Whether we got into science fiction and fantasy as kids or adults, there were plenty of women in the pages of our favorite books that inspired us. The fearless women in these books taught us how to be adventurous, how to be strong, and how to be self-confident. Here are just a few of our favorite women of the science fiction and fantasy books we read growing up. Who’s on your list?
Phèdre nó Delaunay from Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey
While the scale of Jacqueline Carey’s first Kushiel trilogy is breathtaking, there is no better guide to this lushly imagined world than Phèdre nó Delaunay. Trained as a spy and a courtesan, Phèdre was constantly underestimated—even by herself. But as she was thrown into increasingly dangerous situations and emerged triumphant (if often a bit bloody), her self-confidence grew until she took her rightful place as one of the more powerful women in Terre d’Ange. Her journey from scared, unwanted child to intelligent, powerful, sex-positive woman was an inspiration.
Lauren Oya Olamina from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The future that Octavia Butler painted in the first Earthseed novel is a bleak one. Lauren, the teenage protagonist, suffers from hyperempathy, meaning she feels the emotions of those around her, from pain and fear to happiness. When her community is destroyed and Lauren sets off on a journey to create a new home, that hyperempathy makes her journey even more difficult. Confronting racism, sexism, and physical danger at every point along the way, Lauren was the kind of teenager we looked up to: strong, determined, intelligent, charismatic, and above all, caring.
Simsa from Forerunner by Andre Norton
In the very first novel Tor ever published, our main point-of-view character is Simsa, the orphaned Burrower who dreams of more. After having to hide her differences for most of her short life, Simsa starts to take chances when her caregiver, the not-so-caring Ferwar, dies. The adventures Simsa had with Starman Thom made us long for a chance to go on a hunt for a long lost city of our own—especially if we got to have our own zorsal (a batlike creature) as we did it!
Ti-Jeanne from Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Hopkinson’s powerful 1998 debut novel about a young woman rising up against the powers that be takes place in a futuristic Toronto that’s been ravaged by economic downturn and vicious gangs. In the Burn, the slums at the center of the city, a pregnant Ti-Jeanne moves back in with her grandmother after leaving her drug-addicted boyfriend. Her grandmother is respected in their Caribbean-Canadian community as an herbalist and Obeah (seer), but Ti-Jeanne has always rejected her grandmother’s spiritualism. But when Ti-Jeanne’s boyfriend runs afoul of a local gang who wants him to harvest a human heart for a powerful politician, she discovers the power of magic, reconnecting with both her grandmother and her culture. We loved following Ti-Jeanne’s journey as she finds the strength within herself, and recognizes the strength that’s always existed in the women in her family.
Arienrhod and Moon from The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen was a staple fairy tale of many of our childhoods. So when we learned that Joan D. Vinge had adapted into a science fiction novel, we were incredibly excited. Plus, in a time when most science fiction novels were dominated by male main characters, Vinge’s The Snow Queen was full of women—and women in power, at that. The story focused on the power struggle between the titular Snow Queen, Arienrhod, and the Summer-tribe sibyl, Moon. Add in Vinge’s spectacular worldbuilding, and we desperately wished we could visit the planet Tiamet and meet the women who ruled there.
Jessica from My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
Jessica and David are happily married, with a wonderful 5-year old daughter. Until Jessica makes a startling discovery—David is actually 500 years old. Due is a master of beautiful prose and horrifying plot twists. This beloved dark classic combines history, horror, and the supernatural, but what really stands out is watching Jessica fight for herself and her daughter. When a beloved partner turns unexpectedly different and alien (alas, not something not just found in fiction), Jessica’s struggle sparks both chills and cheers for her courage.
Sorcha from Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
If there was ever a book that demonstrated that there’s more than one kind of strength, it’s Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. Rather than strength of arms, swinging a sword at her every problem, Sorcha’s is the strength of endurance—the ability, thanks to her love of her family, to continue on her journey despite difficulty after difficulty, heartbreak after heartbreak. Marillier’s story is lyrical and atmospheric, and tore us to pieces over and over again. And it was worth every tear.
Lessa from the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
Imagine surviving the slaughter of your family. Imagine hiding in plain site in your ancestral home, constantly performing back-breaking labor as a drudge in the home you should rule. And then imagine walking away when the opportunity arises to take back your legacy and your home, because the world at large needs your help. That’s only part of the journey taken by Lessa of Ruth, later Lessa of Pern, in the first of Anne McCaffrey’s iconic Dragonriders of Pern series. Her strength, and her bond with her queen dragon, were things we truly envied when we first read Dragonflight. Add in magnificent dragons, the deadly threat of threads, and a stubborn population that doesn’t believe in the coming danger, and you have a winning combination.
Kerewin Holmes from The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Any woman who would rather live in a tower made of seashells and books than be around other humans is already the kind of heroine we love. But, more than this, Kerewin on a quest to save not the world, not her country of New Zealand, but to rediscover her own artistic voice. An artist who can no longer look inside herself to make art, she is forced to connect with a young, mute European boy who has washed up on her beach from a mysterious shipwreck. The boy’s Maori foster father also provides a painful lesson on love and destruction that paints a vivid, fantastical portrait of Maori myth, post-colonialism, and redemption.