Witch Week Day 1: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

We’re excited to have this guest post from Marlyn Beebe, a west-coast (USA) librarian with Canadian roots. We thought a librarian would know of some fantasy books that would be new to us, and she did. With her permission, we’ve added two books to her suggestions, to make this a perfect Top-Ten list. Interesting side-note: these are all first books in series. No doubt about it, readers love a good series.

Marlyn grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where she graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in Library and Information Studies. Not being a fan of frozen water falling from the sky, she now lives in Southern California with her husband, Tod, and their cat, Puck. She works part-time at multiple libraries and spends the rest of her time reading, reviewing, blogging, and watching hockey games. Marlyn reviews books for School Library Journal, as well as for her blog Stuff and Nonsense. Head over to her blog to see what else she enjoys reading.

About her list, Marlyn writes:

I’ve always loved literature about strong women, whether realistic or speculative fiction, historical or contemporary. By the time the books below were published (yes, even the ones from the last century!), I was already an adult, and wished passionately that I could have experienced them as a child or teen. I’m grateful that these books, and so many more like them, are available for me to share with today’s young people!

Just to make things interesting, we (Lizzie, Chris and Marlyn) have added a tiny spin to this list. Way back in 2009, The Alan Review published “Dragon-Slayer vs Dragon-Sayer”, an article analyzing female fantasy protagonists.¹ The authors argue that when fantasy writers give their female protagonists active roles (as opposed to waiting to be rescued by and then married to the hero), the characters tend to take one of two roles: Dragon-Slayer (basically the heroine acts just like a hero, using a sword to “overpower and conquer” villains) or Dragon-Sayer (the heroine uses feminine skills to nurture and take care of the villains’ needs, thereby de-fanging the villain). Marlyn, Lizzie and Chris have identified where we think all but two of the heroines fall within this (imperfect) dichotomy. If you disagree, let us know! And if you can decide about the two we didn’t identify, let us know that as well.

Late 20th Century

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (Atheneum Press, 1983).
The first of the 4-book Song of the Lioness series, in which Alanna pretends to be a boy in order to work as a page in the royal court of Tortail. DRAGON-SLAYER

The Hero and the Crown by Robin Mckinley (Greenwillow Books, originally published 1984).
The story of Aerin of Damar, and her evolution from a shy princess to the heroic queen who saves her country from invaders (and a dragon!). McKinley’s novel won the 1985 Newbery Award, and is the prequel to The Blue Sword, a Newbery Honor winner published in 1982. DRAGON-SLAYER

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, originally published 1986).
Sophie, the eldest of three daughters, unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, who puts her under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. (Two more books in series: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.) DRAGON-SAYER

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C Wrede (Jane Yolen Books/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).
The first of the 4-book series The Enchanted Chronicles, which tell the story of Princess Cimorene, who leaves her boring kingdom to become assistant to the dragon Kazul. DRAGON-SAYER

Early 21st Century

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown, 2009).
To save her village from a devastating drought, Minli goes on a quest to find and petition the Old Man of the Moon for help. Along the way, she gains companions. A revisioning of The Wizard of Oz, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a Newbery Honor winner. Two more books complete this series. DRAGON-SAYER

Soulless by Gail Carriger (Hachette Book Group, 2009).
The first book in The Parasol Protectorate series introduces us to Alexa Tarabotti, a bluestocking living in a steampunk version of Victorian London, populated by werewolves, vampires, and ghosts. Carriger has written several series and stand-alones which take place in her “Parasol-verse”.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Speak/Penguin Random House, 2011).
Sunny Nwazue returns to Nigeria, the country of her birth, and has to adjust her New York attitudes to her new life. Soon after learning she has magical powers, she teams up with three other students to fight a powerful criminal. A sequel (Akata Warrior) was published in 2018. DRAGON-SLAYER

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (Penguin Putnam, 2012).
Cate Cahill is the oldest of three sisters whose mother died when she was 14. All three sisters are witches in a world where witchcraft is feared. There are two more books in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, each focusing on one of Cate’s younger sisters.

A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin (Tor Teen, 2015).
In the early 1800s, intractable upper class girls are sent to Stranje House “finishing school”, to be turned into proper society women. Each of the (so far) three books in the series focuses on a different student, who becomes entangled in espionage. This is more Regency romance than fantasy, but the alternative history slant tips the scales to qualify it for inclusion on this list. DRAGON-SLAYER

Borderline by Mishell Baker (Saga Press, 2016).
Millie Roper, physically disabled with a personality disorder, is recruited by a mysterious organization, The Arcadia Project, which acts as liaison between Hollywood and Fairyland. So far, there are three books in The Arcadia Project series. DRAGON-SLAYER

OK, Dear Readers, that’s Marlyn’s list. Have you read any of these? What faves need to be included (and are the heroines Dragon-Slayers or Dragon-Sayers)?²

¹ Keeling, Kara K. and Marsha M. Sprague (2009), The ALAN Review, Summer 2009, pp. 13-17. Available online here: https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v36n3/pdf/keeling.pdf

² Lizzie Ross is too retiring and diffident to mention her own Kenning Magic (Saguaro Books 2013) which does indeed feature a kick-ass heroine and dragons; I’ll leave you to discover if Noni is a Dragon-Slayer or Dragon-Sayer! Chris

24 thoughts on “Witch Week Day 1: Ten Kick-Ass Heroines

    1. To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war, as Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, meaning it’s better to have a conversation with your perceived enemy than to rattle your sabres at them. If only certain political leaders were dragon-sayers rather than wouldbe dragon-slayers.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. They all look most readable!

    Sad that I will only be publishing Arcana by ‘gipsika’ at the end of November. The cover blurb:

    ‘Adopting a stray black kitten that appears on your doorstep doesn’t make you a witch — or does it?’

    A delightful, if scary, romp with black versus white magic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend the two series by Lin and Okorafor, Lory. Lin’s books are especially beautiful in how they meld Chinese myths and folk tales with the larger story. Also, something to appeal to you, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a retelling of a well-known quest along a yellow-brick road.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating list; I am always keen to know of books to pass along to my daughter that have strong heroines and persons of color and/or the disabled, all of which are, sadly, still lacking in both genre literature and other literature types such as drama, graphic novels, and literary fiction. Mind, she won’t always read what I pass along, but she’s so bright that she became acutely aware and pointed out to us, early on in her life, about the disproportionate number of either absent or weak female chief protagonists in her books (and other entertainment/media, too).

    I think I could also see, though I’m not well-versed enough in dragon lore, a third category to the dragon-slayer and dragon-sayer wherein the dragon (especially in middle grade and sometimes younger, I would say) is not an enemy at all but much more benign from the get-go, thus there isn’t the conflict there of human vs. dragon so much. As to what to call that, nothing so clever as dragon-sayer or dragon-slayer comes to me other than dragon nay’er perhaps (nay, dragons are not enemies but friends, a la the Nemo movies, wherein fish are sharks’ friends and, by extension, humans’ too–and not food!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Dragon-nayer’ sounds good to me though, as you say, it doesn’t lead to the conflict (and subsequent resolution) that narratives thrive on. I hope that Marlyn will be pleased to see that her list is proving helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    I’ve read Patricia Wrede, bought for my nieces to show them an independent, unusual princess 🙂 Great books, funny and trope-subverting. Howl’s Moving Castle – Ghibli animated adaptation is superb, so I guess I should read the books one day, I’ve heard good things about them. Parasol Protectorate though… I’ve read book one and it just wasn’t for me. It seemed a collection of too many tropes and genres, stitched together not that well and with no subtlety at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Patricia Wrede is an author I’ve yet to read (though if she’s written short stories I may have inadvertently come across her in a collection). If you’ve yet to read Howl’s Moving Castle then I suggest you get round to it quickly—your nieces will love it. Studio Ghibli’s wonderful adaptation may go off at a slight tangent but captures the flavour (my review here, if you’re interested: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-howl). From the description I wasn’t sure about the Parasol Protectorate either, but I’m happy to be advised!


  4. Interesting list, I’ve read four out of the ten and a few of the others sound intriguing. If I had made a list it would certainly have included Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren and The Shamer’s Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl. Perhaps also Northern Lights by Philip Pullman and Sheepfarmer’s daughter (many daughters…) by Elizabeth Moon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved RONIA, and must admit that it completely slipped my mind. I haven’t read the other “daughter” books, but will definitely check them out.
      As far as the Pullman series goes, I just couldn’t relate to it, even though I read them all.


      Liked by 2 people

      1. Pullman is not to everyone’s taste, I know, Marlyn, but Lyra is definitely one of my kick-ass heroines, as are Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite and Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching.

        These days it feels like a huge amount of YA fantasy, if not most, being offered to readers is about a strong female protagonist: recent book series that come to mind are by authors such as Genevieve Cogan (libraries and dragons!), Alison Croggon (her Pellinor books) and Garth Nix (the Old Kingdom series), but there are so many others!


    2. You’re certainly more widely read than me here! The Lindgren looks to be good, but Lene Kaaberbøl is a name that’s new to me—must read more Scandi writers, especially YA authors.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Fantasy as a genre was just part of the choices for young readers when I was growing up, Johanna, with historical fiction, classics, adventure and SF all part of the mix—I must’ve alternated between them all indiscriminately, as the fancy took me.

          It’s only as an adult that I’ve consciously searched out genres including (as may be obvious from my topics word cloud) an awful lot of fantasy! Thanks to you and Marlyn I’m increasingly aware I’ve barely explored the tip of the iceberg…

          Liked by 1 person

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