Book rec: Magic, female protagonist discovering her power
April 29, 2020 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I've searched other Asks and have some leads, but haven't seen this exactly: can you recommend fiction with a female main character coming into her own via connecting with her magical power? (more details within)

I'm looking for a book for a friend and me to read -- broadly, a story about the female main character coming into her own magical, powerful self.

• coming-of-age stories with a younger protagonist, or someone discovering their true power later in life -- could be either.
• could be either YA or adult fiction (we are both adults but enjoy YA)
• ideally a standalone, or, if part of a series, an installment which is satisfying on its own
• particularly interested in: Celtic (or Celtic-type atmosphere/world) / witchcraft / Wicca / possibly fae worlds
• could be in a fantasy world, or a magical character in a non-magical world
• Any time period
• could be graphic novel, possibly
• romance elements okay but ideally not as the central narrative (ie not looking for the Sookie Stackhouse type of story where it has to do with who she'll be with.)

Thank you for any thoughts. I dug through past similar-ish Asks and have been making notes, although nothing pinged exactly (thus this question.)
posted by profreader to Media & Arts (56 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin may fit the bill.
posted by sacrifix at 9:15 AM on April 29, 2020 [18 favorites]

Check out the Circle of Magic books, it's about a group of kids coming into their magic powers, three of the four being women. The second series, the Circle Opens, still has a lot of those elements but would be both more stand alone and more focused on one character. Shatterglass in particular stands out in my memory.
posted by Carillon at 9:18 AM on April 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Trail of Lightning is about a teenage Navajo woman in a post-apocalyptic world discovering her powers.
posted by cheesecake at 9:19 AM on April 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

The night circus is a favorite of mine and aligns with this.
posted by beignet at 9:20 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh also, check out Juniper by Monica Furlong. It has a Cornish setting, with witchcraft being the main magic of the book. It's about the title character learning to use magic, part of a series but definitely satisfying on its own.
posted by Carillon at 9:24 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

All the Birds in the Sky
posted by latkes at 9:26 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness; it's the first in a trilogy. Main character is an adult female academic witch, who has tried to suppress/ignore her magical powers, but is thrust into having to develop them when she discovers a mysterious manuscript. There is a romance story line which helps drive the plot, but it's not really the central focus.
posted by damayanti at 9:28 AM on April 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Wee Free Men and it's sequels.
posted by latkes at 9:30 AM on April 29, 2020 [19 favorites]

The Power by Naomi Alderman might be interesting, it has 4 main characters, 3 of them women, 2 of them young, with powers that they are forced to come to terms with, and a man who doesn't, and is (mostly) an observer to what is going on.
posted by gregjones at 9:32 AM on April 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

Robin McKinley, The Hero And The Crown.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:35 AM on April 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

Broken Earth is the first thing that came to my mind as well, though it is a trilogy.

Circe for sure. It's a retelling of Greek mythology - Circe is a nymph/witch who figures in many different myths (most notably the Odyssey).
posted by natabat at 9:39 AM on April 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

I mostly read series, so apologies.

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire, first book of the October Daye series.

Greywalker, by Kate Richardson. Very underrated urban fantasy series.

Blood of the Earth
by Faith Hunter. I find Nell Ingram to be a really interesting and atypical fantasy protagonist.

The Night Raven by Sarah Painter. Magical London is divided into four families. This one doesn't stand on it's own as well as the previous listed but it's enjoyable.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 9:46 AM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh oh oh oh oh the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning, starting with Darkfever. Except this is the start of a series so it's not really a standalone. I'm just pushing it because this series is literal crack for me, and it really ticks every other box for you.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:52 AM on April 29, 2020

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Also Spinning Silver by the same author
posted by rd45 at 9:54 AM on April 29, 2020 [17 favorites]

Seconding the Tiffany Aching series, this is absolutely what it's about, and delightfully funny as well.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

Gideon the Ninth is about two women trained all their lives to do specific jobs in a magical* world, so the magic is always there, but it's not until they have to leave their backwater realm and go up against their counterparts from other realms that they fully realize their power. First in a trilogy, the next one will be out in August. I can vouch for the excellence of the audiobook too, if you want to go that route.

*Sword and necromancy, with interplanetary politics. Scratches a lot of itches.

There is, sorta, a romance throughline, but it's more a vibe than any actual plot. It's possible that might change in the next one but I suspect not really.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:00 AM on April 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

The Black Jewels Trilogy (is trilogy) by Anne Bishop is def this, but I will add also VERY DARK with lots of sexual and other violence. (but really good, amazingly rich world building)
posted by supermedusa at 10:07 AM on April 29, 2020

War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull

Sunshine by Robin McKinley
posted by PussKillian at 10:12 AM on April 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

2nding Jemisin and Novik.

You may also like the Annals trilogy by Ursula LeGuin. It's YA, there are male & female protagonists, plot is focused on magic and coming-of-age.

Also check out The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert and Among Others by Jo Walton (Wales! fairies!)
posted by gnutron at 10:16 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Wee Free Men and its sequels

Absolutely yes, and don't forget the same author's Esme Weatherwax books either: Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, and Lords and Ladies.
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 AM on April 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Have you read much Charles De Lint? There is some cultural appropriation via a made-up Native American community, but this sort of uncovering and discovery is the theme of a lot of his books, especially those set in and around Newford. You might particularly like The Little Country, Jack of Kinrowan (Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon), Someplace to be Flying, Widdershins, and Onion Girl.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:46 AM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think Wicked broadly matches your criteria.
posted by juggler at 10:47 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

I loved The Ozark Trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin. It's three books, but they're not long and I felt each could stand alone. Teenage Responsible of Brightwater is a fun, no-nonsense protagonist, there's lots of world-building, and granny magic out the wazoo.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:50 AM on April 29, 2020

Ms. Marvel A comic about a Pakistani American Muslim teenager from Jersey City who gains super powers. She struggles with her faith and her family while trying to learn her powers and take on super villains.
posted by cali59 at 10:56 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix features a teenage girl who unexpectedly receives her father's necromancy tools and does kind of a crash-course in Necromancer 101 as she works to rescue him (she's studied this magic in an academic setting, but hasn't had a chance to ever really use it). Book 2 (Lirael) features a different girl and follows the "everyone else has special powers but me" plot for a while; her story continues in Book 3.
posted by castlebravo at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2020 [11 favorites]

The Aru Shah books are a fun YA series.
"The book follows the main character Aru Shah, as she realizes that she is a reincarnation of one of the Pandavas and a son of a god in her previous birth. Along with her Pandava sister Mini, she sets to correct a wrong she committed to save the world from destruction in nine days."

Akata Witch - I really enjoyed this one.
"Affectionately dubbed "the Nigerian Harry Potter," Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one's place in the world. Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?"
posted by belladonna at 11:10 AM on April 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

The Singing Stone by O.R. Melling. It's older but looks like it's easy to get used copies of. YA but not cloyingly so, about a girl called back to the time of druids to find herself and step into her power. Female-friendship driven, short enough to not be a huge commitment. Reading your question this book feels like it could exactly fit the brief.

If you like celtic female focused fantasy writing I would also highly HIGHLY recommend The Sevenwaters series. They're seriously beautiful and so well written, but probably a bit more romance and series based than you're looking for for this specific question.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 11:10 AM on April 29, 2020

The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club by Theodora Goss, beginning with The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter. Four of the great Victorian villains had daughters, some of whom have extraordinary powers, who come together to overthrow a secret society of evil male scientists. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson assist. Great, silly fun.

The Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Arden, beginning with The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasilia discovers her powers as she protects her family from the spirit of Winter. I found this absolutely enchanting.
posted by angiep at 11:15 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Can't believe I haven't seen Phiip Pullman recommended yet! The "His Dark Materials" trilogy ticks all of your boxes.
posted by robertthebruce at 11:43 AM on April 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

The original trilogy of the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. There are 2 other trilogies in the larger series, but all kind of unrelated.
posted by so fucking future at 11:50 AM on April 29, 2020

If you're willing to substitute Chinese mythology for Irish, there's The Girl With Ghost Eyes and The Girl With No Face by M.H. Boroson
posted by Schmucko at 11:51 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Uprooted by Naomi Novik truly sounds perfect for this.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Came here to suggest Akata Witch, which is mentioned above.
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:09 PM on April 29, 2020

A lot of these suggestions are good fits but you could have been describing Uprooted word for word - except its fantasy worldbuilding is based in Polish culture rather than Celtic (which was fascinating to read about).
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:25 PM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Perhaps Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard. It ticks all your checkmarks. I should note it's a 10-book series (Young Wizardry), but each book does a good job of standing on its own for the most part. That starting book isn't in Ireland, but the author is, and one of the books is set entirely there (A Wizard Abroad). Highly recommended.
posted by WCityMike at 12:32 PM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (also the author of Akata Witch, mentioned above) could fit the bill.
posted by egregious theorem at 1:02 PM on April 29, 2020

You need A Nameless Witch. (Note: It is YA)

"A tale of vengeance, true love, and cannibalism.
Being born undead can have its disadvantages, such as eternal youth and flawless beauty; things most unsuitable for a witch."

A book so good, that I looked up a friend I had fallen out of touch with in order to recommend it to them.

I also heartily loved the Akata Witch series mentioned above.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 1:34 PM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I loved the YA novel Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.
posted by zeusianfog at 2:10 PM on April 29, 2020

Sabriel (and its sequels).
posted by BungaDunga at 2:25 PM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews. It's the first in a series of 5, but is fine on its own. Coming into her own via connecting with her magical power really describes it.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Genuinely shocked to discover that no one has suggested Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, which I consider to be a classic in this genre. My friends and I recently reread them together. There are 4 of them, but they skew young on the YA scale, so I finished them all in a couple sittings.
posted by quiet coyote at 3:43 PM on April 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

I just finished The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst, which is the second in the series. It would work fine standalone with a quick outline out key points from the previous book (The Queen of Blood), but both actually kind of fit the criteria.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:32 PM on April 29, 2020

Several Diana Wynne Jones books come to mind: The Spellcoats, Deep Secret, Howl’s Moving Castle.
posted by mustard seeds at 5:43 PM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

quiet coyote is right, where's the Tamora Pierce love?! As soon as I saw your question, Song of the Lioness came to mind. I might just go re-read it now!
posted by eloeth-starr at 11:09 PM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wise Child, also by Monica Furlong, too.
posted by centrifugal at 12:04 AM on April 30, 2020

I forgot somebody made a Responsible of Brightwater paper doll!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:08 AM on April 30, 2020

OK, I promise I'll stop harping on the Ozark books; I just keep finding more stuff written about them. This is a good summary/review/background.

Also, although I know Marion Zimmer Bradley is a problematic figure, I thought I should mention that her The Mists of Avalon (the Arthurian legend told from the point of view of a young Morgan le Fay and the other female magic-users in her life) was a very influential work for me as a young, fantasy-loving feminist girl in the pre-Internet days before the average reader knew more about authors than their official bio. It ticks off a number of the boxes you mentioned.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:43 AM on April 30, 2020

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer is YA and as I remember pretty light and fun.
posted by SandiBeech at 5:25 AM on April 30, 2020

YA, and there is a romance element, but due to the age of the protagonists and the age gap, it is not the main focus, and is more a promise for the future rather than the main focus of the plot: The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
posted by gudrun at 9:06 AM on April 30, 2020

Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamorist series starts withShades of Milk and Honey and is a very good book.

I'd also recommend Charlie Holmberg's Paper Magician series
posted by krieghund at 10:00 AM on April 30, 2020

Genuinely shocked to discover that no one has suggested Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series,

But those books aren't about her learning magic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:12 AM on April 30, 2020

The Night Calls trilogy by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel: Night Calls, Kindred Rites and Spiral Path

Young Allie discovers and grows into her hereditary magic in a frontier world while mentored by older practitioners.
posted by jointhedance at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Soprano Sorceress is the first novel of the The Spellsong Cycle by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. and is fine as a standalone story.

It is set in the world of Erde, which is notable for its system of magic, based on music and song. The main character is Anna Marshall, a middle-aged music instructor and small-time opera singer who is magically transported from Ames, Iowa to Erde, a fantastical world where songs have a magical power, and where she has the capability to become one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world.
posted by brandnewday989 at 2:32 PM on April 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think one of the main point-of-view characters in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series fits the bill, but fair warning there are a lot of characters and it's a huge and unfinished series. She's introduced and starts claiming some power for herself in the first book, but doesn't really come into her own until the second and third books.
posted by duien at 2:51 PM on April 30, 2020

Thanks everyone for this incredible list of suggestions -- and also thank you thank you for the non-Celtic suggestions as well (meant to say that that was a "could be but doesn't have to be.) Marked all as "best answer" because I want to read them all - !
posted by profreader at 9:03 AM on May 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Deed of Paksenarrion
posted by tarvuz at 4:40 AM on May 4, 2020

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