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The Vine: August 1, 2014

Submitted by on August 1, 2014 – 3:57 PM47 Comments


Was wondering if the Nation could help out my friend and me with a book recommendation.

Basically, we’re trying to find an engaging science-fiction book or series with a protagonist who is a mature (30s/40s) woman. There seem to be a glut of sci-fi books with teenage or early 20s female protagonists, and while some of them are pretty good, we’d love to read something with a main character that we are better able relate to.

Thanks so much in advance!

Sign me,
No longer an ingenue




  • Maru says:

    I recommend the Native Tongue trilogy by Suzanne Haden Elgin. There is no single protaganist, but the women range in age from 15 to 80, with the bulk of them in their 40s and 50s. It’s a story of women working to create and disseminate their own language. The first book (Native Tongue) is stronger than the last two (The Judas Rose and Earthsong), but they are worth reading as well.

  • Jesse says:

    If you’re a sci-fi reader, I’m guessing you’ve already read the Vorkosigan books, but if not, I’m not 100% sure how old Cordelia is in Lois McMasters Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor, but she’s a grown-ass woman, for sure — a ship’s captain.

  • Lore says:

    Jo Walton’s My Real Children and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life are only, to my mind, loosely science fiction (more alternate history, I guess?), but both feature fully adult protagonists (the Walton goes from college age to very elderly over the course of the book but spends most of the book in her adult years). I feel like there ought to be something in Ursula LeGuin, too, but maybe I’m thinking of a single short story or novella by her.

  • Ysabet says:

    Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon. The protagonist is retirement age. It’s empty-nest meets coming of age plus first contact. It’s much better than I’m making it sound.

  • Lilisonna says:

    Spots the Space Marine!

  • GracieGirl says:

    “The Sparrow” and “Children of God” by Mary Doria Russell. The stories are told from various viewpoints – probably more male than female, but all are adults and the woman are strong and funny, imperfect yet likable.

  • Nanc in Ashland says:

    Hmmmm. I consider the stuff I’m listing Sci-Fi but maybe it’s also Fantasy?

    Tanya Huff, The Blood Series. Yes, it’s vampire stuff, but 90s vampires. I reread them last summer and they hold up pretty well.

    Connie Willis: Blackout, All Clear, and To Say Nothing of the Dog. Admittedly the women in them are in their mid-late 20s but they’re interesting and Blackout and All Clear both have older women characters integral to the story.

    Diana Gabaldon, the first 3 books of the Outlander series. I’ve read all the others but I think the first 3 are the best.

  • Merely Me says:

    I recommend any of the Chanur novels by C.J. Cherryh. The women in question aren’t human, but I found them well-written.

  • Rebecca says:

    Cordelia Naismith! The first two books of the Vorkosigan series (“Shards of Honor”, and “Barrayar” – also published together in an omnibus called “Cordelia’s Honor”) feature Cordelia, and they and she are all kinds of awesome. The writing is a little awkward at the beginning, but it gets way better, and the plots are great. When you discover that the books shift their focus to a new main character after the first two, you will be sad to leave Cordelia, but she stays in the series, and the later books are all great too.

  • Marian says:

    No Longer, I think you would love Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s an omnibus including two novels, and I think Cordelia Naismith is everything you’re looking for in a sci-fi heroine.

  • Melissa says:

    Heris Serrano series by Elizabeth Moon
    Shards of Honor and Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold
    Revelation Space (the series is kind of far reaching, but there are two great women in the first book that we see more of) and Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
    This is Not a Game – Walter Jon Williams

  • Melissa says:

    ha, I see I was late on the Bujold recommendation.

    Seconding the Sparrow, but it is really more focused on the male characters. and Children of God even more so.

  • Leah says:

    Most of Octavia Butler’s novels meet that qualification. Try the trilogy now called Lillith’s Brood (previously Xenogenesis) if you enjoy stories about adapting to alien lifeforms, or the duo made up of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents for an excellent dystopian near-future story. Parable of the Sower does follow the younger teenage years of the protagonist, but the sequel pick up after several decades. And of course Kindred (time travel) and the Patternmaster series (fantasy and genetics) are also fantastic and meet the requirement.

    Almost everything written by Sheri S. Tepper would work as well. Grass is one of her more popular novels, and I remember liking it. The Family Tree is one of my favorites of hers. Six Moon Dance is strange, but sort of sexy and really fun. Though Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake mostly follows the story of a young man, its sequel The Year of the Flood has a prominent older woman, and lot of the book is from her perspective. I haven’t yet read the third installment to the trilogy, so I can’t vouch for that.

    For lighter fare than the above works, Elizabeth Moon wrote a couple of books following an older woman, Heris Serrano, who had to leave the military in a hurry and finds herself captaining something of a pleasure cruise to a wealthy aristocrat and her nieces and nephews. The first one is called Hunting Party. Another military-in-space series featuring a woman is the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. I haven’t read them, but my friends like them.

    This reaching way back into my childhood reading, but I recall enjoying F.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelan novels. Rissa is young in the beginning, but the books follow her well into adulthood. The Snow Queen Cycle by Joan D. Vinge is a gem of a series that should get a lot more attention than it does. It also starts in the protagonists girlhood, but she is an adult by the second book.

    There are other series niggling away at my brain, and it is very possible I’m going to have to write back asking people to help me remember titles and authors! I’ll see where google will get me, first…

  • RachelG says:

    Another vote for the Outlander series. You might also like A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – thought that may be more fantasy than sci-fi.

  • Allie says:

    My Real Children was awesome.

  • Lily says:

    Tanya Huff’s Valor Confederation series! Sgt. Torrin Kerr is the best.

  • Lisa says:

    Wool by Hugh Howey is more dystopian future than straight science fiction but the main character is a woman in her mid thirties and the whole series is really great.

  • Anne S says:

    Here, free from, is “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” It was a finalist for the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It’s not long enough to really call a book, much less a series, but its protagonist is an older lady both in book-present and book-flashback, and it is lovely and short. And you can read it right this second. Good luck in your search!

  • Nancy says:

    It’s fantasy, not sci-fi, but I recommend Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold – except you kind of have to read the first book, Curse of Chalion, for it to make sense.

  • Robin in Philly says:

    Can I join your book club? I want to read all of these books now!

    I only just started it, but the Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and the soon-to-be-released Acceptance) by Jeff VanderMeer features a team of female scientists (a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and the biologist who narrates the story).

    [I do get the sense that it’s not exactly a character-driven story, though.]

    Seconding the rec for Connie Willis; I also highly recommend her novel ‘Bellwether.’ The protagonist is a researcher in roughly that age group, and the novel is a delightful little piece of satire.

  • Susan says:

    The Scar by China Mieville. Bellis, the protagonist, is the most real female protagonist written by a man, that I know of. It’s one of my favorite books. Another of his books, Embassytown, also has a great female protagonist.

  • Donna says:

    The first book I thought of was State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. It has some sci-fi elements, but it’s probably more of a love story. It’s been awhile since I read it so I don’t remember all the details, but I really liked it. The main character is in her 40s.

  • Sheila says:

    Geoff Ryman’s Air. Although the protagonist’s age is not definitively stated, she’s old enough to have a grown son. It’s light on the sci fi elements, but the plot does hinge around the effects of implanting the internet directly in people’s heads. Also it’s just a damn good book; Ryman is probably one of the most underrated genre writers out there.

    Would also half recommend Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. The plot is broken up into several character threads, and the greater portion is devoted to a guy, but there are several interesting female characters, and at least one of them is middle aged.

  • Judy says:

    I was coming here to recommend the Native Tongue series, but I see I’m too late. I heartily second the recommendation for these books.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Thirding Connie Willis! Bellwether is one of my favorite novels ever! And her time travel books are amazing.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Oh, and her novels Lincoln’s Dreams and Passages are mind blowing and feature full grown female protagonists too!

  • Dawna says:

    Some great books on this thread so far! I’ll offer up Bitter Angels by C.L. Anderson (aka Sarah Zettel). The lead is a mature woman, long since retired, who is recalled to active duty as a “peace officer/Guardian” whose specific knowledge and experience is needed to unravel a bizarre and politically problematic death in a treacherous environment.

  • Cora says:

    My husband is into the old old school sci-fi, and recommends the robot series by Isaac Asmiov, which features Dr. Susan Calvin, although I don’t think she’s the protagonist. He also says to stay away from A.E. Van Vogh, who is, and I’m quoting my husband here, “a sexist pig.”

    Once you find a good author, you might want to try Also, does the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle have recommendations?

  • Josh says:

    David Weber’s Honor Harrington books are good (especially the first 6 or so), but they’re very much military sci-fi; you can blip over the discussions of space warfare tactics if you want to, but there’s a lot of it, so be warned. Honor is relatively young at the start of the books (early 30’s at most). They’re Horatio Hornblower in Space.

    I 2nd & 3rd the Cordelia books of the Vorkosigan Saga by Bujold. They’re wonderful.

    Firestar (and its sequels) by Michael Flynn is terrific and features a female protagonist, but it’s very much an ensemble piece. (all about asteroids crashing into earth and other awesomeness)

  • Silence says:

    I’ll nth the recommendations for Lois McMaster Bujold and Tanya Huff and add David Weber’s Honor Harrington series which is a space opera with the main character old enough to be captain of her own ship at the start of the series and ends up raising in the navy. Though the last few books he needs an editor able to narrow his focus, as he tends to show what’s happening to every character ever mentioned.

  • Stacey says:

    I highly recommend the Thursday Next series by Jasper FForde. It’s kind of a blend of science-fiction and fantasy – alternate history is probably the best way to describe it’s particular story type. It takes place in the U.K. and Thursday Next is a “literature detective”; I think in the first book she’s in her early thirties and in the most recent, her fifties. She’s basically awesome and as the series goes on the stories get completely bananas but in a great way (you can live in books and alter them). The first book is The Eyre Affair and there are seven total in the series now which is great if you like it because there’s more to read right now! :)

  • Tanya says:

    Chiming in on Sgt. Torin Kerr in Tanya Huff’s Confederation of Valor. Her age is not explicitly stated, but I’d put her in her early 30’s and she just plain kicks ass in every book. Fun reading, nothing too heavy but not too fluffy either.

  • LizzieKath says:

    I second Stacey‘s rec for Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series! Really fun reads with a great, mature female lead. I gobbled them up. They are some of my absolute favorites.

  • MendraMarie says:

    I second the Thursday Next books and also times a million the Connie Willis recommendations.

    I’ve also stumbled across a series on cybermage called “Formidable Female Protagonists of Science Fiction” ( should take you to the index) – maybe browsing through those will spark something as well.

  • Shannon says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with Connie Willis and Bujold recommendations.
    Also would highly recommend N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. You can read the first three chapters of the first book for free here to see if you’d get into it:
    Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series is a lot of fun.

  • Jena says:

    I’d recommend Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative series and City of Pearl by Karen Traviss and it’s following Wess’har series for harder Sci-Fi. For more of a fantasy bent I really enjoy Martha Wells and her books like The Wheel of the Infinite and her trilogy The Fall of Ile-Rien. For fun I’d also recommend Velveteen vs. the Junior Super Patriots that follows what happens when a former teenage superhero has to deal with her past once she’s all grown up.

  • SorchaRei says:

    Paladin of Souls, of course, although it’s fantasy not science fiction.

    If you will include fantasy, you cannot do better than the Tanyth Fairport books by Nathan Lowell. The first one is Ravenswood. I love these books.

    Honor Harrington is forty-something in the first book, sixties or seventies in the later ones, but they have life-extension tech, so she hasn’t got the body of a middle-aged person. Her mother, Alison Chou Harrington, is, of course, older, and is a not-insignificant character in the middle and later books.

    Alienna Caylon in the Liaden books is young in Scout’s Progress and Mouse and Dragon, but older by far in the later books, although her bodily status is, uh, not usual. There are many important characters in those books and the related short stories which meet your criteria, including Liz Lizardi, Cantra yos’Phelium, Kareen yos’Phelium, Delm Erob, Zhena Trelu, Audrey on Surebleak. In the latest mainline book, Kamele Whaitley is taking a central role; a middle-aged scholar from a Safe World thrust into the maelstrom of Luck that is Korval — I cannot wait to see who she becomes. Liaden stories are written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

    The elder women in Elizabeth Moon’s series that starts with Hunting Party are formidable and (to me) the best part of those quite lovely books.

    The Hayden Elgin recommendations I heartily second.

  • Allison says:

    the Crystal Singer trilogy by Anne McCaffrey.

  • Andrea says:

    Some of my favorite SciFi/Fantasy featuring female protagonists:

    Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
    A Gift Upon the Shore by MK Wren
    The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent
    Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre
    A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

    It’s been a while since I read these (so I couldn’t swear the main characters are “mature”), but they’d be worth checking out.

  • No Longer an Ingenue (OP) says:

    Oh wow!!!! So many awesome recommendations to choose from! Thanks so much, all! I see that my friend and I have a few hours of bliss at the library (or bookstore if they are worth buying) ahead of us!!!

  • Laura says:

    Reference librarian chiming in!

    Elizabeth Bear has a SF trilogy featuring Jenny Casey, who is in her fifties (although part cybernetic) – series description here: – and her New Amsterdam series (vampires, but scary ones) features forensic sorceress Abby Irene, also a woman of a certain age.

    Bujold, Willis, and Moon are all great picks too (Willis in particular).

  • Kate says:

    I don’t see Ursula K. Le Guin in here, but a great deal of her work features mature women protagonists (including the books after the first three in the Earthsea trilogy, which was her popular young-adult series). Some of them are science fiction, some are fantasy, all are worth reading IMHO, and even if a mature woman isn’t the direct protagonist, there’s almost certain to be one somewhere, along with quiet philosophy.

    Mary Gentle’s books don’t seem to be very well known, but I like them. There’s the Golden Witchbreed series, and the very very odd ones featuring the White Crow, Left to His Own Devices and the story collection Scholars and Soldiers.

    Barbara Hambly’s books look like fantasy but often aren’t quite, and are usually funny. I like the Time of the Dark series in particular, and the hero of those is a mature (relatively) woman and a historian whose special skills are essential. (Hambly is also a historian, so her books are strong on worldbuilding, too.)

    Jo Clayton’s Skeen books are among my favourites, and Skeen, the definitely over-forty fearless space-outlaw protag, is splendid.

  • Kate says:

    I forgot one, a recent read that I loved very much – Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series. This is another in the settled-colony-loses-tech genre, and explores issues of colonization, very thoughtful and lovely. Rowan, the titular Steerswoman, is an exploring scholar, one of many, travelling and cataloging the world (men are Steerswomen too, but not often).

    Only thing is, the series is not complete – I think there are supposed to eventually be seven books, and right now there are four, and Kirstein takes about eight years to finish one.

  • cynnie says:

    In the Garden of Iden by the late Kage Baker is phenomenal. It features Mendoza who is hundreds of years old. Loving the Connie Willis and Jasper Fforde recommendations.

  • applebmuffin says:

    I would recommend BONESHAKER, by Cherie Priest. Steampunk alternate history with (sort of) zombies set in 1880s Seattle. Main character is a mother in her late 30s/early 40s.

  • Zoltania says:

    Barbara Hambly’s “Time of the Dark” trilogy is wonderful, but its protagonist is a graduate student in her mid-twenties. On the other hand, her “Winterlands” quartet, starting with “Dragonsbane,” has a female protagonist who is starting to experience hot flashes.

  • phineyj says:

    Thirding Thursday Next (I think the earlier books are better – The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book). She is very cool – wisecracking, leather-jacket wearing, gun toting and also a wife and mum with a complicated extended family. There is also a good science character, Dr Mary Malone, a physicist, in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (she is in the second book, the Amber Spyglass, but although they are better as a series, you can read the books separately).

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