We’ve all been in that “I want to read a very specific kind of book” mood and then had to go on a mini-quest through the wilds of the internet to figure out which books might hit the spot. Since books about stompy, badass queer ladies who kick ass and take names own one of the happiest places in my heart, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time searching them out and now have a short list of all-time, hit-the-spot favorites to show for it. So, if that’s the mood you’re in, allow me to shorten your quest! If you want some Stompy, Badass Queer Ladies Who Kick Ass and Take Names (and really, who doesn’t?!), here’s what you should read.
1. Aud Torvingen Books (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always) by Nicola Griffith
What they’re about: Aud Torvingen, a Norwegian-American ex-cop turned sometime-PI, sometime-bodyguard, and all-the-time-badass, solves mysteries, kills people who need killing, falls madly in love, makes good friends, and tries to deal with having feelings she can’t shut down for the first time.
What’s awesome about them: Nicola Griffith’s breath-catchingly glorious writing, which creates the immediacy of a first-hand experience. Aud Torvingen’s complete and total badassery and amazingness. The well-rounded cast of supporting characters. The attention to detail. The intricate and true-feeling emotional journeys. The everything.
What’s not so awesome: These are some of my favorite books ever, so I’m going to say everything about them is awesome. But you should be warned that not all of the books end happily, some of them get very dark indeed, and the second and (to a lesser extent) third books deal heavily with emotional and physical abuse and rape. (It’s handled very responsibly, but it’s there, it’s disturbing, and it could potentially be triggering.
2. Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey
What it’s about: Born in a militarized, no-man’s-land, dystopian quarantine zone between the United States and Mexico, Loup Garron uses her secretly enhanced DNA, fearlessness, and general badassery to go on a crusade to get justice for her people through secret vigilantism and competitive boxing.
What’s awesome about it: What’s not to like in a book about a queer social justice fighter sticking it to The Man? The dystopian aspects are well-developed and completely believable, and the writing style is spare, straight-forward, and lovely—modern-day speculative fiction really seems like Jacqueline Carey’s forte to me! Loup and her friends/chosen family are real, complex, flawed-but-lovely people. The plot is intricate and navigates multiple strands of character concerns with seamless grace. And while I generally give exactly zero fucks about boxing, Loup and Santa Olivia made me care while I was reading this book.
What’s not so awesome: Again, I’m going to go with everything is awesome! However, be warned that there are some sexual assault triggers (again, handled responsibly). Oh, and the ending clearly leaves space for a sequel, but after hearing my good friend’s thoughts on how bad-fanfic-y and strange the sequel is, I’ve decided to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
3. God’s War by Kameron Hurley
What it’s about: Nyxnissa so Dasheem—a badass, hardass, bisexual war veteran in a country fighting a centuries-old religious war—starts off as a government assassin, becomes a bounty hunter, and is offered a bounty by the government. Then all hell really breaks loose.
What’s awesome about it: Feminist dark-and-gritty-realities-of-war speculative fiction! Planet exclusively colonized by Muslims, most of whom are people of color! Completely badass and heartbreakingly awesome protagonist! Plotting and world-building so intricate that any brief summary feels woefully inadequate. Characters so real that it hurts. Nuanced exploration of gender roles, race, power, oppression, religion, and a whole host of other social issues, all integrated seamlessly into the story and never given easy answers.
What’s not so awesome: The fact that I haven’t had time to dive into the sequels yet? Honestly, I think everything about this book is awesome! But you should know going in that it is pretty fucking dark, and it is not the book to read if you want an uncomplicatedly happy ending. Sexual violence is also hinted at a few times but always handled responsibly.
4. Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi
What it’s about: A down-on-her-luck woman of color starship mechanic with a chronic pain disorder stows away on a cargo ship whose crew is looking for the mechanic’s metaphysically gifted sister. Interstellar intrigue and action sequences, complicated sibling relationships, and adorable polyamorous romances ensue.
What’s awesome about it: Queer, disabled, completely badass woman of color protagonist! Insubstantial starship pilots! People who might be wolves who might be people! Really hot, really competent, really badass starship captains! Sisters who are really different and can’t stand each other, but still love each other fiercely and will do anything to protect each other! Polyamory!
What’s not so awesome: If you spend more than five seconds thinking critically about the world-building, the character development, the plot progression, or the villain’s motivations and actions, the entire thing will collapse in a heap of inconsistency and “Wait, what??” But who needs to think critically when there are badass poly queer ladies running around blowing things up? Not me!
5. Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino
What it’s about: A 6th-century Celtic harper who escaped from Fairyland discovers that the way to free her lesbian lover, who is still trapped there, is to form an all-women ‘80s metal band in Denver, Colorado.
What’s awesome about it: ‘80S METAL BAND IN DENVER, COLORADO FIGHTS FAIRIES THROUGH THE POWER OF ROCK AND ROLL. Do I really need to say more? I especially love this because heavy metal makes me ridiculously happy, so badass queer ladies being literal rockstars and making close female friends and fighting evil fairies with minor-key power chords is just kind of a trifecta of things that make me happy.
What’s not so awesome: Everything about the way the one major character of color is written is racist and paternalistic. Also, there is a bunch of pretty explicit “Wicca and paganism are the best, most enlightened religions ever!” proselytizing. Also, trigger warnings for physical and sexual abuse apply.
6. Dust by Elizabeth Bear
What it’s about: Two extraordinary women with biotechnologically-derived super powers (and their allied angels) battling it out with their evil, corrupt, super-powered relatives (and their allied angels) for control of a stranded generation spaceship.
What’s awesome about it: Centuries-old, half-forgotten biotech giving rise to a mythos of angels, basilisks, necromancers, knights, and chivalry on a spaceship, all narrated in gorgeous prose. Lots of badass ladies with specialized knowledge of everything from swordplay to science! People with genetically-engineered wings! Asexual and sexual people creating relationship structures together that work for all of them! Nonbinary characters!
What’s not so awesome: The main romance is between women who are biologically half-sisters, and even though they didn’t grow up together and incest is culturally common among their family and justified by the world-building, it’s still a little weird. Also, Dust is the first book in a trilogy, and while the trilogy as a whole ends fairly happily, Dust doesn’t…and the two sequels are not quite as well-written or fun, so it takes a little slogging to get to the happier ending. (I don’t actually mind that Dust doesn’t end 100% happily, but I think it’s only fair to warn you guys.)
7. The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
What it’s about: Katherine’s eccentric ducal uncle invites her to court, but instead of giving her the traditional court debut and young noblewoman’s social season she expects, he orders her trained as a swordsman.
What’s awesome about it: Courtly intrigue and swordplay! Katherine’s determination to make the best of her weird, not-what-she-would-have-chosen situation and carve out an unconventional place for herself in high society. The close female friendships with undertones of feudal vassalage, which are really rare in a fantasy novel about women. Katherine’s innocent and joyous discovery of her own sexuality in a completely no-fuss, “Hey, I think I like those girls! And this boy! Whee, this is fun!” sort of way.
What’s not so awesome: Even though Katherine is bisexual, this is not the book to read if you’re in the mood for queer lady-on-lady action. Also, it deals a lot with sexual assault and its aftermath, and even though they are handled very responsibly, there is an unrelated sex scene later on which sets off all of my “WHOA, BACK UP, THAT WAS NOT CONSENT!” alarm bells, even though the writer very clearly meant it to be a consensual scene.
Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”
Please join us over on the forums to discuss this post!