With the exception of romance novels, women have struggled to break through in genre fiction. Thankfully, that is steadily changing. While women who write fantasy, science fiction, and horror may still face disproportionate pushback against their work, the number of critically acclaimed and bestselling genre fiction titles written by female authors only continues to grow.
This curated list highlights some of the best fantasy books written by women in the past sixty years. From lush, romantic tales to gritty dystopias to traditional high fantasy, you’re sure to find something to enjoy.
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
Any of Naomi Novik’s novels could have a place on this list, but I’ve chosen Uprooted. A modern fantasy classic, the story draws on Slavic folklore, but the tale is wholly unique.
Agnieszka is a village girl who knows that her best friend will be sacrificed to the Dragon–not an actual dragon, but a secretive wizard who lives in a tower on the edge of a haunted forest.
A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin laid the foundation for modern children’s fantasy literature in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea. No Le Guin, no Harry Potter. It’s as simple as that.
A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in a cycle of stories set in that world. The first novel follows Ged, a young man who grows into adulthood as he learns magic. It’s a beautiful book that has captivated countless readers over the years. Just don’t watch the live-action miniseries adaptation–Le Guin utterly despised it.
Silver Metal Lover – Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee is, admittedly, a little bit of an acquired taste. Her fantasy novels aren’t always the most accessible, but Silver Metal Lover is a captivating story that treads the borders between fantasy, science fiction, and romance.
First published in 1981, the novel imagines a future world where wealthy humans live in decadent idleness while robots take care of all the work. In that world, Jane falls in love with Silver, a robot with a soul.
Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice
Do vampires count as fantasy literature? I’m going to rule that they do. And that’s why Anne Rice’s 1976 debut novel Interview with the Vampire makes this list. It’s the best vampire novel since Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the foundation for the “sexy vampire” genre that has been going strong ever since.
While I loved the 1994 film by Neil Jordan, I’m curious to see what AMC will do with the upcoming series based on Anne Rice’s work. The cable network is adapting both Interview and Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches novels.
The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
I’ve sung the praises of N.K. Jemisin before, and I’ll probably do it again. The scope of her world-building is unparalleled in modern sci-fi and fantasy, which is one of the reasons every book in the Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
A word of warning, though: If you’re already feeling stressed out about climate change, then The Fifth Season probably isn’t the best choice. The catastrophic weather that sweeps over the land is terrifying.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J. K. Rowling
You knew that Harry Potter would have to be on this list. Despite J.K. Rowling’s legacy being, you know, tainted by her real-life social media activity in recent years, the books are still an essential part of our culture.
Of the series, Order of the Phoenix is my personal favorite. What can I say? I like the dark stuff. Harry Potter fans have plenty to look forward to between the Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses and the Return to Hogwarts reunion special.
Trickster’s Choice – Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce is one of the pioneers of the young adult genre, writing multiple series about strong-willed, powerful young women finding their place in the world. While her Song of the Lioness Quartet is perhaps her greatest achievement, I’m even more fond of Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen.
The two books follow Aly, the daughter of Lioness’s heroine Alanna, on her own adventure. What I love about this book is how Aly’s journey is so different from her mother’s. Although Alanna’s deeds shape many of the events in the world of Tortall in future books, Trickster’s Choice can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke’s doorstopper of a historical fantasy draws you into the strange world of magic, manners, and politics. Her version of England at the turn of the 19th century is one where magic is no longer practiced but merely written about by historians. Only Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange are capable of practical magic… but what is the source of their powers?
I recommend reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell before watching the excellent miniseries adaptation. Clarke’s writing is precise and exquisite that it needs to be appreciated. Preferably with a nice cup of tea.
A Darker Shade of Magic – V. E. Schwab
V.E. Schwab (who also writes young adult fiction as Victoria Schwab) is another author whose entire catalog deserves a place on this list. Her Shades of Magic trilogy is an incredible work of alternate history fantasy.
We discover three parallel Londons in these books: Red, Grey, and White. Each of them has its dangers and temptations, but none compare to the threat of the rumored Black London. Kell can walk between Londons, and on one fateful trip, he brings something across the borders between worlds that could destroy all of them.
The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree has everything you want in a high fantasy novel–magic, politics, and dragons. Powerful female characters are at the heart of this story, with Queen Sabran, secret mage Ead Duryan, and dragon rider Tané caught up in events that will decide the fate of nations.
Be warned that this is a massive book. The hardcover edition is 848 pages long and weighs 2.9 pounds! You might want to go with the eBook on this one.
The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden
Beware the evil in the woods. That’s what Katherine Arden’s novel The Bear and the Nightingale warns. But if we heeded such warnings, then we’d never have any adventures.
Arden weaves some familiar fairytale tropes, such as the wicked stepmother, into a dense tapestry of Russian folklore and the harsh beauty of a near-endless winter. I would recommend curling up with a cozy blanket and a hot beverage while you enjoy The Bear and the Nightingale.
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
For many of us, A Wrinkle in Time was our first taste of genre fiction. I grew up on this book, and so did my mother. There’s a reason that Madeleine L’Engle’s work has been a classic for generations, ever since its publication in 1963. Let’s forget the miniseries and the Oprah movie, though.
This is a wonderful book to read with kids–or simply to revisit as an adult. Calvin O’Keefe is still an absolute dreamboat, just in case you were wondering.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor
I fell in love with Laini Taylor’s work after reading The Faeries of Dreamdark. Her biggest mainstream success, though, is Daughter of Smoke and Bone. This dreamlike novel–the first in a trilogy–is set in Prague and follows a strange young woman named Karou who leads a double life.
I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice to say that you will definitely want to budget for the sequels after reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone.
The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold
The Curse of Chalion reads like it could have been written at any point in the last hundred years. The classic high fantasy by Lois McMaster Bujold takes place in a Medieval world filled with political intrigue and old gods.
If you enjoyed Game of Thrones or The Witcher, then the richly detailed fantasy in Bujold’s Chalion books will sweep you away. But if you like your fantasy a little more modern, then check out our next book….
Moon Called – Patricia Briggs
In my terribly humble opinion, urban fantasy and paranormal romance deserve more respect. Patricia Briggs is one of the queens of this genre. Her Mercy Thompson books, as well as the spinoff series Alphas and Omegas, should be on your shelf.
Start at the beginning with Moon Called. Mercy Thompson is a mechanic with a secret–she’s a shapeshifter. Although she tries to live a quiet life off the radar of the local werewolf pack, she can’t avoid them forever. And when she has to ask the local alpha for help, her past threatens to ruin her future.
A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness
Oxford University has always seemed to have its own sort of magic, but Deborah Harkness created a world where the famed Bodleian Library holds a book on actual magic. A Discovery of Witches, the first book in the All Souls Trilogy, follows an American academic who becomes drawn into a world of witches, vampires, and demons.
The book was a massive bestseller and inspired a fantastic series on AMC starring Matthew Goode and Theresa Palmer. As always, I’d recommend reading the book before you watch the series. The level of detail and historical accuracy that real-life historian Harkness brings to her work is more than worth your time.
Carry On – Rainbow Rowell
Did you grow up loving Harry Potter but find yourself frustrated with the series’ shortcomings and blindspots as an adult? Well, you should read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On.
The first book in her Simon Snow series is about a “chosen one” at a British boarding school for magically gifted students. But where Harry Potter has been criticized for its token diversity, the heart of this book is a queer romance. It also questions what sort of an adult would intentionally put children in harm’s way–something that we’ve been asking about Dumbledore for a long time.
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
Is Charlie Jane Anders’ bestselling novel fantasy or sci-fi? Does it matter when the book is this good? A witch and a mad scientist grew up as childhood friends before reuniting in a San Franciso that is both tantalizingly familiar and disturbingly strange.
Reviewers on Goodreads either loved or hated the book, so be warned. Anders also writes Young Adult sci-fi, if that’s more your speed.
Circe – Madeline Miller
After her retelling of “The Iliad,” celebrated author Madeline Miller sunk her teeth into “The Odyssey.” Circe focuses on the witch who was little more than a minor villain in Homer’s epic. Miller turns Circe into a fascinating and sympathetic character and the heroine of her own story.
Circe was one of the most buzzed-about books of 2018 for a reason. If you haven’t read it yet, grab a copy as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire
I’ve done my best to recommend Seanan McGuire’s books to everyone I meet. She has won every major fantasy and science fiction writing award for a reason. McGuire’s long-running October Daye books are must-reads for urban fantasy fans, but with the Wayward Children series, she elevated her craft to another level.
Every Heart a Doorway is one of those books that should be read with a box of tissues nearby, but don’t let that turn you off. I promise that you’ll love it.
Black Water Sister – Zen Cho
Why yes, you do want to read Zen Cho’s supernatural thriller. Full of ghosts and secrets, Black Water Sister is a tale of possession, but also of finding the courage to be yourself when your family and your culture would prefer you to be someone else.
If you get a taste for Zen Cho’s writing, check out Sorcerer to the Crown next.
Clockwork Boys – T. Kingfisher
The Clockwork Boys and its sequel, The Wonder Engine, are really two halves of a fantasy story by T. Kingfisher. She’s one of the few authors whose work I’ll buy without even bothering to read the description. Creative, funny, scary, and more than a little heart-breaking, Clockwork Boys should go on your to-read list right now.
Kingfisher scored a major hit during the pandemic with A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking, which features the same skilled world-building, gentle humor, and creeping dread as the rest of her work.
Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne Jones
If you’re only familiar with the Studio Ghibli adaption of Howl’s Moving Castle, then you might be confused by Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. Despite sharing characters and themes, the details are different enough that the two should be considered separate works of art.
This sweet, romantic fantasy novel is Jones’ best book–and that’s saying something.
The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
Like a more romantic Something Wicked This Way Comes, Erin Morgenstern’s modern fantasy classic combines the dark allure of a magical circus with a dreamy star-crossed romance.
The long-awaited movie adaptation is reportedly still in the works, but until it finally arrives on screen, I guess I’ll just have to reread this book. Maybe twice. It’s that good.
Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and in many ways, it is the least fantastical of the bunch. The book draws on the myths of King Arthur but never states whether he is an actual historical figure or a legend.
Fans of the series know that things only get more magical from this point forward, but the first book remains one of my favorites from childhood. I’m still hoping to visit the coast of Cornwall one of these days–but I’ll steer clear of any masked festivals.