The Eastwood sisters in The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Women’s magic and women’s votes are both outlawed in this alternative version of 1893. The Eastwood sisters mean to change that. Pushed into New Salem by their father’s abuse, the three sisters live separate lives: Studious Beatrice Belladonna works in a library, beautiful Agnes Amaranth works in a factory, and wild James Juniper joins a women’s suffrage group. When a cruel and misogynistic politician throws his hat in the ring to become mayor of New Salem, the sisters unite against him. They gather other women willing to fight for women’s rights by using the most potent weapon at their disposal: magic. This gorgeous, feminist novel depicts three sisters at war against misogyny.
Talyien in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
Talyien is Queen of Oren-Yaro, a people known for their ruthlessness. Talyien is no exception, and when her husband abandons her and their son on the day she's crowned, she vows to get him back — or else. Years later, she secretly meets him in a neutral country across the sea to negotiate. After an assassination attempt, she finds herself alone in a strange land while political forces move in on both herself and her country. She’ll have to use all of her ruthlessness and wit to survive. This is the first book in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, with the third and final book, The Dragon of Jin-Sayeng, releasing in May. The series title says it all.
Princess Askia in The Frozen Crown by Greta Kelly
Though Princess Askia is a ruler on the run from a dark and evil emperor and magician, she’s not about to give in. She’ll do whatever it takes to protect her people from the Roven Empire. With that in mind, she and a small contingent of her military travel to the prosperous Southern country Vishir to beg for military aid in reclaiming her northern kingdom. The Vishir nobility view her as a savage. Moreover, Askia has a deadly secret that puts her in danger at the Vishir court: She’s a death witch and can see ghosts. Years earlier, her parents were put to death in Vishir because they, too, were witches. This first book in a duology expertly combines political intrigue with dashes of romance, sword fights, and magic training. It’s a fun and action-packed read.
Fatima/Sankofa in Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor
Fatima has a dangerous power given to her by a seed that fell from the sky when she was a child, but it’s a power she doesn’t want. After her power causes a traumatic accident, she forgets her name and becomes known as Sankofa as she wanders a near-future Ghana in search of the seed stolen from her. She'd be all alone if it weren't for her fox sidekick, who is unaffected by the green glow that emanates from Sankofa and kills those within its range. This inventive, Africanfuturist novella packs an emotional gut-punch that sneaks up on you.
Maggie in Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
In a post-apocalyptic world, monsters from Dinétah lore are no longer so mythical. Gifted with supernatural speed from her Honághááhnii clan, no one is as good at killing these monsters as Maggie. When she defeats a golem-type monster and tries to trace its origins, she reluctantly realizes she needs help and enlists Kai Arviso, a medicine man in training, and the trickster god Coyote to her aid. This action-packed book is a real page-turner. Maggie’s snarky, kickass character is a blast to read, and for more powerful women, check out book two in the series, Storm of Locusts.
Miryem, Wanda, and Irina in Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
It’s winter in medieval Lithvas, and the Staryk fey are encroaching on human lands. Miryem, a moneylender’s daughter, makes an idle boast that she can turn silver into gold, and the Staryk king comes knocking, demanding that she literally do so. Meanwhile, Irina, a duke’s daughter, catches the demon-possessed tsar’s attention, and the peasant Wanda escapes her abusive family’s grasp to work for Miryem. In a world full of fairy tales and fey, these three women must learn how to outwit the Staryk. Their lives and their country are at stake.
Prunella in Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Prunella is a spunky sorceress of mixed heritage who isn’t about to let men tell her she can’t practice magic. And with magic becoming scarce in Regency-era England, the country needs her, even if they’re not ready to admit it. When sorcerer Zacharias meets her for the first time, he immediately decides to take Prunella on as a student. But Zacharias’s cautious nature is no match for Prunella’s exuberance, and soon his pupil is outpacing him as she battles dark forces crossing over from fairyland. Book two, The True Queen, is just as fun to read as the first.
Sigourney Rose in Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
In this Caribbean-inspired fantasy, Sigourney Rose, the daughter of a white noble father and a Black enslaved mother, is in the unique position of being a powerful magic user and a Black noble. Because of this, the other nobles despise her. However, as the last living member of her murdered family, she remains in power. She plots revenge against the nobles she suspects murdered her family, but her plans are interrupted when someone else, more powerful than she, begins to murder the nobles one by one, and she might be next.
Deka in The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
Sixteen-year-old Deka is approaching her coming of age ceremony, where girls are cut to ensure their blood runs red, signifying their purity. When her time comes, Deka’s blood runs gold. Because of her so-called impurity, she’s cast out of her village and from everything she’s ever known. A woman warrior finds Deka and asks her to join her and a group of other similar girls with rare powers to train for the emperor’s army and fight the monstrous deathshrieks. This action-packed West African-inspired epic fantasy with feminist themes is both brutal and hopeful.
Cas Russell in Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang
Tough mathematical genius and mercenary agent Cas Russell is a problematic heroine. Cas’s memories have been wiped, and, as a result, her moral compass is a bit off. But then, she can also dodge bullets using near instantaneous mathematical calculations, so maybe it’s a fair trade. When she hears rumors of a shady organization called Pithica using mind control, she goes to investigate. She finds herself fighting allies and enemies alike when minds can be bent to Pithica’s will. This compelling sci-fi thriller is the first book in a completed trilogy.
Immanuelle in The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson
The apocalypse has begun, and Immanuelle Moore might be both her village’s savior and its doom. Immanuelle’s mother conceived her with an outsider of a different race and was condemned and executed as a witch because of it. Immanuelle lives with the burden of her mother’s sinful legacy, and while she follows all the Prophet’s rules and codes, she doubts their validity. One day, she enters the forbidden woods to catch an errant sheep and encounters strange women who give Immanuelle her mother’s diary. Her mother had drawn strange, horrific creatures within the diary, accompanied by a prophecy: Four phases will herald the apocalypse — blood, blight, darkness, and slaughter. Immanuelle has possibly initiated the foretold apocalypse by visiting the woods, but then, maybe that’s precisely what the Prophet and his followers deserve.
Vasya in The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Born in the heart of winter, Vasilisa Petrovna is raised on fairytales told by the fire. She soon realizes she’s different from everyone else: She can see guardian spirits and creatures from Russian folklore. When her father remarries, she learns her stepmother Anna can see them too, though she calls them demons. Anna confesses to the recently assigned village priest, Father Konstantin, that she sees demons everywhere. The Father decides it’s his divine mission to abolish the demons and bring the people back to God. Threatening God's wrath, he convinces the villagers to stop leaving out food for the guardian spirits. But instead of saving the village, he gives power to the evil bear god. Only the winter god and Vasya can save the village. Vasya becomes more and more self-assertive in each book of the completed Winternight trilogy, and as her agency grows, so too do the stakes.
Beatrice in The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
This feminist fantasy takes place in a Regency-era fantasy world, where magical women are married off and collared so they can’t practice their magic. Beatrice Clayborn doesn’t want to marry; she wants to improve her magic and become a great sorceress. However, after a recent financial disaster, her family is relying on her to make a good match and save them from poverty. Scoping bookstores, Beatrice finds a grimoire that could be the key to advancing her magic, but the wealthy Ysbeta Lavan snags it first. After meeting Ysebeta’s brother Ianthe at a marriage ball, Beatrice finds herself feeling unwillingly attracted to her adversary’s brother and him to her. This novel is a fast-paced feminist delight full of plot twists, romantic angst, and social justice themes.
Maryse in Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Maryse fights Lovecraftian monsters, armed with a magical sword that channels generations of vengeful anger, in this alternative version of 1922 Georgia. The Ku Kluxes are Lovecraftian monsters from another dimension, wreaking havoc while posing as Klan members. After her family’s murder, Maryse dedicates her life to killing these monsters. By her side is snarky shotgun-wielding Sadie and explosives master Chef. When the most dangerous monster of all arrives, Maryse must face her past tragedy and contend with her anger to defeat it. This emotional and riveting novella is infused with Black folklore, rich friendships, and kickass women.
Tanya in Wench by Maxine Kaplan
Tanya is a tavern wench, and she’s proud of it. She enjoys her work — no one can break up a bar fight faster than she can — but when her adopted father and the tavern’s owner unexpectedly dies, a group of soldiers claim the tavern for themselves and take all of its provisions. To win it back, she decides to travel with the soldiers to the capital and petition the queen. A magical object the soldiers' protect, and which every brigand in the forest is after, complicates her quest. With spot-on snarky dialogue, a kickass bisexual main character, and lots of adventures and hijinks, Wench is a blast to read from beginning to end, and Tanya transforms the tavern wench stereotype. Who says a tavern wench can’t save the world?
Anza and Mirantha in The Vanished Queen by Lisbeth Campbell
Anza joins the resistance against a tyrannical king after her military father’s execution. She’s in the perfect position to be a resistor: She has no family, she’s educated, and her father secretly trained her in archery. While attending the country’s only university, she discovers Queen Mirantha’s diary hidden in the pages of another book. Queen Mirantha vanished long ago, and everyone assumes the king murdered her. Queen Mirantha’s diary describes the abuse she received from the king, her efforts to raise her sons to be good rulers who think of justice first and foremost, and her doomed love affair with a priest. This engrossing stand-alone fantasy depicts women standing against an oppressive monarchy and the sacrifices they make in doing so. Content warning for sexual and domestic assault.
Tarisai in Raybearer by Jordan Ifeuko
This Nigerian-inspired YA fantasy shows two powerful women at odds: A daughter chosen to represent law and justice on the Aristar council and her mother bent on revenge. Tarisai can only be touched by her mother, who rarely visits, and even when she does, she rarely looks at or speaks to Tarisai. When her mother sends her to the empire’s capital to murder the prince, Tarisai realizes the mother she’s worshipped her entire childhood has never deserved her devotion. But bound by djinn magic, denying her mother’s commands is no easy task. Meanwhile, darker magic threatens to tear Aristar apart.
Empress In-yo in The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo
With Empress In-yo dead, Cleric Chih has been tasked with cataloging her house’s goods. This is the house where Empress In-yo resided during her banishment. Though Empress In-yo supported the clerics and their work cataloging history, she wouldn’t allow them to investigate her exile and how she came to power. Now that she’s dead, no such restrictions apply, so Chih has been sent to this out-of-the-way home, where only an old servant of the late empress lives — a woman named Rabbit. As Rabbit shares Empress In-yo’s stories and their shared past, Chih uncovers a nuanced history of how the disenfranchised shape history and can come to rule it, though at significant cost.
Dr. Elma York in The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Elma York is a brilliant mathematician and pilot in an alternative version of the 1950s, where a huge meteor destroys the eastern coast of the United States and kills millions. The meteor strike sets off a chain of environmental events that, scientists predict, will lead to humanity’s extinction. The race to the stars becomes a race of survival, and more than anything, Elma wants to join the race and become an astronaut. However, 1950s societal values say a woman’s place is in the home, not the stars. Regardless, Elma gathers together other female pilots to help convince the powers that be to let women become astronauts. This is the first book in the compelling Lady Astronaut series, where women astronauts help save humanity.
Tamra and Raina in Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst
When humans who’ve committed evil and despicable acts die, they return in the form of monstrous kehoks. Tamra was once a champion kehok racer, but she’s no longer able to ride, and she’s desperate for money to send her daughter to school. To raise the money, she purchases a human-killing kehok and agrees to train the runaway Raina in kehok racing, despite her inexperience. As the two train together, Tamra begins to view Raina as her second daughter. Now she has not one but two daughters to protect, and this year’s races have even higher stakes. Winning it will have empire-wide consequences. This enthralling fantasy rich in world-building depicts a mother who will do whatever it takes to give her daughters the lives they deserve.
Circe in Circe by Madeline Miller
In this retelling of Greek mythology, the powerful witch Circe comes to life. As a child, Circe is bullied and ridiculed. One day she realizes she can transform people with magic, and in fear of this magic, the gods banish her to a remote island. She strengthens her witchcraft on the island and, as time passes, becomes a force to be reckoned with. When Odysseus arrives with his loud, boorish men, she knows just what to do with them, but Odysseus surprises her. This lyrical novel lets a woman condemned to the margins of Greek myth take center stage.
Margaret Kingsbury is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in BuzzFeed Books, Book Riot, StarTrek.com, Parents, the Earth Island Institute, and more. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.