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Books with good female leads - Recommendations

Discussion in 'Books and Anime Discussion' started by 13thadaption, Dec 23, 2016.

  1. 13thadaption

    13thadaption Seventh Year DLP Supporter

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    Discussion moved from TOMD 4. To discuss: What are the best books with female protagonists?

    I understand your pain. I really, really do. I went on a weird kick a while back when I registered the only female-lead books I actively like are the Abhorsen series, and it's not like character writing was ever the strong point there. I'm excluding ensemble cast epics like GOT, I tend to like a tighter character focus, and I don't mean books that are particular favorites, just books I basically enjoy. There is a serious dearth there for someone with 4 full bookshelves and more in storage.

    But hey, times have changed, I've been just skipping over female leads out of habit for the past decade. I decided to dive in and check out what was making waves. I looked up the typical "best strong female leads" lists, excluded things I had read or was familiar enough with to know weren't of interest, and I ended up buying 4 books.

    Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey was honestly a pretty impressive work of fiction. It was also not my thing at all, I didn't enjoy reading it, but I respect the craft that went into it.

    Stormdancer
    by Jay Kristoff was....fine? I guess? It was readable, but then slid immediately off my brain. I can't say I have any desire to pursue the series.

    Graceling by Kristin Cashore was the only book I straight up didn't finish. It's worst offense was being boring. Oh, it was also pretty poorly written and not nearly skillful enough to pull off what it seemed to be going for, but mostly it was boring. It's reminded me of a middling/poor Indy!Harry more than anything, predictable wish fulfillment and no real ability to develop ideas or characters. I'll own that if I read it as a 13 year old I probably would have found it empowering and darkly thrilling and loved the shit out of it.

    And then there was Throne of Glass. It was good...for something written by a 15 year old just starting to develop their writing skills. Thoroughly cringe inducing to expose to the general public. You know, after writing that I went and looked it up, and Maas really did start writing it as a 16 year old. That makes sense I guess, but I'm pretty sure by 17 this should have been "that embarrassing first attempt." I did finish it, I'll give it that. It had enough watch-the-train-wreck-happen appeal to keep me reading. It does not get better, it really really doesn't.

    I would gleefully read a take down of that hot mess, those are the second best thing to come out of books this bad. The very best thing is the inspiration that you can do better than this piece of shit. Just keep writing.

    As for my experiment...I still like Abhorsen. Stormdancer was readable. Both were written by men, so fuck me very much. I'm pretty much willing to chalk it up to internalized misogyny at this point if it means I can go back to reading what I like.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 27, 2016
  2. The Iron Rose

    The Iron Rose Headmaster

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    Have you ever read Tamora Pierce?
     
  3. ScottPress

    ScottPress The Horny Sovereign ~ Prestige ~

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    I'll ping you when I post it. I'll do my best to make it entertaining.
     
  4. 13thadaption

    13thadaption Seventh Year DLP Supporter

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    I'm afraid so. I've read some of the Alanna stuff, and at least one of the circle books. It was a long time ago. I don't think there was anything wrong with it really, but I had easy access to stuff I liked way better. Pretty sure I jumped ship for Robin Hobb's Farseer books about that time, which ended up being frustrating in their own right but also more engaging.

    I've read some Mercedes Lackey too, but my favorites ended up being the Exile stuff and Brightly Burning...male leads all around.

    Hey, you know, going back that far I remember some of Robin McKinley's stuff being good. The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword were both female-lead and books I enjoyed.

    I would like something that isn't quite so YA though. I remember the Abhorsen series fondly because of the distinct world and unusual horror elements it had going on. Pierce and McKinley don't come to mind because I don't find them exceptional enough to be something I particularly want to read these days. Goddamn Anita Blake spends about 10% of it's time being something I really like, and the other 90% being both baffling and loathsome. That series is 26 books long and fuck if I haven't inflicted every single one on myself, I have a thesis worth of bile saved up at this point.
     
  5. Garden

    Garden Chief Warlock

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    The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix has a strong female character as the deuterotagonist and she gets her own POV in a couple of books. Quite YA though.

    Tamora Pierce is great. I reread the Circle and Circle Opens series recently and they're quite good. More dark and morally complex than I remembered, too.
     
  6. The Iron Rose

    The Iron Rose Headmaster

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    I feel you on the YA bit. Try Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey's Elvenbane series. I've not read it in years, but I remember it being superb. I think I have digital copies on my hard drive, if you've an e-reader.

    Beyond that I'm a bit at a loss myself I'm afraid! I don't get to read nearly as much as I used to. To my embarrassment... It's mostly fanfic and 40K genre schlock, and much as I love FemShep, I don't think that fanfiction really counts.

    I'll ask some friends of mine, come up with some recommendations.

    Also lol Anita Blake. How I wish those books were good. The October Daye series is somewhat Dresden-y and not half bad. Marla Mason too, though it got significantly dumber in the later books.
     
  7. Shinysavage

    Shinysavage Madman With A Box ~ Prestige ~

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    13thadaption: have you read any of Kate Griffin's books? Her 'Magicals Anonymous' series is female led, and really good - although it is a spin-off from her 'Matthew Swift series, and it might work a little better with knowledge of that series too.
     
  8. Majube

    Majube High Inquisitor

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    The The Birthmarked series is decent, I really enjoyed the first in the series but I'd recommend it only if you can stand YA.

    As a kid one of my favourite books by a female was The Princess Academy book. Pretty awesome, even if in retrospect it's a bit mundane, in that its small-focused. If you can enjoy a sort of children's book it's pretty great. Well, to be honest rereading it, you can still read it as an adult it stands up pretty well.

    Besides that False Princess -I don't know if this one's written by a girl- yeah it has another princess title but I think it's the least of my 3 recs, though it sadly has very little world building, the plot isn't really complex and the plot twists are pretty obvious, really the main reason I prize it above the others is the more obvious (I have no idea how I missed the obvious fantasy in the princess academy) fantasy aspect. In a small way all are coming of age tales and were enjoyable for me on the first read through so try to keep your SOD and you'll probably enjoy.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2016
  9. Aekiel

    Aekiel Angle of Mispeling ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    13thadaption

    Mistborn. Just, Mistborn. Vin is the female lead who has character arcs throughout all three books and is the central character of an epic fantasy trilogy that I still enjoy re-reading. Kelsier, the mentor, is also fascinating to read about.

    The romance of the story isn't the best in the world, but I was willing to accept it because Sanderson's worldbuilding and the non-romantic character interactions were great. He gets better over time, but I'll fully admit that romance isn't his strong suit.

    Still, if you read it, you'll enjoy it. Guaranteed.
     
  10. 13thadaption

    13thadaption Seventh Year DLP Supporter

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    Read it. First book was pretty good, but Kelsier was the most interesting character. I honestly found the rest of the trilogy a bit of a slog. The focus seemed to move from character development to stretching the premise for all the intrigue it was worth. It's not like they weren't good books, as per usual for Sanderson the magic system in particular was superb, just not quite what I'm looking for.
    Read it up to book six? I heard One Salt Sea was the stand-out, so I kept with it that far. Honestly, if I want a Dresden stand in I'll go for Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim stuff. It's like a PCP fueled grind-house version of Dresden, fairly ridiculous but entertaining if you can buy in.
    You know, I've looked at A Madness of Angels multiple times and never been quite able to convince myself to go for it. Maybe I'll pick up a copy.

    Other than that? I suppose I might give the Elvenbane series a try if I was hard up, but I really don't read books just so I can have a female protagonist. If I like a male-lead book better I go read that instead, and there are plenty of male-lead books I like. Which is how I ended up with my severely unbalanced library in the first place.

    See, the problem isn't strictly a lack of good female leads. It's a lack of good female leads in the books I'm interested in.

    Do I read YA? Sure. But only when it's really fucked up. Not The Hunger Games look-how-dark-and-dystopian-I-am fucked up. I'm talking Alex Rider fucked up. Also known as that time someone decided to write a kid!spy series and realized part way through that it was actually a really messed up premise and then just ran with it. Or Dan Wells' John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, where the protagonist is actually a psychopath, complete with sadistic and outright murderous tendencies. Or Barry Lyga's Jasper Dent series, where the teenage protagonist tries to solve crimes using the skill set he learned as a child from his serial killer father. Those are all things that really exist and I love it.

    My tastes are maybe a bit particular. I'm just starting in on Clive Barker's Imajica. Before that it was Brom's The Child Thief. Before that it was Iain M. Banks' Use of Weapons. I tend to embrace things that are some combination of really dark or complex or just outright weird. Look, I'm on my 6th year as an enthusiastic fangirl beta of Circular Reasoning, of course I'm a bit warped. I live on the bottom floors of the genre dungeon, not the sub-basement where Gor waits to devour unwary travelers, but right above that.

    If the books I listed having tried didn't reflect that, well shit, my problem in the first place was not being able to find female-lead books that did. The reason I'm so hung up on Anita Blake is equal parts the necromancy being actual dark-as-shit-blood-sacrifice-fueled zombie raising, and Anita herself being a gigantic over violent asshole. I don't get that basically ever in a female lead. If something like an Arya-centric GOT existed (and wasn't a piece of shit like Throne of Glass) I'd be all over it.

    Actually I can recommend Daniel O'Malley's The Rook. It's a bit off the beaten path for urban fantasy, kept me entertained anyway. Once you leave traditional written word media behind there's a lot more female leads who interest me. Marjorie Liu's Monstress is a dark as shit comic book. Or Puella Magi Madoka Magica was right up my alley. Unfortunately good old fashioned books are my one true media, and they seem to be lagging behind. Or maybe it's just me and my weird over specific niche.

    The other part of this post has been moved back to TOMD 4: [link]
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 27, 2016
  11. Taure

    Taure Magical Core Enthusiast ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    Seems odd that a thread about fantasy female leads hasn't mentioned Trudi Canavan. Her Black Magician series is the most famous but I actually think the Age of Five trilogy is much better. Both have female leads.
     
  12. Download

    Download Second Year ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    The Tomorrow series, starting with Tomorrow, When the War Began is a very popular book series here in Oz with a female lead. It's like Australia's version of Red Dawn only without frothing at the mouth red hysteria and ultranationalism.

    My only real criticism of the series is that the author didn't put enough research into the military stuff. Socially and psychologically I feel its a very accurate depiction of fighting a guerrilla war.
     
  13. Ched

    Ched Da Trek Moderator DLP Supporter

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    I'll second Mistborn. It has it's own host of problems that keep it from being perfect as a series, but Vin is good as a female lead.

    If you care to read a children's classic... A Little Princess. A strange recommendation I know, but I've re-read it as an adult and still enjoyed it.
     
  14. someone010101

    someone010101 Groundskeeper

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    The Skulduggery Pleasent series has a female lead and is a pretty fun YA series, even if I dont like the latter books much. Urban fantasy with a lot of sarcasm, a fairly traditional mixed team and the usual good vs evil sorcerers. Its just fun.
     
  15. Erandil

    Erandil Minister of Magic

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    The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler has a strong female lead (as well as well as other strong female characters) though it also has male main characters or if you want something a bit more YA how about Please don't tell my parents I'm a Supervillain. Ancillary Justice also meets the requirements and is a solid book(though here the MC is a female starship). But to be fair most of the works that spring to mind have a female lead coupled with a (or more) strong male leads, for example the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne (though the central female character has more of a secondary role, at least at the start) or to mention something a bit less common, the Eternal Sky series.

    And as Taure says Trudi Canavan has written a number of series with strong female leds.

     
  16. Trig

    Trig Auror

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    The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson is my favorite book I've read this year. The main character is female, but what makes this book so special is that her gender is important, but not the main focus of the story. The story is freaking fantastic and the ending is fucking crushing.

    The singular aspect that made this book my favorite for this year is the pacing and of the dialogue, Dickinson utterly nails that. It feels as if he's hyper-aware of where his readers are right now, what they do know and don't know, what needs to happen to progress the story and how much he can trust his readers to infer on their own. Seriously, it's been a long time since I've read such well-written dialogue.

    Plus afterwards you can go on the internet and read how many easter-eggs he's hidden throughout the story that I was totally oblivious to, the entire experience feels just very precise and meticulous.

    Highly recommended.
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2016
  17. Aekiel

    Aekiel Angle of Mispeling ~ Prestige ~ DLP Supporter

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    If you don't mind reading a web series rather than an actual book, Worm is about as good a superhero story as you could hope to find and the lead character, Taylor, is pretty damn awesome.
     
  18. Paradise

    Paradise Professor DLP Supporter

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    If you haven't read Worm yet. I highly recommended it. Really an amazing story.
     
  19. 13thadaption

    13thadaption Seventh Year DLP Supporter

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    Oh look, I accidentally a thread.

    I have indeed read Worm, I suppose it pings as non-traditional media to me, although there's no real reason not to consider it a book.

    Some of the recommendations are honestly too YA for me, like I said, I only really go there for some very specific things. Books like the Dresden Files or the Kingkiller Chronicles actually tend to be on the lighter/happier side of my spectrum of interest. I don't have much time to read these days, as a result I tend to go for stories squarely in my niche. The inevitable result of adulthood I guess, I can finally afford all the media I could want now that I don't have time for it.

    That said, The Traitor Baru Cormorant for one looks freaking amazing. And I've somehow never heard of the bulk of Trudi Canavan's work. I think I read The Magician's Apprentice and didn't really care for it, but some of her other work certainly seems worth looking into.

    I suppose I can mention The Drowning City by Amanda Downum and it's sequels. I do so with the caveat that I didn't love it myself. I read it because the lead is a necromancer and I love necromancy as a device, but found it kind of boring. In much the same way I found The Magician's Apprentice kind of boring, so you can chalk some of that up to me and my tastes rather than an issue of objective quality.

    My issue with female leads is probably a conflagration of multiple issues, I say now that I have a thread to discuss it. Part of it is just my taste in books, saying I like "mature" or "dark" books just sounds douchey as hell and isn't even all that accurate, I like some juvenile shit, but I'm struggling to find a better way to put it. Sometimes I walk into a theater to watch an R rated movie and it just is my happy place. I spend most of my life trying to be kind and polite, watching something brutal and unflinching and unrestrained can be such a relief. If it's also clever, it pretty immediately becomes one of my favorite things, and that goes double for books where you can get away with so much more. I am the opposite of the reader trigger warnings are intended for; I like it hard, unexpected and morally dubious. I adore Fight Club for example, no matter how trite that is.

    Part of it is also that I might actually hold female characters to higher standards than their male counterparts, thus my only half joking comments about internalized misogyny. How to put this...I really liked Taylor from Worm, there is a character who did not bother me at all. In contrast to that, and especially in books with multiple leads, I tend to find the female characters really really archetypal. Which is of course a criticism you can level at male characters as well, but there the common molds just irk me less, or I outright like. Take fantasy books, a "strong" female leads tend to be talented but repressed or underestimated, that is the base of their character. Urban fantasy? Somewhat smart mouthed femme fatal types with dark pasts. Scifi? Either gender is a non-issue (gender neutral military service in the Honorverse or Starship Troopers the movie) or there's some weird lionization of gender politics (Starship Troopers the book, or a lot of Card's stuff). There's also a problem where "strong" female characters tend to be balanced weirdly. Either they're a repudiation of traditionally female characteristics (natural ass kickers who fail at social sensitivity and can't sew), or they're somehow good at everything (see Graceling for a pretty bad example, or HP's own Hermoine for a less bad one, and I realize that's a bold claim I'll come back to it).

    If that first one sounds like something I should find attractive, I kind of do, but it's applied so ubiquitously it's lost all meaning. It's like trying to write vampires in an honestly threatening not-at-all sexy way. You can do it, but you have to be really damn good and somehow avoid a mountain of established expectation. All of these things become worse in a book where character focus is more diffuse, because we're less intimately tied to and aware of a given character. This is were I come back to Hermione, dangerous territory, I know.

    So, Hermoine: she's smart and brave but socially awkward and somewhat neurotic at times. Balanced character right? Right? Well, maybe, I kind of think it depends what you read into it. I find it kind of problematic (for a value that means typical of a certain stereotype) that she's both the "smartest" member of the trio and the most emotionally mature. There is ambiguity in those traits, but I somewhat unkindly tend to infer inconsistent writing rather than complexity, though I'm assuredly in the minority there. She's tactless about the SPEW thing or interacting with others especially in the beginning and seemingly myopically focused on school as her vector of success, to the exclusion of social or other traditionally feminine pursuits. She's also able to transform for the Yule Ball, explain why Harry is being an idiot about Cho, and become emotional and irrational when Ron and Lavender get involved. Yes, you can absolutely read that as complexity or a normal part of a maturing character. But because the narrative is more focused on Harry, I tend to stumble on the part where we largely don't see these things develop or much of the way they come into play in Hermione's life, outside of the occasions she's with Harry. To err on the critical side I might consider many of her flaws either informed but inconsequential things (think a less egregious version of Twilight!Bella-is-clumsy, Hermione is neurotic about her test scores and obnoxious about SPEW, she has flaws, see, see!) or authorial convenience (see everything leading up to the troll situation which brought the three together or the various elements leading to her eventually romantic relationship with Ron). At this point I do realize that's a criticism so broad I might find literally any character equally guilty, and so I acknowledge that I may just be weird about female characters.

    Female characters I like, Taylor for example, tend to be those who sometimes get accused of being written like men without boobs. Which makes sense to me, since I generally assume femininity to be a result of social convention and the resulting life experience rather than something ineffably intrinsic. Again this is probably weirdness on my part, I've spent my whole life hearing "girls particularly value social relationships" and "women are naturally sensitive and nurturing" and not registering those as things that seem particularly true at all. I may just be the outlier, but it is a matter of some frustration, and that is invariably reflected in my choice of literature.

    Something I'm more anvilicious (which, neologism, I know) about is the matter of intelligence as a character trait, or more broadly competence as a character trait. To give an obvious example, Kvothe is a character we see employing significant convergent and even divergent thinking, from his own point of view. It's easy to buy him as a genius. Hermione on the other hand observably knows a lot, has excellent study habits, and obviously values both knowledge and academic success. I buy that she has excellent recall, but I attribute most of the rest of it to determination and really exceptional self discipline. All of which are absolutely aspects of intelligence, but it's a hell of a lot more complicated than just having a genius intellect. The nuances of intelligence as a character trait are rarely something explored explicitly, in the fiction I read at least, but it's there in what I might call "zones of competence."

    To give a positive example, I'll cite Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsong. I never really got into Pern, but the lead in that book had a talent for music which through the events of the story turned into a "zone of competence" that included independence and resourcefulness, as well as a unique and relevant skill set with foundations in her previously establish talents and the specific circumstances she found herself in. It was well done, particularly compared to something like Graceling where the character was outright born with a talent for killing things. You could absolutely use a premise like that to explore some interesting ideas, but shitfuckdamn is that an ungraceful way to level your character to automatic badass. I'll list David Gunn's Sven as another interesting example. He's uneducated and unsophisticated, but frankly a lot smarter than he thinks of himself as being, which is significant because it is written in first person from his POV. It shows in how damn effective he is at what he does, and how some of the people out to use him clearly know it.

    This is an issue that is largely unisex in and of itself, but it ties back in to my problem with archetypal female characters. It seems like there are only a couple "zones of competence" female characters can inhabit. Female characters who aren't very bright but make good thug/enforcer types are almost unheard of, Bitch from Worm being an subversion. Powerful ruler types who are morally dubious but ultimately useful or good at what they do are also in short supply, with GOT or Worm again containing a bunch of possible exceptions. What about characters who are driven by ambition but also outright cowards? Or characters who are over aggressive and over confident and an exploration of when that works out for them and when it blows up in their faces?

    There are certainly things out there like Worm, which is thoroughly modern in it's sensibilities. It also follows logically that Taylor doesn't consistently struggle with a bias against powerful female figures in a world where Alexandria existed, and a parahuman's ability to wreck your shit has nothing to do with gender or appearance. There are also things like GOT, which is huge and complex and interestingly nuanced because it's just exceptional in general. Cersei is loathsome but I kind of love her because she thinks she's female archetype #1, talented but underestimated and unfairly overlooked, and that's an interesting use of stereotype. Brienne could have been flat, Alanna in Westros for some goddamn reason, but the fact that she's ugly and unfeminine is honestly something that both hinders her and has allowed her to become what she is. I'm fond of Arya because she's an outright vicious little shit when perturbed, of course I like her.

    So yeah, things that are both really well written and in my wheel house tend to have female characters I like. My very favorite books, Matthew Stover's Acts of Caine series, are chock full of them although by no means are they female-lead. The female cast members have distinct personalities and varying zones of competence and their actions carry real weight, it's great all around.

    In a perhaps vain attempt to tie it all together, I'll note that part of my problem is what's actually published. There just isn't a 50 year backlog of novels with interesting female leads, it's a pretty modern thing. Also the fact that there is so much fanfiction and anime among other media where I don't have a problem finding what I'm looking for makes me suspect the publishing world is honestly not poised to explore the possibilities the way I'd like to see. In fairness, character focused genre novels of an appropriate level of darkness featuring diverse female leads is a pretty specific thing, and only so many books get published a year. Also in fairness, I have an easier time finding books that fill my transgressive-to-the-point-of-inapproppriate YA niche (of all goddamn things) than satisfying female leads, which is kind of sad. How much of that is my own weird shit and much is publishing convention is up for debate.

    TLDR: Gross over analyzing, I don't blame you at all. Possibly proof I shouldn't be allowed dedicated threads least I soap box my issues all over the place.

    PS: At the last minute I remembered to be gracious. Honest thanks to everyone who made recommendations.
     
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2016
  20. Ennead

    Ennead Seventh Year

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    If it's not too late to make suggestions:

    City of Stairs and its sequel City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennet. Both feature two different female protagonists: the first is a diplomat/spy sent into hostile territory to investigate the unsolved murder of her mentor, the second is a retired general who gets unwillingly recruited as a spy to investigate mysteriously divine incidents. Very unique setting, well-written and well-characterized, and NO ROMANCE. It's more adult fantasy than YA.

    Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is about a young black woman, struggling writer, who randomly gets sent back in time to antebellum America. Throughout the book she protects the same person, who we see at different points in his life. This person is her own great-great grandfather and a slaveowner. It's a very delicately written book, and the protagonist has...I don't know how to describe it: a sense of dignity given to her by her modern perspectives and the strength of spirit not to give into her circumstances.

    A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
    The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente
    The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
    Paladin of Souls (Chalion 2) by Lois M. Bujold

    YA fantasy:
    Uprooted by Naomi Novik
    Cracked by Eliza Crewe
    Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
     
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2016
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