10 of the best books about strong women to inspire your courage

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Strong woman in the forest surrounded by trees
Photo by Andrew Neel

I love reading books with badass women protagonists. These women are strong, authentically themselves, and much more than just a romantic love interest. They have their own lives, their own thoughts, and their own goals and motivations.

Some of my favourite books about strong women are fantasy books, others are thrillers, action books, literary fiction, and biographies.

Read on for some of my favourite books about strong women (which are also perfect books for strong women to read), including books from Madeline Miller to Maya Angelou, Philip Pullman to Katherine Arden.

I hope you can find some new additions to your to-read list that will give you some inspiration, escapism, and a kick in the butt to be a badass in your own life.

The most empowering books about strong women to read

1. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

My reading of His Dark Materials as a child was like my experiences of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia: magical, warming, and otherworldly.

As an adult, re-reading the series was just as meaningful, if not more so – there’s so much I could only understand those years later. I also remembered how much I love Lyra. She’s stubborn, caring, and strong, especially in the first half of the series before she reaches the self-consciousness that comes with early adulthood.

The first book of the series is Northern Lights, which is a perfect book to read in winter.

2. Galatea by Madeline Miller

I could’ve easily chosen Circe for this list of books about strong women, but to shake things up I’ll choose this short story by Madeline Miller.

In this tiny little book, Madeline Miller boldly reimagines the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion. Galatea (“she who is milk-white”) is the most beautiful woman her town has ever seen, carved from stone by Pygmalion, here a skilled marble sculptor, and blessed with the gift of life by a goddess.

Pygmalion expects Galatea to please him with her youthful beauty and humble obedience, but in Madeline Miller’s retelling, Galatea has desires of her own. She yearns for independence – and knows she must break free to rescue her daughter, whatever the cost. Here’s my review of Galatea.

3. Letter To My Daughter by Maya Angelou

“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it,” wrote Maya Angelou in this genre-transcending guidebook, memoir, and gift to inspire all readers to craft a life with courage and meaning.

Letter to My Daughter is Maya Angelou’s offering for her “thousands of daughters,” even though she gave birth to one child, a son.

“You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish speaking, Native Americans and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.”

4. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an enthralling, epic fantasy about a divided world on the brink of war – and the women who must lead the fight to save it.

I read this book on The Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Russia, and it was the perfect choice for long days with a book as the remote landscape rolled past.

It’s a big book with an even bigger universe inside to explore, including fantastic women and LGBT rulers and protagonists. A sequel, A Day of Fallen Night, is due for release in February 2023.

5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

If there’s a Nordic equivalent to Circe by Madeline Miller, it’s The Mercies. Set in the winter of 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a vicious storm.

A young woman, Maren Magnusdatter, watches as the men of the island, out fishing, perish in an instant.

The island is now a place of strong women, and The Mercies is a tale of what follows in the beautiful, brutal environment.

6. Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

Ada Lovelace was destined for fame long before her birth, as the only legitimate child of the most brilliant and scandalous of the Romantic poets: Lord Byron.

However, her strict and educated mother had different ideas for her daughter – and succeeded. The rigorous mathematical education she gave Ada would steer her towards the work and observations that led to her (largely unheralded) legacy as the first computer programmer.

In Enchantress of Numbers, a “novel of Ada Lovelace”, Jennifer Chiaverini masterfully unveils the passions, dreams, and insatiable thirst for knowledge of a pioneer in computing,

7. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind – she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales.

As danger circles her home, Vasilisa must call on her strength and summon dangerous gifts she has long concealed to protect her family.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a Russian fairytale version of Spirited Away; magical, wintery, and infused with courage.

8. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

The Wolf Den is the gripping tale of Amara, the beloved daughter of a doctor in Greece until her father’s sudden death plunged her mother into destitution.

Now, Amara is a slave and prostitute in Pompeii’s notorious Wolf Den brothel. But intelligent and resourceful, and buoyed by the sisterhood she forges with the brothel’s other women, Amara’s spirit isn’t broken.

In this book about strong women (which has similar vibes to Madeline Miller’s books), Amara finds solace in the laughter and hopes of the women around her, realising that the city is alive with opportunity, even for the lowest-born slave.

However, freedom comes with a price – and she’ll need to find the courage and ingenuity to pay it.

9. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler wrote about race and gender at a time when science fiction was almost exclusively the domain of men. You can pick up any of her novels and find a strong fictional role model, but Parable of the Sower is a great starting point.

The badass protagonist is a teenage girl who spends most of the story disguised as a man while the world around her crumbles – a world that, despite being crafted in 1993, is eerily similar to our own. If you loved The Handmaid’s Tale, read Parable of the Sower next.

10. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers has one of the most unique voices in fiction right now, creating wonderfully hopeful and cozy sci-fi that feels as comforting as a hot cup of tea.

Her first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is full of strong and well-rounded female characters. In a motley crew on an exciting journey through space, Rosemary Harper, one adventurous young explorer, realises that this crazy environment is exactly what she wants and needs.

On board the Wayfarer, Rosemary discovers the meaning of family, love, and trust in the far reaches of the universe. I loved escaping into this heartwarming and feel-good world crafted by the author of the 2021 novel A Psalm for the Wild-Built.

For more books about strong women, complement this post with my collection of the best books like Circe by Madeline Miller.

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