This list of fantasy reads featuring morally grey heroines was originally published in our science fiction and fantasy newsletter, Swords & Spaceships. Sign up for it here to receive news and recommendations from the world of science fiction and fantasy.
Since I have The Witch Queen (my video game expansion) on the brain, I’ve been thinking a lot about morally grey characters. Destiny 2 is actually really great in that it’s got multiple female characters who are wonderfully written, very questionably moral people–Mara Sov, the Awoken queen, is one, and Savathûn, the Hive queen, whose story I just got to play through, is another. So how about some more morally gray heroines! Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t look away from ’em.
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Malini is, to all appearances, a completely powerless princess, exiled to die in the out provinces by her misogynist brother. But she is ruthless, and she is patient, and she will do anything to see him thrown from power and subjected to the vengeance he deserves. And then she meets Priya, a priestess of a culture subjugated by the empire, one that was ruthless and murderous in its own right… and the remaining adherents of that religion will stop at nothing to take their home back.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Luca is a princess in an empire, one with the good intention of getting her horrible uncle off the throne and replacing him. But in order to dethrone a bad emperor, she needs to bring magic back to her people… and one way to do that is to take it from the client state she’s been put in charge of. And it’s not the first questionable decision she’ll make in pursuit of her goals, nor the last.
The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
Between this book and its sort-of-sequel, sort-of-companion, Lady Hotspur, Tess Gratton has basically cornered the market on complicated, frustrating, and morally fraught female characters, most of whom are queens in the middle of power struggles that ask them to make terrible choices.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
Talyien became a queen in an arranged marriage because she wanted to protect her clan after the bloody War of Wolves. But then her husband mysteriously disappears before their joint reign even starts, leaving her to pick up the pieces in a fractured kingdom. She is another one who will do whatever it takes to protect her people, and she doesn’t care what anyone has to say about it.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
Baru Cormorant is the child of a people colonized by the Empire of Masks; she watched one of her fathers be murdered and her culture be slowly subsumed and overwritten. And she hatched a plan: she would destroy the Empire of Masks from within and free her people. The first step on that journey is joining the civil service and working her way higher in the ranks. But having a goal she will achieve no matter what the costs means that she is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone along the way.