12 Books That Prove Women Outlaws Are Even Cooler than Women Heroes
Throw away your princess stories and get into these pirates, gunslingers, mercenaries, and spies
While researching and writing my first historical fiction series focused on women’s experiences in the American West, I came face to face with something I should have realized years ago: women — their experiences, their triumphs, and their failures — have been ignored by historians. White heterosexual men have written the story of America and as a result, white heterosexual men have played the starring role. I wish I could say this problem is a thing of the past, but it was recently announced that the Texas Education Agency has voted to write out Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton, the first woman in American history to win a presidential nomination, out of Texas’ social studies curriculum. Women are the majority in this country, but we are still being disbelieved, ignored and, yes, written out of history.
Thank God for fiction, and for the new trend of telling women’s stories in historical non-fiction.
Fiction has focused on women’s stories for decades, but recently there has been a shift in the portrayal of women. Sure, there are still plenty of books with damsels in distress and there will always be way too many female murder victims, but fiction is increasingly focused on showing women in all their complexities. They’re pirates, outlaws, vigilantes, mercenaries, assassins, the smartest person in the room, leaders of the free world, superheroes and (just as importantly) supervillains. More important than being the protagonists of stories, for women to truly have an equal footing in literature, we have to have the opportunity to be bloodthirsty, greedy, intelligent, cunning, and vengeful — just like men. In other words, we have to be not only heroes but outlaws.
Below are 12 books about outlaw women that show female characters being strong, powerful, intelligent, and determined. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction. All are worth a read.
Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts and the Legends by Glenn Shirley
The challenge with writing about women in the West is the lack of official record. Letters, journals, contemporaneous newspaper articles, and word of mouth are the main sources of information, the latter two of which can hardly be considered trustworthy. In Belle Starr and Her Times, Glenn Shirley sifts through the fantastic legends, myths and lies to unearth the facts surrounding the most well-known female bandit in the American West.
Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Rios, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Valentine De Landro and Robert Wilson IV
There’s good news and bad news with Pretty Deadly. The good news is it’s a rich, complicated take on the mythological Western with female characters in all the main roles. The bad news is it’s a creator-owned comic and, as such, doesn’t have a consistent release schedule (but there are two collected volumes for you to catch up with!). As of now, it seems to be on hiatus, with promises from DeConnick that the next volume is coming soon. In the meantime, you can pick up DeConnick’s other wildly popular comic, Bitch Planet, about the forced subjugation of women on a prison planet. Set in a sci-fi dystopian world where women are second class citizens and men are in charge (hmm…why does that sound familiar) women can be imprisoned for the smallest reasons. But get that many angry women together and you know they’re going to organize and fight back. Bitch Planet is also creator-owned, so new releases might be sporadic, but there are two collections of this one, too.
Gunslinger Girl by Lynsday Ely
A young adult novel billed as a futuristic, dystopian Western, Gunslinger Girl tells the story of Serendipity “Pity” Jones, who inherited two six shooters and perfect aim from her mother. On the promise of fame and fortune, she travels to Cessation, a glittering city with an underbelly of corruption, temptation, danger, and darkness. Action-packed, with an unforgettable heroine.
John Larison Fights the Toxic Cowboy Myth By Giving His Western a Female Hero
Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh
Bonnie Parker, the female half of Bonnie and Clyde, is without a doubt the most well-known American female outlaw. In Becoming Bonnie, Jenni Walsh tells the story of a young Bonnie Parker, a churchgoing good girl who lives a double life as a moll at night to provide for her family. She starts to believe she can have it all: the American dream, the husband, the family. But little does she know that two things are about to change the direction of her life: the Great Depression and Clyde Barrow.
The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland
If you’re looking for women who live outside the norms of society, then romance is the genre for you. Romance is filled with women taking charge of their destiny, and their sex lives, and not settling for less. Thorland has written a series of Revolutionary War romances featuring strong women overcoming obstacles and persevering. Any of the Renegades of the Revolution series would be a good read, but The Rebel Pirate is my pick for the heroine’s focus on protecting her family, even if it means breaking the law.
Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley
A collection of five sci-fi short stories featuring Nyx, a pansexual mercenary who enjoys sex as much as she enjoys killing people. She’s a drunk and almost completely without scruples, but I somehow kept rooting for her and her band of mercs. Here’s hoping Nyx gets a full-length novel from Hurley.
Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings
A remorseless assassin being chased across Europe by a dogged British spy sounds like your typical James Bond novel. Swap out the two male leads with two females and it becomes something else altogether: a fast-paced, sexy thriller with two complicated, multifaceted women at the center. It’s also the basis for the AMC series Killing Eve, which I highly recommend as well.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Abbott digs into the stories of four women from very different backgrounds who became spies during the Civil War. We have long been exposed to men rising to the occasion when our country is threatened, and now we are finally being exposed to women who rose to the occasion as well. Other non-fiction books that focus on women’s contribution to war efforts specifically include Amelia Earhart’s Daughters by Leslie Haynsworth, Code Girls by Liza Mundy, The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, and The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman
A YA Western with a heroine out to avenge her father’s death at the hand of a brutal gang. Part road trip story, part coming of age story, all grit and pathos. With vivid descriptions of the Wild West and tremendous character development, this story stayed with me long after I closed the book.
Revenge and the Wild by Michelle Modesto
YA billed as “True Grit meets True Blood.” Need I say more? Okay, maybe a little. Westie, a one-armed orphan who has to control her recklessness and anger, aims to get revenge on the gang of cannibals that murdered her family. There’s magic, gold dust, magical gold dust, a makeshift family, a mechanical arm, a brilliant inventor, zombies, vampires, and the aforementioned cannibals.
Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames
I don’t read epic fantasies. I’m one of “those people” who found Lord of the Rings rather boring and it put me off the genre. But Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld sounded so cool I had to read it, and I fell in love with the world, the characters, the humor, the action, and the writing. Eames’s much anticipated follow-up, Bloody Rose, follows a new band of mercenaries, this one led by the indomitable Bloody Rose who is determined to step out of her legendary father’s shadow and shed the “damsel in distress” label she received after her former band was destroyed at the end of Kings of the Wyld. To cement her legacy, she pushes her band to takes chances and go to extremes — sometimes illegal, always dangerous — other bands wouldn’t dare. This book is full of heart, adventure, action, and danger. Oh, and all of the characters are inspired by different music genres and ’80s and ’90s pop culture references come at you fast and furious. Eames and I shared an editor and when I asked him after finishing and loving the testosterone driven Kings of the Wyld, “Where are all the women?” he said, “Trust me, they’re coming in Bloody Rose.” Boy was he right, and it was definitely worth the wait.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
A YA fantasy inspired by West Africa and its culture, Children of Blood and Bone is the African diaspora’s answer to Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Much like the young adult heroes in those stories, the three heroes in CoBB have to work outside of society, outside of the law, to complete their quest of returning a balance to the two cultures of their land, the maji and k’osidán. Influenced by a number of real world issues such as Black Lives Matter, decolonization, privilege, and discrimination of the other, this novel is told through the eyes of children who have been forced to mature too soon under a government they cannot trust to protect them.