As you may or may not know, today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, I thought I would post up my list of favourite YA heroines, all of whom are incredibly intelligent, strong, independent and awesome. They’re not in any particular order, and they’re a mix of fantasy/sci-fi/historical and contemporary.
Please note, there’s going to be a few spoilers ahead, so if you see a book you haven’t read yet and want to, I’d suggest skipping ahead unless you don’t mind the spoilers 😀
- Audrey from It Only Happens in the Movies by Holly Bourne
This is a contemporary book that I instantly fell in love with. It’s a story about romance movies and stereotypes and um… zombie films. It’s an incredibly honest, no secrets kept look at the way romance movies alter our expectations and sense of reality, dispelling myths about the manic-pixie-dreamgirl, sex, adultery, big romantic gestures and the idea that love is the most important thing in a woman’s life. Audrey is a brilliant feminist protagonist, who starts by wanting to get back with her ex, despite the fact that he dumped her because she wasn’t ready to lose her virginity to him and he abandons her for another girl. She soon realizes that this was a douche-bag move, and that she deserved better, and she learns to decide for herself what she wants and deserves. It’s a powerful and moving book, with many layers, and despite being hilarious and ugly-cry worthy in equal measures, it’s great to see a book explain some of the pitfalls of movies many people know and love, showing us that a real, healthy relationship doesn’t always look like it does in the movies.
2. Feyre from A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas
One of the biggest series in YA, ACOTAR deals with a lot, from what can arguably be considered an abusive relationship [since over-protection at the cost of freedom is definitely in that category] to a woman learning how to protect herself, eventually earning the title of High Lady of the Night Court, meaning she’s an equal to her partner, Rhysand. Like Katniss from The Hunger Games, Feyre starts as the sole provider for her family, hunting in a dangerous forest for food to feed her father and sisters. I loved Feyre for her strength and determination, her resilience and her bravery even in the face of what seems like inevitable death. She never does quite what you’d expect, and I think the clear intelligence and ability to stragetize earns her a place on this list. I could have easily swapped her out for Celaena Sardothien from Maas’ Throne of Glass series, but I think I prefer to have Feyre here because she has a great depth of character and is less ruthless.
3. Mia Corvere from the Nevernight Chronicles by Jay Kristoff
Okay, so Mia is a pretty ruthless character. But she is also totally bad-ass. She’s a terrifying assassin, trying to bring down the powerful men who ordered her father’s execution and broke up her family. She’s single-minded and cunning, and very much a survivor, willing to do anything to achieve her goals. I guess I included Mia because I think she’s not bothered about other peoples’ opinions. She does whatever she wants, including things which would probably be considered traditionally masculine, such as heavy drinking, cursing, and smoking. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind, and she uses sexuality as a weapon. She’s arguably terrifying, and I’m not sure if I’d want to meet her in real life, but hell if she doesn’t deserve to be on this list.
4. Lady Helen Wrexhall from The Dark Days series by Alison Goodman
The Dark Days Club is a curious mix between historical fiction and fantasy. Set in Regency Era, the novel follows protagonist Lady Helen Wrexhall as she is drawn into the shadowy world of London, with its hidden demons infiltrating every level of society. Helen ends up becoming a demon-hunter, alongside the alluring Lord Carlston, but it’s Helen that really stands out– she’s strong and brave, witty and reckless, and she’s in a position that would surely be frowned upon or lead to her ruin as a woman in this period, and yet she still fights for what she believes in, and to save the people she loves. Lady Helen is an exemplary female hero of YA, balancing her femininity with her new role as a demon-hunter.
5. Evelyn from Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
This historical fiction novel offers a glimpse at the different groups that fought for womens’ right to vote in England. The book actually follows three different girls of different classes, all with their own unique stories and beliefs, who take part in marches, rallies and protests to get what they want. Evelyn is one of these girls, a seventeen year old who is from a wealthy background but takes umbrage at the thought of not being allowed to go to university and receive an education like her brother. Instead, she’s expected to marry her childhood sweetheart and start a family. Rather than accept this fate, Evelyn chooses to take a stand, even getting involved in a hunger strike. It’s a well-written book with a powerful message, and it was awesome to see a character from this period in history. It’s a novel about sacrifice and responsibility, freedom and empowerment. And that never fails to make for a great read.
6. Inej Ghafa from the Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo
Nina: “You may still die in the Dregs.”
Inej: “I may. But I’ll die on my feet with a knife in my hand.”
This is another really big YA fantasy novel that I recommend to literally anyone who enjoys books. The novels centre around a gang of six criminals known as The Dregs, who are tasked with breaking into an impenetrable fortress to retrieve a hostage. The six of them are fascinating and Bardugo really brings each of the main characters to life with her witty and beautiful writing style, but it’s Inej who really sticks in my mind. She’s a POC, who grew up in a family of acrobats who travelled in caravans. Before the novel is set, she’s captured by a gang of slavers who sell her to a pleasure house, where she spends several years before being rescued by The Dregs’ Kaz Brekker. Inej then joins the gang as a spy. Throughout both novels, she is portrayed as reserved, but very mentally strong. She’s got aspirations to help other slaves escape to freedom, and, although she’s moral and often finds it hard to trust people, she’s also willing to offer friendship to those who earn it. It would be easy to write a character like Inej who can’t move on from the cruelty she’s been shown in life, but what I love is how she finds strength in herself, doing what she believes is right.
7. Tessa Grey from the Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare
Although Clare is somewhat a controversial author these days, I couldn’t resist including one of her best female characters in this list. Tessa Grey is a total book nerd, always with her nose in a volume of poetry or a classic. Oh, and she hunts demons and other nasty creatures which prey on humans. Set in Victorian London, these novels are great for showing us a brilliant female protagonist who isn’t afraid to be feminine and bookish as well as unleashing hell on the battlefield. Tessa isn’t the strongest character, despite having some pretty potent magical abilities, but she’s also determined and loyal, brave and curious, and always willing to show people her kind and caring side.
8. Lila Bard from A Darker Shade of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
Another female hero who might well be considered somewhat ruthless, here’s Lila Bard. She’s from Georgian London [known as Grey London since it doesn’t have magic] but she’s more interested in being a pirate and a thief than being a lady. She’s a girl who would rather ‘die on an adventure than live standing still’ and she’s not afraid to fight for what she wants. Lila seeks to learn magic, and to earn enough money to buy her own ship, since she’s drawn to the ocean, but that doesn’t stop her from helping her friends along the way. Lila is daring and cynical, quick-witted and courageous, with a flair for violence when provoked. Although she’s a little cowardly at times, running away to save herself, she’s definitely not someone to tangle with, but she’s also got a surprisingly kind side, and she uses it to protect the people she believes deserve it. She’s also incredibly cheeky and immature at times, with a dirty sense of humour, but it’s one of the things that makes her such an awesome female protagonist, and worthy of this list.
9. Claire Danvers from The Morganville Vampires series by Rachel Caine
One of my childhood favourites, TMV is a hilarious and fast=paced series about a town in Texas which happens to be run by vampires, with humans either turning into meals or rebels. Claire is an incredibly clever teenager who is sent to the town’s university to study, only to find herself threatened by one of the girls there, Monica. Rather than wait for Monica’s threats to come true, Claire moves herself into off-campus accommodation, joining a set of eccentric humans who explain the truth behind the town. Over the series, Claire is the one person who really strives to bring harmony to Morganville, becoming a kind of ambassador between the humans and the vampires. She doesn’t take crap from people, and she’s very good at speaking her mind when she needs to stand up for what she believes in, but she’s also clever enough to use her very-human talents to her advantage too. She’s an incredibly moral character who is thrown into danger more times than I can count, and yet she’s also gloriously human throughout the series, showing us that logic can often win over strength.
10. Vivian Carter from Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
Viv is definitely a feminist hero. When she realizes that her misogynistic high school cares more about the football team than the girls, she decides it is time to stop taking crap, printing a zine called Moxie and distributing it anonymously in the girls’ bathrooms to start a revolution. The boys at the school are pretty awful, wearing sexist t-shirts, groping girls in the hallway, and making ridiculous jokes about sandwiches, so it’s really no surprise that Viv loses her patience. It starts as a minor show of solidarity, which grows into a big change. Viv is an awesome character, and I love that there is a lot of focus on how she views feminism as being equal to men, rather than being man-haters as some of the boys in the novel come to feel. She’s creative and stubborn, and she speaks up when she needs to. It’s a very layered [though at times romanticised] look at feminism in action, and considering the rise of the #MeToo movement, it is definitely a novel that people need to read and educate themselves with.
11. Mariko from A Flame in the Mist series by Renee Ahdieh
A YA fantasy retelling of Mulan. Mariko is the only daughter of a prominent samurai, and she’s always been told that she’s been raised for the sole purpose of being married. But Mariko doesn’t wish to enter into a loveless and arranged marriage. When she’s sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, and her convoy is attacked and killed by the ruthless Black Clan, Mariko chooses to plot her revenge. She pretends to be a boy, using her cunning and talent for alchemy to infiltrate the gang and hunt down those who were ordered to assassinate her. I love Mariko’s character, as she’s devious and cunning and determined to survive and thrive as a woman in a patriarchal society. Definitely a book worth a read.
12. Kestrel from The Winner’s series by Marie Rutkoski
Kestrel is another example of an excellent strategist, perfectly suited to a game of chess or war. She’s a general’s daughter in a country built on slavery, but after she acquires her own slave, Arin, at an auction, she begins to learn the truth of the empire she calls home, and the devastating effect of slavery on a human being. Kestrel sometimes struggles to know what she wants, but to be fair, Rutkoski throws her into so many rock-and-hard-places scenarios that it’s difficult to make a choice. When she does. Kestrel is utterly determined, often winning through her logical and talented mind. She’s trained in war, and she can fight well when she needs to, but it is clear throughout the series that her best weapon is her mind, making her an excellent addition to this list.
13. Dimple Shah from When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Although it seems to be a cute and fluffy contemporary romance, scratch the surface and you’ll find that WDMR is actually a gloriously awesome book about a girl determined to live life on her own terms. She has it all figured out. She wants to go to university to study web development, and so she joins a summer program to escape from her mother’s inexplicable obsession with finding Dimple the ‘Ideal Indian Husband.’ Of course, her mother plots against her, sending her favourite candidate [Rishi] to the same program to try and woo her daughter, but obviously things don’t go so smoothly. Though the novel is very funny in places, and cute and fluffy, I love how it deals with some real life issues, and the idea of not-quite arranged marriage and family expectations. Dimple is strong-willed and intelligent, determined to win the top prize and develop a site that will help people across the world, and I like how much she cared about her career and schoolwork more than she cared about having a boyfriend. Even when that becomes the case, she proves it is possible to juggle both, making her an awesome female heroine.
14. Iseult from The Witchlands series by Susan Dennard
It was really difficult to choose between the two main protagonists in this series, but Iseult just cinches it. She’s an incredibly gifted threadwitch, with the ability to see people’s emotions. Iseult is a brilliant friend, loyal to her threadsister, Safi, and she’s totally badass. Because she’s from the Nomatsis tribe, she’s often persecuted by strangers around her, but despite their prejudice she remains strong and kind. Iseult is rational and level-headed, often putting the needs of others before herself. Because of this, she’s often able to save other people from terrible fates, especially Safi, who is a rare Truthwitch who is hunted by everyone hoping to use her abilities for their own ends.
15. Blue Sargent from The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
‘She wasn’t interested in telling other people’s futures. She was interested in going out and finding her own.‘
The Raven Boys is an amazing urban fantasy about a group of school kids searching for the body of Owen Glendower, a King-Arthur like figure from Welsh mythology. Blue is the girl of the group, and despite her initial misgivings about the boys from Aglionby Academy [the rich, elitist private school in Henrietta], she quickly becomes a vital part of the team. Blue is quirky and eccentric, prone to wanderlust and creatively making over her own clothes with pairs of scissors. She cares about the environment, and feminism, and she voices her opinion whenever she feels the urge to, often causing trouble. She’s the daughter of a psychic, living in a house full of women, so it really comes as no surprise that she’s so independent, but Blue is also sensible and sarcastic, which are traits I really admire. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends, and would do anything for them, but she’s also not prepared to take crap from them either, insulting Gansey for naively attempting to pay for her to talk to his friend, and criticising Adam for treating her more like a girlfriend than one of the group.
16. Izzy O’Neill from The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven
Although Izzy’s immature humour initially grated on me quite a bit, I fell in love with the message of this book. After she is photographed having sex with a politician’s son and it goes viral, Izzy is ostracised in school, learning the hard way that double-standards are alive and thriving. While the boys she fools around with are high-fived and congratulated, Izzy becomes a laughing stock, labelled a slut for being sexually active and enjoying herself. What I really liked about the character is that, despite how difficult the situation is, and how much it effects every aspect of her life, Izzy tries to keep her head up high, using her humour and confidence to move on and refuse to feel the shame people keep trying to throw at her. This is a great novel for looking at how things like sexts and revenge porn can really mess up a person’s life, and it explores all of this in honest and sometimes excruciating detail, with Izzy not only alienated at school, but having to talk to her grandmother about the incident after it makes the headlines, and how it impacts on her choices as she looks to graduate.
17. Vasilisa from the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”
Vasya is definitely not a conventional woman. She’s considered a witch by most of the people around her, owing to her strange ties to nature and her unhappiness at the thought of a life of marriage, servitude and family. She’d rather live life on her own terms, running wild in the forest and exploring the world. But she lives in Tsarist Russia, in a time when Christianity and the old gods are at war with one another. Vasya is a brilliant heroine, struggling for autonomy in a world that expects her to be a traditional and silent woman. She’s cunning and feisty, opinionated and kind, and she’s determined to save the household spirits who protect the people she holds in her heart. To do this, she must rebel against everything her family expect from her, including her new step-mother who is determined to marry her off in order to keep her from honouring the spirits.
18. Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
Would a list of kick-ass female heroes be complete without the inclusion of Hermione Granger? I doubt it. Hermione is easily the ‘brightest witch of her age’ at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, and tempers her cool logic and intellect with courage and kindness. She’s often helping out underdogs, and despite caring a lot about not getting expelled or in trouble, she also voices her opinions when she feels something is unfair. She can be rebellious, organizing the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare and knitting hats to free the house elves she feels are wrongfully enslaved at the school, as well as fighting to save Buckbeak the Hippogriff and starting Dumbledore’s Army in her 5th year to help others defend themselves in the wake of Voldemort’s return. More than that, her bookish character has inspired a whole generation of girls and helped them realize that intelligence is not a flaw, it is something to be valued.
19. Taylor from Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde
Another book that may initially appear lighthearted and fluffy, but actually has a lot of depth to it. The novel follows three friends, Taylor, Charlie and Jamie at a comic book convention. Charlie is a vlogger and actress, who appears on the panel to promote her new movie and prove she’s over her actor and asshole ex-boyfriend. When she meets one of her favourite internet heroes, Alyssa Huntington, it begins to dawn on her that her crush might not be quite so one sided.
Charlie is an excellent foil to her introverted friend, Taylor, who has anxiety issues. She’s afraid of change, and even attending the convention is something of a struggle for her. What I loved is how she grows over the weekend the novel is set in, learning how to hold her head up high and how to help others who also struggle with similar issues, and she eventually manages to muster up the courage to make a big change of her own– finally admitting she’s attracted to her friend, Jamie. Queens of Geek is ultimately a fluffy romance novel about two girls finding love, but honestly it is also much more than that, and I think it sends a really important and healthy message about several issues, including LGBTQ and mental health.
Paige Mahoney from The Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon
I wasn’t sure what to make of these books when I first started reading them. It’s a weird blend of fantasy and dystopian sci-fi, with lots of scientific jargon I found difficult to keep up with. But once you get past this, the story really starts flowing, and over the course of the series I’ve become a little obsessed with these books. Paige is one of the main reasons behind my addiction. She’s a conflicted and multi-faceted character, with the rare ability to dreamwalk. She’s also a criminal, working in a gang known as the Seven Seals as a mollisher for her mime-lord, Jaxon. This involves scouting for information by breaking into people’s minds and making sure everything is running smoothly for her boss, even if that means having to punish any rivals that get in their way. After she’s arrested and thrown into a prison for magic-wielders [called voyants] like herself, and forced into slavery, she decides to overthrow the government which executes and imprisons people like herself, orchestrating a rebellion that will change the foundation of her world forever. It’s powerful and poignant stuff, about the dangers of prejudice and the dream of a world in which people are not alienated and killed for differences outside of their control. It’s sometimes hard going, and the narrative gets brutal, but I urge everyone to read this and not be enchanted by Paige’s fight for equality.