This weekend a friend and I will be attending the Women’s March in Washington, DC. I am fully prepared with my “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-Damental Human Rights” t-shirt, my “feminist” sweatshirt, and my “feminist as fuck” tank top. In the spirit of this event I thought I would compile a list of some of the best scifi/fantasy feminist fiction.
I don’t read many “literary” books (“classics,” what have you) because my bookshelves are filled with science fiction, fantasy, and romance books and there are only so many hours in a day. But I still like reading some kick-ass feminist fiction. As such, this list contains novels that can best be placed in the “adventure” category that feature strong female characters, whether of the physically kick-ass or the emotionally and mentally kick-ass variety, and sometimes both.
Some of these books I have read myself and so come with an enthusiastic personal recommendation. Another I have heard about but have yet to read, and finally, another that I have discovered while researching more feminist fiction. This list is in no particular order and is rather short, I’ll admit, but I want to make sure that most of this list is comprised of books I have read myself since it’s hard to recommend something I don’t know much about. Unfortunately my list does not include very diverse picks written by or about people of color or belonging to the LGBT+ community. That definitely something I want to change this year so if you know of some awesome science fiction and fantasy that falls into this category, I’m all ears!
With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the list.
Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This is a classic and oft-cited feminist novel that I would put into the science fiction category. While I may not be the most avid reader of classics, I did read this book my senior year in high school. I read it for a class and at the time I enjoyed it for its dystopian science fiction elements since this was before I went to college and truly discovered feminism. As such I think it deserves a re-read on my part and some reflection with my now different (or at least more informed) perspective on women’s struggles.
The setting of the novel is a nightmare, though not far off, future where births are declining and women have become property. Our protagonist is a Handmaid, one of the few fertile women left, who are assigned to important men and their families, acting as a surrogate. The Handmaids’ only purpose is to bear children and all women are no longer allowed to read in this oppressive society.
In case this makes you more interested, this book will soon be coming out as a Hulu series and I highly recommend reading the book before watching a live-action adaptation.
Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce
Growing up I was positively enthralled with the Tortall books by Tamora Pierce. There are five series set in the Tortall universe and I have loved almost all of them (I will probably discuss this in more detail in a future post). I also reread most of these series every few years or so.
The books in particular that stand out to me as powerful feminist reads (at least the ones that are my favorite) are the Song of the Lioness series and the Protector of the Small series. These eight books follow women as they train to become knights in a male dominated medieval fantasy setting. Having grown up as a tomboy, I was all about these books.
In Song of the Lioness the protagonist is Alanna, a woman who has to pose as a man in order to accomplish her lifelong dream of being a knight. Her struggle to prove herself physically capable to become a capable knight takes the forefront, but we also see her come to grips with her femininity and ultimately her need to live a balanced life, not cut off from her womanhood.
Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce
OK, so I’m cheating a bit here, but I thought this series deserved a separate mention since the setting may be similar to the Song of the Lioness quartet, but the feminist themes that are tackled are somewhat different.
The Protector of the Small series follows almost a generation after the Lioness, with the protagonist Keladry being the first openly female knight candidate. Here we see her very open struggle with sexism and accepting her womanhood without sacrificing her dreams. It speaks a lot to feminist movements and the slow progress to equality. Alanna may have blazed the trail for women in the knight’s profession, but Kel still has many obstacles to face.
I do want to mention that not all of the books in the Tortall universe deal with women struggling to be accepted in traditionally male fields. Other books address other aspects of female struggles, such as agency (such as the Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen novels, which follow Alanna’s daughter roughly a few years after the events of the Protector of the Small quartet).
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
I’ve heard of this book from my foray into BookTube (the corner of YouTube featuring books, books, and more books!) and while it didn’t immediately catch my eye, I finally found out what this novel is about and I have to say that I am rather looking forward to reading it.
The novel is about two girls who are working as spies in WWII. One of them is captured by the Gestapo and weaves a tale about her mission and her life and her relationship with the other spy. The relationship between the girls is what places this book on this particular list as it highlights the importance of female friendships and women supporting other women.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I enjoy Arthurian legends as much as the next girl, but sometimes one can get an overload and so I’ve had to take a break these past few years. The Mists of Avalon is the books that starts the Avalon series which retells the tale of Arthur from the perspective of the women that wielded power behind the scenes. Needless to say I’m willing to come out of my Arthurian legend hiatus for this one.
One of the main themes this novel deals with is how history remembers women (or rather, doesn’t), especially influential and powerful women and stands as a reminder that at the beginning of most religions stands a woman.
This list is a rather short one and there are so many other great feminist novels of the feminist persuasion out there. Which ones are your favorite? Let me know in the comments!