10 Heroines Who Choose to Challenge

Posted 8th March 2021 by Siavahda in Crescent Classics, Let's Dig In: Thoughts, Analysis, Essays, Lists, Recommendations / 2 Comments

It’s International Women’s Day, and if you didn’t know (as I didn’t, until a few minutes ago!) IWD has annual themes. This year, the theme is Choose to Challenge, so to honour that, here are 10 heroines who challenge what it is the world – ours or theirs – thinks they should be.

The Gift (The Books of Pellinor, #1) by Alison Croggon
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Goodreads

Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child when her family is destroyed in war. She is unaware that she possesses a powerful gift, a gift that marks her as a member of the School of Pellinor. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true heritage and extraordinary destiny unfolds. Now she and her teacher, Cadvan, must survive a punishing and uncertain journey through a time and place where the dark forces they battle with stem from the deepest recesses of other-worldly terror.

Maerad is raised as a slave, but a fateful encounter reveals that she is actually a Bard – long-lived guardians of the Balance who work incredible magics and can speak to every living thing. More, her rescuer begins to suspect that she might be the Foretold, the one who will rise to meet a great evil – the only one with any chance of defeating it.

Maerad faces resistance from other Bards for a variety of reasons, but when push comes to shove, the most influential council of Bards insists she can’t be the Foretold – because she’s a girl. Misogyny is, happily, not something Maerad has to face off against too often, but the entire Pellinor saga challenges and subverts the traditional Chosen One trope – even as the books are written in a framework that deliberately echoes those traditions. The Pellinor books contain all the wonder and magic that I, personally, never found with Lord of the Rings, but front and center is a young girl who gets her period and doesn’t know how to read and is, maybe, not entirely hopeless with a sword. Just.

Maerad’s very existence is a challenge to her world, one she has to choose again and again – and the Pellinor books as a whole very much challenge readers to re-examine their own beliefs and unconscious biases, not just about gender, but about Fantasy as a genre too.

Kushiel's Dart (Phèdre's Trilogy, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
Representation: Bisexual MC, secondary M/M or mlm, F/F, queernorm world
Genres: High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

The land of Terre d'Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good... and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt.

Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission... and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.

Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair... and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear.

Set in a world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess, this is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Not since Dune has there been an epic on the scale of Kushiel's Dart-a massive tale about the violent death of an old age, and the birth of a new.

Phedre was given over to be raised as a courtesan – and even when she’s revealed to be a god-chosen anguissette, someone who can find pleasure in pain, few think of her as more than that. That’s not nothing – in her land, sex workers are sacred – but it does mean she’s underestimated by most. Even the man who trains her in spycraft keeps his secrets from her.

But even over the course of the first book in the series, she becomes far, far more than anyone – including herself – ever thought she could be, accomplishing feats that could easily be called miracles. Without ever giving up who she is, she challenges and triumphs over ever assumption, every dismissal, every impossibility. Especially when she has to travel outside her homeland, to countries with far less gender equality and no respect for sex work at all, she overturns, subverts, or deliberately uses the beliefs people have about women – including other women – to her own advantage, without ever giving up her femininity.

And in throwing herself at enemy states, gods, and fallen angels, she very much chooses to challenge, over and over again, what everyone thinks a woman can do – and be.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Representation: Disabled bisexual MC, assorted queer cast
Genres: Sci Fi, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.

Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

Click here for my review!

Anna is a temp in data-input, struggling to afford ramen. The only thing ‘special’ about her is that the temp agency she’s with? It’s a temp agency for henchpeople. As in, all the nameless nobodies who work for the supervillain – the ones who are always mercifully knocked out instead of killed in the movies, and never mind the permanent brain damage that must leave them with…

Anna challenges the reader’s expectation – and understanding – of villains and their henches from the get-go, but after a superhero carelessly leaves her with a permanent disability, she sets out to challenge her world’s view of superheroes. And when enough people start to listen, she rises to the occasion to prove that she can do more than almost anyone would believe of a disabled woman. She challenges the assumptions people make about disposable temps; she forces everyone, including the reader, to re-evaluate the importance and potential devastating use of spreadsheets; and more than anything, she refuses to fade out of the picture the way the superheroes – and the society that supports them – wants her to. One of the best parts of the book is the found-family she gains in the process, but there’s no denying the fact that her enemies think she should be small and silent, expect her to be helpless without superpowers and with her disability.

But Hench says fuck that, and it’s glorious.

Power and Majesty (Creature Court, #1) by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Representation: Background M/M or mlm
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy, High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

“She almost missed the sight of a naked youth falling out of the sky. He was long and lean and muscled … He was also completely off his face.”

A war is being fought in the skies over the city of Aufleur. No one sees the battles. No one knows how close they come to destruction every time the sun sets.
During daylight, all is well, but when nox falls and the sky turns bright, someone has to step up and lead the Creature Court into battle.

Twelve years ago, Garnet kissed Velody and stole her magic. Five years ago, he betrayed Ashiol, and took his powers by force. But now the Creature Court is at a crossroads … they need a Power and Majesty who won’t give up or lose themselves in madness …

Velody is supposed to be a dressmaker. Even when she gets drawn into the world of the Creature Court – where shapeshifting magic-users battle the sky every night to keep it from devouring the city – she’s supposed to be a Lady, the highest magical caste women can hope for. But instead her magic makes her a King, which sets the whole Court reeling.

More, she becomes the Power and Majesty – the King of Kings.

Velody shakes the foundations of the world she’s in by her very existence, but she doesn’t just challenge the Creature Court’s ideas of what she should be. Her magic comes with a wildness that gives her a feral fire rarely glimpsed in female characters; the kind of sharp-toothed, grinning savagery that licks blood off the fingers and calls it sweet. It challenges her view of herself even as it challenges the reader to keep up, to understand that a woman can like pretty dresses and still laugh mid-battle, that she can care about flowers and courts at the same time. To understand that savagery and sweetness can go hand in hand, and it in no way makes her less of a woman.

Which is not to say, either, that she embraces violence and the vicious culture of the Court, because she doesn’t. She fights hard to change that culture, encouraging respect and gentleness and putting her money where her mouth is in her determination to find a better way to do things. She challenges the reader’s idea of what a heroine is supposed to look like, and completely overturns the Court’s idea of what their King of Kings is supposed to be like.

Also, you’ll never guess what she shapeshifts into.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler
Representation: Physically genderless/agender MC, minor M/M or mlm
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Goodreads

The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.

Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly's quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.

Lilly is not the soft, feminine creature her parents want her to be, and far from enjoying the pretty dresses they put her in and playing with the other little girls they introduce her to, all she wants is to run down to the shore – where her best friend, a kraken, is always ready to greet her.

Yes, I said it. A kraken. His name is Octavian.

Lilly challenges every feminine stereotype you can think of: she is not elegant, she is cool to her parents, she is ‘sharp’, she speaks to adults as if she is one herself. Her father’s violence means nothing to her. And when the time comes, she doesn’t whimper and cower, but packs up and leaves without ever looking back.

Girls are meant to have best friends, but to sacrifice them for lovers; Lilly refuses to give Octavian up for anything. In fact, she instead is ready to give up anything to bring him home when he’s taken – and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, either. She deals with skinless witches and digging graves without complaint, and although she passes herself off as a boy after another witch (this one with skin) takes her biological sex, she continues to consider herself a woman, regardless of what’s between her legs or missing from her abdomen and chest.

So it would be impossible to claim she’s not a woman who chooses to challenge just about everything she possibly can, with regards her womanhood and anything else that gets in her way.

The Councillor (The Councillor, #1) by E.J. Beaton
Representation: Bisexual MC, past F/F, queernorm world
Genres: High Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar's quest to choose the next ruler of her kingdom amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination.

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

Click here for my review!

Lysande isn’t a sword-carrying warrior-queen; instead, she’s the queen’s scholar. There are still Fantasy fans who believe a Strong Woman has to be an Amazon warrior, but Lysande’s strength comes from her intelligence, her encyclopedic knowledge, and her empathy. She doesn’t choose to challenge the queendom rigid hierarchy – the queen does that, by making her, lowborn scholar that she is, the one who will select the next monarch – but she does step up to the plate on every count.

I think Lysande is more of a challenge thrown down to the reader than to the people in her own world, though. We have the stereotype of the scheming woman, but Lysande ‘schemes’ with compassion, with the determination to make things better for her people. She is brilliantly intelligent without being selfish or manipulative, defying the idea that a woman can only be brilliant if she wants something. And perhaps most of all, it is Lysande’s want that most bucks our ideas of what a woman should be: Lysande is not only casually queer, she is casually sexual. She experiences sexual attraction, and is not ashamed or conflicted about it; if a prospective partner returns her interest, then they have sex, and there is no guilt or morning-after regrets, only mutual pleasure. It sounds so simple, but reading it is revelatory, proving that, even if being at ease with ourselves as sexual beings is something we talk about, it’s still not something we see very often. Especially not from women.

And don’t even get me started on what people in our world would say about the fact that Lysande openly and unashamedly enjoys dominating her partners!

Lysande bucks many conventions of our world, but most especially sexual ones. Women aren’t supposed to want sex like that; they’re certainly not supposed to be the dominant one in bed. But she does, and is, and it’s marvelous.

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, #1) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Representation: Very minor background polyamory
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Goodreads

“Bujold builds a better fantasy romance with compelling characters and the fascinating clash between their cultures, she a farmer’s daughter, he an adventurer on the trail of a deadly demon.”—Locus

One of the most respected writers in the field of speculative fiction, Lois McMaster Bujold has won numerous accolades and awards, including the Nebula and Locus Awards as well as the fantasy and science fiction genre’s most prestigious honor, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, four times (most recently for Paladin of Souls).

With The Sharing Knife series, Bujold creates a brand new world fraught with peril, and spins an extraordinary romance between a young farm girl and the brave sorcerer-soldier entrusted with the defense of the land against a plague of vicious malevolent beings.

Meet Fawn Bluefield and Dag Redwing Hickory in Beguilement, the first book in Bujold’s unforgettable four-volume fantasy saga, and witness the birth of their dangerous romance—a love threatened by prejudice and perilous magic, and by Dag’s sworn duty as Lakewalker patroller and necromancer.

Fawn is young and inexperienced, knowing little about the world outside of the farm she was born on. She’s good at all the things ‘womanly’ women are supposed to be good at: cooking, weaving, knitting socks. She’d make an excellent farm wife, if that was what she wanted to do. Looking at her, you might struggle to see how she challenges anyone’s ideas about women.

Well, for one thing, she’s smart. Ignorance is not the same as stupidity; she doesn’t know things, but she’s hungry to know, and once she does know she can put the pieces together in ways that far more experienced people never could. The idea that someone can be comfortably feminine – can be ‘house-wifely’ – and still brilliantly intelligent? Is not an easy one for most people to get their heads around. Even many people who call themselves feminists are quick to dismiss women who want to be house wives, who find happiness and fulfillment in that, and I’ve seen too many people assume women like that must be ‘a bit slow’. Which is bs.

As a world, we’re struggling to reimagine the roles women can claim, can make for themselves. We have to remember that not every woman wants to be a CEO – and that doesn’t make her worth less than the girl who wants to be president when she grows up. Fawn challenges the idea that small, cute ladies who knit and keep the house tidy are people who don’t matter; she more than matters, she saves the day on more than one occasion, and she does it by being herself, knitting and all. She challenges the idea that house wives can’t be brave and adventurous even if they want a nice home to come – well, come home to. And she challenges the idea that youth, especially youth in women, means a person’s opinions and desires and ideas can or should be dismissed.

The Merciful Crow (The Merciful Crow, #1) by Margaret Owen
Representation: Oppressed minority, Bisexual love interest
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy, High Fantasy
Goodreads

A future chieftain.

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince.

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard.

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

Fie is a Crow, the lowest of the low in her world. And she is everything girls aren’t supposed to be: street-smart, bitter, angry. She hates, and is not punished by her people or the narrative for it; she’s mocking when the two rich boys who fall into her family’s lap don’t know the first thing about living rough. Far from being sweet and gentle, from bowing her head and meekly accepting her circumstances, she wants to burn the whole fucking world down for how it treats her and her people – she has so much rage, and it’s justified, and honestly it’s so damn cathartic to read about a heroine who also wants to scream at the unfairness of it all.

But if she’s not a princess in silks, then The Rules say she should be a fighter, good with a sword and dagger. Right? Well, she’s not that either. She fits in neither niche, and it’s not her fault, even if I doubt she’d want to fit in either one. What Fie has is grit and bared teeth and fury with nowhere to go; she doesn’t fit anyone’s idea of a heroine. She’s not a lucky street-rat; she’s not a plucky princess; she’s not a secret warrior. She’s herself, real and raw, spiky and more than a little bit savage. She’s fucking wonderful, and she doesn’t so much challenge the ideas of what a girl ought to be as she burns them down and stamps on the ashes with her nail-studded boots.

#RealGirlsRage

Radiant (Towers Trilogy, #1) by Karina Sumner-Smith
Genres: Fantasy
Goodreads

Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.

When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.

With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

Xhea is another girl who would flip the bird at our ideas of femininity. Unlike Fie, she’s not burning up with rage; instead, she’s cool and closed-off, knowing damn well there’s no one in the world who gives a real damn about her. She’s bitter, but resigned, and doesn’t have scruples; she scrapes together a living by dealing with the ghosts attached to the people grieving for them. It’s not a scam – she really can see ghosts – but she’s making her money off people who are in mourning, or who are going out of their minds at being haunted.

A ‘proper’ girl would probably do it for free. Right? Yeah, no. Not if she wants to eat.

Girls aren’t supposed to be bitter. They’re not supposed to be ruthless. They’re not supposed to be the kind of strong that lets them survive on their own. They’re not supposed to resent their ‘betters’, the wealthy and privileged who live in floating towers above Xhea’s city. They’re supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice, not salt and brine and nothing fine.

They’re not supposed to tear the entire rotten system down, either, but Xhea’s not here for your sexist nonsense, thanks.

The One Who Eats Monsters by Casey Matthews
Representation: F/F or wlw
Genres: Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Goodreads

Long ago, before history broke in half, elder gods exiled the vengeful deity Erynis to a far corner of Earth. When Ryn is found weakened after saving the life of an innocent villager, the U.S. military mistakes the battered immortal for a feral teenager and places her in New Petersburg, a decaying city full of monsters.

In her clash with the city’s demons, Ryn is confused by her intense emotional connection with Naomi Bradford, a senator’s daughter she has sworn to protect. But while her claws can kill anything that dies (and a few things that cannot), she must also contend with the human race. They lie, they speak in riddles, and to protect her friend, the immortal must navigate the senseless rules of their flawed civilization. Worse, they are fragile—and giving her heart to one makes Ryn afraid for the first time in her eternal life.

Click here to read my review!

Our last two girls have been bitter and sharp-edged, but Ryn is a full-on monster. And I mean that literally: she is the monster that other monsters have nightmares about, a feral, primordial goddess-creature who feeds on and destroys the spirits that are born out of human evil. She takes the form of a teenage girl for purely tactical reasons, but oh, she is not interested in being feminine. She doesn’t dress up nice; she bares her teeth and bites people who try to make her, instead.

Goddesses are supposed to be soft, or else they’re supposed to be razor sharp, but they’re always supposed to be polished. Girls are supposed to be elegant. Ryn is none of those things: I meant it when I called her feral. She doesn’t understand humans and doesn’t care to; she puts up with no shit from anybody, not hesitating to lift grown men off the ground by their throats if they overstep the very, very narrow bounds she grants them. But she’s no Artemis or Athene, either, and she’s not an action-movie bad-ass. She’s more elemental than that; she’s not a weapon, she is the weapon, but the fight-scenes aren’t polished and choreographed for maximum audience enjoyment. They’re savage.

What I’m trying to say is, she’s not feminine in the way that our society says she should be, and she’s not not-feminine in the way our society says is sometimes okay. She challenges our ideas of what a girl is, what a girl is allowed to be, what a girl can do. She’s a thrown-down gauntlet to our ideas of what a heroine is, while at the same time? Not giving one single fuck about what anyone thinks of her.

And that’s 10 – but they’re far from the only ones! Who are some of your favourite heroines?

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