For many years, the fantasy genre of novels was overrun with valiant male heroes who spent much of their time saving princesses and slaying dragons. 20th century shifts in the societal importance of female individuality and strength have finally removed many damsels from the distress of a supporting and often one-dimensional role. Many great fantasy books for women now exist, with female characters playing prominent roles and even occasionally slaying a dragon or two themselves.
Robin McKinley is one of the world’s best known fantasy authors, and one of the best writers of excellent fantasy books for women. While her books are certainly male-friendly as well, she often uses female heroines and women’s issues to create the plots of her books. In The Hero and the Crown, Aerin is the only child of a king and his second wife, and as a tall, skinny redhead in a court full of petite brunettes, she stands out for a variety of reasons. Aerin’s response is to start hunting dragons.
Another Robin McKinley book, Deerskin, has a heroine saved from near death after a brutal sexual assault. Lissar, the main character, must slowly rediscover her identity and discovers new and unusual powers granted to her by her savior, the Moonwoman. Despite the book’s setting in a fantasy world of princesses, evil queens, and kingdoms, the themes are decidedly set within the real world, and detail the long recovery from a terrible injustice.
The epic Wheel of Time series contains 11 volumes, all of which are excellent fantasy books for women. In a storyline populated with dozens of major characters, women make up at least half of the leading roles. The fantasy world of the late Robert Jordan includes a powerful political base of women called Aes Sedai, whose ancient abilities to perform sorcery allow them to influence the world. Jordan’s women characters are far from one-dimensional, with motives, allegiances and intents changing constantly with each new story.
In Patricia McKillip’s Cygnet books, both main characters are female. Nyx Ro is the wayward heir to her mother’s throne, who has spent much of her life ditching her responsibilities in order to study magic. Her cousin, Meguet, is a resourceful warrior meant to guard the sometimes reckless heir. Over the course of the two books, Nyx and Meguet must battle mages, legends, and eventually dragons in order to secure the future of their homeland. McKillip’s other works are excellent fantasy books for women, with a good balance of character importance between both genders.
The point of fantasy books for women is not to denigrate or eliminate the importance of men in fantasy stories. As with any good literature, the greatest emphasis is put on creating fully developed, three-dimensional characters of either gender. In the 19th century, few books existed in which the main goal of the female characters was anything other than to be rescued or be married. With the advent of the women’s rights movement, it became important to show that women can fill any role they wish, from a housewife to a queen. Fantasy books for women can teach young girls that if they like slaying dragons instead of hiding in a tower growing their hair out, they certainly are not alone.