In a world as diverse and complicated as our own, we don’t see enough women in positions of power in the world. According to The Pew Research Center there were only “15 female world leaders currently in office, eight of whom are their country’s first woman in power” in 2017.
Thankfully the world of fantasy YA novels is full of vibrant and powerful female political leaders. Let’s start this list with some of my favourite literary YA Queens of the last decade.
Queen Lilac of Renovia
The Queen’s Secret Series, Melissa de la Cruz
We’re going to start with an odd one, since we actually don’t get to see much of Lilac in the first book of this series (which only came out in February). What this series promises is a Queen who is ambitious and focussed on achieving something more than what her role dictates. We learn most about Lilac through the Royal Assassin, Caledon Holt. This is a post-war world, where peace is fragile, and it seems like some of Lilac’s decisions are going to make big waves down the line. Lilac may be naive, but that comes more from a need to use the skills she’s gained rather than a lack of them outright.
Put this one on your to-be-read shelf, because good things are coming in this series.
Queen Theodosia Eirene Houzzara of Astrea
Ash Princess Trilogy, Laura Sebastien
Theo starts off having already lost her throne, being kept as a ‘conversation piece’ by the man who killed her mother and enslaved her people. As the daughter of the Fire Queen, Theo is forced to wear crowns of ash at formal gatherings, her crown crumbling with each step she takes (which is oh so dramatic to read through). Moreover, she is a stand-in for her people– being beaten each time they attempt rebellion. She is a woman who has been trained to accept abuse, though thankfully we see more of the true person underneath when the rebels finally get to her and she knows she has allies.
Throughout the series we see Theo fight against the ingrained instincts to surrender. She learns skills she was never permitted to before, becoming competent and self-reliant, even in life and death situations. In the political sphere, she seeks compromise, making decisions that are counter to her culture but are of benefit to her people. In the end, she learns to become a battle commander, taking advice from her people but always leading with authority and the paramount goal of saving her people from the same torture she endured.
Queen Bitterblue of Monsea
Graceling Series, Kristin Cashore
The Graceling series has some amazing powerful women, but few are as intriguing as the youngest– Bitterblue. We are introduced to the future heir to Monsea in Graceling when she is only ten-years-old. Even as a child, we see Bitterblue as wise, perceptive, level-headed and willing the question authority. After learning about her history, it becomes clear that Bitterblue has spent her life in a literal battle of wills against her tyrannical father. She is used to having to question her own thoughts, her own memories and find ways to stay true to herself through manipulation. Even at ten, she wields authority over her troops without hesitation and is dedicated to trying to make the world a better place.
In Bitterblue we finally get to see the world through her eyes as an eighteen-year-old. Bitterblue is still the wise leader we met in Graceling, but her efforts are being hamstrung by her advisors who are only interested in her as figurehead. Of course, she begins to sneak out and becomes an active member of an underground rebellion. The coolest part of this rebellion is its focus on educating the lower class as a means of social mobility.
Bitterblue is a great Queen because she understands that while the ‘winners’ write history, that her father’s might did not equal right. It is through her willingness to question what is presented to her, to see when others try to manipulate her and to uncover the hard truth that even she has hidden from herself that makes her a truly magnificent leader.
Queen Mayavati (or Maya) of Naraka
The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi
In this first novel by Chokshi, we need Maya, a princess who is cursed by the stars of her birth. She is constantly being insulted and belittled, to the point where she is asked to take her own life to further the ambitions of her father. There’s some big surprises in exactly how she ends up escaping her father, but at its core is a story about a woman who will not surrender. While the story sets her up as someone who needs to be saved, by the end of the novel, she is the one who takes the lead and claims her throne. There are some great conversations throughout on themes such as justice, where we see Maya stand for what she believes against men in positions of power.
For those who are familiar with Indian history and mythology, you might find yourself annoyed by how obvious some of the twists are in this novel, but if you’re new to the genre, this is an engaging read with lots to offer.
Lada Dracul of Wallachia
The Conqueror’s Saga, Kiersten White
I’m going to give the caveat here that while Lada is the most badass woman on this list, she’s also the least admirable (in my eyes at least). Inspired by history, Lada is Vlad the Impaler’s daughter, and this series does not pull any punches with her in that respect. Raised by the Ottomans, she’s learned to be ruthless to survive. Essentially being held as a bargaining chip alongside her brother, Lada is constantly plotting how she can get home. Like all these books, there’s a love story here as well. The most interesting part is that her rival is her brother, who falls in love with the same man.
But Lada isn’t about love or compassion or playing nice. She will get the throne no matter who she needs to kill. She’s a raging barbarian who solves every problem with a blade. So she’s not a nice person, but the book is very clear that she gets things done. She’s a merciless dictator who ends crime. She protects her borders at any cost. In the end, she’s not even the hero of our story. But she’s powerful, confident and ambitious, so that’s something.
Queen Kelsea Raleigh Glynn of Tearling
Queen of the Tearling Series, Erika Johansen
Kelsea is the only Queen on this list who was not raised with a knowledge of her royal blood (and she topped the list– good for her!). At nineteen, she is forced out of the countryside and into the role of leadership during an active war. Kelsea denies the call to adventure at first, but becomes through trial and error, a competent Queen. While the first book focuses around getting her to her coronation safely and Kelsea learning how to act with her royal guard, she comes into her own as the series progresses.
Kelsea knows right and wrong, and she does not accept that some of her people must be sold for the good of the many. She challenges her advisors on their willingness to have lots pulled for slavery and sacrifice to the Queen of Mortesne. In spite of what seems like insurmountable odds, Kelsea stays true to her morals and maintains a willingness to fight alongside her people. She’s headstrong and stubborn, which is essential in a world where so many have accepted defeat. In the end, Kelsea is the one who makes the big sacrifices for her people, making her a noble and just Queen.
Queen [Arsinoe, Katherine, Mirabella or Jules] of Fennbirn
Three Dark Crowns, Kendare Blake
This list wouldn’t be complete without talking about Three Dark Crowns. This list would have been dominated by the four Queens in this series and their various skills, perspectives, allies and ambition if you didn’t choose your Queen here.
In Fennbirn, every generation is marked by the birth of three Queens all with equal claim to the throne. Raised by the leaders of noble families and each having their own unique magics, they must kill each other until only one remains. Mirabella is an elementalist and the most likely to win the crown (if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s the sweetest of them all). Katharine is a poisoner who is the smallest of the girls but also the one who’s family is currently in power. Arsinoe is a naturalist who has all but accepted defeat, but is also the most brave and resourceful of the three. Our last potential Queen is Jules; the childhood friend of Arsinoe who is the chosen of those who don’t believe the lineage has a place in Fennbirn anymore.
This book doesn’t hold its punches. People will die. People will murder for their own benefit. People are manipulated and put in impossible situations. In the end, there can only be one Queen. Prepare yourself accordingly for this one
One last caveat– the naming convention in this series is ridiculous. Start with Three Dark Crowns, then One Dark Throne. The finale is Two Dark Reigns. I know I’m not the only one to spoil myself on a secret of two when assuming they countdown 3-2-1.
This article was originally published 6/19/20
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