Top Feminist Fantasy Picks of 2021 – Chicago Review of Books


2021 was a great year for fantasy readers, especially those looking for fantasy novels written by women. One need only glance at the finalists for the Goodreads Choice Awards—with 8 of 10 novels written by women or non-binary people—to see that the idea of fantasy as a male-dominated genre is a thing of the past.

Not all work written by women or non-binary authors is feminist, of course, and men can write feminist works too (see below.) But as the reality of who’s writing fantasy fiction expands in inclusive directions, so does its content. Readers who want Tolkien-style male-dominated doorstoppers can still find them, but readers who want imaginative, magical stories where women demonstrate their power—in positive and negative ways—can find new favorites too.

While there are plenty of books I’d love to cover, to keep this roundup from going on forever, the list below includes only my very favorite feminist fantasy picks published in 2021. Additionally, it doesn’t include speculative novels that fit better in the category of science fiction. What remains is an impressive range of far-flung settings, magic systems, historical and cultural inspirations, and different ways to showcase and celebrate women and their power, all published in just one year. 

by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron Books
Published April 5th, 2022

Given that Ariadne tells the story of a famed female figure from Greek myth, the obvious read-alike is Madeline Miller’s Circe. But unlike Miller, Saint chooses not to confine her novel to the point of view of the title character. As a result, the story broadens, forks, spins, and braids through the perspective of multiple narrators, and the result is fascinating and unpredictable. Ariadne doesn’t always choose wisely, but she chooses, and the way her choices diverge from those of her sister Phaedra make for a great read.

Black Water Sister
by Zen Cho
Ace Books
Published May 11th, 2021

Fantasy can happen anywhere, and Zen Cho’s contemporary Malaysia-set novel brings fantastical elements like spirits, ghosts and gods crashing into the very modern concerns of our present-day world. Protagonist Jess already has enough problems—closeted, unemployed, and more or less forced to move back to Malaysia with her parents after her college graduation—when she starts hearing a voice from the beyond, which turns out to be the ghost of her grandmother, Ah Ma. What Ah Ma wants and the danger Jess must put herself in to provide it make for a fabulous rollercoaster of explosive secrets, witty dialogue, dark memories, and supernatural misadventures.

The Chosen and the Beautiful
by Nghi Vo
Published June 1st, 2021

This re-envisioning of The Great Gatsby both honors the original and transforms it, and I devoured every page. Jordan Baker, reimagined by Vo as a queer Vietnamese adoptee, is a far more interesting character than either Nick Carraway or Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s original. But Nick, Jay, and especially Daisy also gain complexity and dimension along with Jordan in Vo’s fantastical, dark-arts-powered milieu.

The Gilded Ones
by Namina Forna
Delacorte Press
Published February 9th, 2021

One of the ways to articulate the importance of women’s rights is to situate them in a fictional world that gives them none, and the brutal world of The Gilded Ones is a particularly crushing example. In this oppressive world, teenage girls are examined for “purity” in a bloodletting ritual; even those who succeed earn the right to live behind masks for the rest of their lives, and those who fail are never seen again. When protagonist Deka is deemed impure, leading to torture and despair, she’s offered one alternative to death—join a group of outcast warrior girls, and earn back her purity with years of service to her country. What’s behind this offer, and who turns out to be the real enemy, take this YA novel to the next level and leave you hungry for the next installment.

The Jasmine Throne
by Tasha Suri
Published June 8th, 2021

Sick of same-old, same-old Western European, vaguely medieval fantasy worlds? Suri’s Mughal-inspired, sapphic fantasy is the perfect antidote. Malini is a disobedient, imprisoned princess banished by her brother to a wrecked temple. Priya is the maidservant tasked with caring for her… except Priya is also, as it happens, so much more. It’s a multifaceted slow-burn of both romance and revolution.

See Also

A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark
Published May 11th, 2021

This one’s for those of you who love detective stories, especially if the jaded detective at the story’s heart is a woman with a girlfriend, and the detective’s new, bright-eyed rookie partner is also a woman, and oh by the way it’s all set in a richly-imagined 1912s alternate steampunk Cairo. Clark expands on his existing “Dead Djinn” universe to bring this all to life, and it’s a twisty, lively ride.

She Who Became the Sun
by Shelley Parker-Chan
Tor Books
Published July 20th, 2021

The epic start to a duology based on the life of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, this novel manages to spotlight the foolishness of privileging men’s rights over women’s, while simultaneously arguing for moving beyond the idea of a gender binary at all. In Parker-Chan’s fascinating re-imagining, the character known as Zhu Chongba takes on her brother’s destiny by inhabiting his identity, and her foil, the eunuch Ouyang, also plays a key role — but to say more might spoil some of this novel’s revelatory, jaw-dropping surprises.

The Witch’s Heart
by Genevieve Gornichec
Ace Books
Published February 9th, 2021

Gornichec’s debut is a fabulous, imaginative take on Norse mythology, which despite the popularity of Marvel’s version of Loki, is still a rarer find in fiction than its Greek and Roman cousins. The giantess-witch Angrboda, mother to Loki’s children—a wolf, a serpent, and the ruler of the dead—finally gets to tell her own story, painful and magical and fully inhabited.


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