Move over Hot Girl Summer! While the free-spirited, fun-seeking thrill of a Hot Girl Summer might be what a lot of the women in fantasy novels long for, it’s seldom a role our heroines encounter. Instead, many women in fantasy are called to be a badass in the face of an ever-shifting world around them. They make the tough choices, they face down their foes, and they take no prisoners doing it. If you’re looking for some summer reading that kind of energy, take a look at this list of recent releases with strong female protagonists—women who are complex, well-drawn characters leading their own stories.
All these heroes represent very different kinds of women, and their variety of strengths show that there’s no limit to the ways in which a female character can be strong. They also show that being strong doesn’t mean being invulnerable (unless that’s your particular superpower!)—and that sometimes weaknesses make a hero stronger in the long run. Sometimes, it takes being a bad-ass to get the job done—and to make for a story worth reading.
A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee
Release Date: March 5, 2022 from Clarion Books
As far as Miuko is concerned, she’s not anyone particularly important—she’s a member of the serving class, the help to her innkeeper father, and a far too-loud and too-opinionated woman to ever find a husband. She’s satisfied with her small life, she’s convinced herself, because she doesn’t want to become like the mother who abandoned her and her father for adventures of her own.
But on one particularly ominous day, Miuko’s fate turns. First, she sees children taunting a magpie and defends the poor bird with only her umbrella (and negligible skill). Next, she encounters a demon woman, who kisses her. Then, she’s thrown from a bridge by a demon prince. When she wakes after her fall, she discovers she’s undergoing a demonic transformation herself, and she’s thrown into exile, an outcast.
Though she professes to long for her normal life (to both the demon prince and to the magpie spirit she saved, who decides to accompany her on her quest), a part of her knows that she has always longed for something different. If this adventure is not the one she expected, it’s the one she’s been given, and she’s going to do all she can to make it one to be remembered. And also get rid of her demon curse. That’s the mission. Chee’s writing in this novel is old-fashioned, designed to evoke older fairy tales, with footnotes giving details about the world, and it’s done so charmingly that despite the danger in which Miuko finds herself, there’s something about this that feels cozy and perfect for a summer evening.
The Blood Trials by N. E. Davenport
Release Date: April 5 from Harper Voyager
In author N.E. Davenport’s excellent debut novel, Kenna opens her story with a bar fight—in which she’s ready to take on a better trained, better armed, much larger opponent (and she’s ready to kick his ass). She’s got a lot on her mind. Her friends are having their final ceremonies to mark their entrance into the Praetorian Trials, the final series of tests before they’ll be Praetorians, the elite warriors of the Republic of Mareen. Kenna’s not entering the trials, not after the death of her grandfather, the former Legatus of the military, a war hero, and a Black man in a prejudiced nation. But when Kenna’s told that her grandfather might have been murdered, she throws herself into the trials, determined to find out who was behind his death. She’s no longer interested in remaking the Republic of Mareen the way her grandfather would have wanted. She’s out for blood.
But Kenna can’t just survive, she has to keep her own gift, a blood magic common among Mareen’s greatest enemies, a secret, or she’ll be executed. But when that gift starts to have a mind of its own, she doesn’t know if she can trust her own body or magic—and with all the lies she’s been told, she certainly doesn’t know if she can trust anyone who claims to be an ally. Throughout the novel, Kenna makes a lot of hasty conclusions that turn out to be based on bad information, but her brashness is key to her survival. The Blood Trials is the first of a duology that has a background of government intrigue behind a series of survival challenges and desperate battles. For an action-packed, violent military series, with a side of romance and a huge helping of “burn it all down,” this is a great choice.
Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak by Charlie Jane Anders
Release Date: April 5 from Tor Teen
Tina’s secret is that she doesn’t think she’s the bad-ass everyone expects her to be. In the first book in the “Unstoppable” series, Victories Greater than Death, she was told that when she left Earth, she would inherit the memories of a previous version of herself. But despite gaining plenty of knowledge of the universe, anything that’s directly related to the person she was before just isn’t there. Luckily, she has several Earth friends on her journey to help her out. Among them are her best friend, Rachel, an artist who is overwhelmed by too many people (and yet becomes the emotional core of their group), and Elza, an incredibly gifted hacker whose anti-establishment attitude initially frustrates Tina, but who becomes one of Tina’s closest friends (and girlfriend). Rachel and Elza share the POV narrative in Dreams Bigger than Heartbreak, each of them an incredibly strong character with flaws that allow them to be fragile, as well.
After the events of the first book, Rachel finds herself changed, and unable to create the art that was always core to her self-identity. Elza, determined to be in a position of power to make real change, is vying for a position as princess, a quest that sends her voyaging on a deadly spy mission as Rachel journeys into the void. And while they face a threat putting the whole universe at risk, the most important pieces of the story are centered in friendship and self-expression, and finding a way to come back to your own creativity after trauma. Readers will want to pick up both books in this queer and trans inclusive series—and will eagerly await for the third (concluding?) volume.
Fevered Star by Rebecca Roanhorse
Release Date: April 19 from Saga Press
Roanhorse’s Black Sun is an incredibly inventive second-world fantasy that draws its inspiration from the civilizations of the Americas, and sends what feels like an apocalypse crashing down on its main characters. While Serapio planned to bring down the city and elevate the Crow God (which he successfully put into action at the book’s conclusion), Naranpa, a priestess who had previously been the leader of Tova, had merely wished to create a place that was more equal for all its citizens. Now, both are living avatars, imbued with divine power, and set at odds, but also tied to each other. Both were meant to die, and yet because Naranpa, the true Sun Priest, has survived, Serapio lives as well.
Meanwhile, sea captain Xiala finds herself still wrapped up in an intrigue she meant to leave behind. She fell for Serapio when they journeyed together to Tova, and in the chaos and violence that overtook the city, she lost him. But soon she becomes embroiled in greater conspiracies and must journey even farther from Serapio in hopes of being reunited. As the plots thicken in Fevered Star, the story becomes twisted, leading deeper into a world of gods and humans navigating their conflicts, with the hope that they might come out better for it on the other side. Naranpa, a naive and hopeful leader in Black Sun, comes back from the betrayals that nearly buried her to realize that in order to create a better world, maybe the old one needs to be torn down. Xiala, who in the first book very determinedly followed her own fate, continues that journey here with new purpose.
Tear Down the Throne by Jennifer Estep
Release Date: May 3 from Harper Voyager
While Gemma Ripley of Andvari is no gladiator queen like one of her role models, Everleigh Blair (the hero of Estep’s previous trilogy in the same world), she’s definitely not one to shy from getting her hands dirty. Tear Down the Throne is the second of Gemma’s adventures, and as a princess, spy, and powerful mind magier, she’s always in the middle of one crisis or another.
Lately, those crises have been throwing her directly in the path of a sworn enemy, Leonidas, the Crown Prince of Morta. As children, the two dueled with their mind magic. As adults, Gemma almost let herself believe they could be allies—but she’s left those hopes behind. Now, Morta threatens Andvari’s peace once again, and it’s up to Gemma to take down the plot. Estep’s Gargoyle Queen series is a worthy heir to the “Crown of Shards” trilogy, excellent epic fantasy novels that established a world full of magicians, shapeshifters, crafters, and people with smaller supernatural gifts. The national dynamics are intriguing, and Morta’s motivations have only gotten more complex as the stories continue, making it hard to believe they’re fully villainous. (Especially when sparks fly between Gemma and Leo!) Keep reading, because it keeps getting better and better.
Kalyna the Soothsayer by Elijah Kinch Spector
Release Date: August 30 from Erewhon
Kalyna’s a con artist, a soothsayer who was passed over by the Gift that runs in her family. In order to support her ailing father and aged (and hateful) grandmother, she has to work the family trade. In some cases, it means using her insight to read the answers that a person most wants to hear. She also uses informants so that she can use real-world information that her clients might not have to form her predictions about their futures.
And sometimes it means getting down and dirty with the hired bandits trying to keep her client from his payday. Early on in the novel, Kalyna faces down several thugs, armed only with her sickle and her smarts, who are trying to waylay a courier. It’s a lot of work to go through just to make sure her client can pay her (once he receives the news from the courier that he’s come into money). But there’s a satisfaction in it, as well: Kalyna may not be all about justice (she’s a con artist, after all), but she hates to see someone in power out to harm the little guy. Which makes her even more irked when she’s aided by soldiers working for Prince Friedhelm, who wants her to become his personal soothsayer, detecting ill-intent within his court. If it were a one-time con, Kalyna would take the money and run. But the prince wants her there long term (a sure way to get caught), and worse, her father has seen a vision that their lands are going to fall into ruin, inside three months time. Kalyna has to make some choices—but whether those will help avoid the prophesied downfall or bring it on even sooner, she has no idea. This is another stellar debut novel (with an interesting structure and narrative voice) that makes for an excellent summer read.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World (currently on Kickstarter). You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.