious women, per se, but they do feature capable, steadfast and sensible women. Try the Blue Sword/The Hero and the Crown pair - they're related but standalone and remind me very much of the Tearling world. Deerskin and Beauty are fairytale women, but good strong characters nonetheless.
posted by ninazer0 at 1:26 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have not finished the series yet but Cithrin's story in Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and The Coin series qualifies.
posted by JDHarper at 4:20 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Symbol of security   |   If it's ___________, it must be Christmas! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.