8 Powerful Women Leaders in Fantasy Novels
Put down the sword, men, and make way for these warriors, magicians, and queens
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By now, the idea of a woman in power shouldn’t even be a point of debate. When I set out to write The Wolf of Oren-yaro¸ I wanted to explore what a traditional hero’s journey looked like from the point of view of a woman, with the same challenges that a man in that position might deal with. I thought it would be easy. I’m a woman. I’ve written about women before.
But there was something about having Queen Talyien in an obvious position of power that seemed to make her situation more potent, rifer for misunderstanding. Women are held to certain standards of behavior, made all the clearer when she is in power. Within the narrative, I found myself having to confront how power and gender intersected—how some of the same things Queen Talyien’s forebears were both feared and respected for were used to tear her down. Named the Bitch Queen to mock the wolf emblem of her clan, there seemed little room for sympathy in her world… a fact that reflected in real life, where some readers found her off-putting for the same sort of character traits that is often celebrated in men.
But if not with cutthroat efficiency and a desire to set things in motion, even when she doesn’t have all the answers, how else do we define women in power? Many other ways, in fact. I’ve gathered a list of women in fantasy literature who show power in many different ways.
Calanthe from The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowsi
Known as the “Lioness of Cintra,” Queen Calanthe won her first major battle at the age of fifteen—a full year after she took the throne upon her father’s death. She continues to be known by her prowess in battle. Later, she marries and has a daughter, Pavetta, who gives birth to Ciri; after Pavetta’s untimely death, Calanthe takes over the care of raising her granddaughter. She dies in battle during a Nilfgaard invasion of her city, though her body is never found.
Catelyn Stark from A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Wife of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfall, mother of Robb, Sansa, Arya, Brandon, and Rickon, Catelyn Stark (nee Tully)’s journey sees her wading through the brutal land of Westeros in an attempt to protect her family and bring them back together. Proud, honorable, and wise, she persists with her mission even seemingly past death, where she comes back as Lady Stoneheart.
Ista dy Chalion from The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Ista dy Chalion marries into a family with a curse and becomes queen of Chalion. She has the ability to see the curse, but the people around her chalk it up to insanity. Despite being set aside after she was widowed, relegated from queen of Chalion to “mad Ista,” she persists in her belief in order to protect her children. She eventually implores the help of Cazaril, her daughter’s tutor, to help break the curse, and he believes her. In the sequel, Ista’s gifts propels her into a new journey that involves ridding the land of demons.
Zezili from The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
A Captain General who reflects many of the traits seen in complex male characters, Zezili has a sense of love verging on cruelty and sadism, and shows a casual indifference to violence, rape, and murder. The character reflects a shatteringly unapologetic portrayal of a woman in a culture where the brutality she displays towards men—and her husband in particular—is the norm in a matriarchal society built in response to oppression. She invites the audience to rethink how they sympathize with male heroes who reflect many of the same traits but are somehow not vilified for them.
Sigourney Rose from Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
Born in an island where her mother’s people has been colonized, Sigourney Rose lost her family to a brutal murder at a young age and has been fixated on nothing but vengeance since. She shows ruthless cunning as she climbs her way up the ranks in court, hoping to be chosen Queen by the end of it. But the uncompromising decisions she sees as a necessity in a sea of white faces are viewed as a privilege by those beneath her, her own people in whose enslavement she is also complicit.
Draupadi from Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
This account of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata is told from the perspective of Draupadi as a woman instead of as a mythical princess. Draupadi resents the restrictions imposed on her by her position, especially those brought on by womanhood. In this novel, Draupadi is injected with agency, weaving through a complex web of politics that in all other accounts have only been interested in the doings of men.
Sanao Hekate from The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang
Lady Sanao Hekate is the Protector, who rules a land filled with magic. Drought and civil disorder lead Sanao to promise one of her children as a blood price to the Grand Monastery in exchange for their help. She has twins, a boy and a girl, and both are offered up as payment, though Sanao is not happy with the arrangement. The girl is able to see the future with visions. The boy is not as fortunate, but Sanao later uses her son in her political scheming. A brutal leader who doesn’t give a second thought to mass murder, Lady Sanao defies gender roles and amasses immense power along the way.
Anyanwu from Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
The immortal and shapeshifting Anywanwu isn’t a leader by the traditional sense, but she is a matriarch of generations of children and grandchildren. She is originally drawn to another immortal, Doro, for his promise of children who will never die. Later, she goes to great lengths to protect her descendants and kin, including weathering Doro’s abuse. The strength and resilience Anyanwu shows is remarkable and highlights how power can be found in silence and the willingness to endure, until finally she finds an opportunity to stand her ground and break away.