Lock Down Binge Reads: 12 Series with Female Leads

Those of us in lockdown are hungry for books that will demand our attention, make the hours fly and let us lose ourselves in another world. In other words, we want books that demand to be binge read.

Nothing says binge read like a series built around a strong character so I’ve picked out twelve of my favourite series with female leads (106 books) including cozy mysteries, crime fiction, science fiction and urban fantasy. I hope you’ll find at least a couple of series to light up your lockdown.

Happy Lockdown Binge Read.

Kate Shugak Series (21 books) by Dana Stabenow

This is my favourite crime fiction series. It has a strong, credible female lead and a diverse well-drawn cast of supporting characters who grow from book to book and who I came to care about.

There is a strong story arc and Dana Stabenow is willing to let very bad things happen to key characters and let the emotional impact be felt in full.

Each book is centred around and brings to life, either the current or past political and economic realities of Alaska and the descriptions of the Alaskan landscape are so vivid that it almost becomes a character in its own right.

Kate Shugak is an Aluet woman living on her remote homestead in a fictional Alaskan National Park with her half-husky, half-wolf bitch, Mutt. She has strong family links to the leadership of the local Native Association. She’s also spent time outside the Park, getting a degree and working as an Investigator in the Anchorage DA’s Office.

When we first meet Kate in “A Cold Day For Murder”, she has retired from being an Investigator after a near-fatal attack by a child killer, which left her with a scarred throat, a broken voice and a lot of anger. Kate is reluctantly pulled back into the world by Jack Morgan, her ex-boss, who asks her to investigate the disappearance of a Park Ranger. I was hooked on the series by the second book, “A Fatal Thaw”.

If you’d like to know more, here’s a series overview. Books 1-5, getting to know Kate and Alaska. Books 6-10 the breaking of Kate Shugak. Books 11-15 Kate comes home. Books 15-20 Kate grow into her power.

Cassandra Kresnov Series (6 books) by Joel Shepherd

Crossover” is the first book in Joel Sheherd’s series following the development of Cassandra Kresnov, an artificial person, or android, created by the League, one side of an interstellar war against the more powerful, conservative Federation. Cassandra is an experimental design — more intelligent, more creative, and far more dangerous than any that have preceded her. But with her intellect come questions, and a moral awakening. She deserts the League and heads incognito into the space of her former enemy, the Federation, in search of a new life. 

Four things make the Cassandra Kresnov series of Science Fiction books an exceptional read that goes beyond “killer fembot blows stuff up” image that the book covers seem to me to sell:

  1. Action-packed cyberpunkish plots about far future inter-stellar political and military intrigue between two rival human cultures.
  2. A willingness to explore the issues around whether a man-made soldier can also be a person.
  3. Credible world-building that pays attention to history, culture, and politics and setting up conflicts that are more complex than good-guys versus bad-guys.
  4. Strong female characters, especially the artificial soldier herself,  Cassandra Kresnov.

Each of the six books is more than 400 pages long but they flash by, driven by strong characters, spectactacular action and a complex and thoughtful story arc.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Lily Bard Series (5 books) by Charlaine Harris

The Lily Bard books are not the cute things that their titles make them sound. Yes, Shakespeare is in every title but it’s a town not a person and Lily surname is Bard and I wish Charlaine Harris had resisted that. This series is not the sweet confection that you get with Aurora Teagarden.

There is nothing sugar-coated here. Lily Bard is a survivor. What happend to her is about as ugly as it gets. When we meet her, she is broken but trying to recover. Over the five books of the series, she rebuilds her life but it doesn’t come easily. Each book is a credible whodunnit but the real focus is Lily’s progress.

When we first meet Lily in “Shakespeare’s Landlord” her old life has been stolen from her. She regards her current life as successful if she gets through each day quietly, without attracting any attention.

Lily is strong, focused, observant but tight-lipped. She earns her living cleaning houses in the small town of Shakespeare. She comes alive when she is practising Karate, partly because of the joy of doing something so demanding well and partly because it stands between her and any future threat to make her a victim.

Her life changes when, walking off her insomnia in the middle of the night, she notices somebody using her garbage can cart to dump a body. Despite her best efforts to protect the anonymous life she’s built, events and her own strong will, pull Lily deeper into solving the murder, even at the cost of revealing her own past.

Lily Bard is a wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable, proud but wanting to stay in the background, curious but discrete, and afraid but brave. She seemed real to me. A woman to be admired, whether there is a mystery to solve or not.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Bo Blackman Series (6 books) by Helen Harper

The Bo Blackman series is something very rare: a first-rate Urban Fantasy series that is fundamentally Engish.

Set in an alternative contemporary London where Tribers (Demons, Witches and Vampires) have been an accepted part of society for centuries, the Bo Blackman series follows Bo’s reluctant and unlooked for progress from bottom-rung-of-the-ladder investigator at the Dire Straits detective agency to a prominent and distruptive Triber.

The first book, “Dire Straits” is excellent Urban Fantasy by any standard It gives a new and convincing take on Vampires, Witches and Demons; it has a complicated, well-thought-through plot that kept me hungry to know what would happen next while feeding me action, tension, and emotional upheaval along the way and a main character who is engaging as much for her flaws as for her strengths.

As the series progresses, the world-building deepens, Bo Blackman becomes less and less human and more and more frightening and the politics and scheming becomes layered and complex.

The series has a very English tone, with different attitudes to conflict (at least in public), strong links to class-based elites, a very different, non-gun-carrying kind of police force, and neat twists that apply British attitudes to race and immigration to Tribers. The Vampires put on a front of being upper-class Eton and Oxford types who would regard it as bad form to lose control in public. The Witches come across as eccentric Glastonbury Festival meets Alternative Intellectual types. British humour and the frequent use of both wordplay and verycreativr swearing make the dialogue richer.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

White Trash Zombie Series (6 books) by Diana Rowland

I don’t read zombie books. Well, not unless they’re original, funny, well written, and make you fall in love with the main character, not because she’s a zombie but because she’s doing her best to be a good person who just happens to need to eat brains, in which case, I’m not reading a zombie book, I’m reading an Angel Crawford book.

“My Life As A White Trash Zombie” the first book in this series, is pretty close to perfect except for the cover art, which is cool but not remotely related to the character of Angel Crawford in the book.

Angel sees herself as a White Trash screw up until becoming a zombie helps her get a life. Watching Angel struggle to make something of herself despite her unfortunate need to eat brains is a lot of fun. The series is fun and unconventional. It’s told from Angel’s point of view and her “voice” is authentic and engaging. I strongly recommend the audiobook version of the series because Allison McLemore’s narration makes good text even better.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Confederation Series (8 books) by Tanya Huff

The Confederation series is space opera for grown ups. It looks war in the eye and confronts its reality. It looks at peace and understand the price to be paid for keeping it.

It’s set in the far future dominated by the Confederation of elder races, The elder races have been “civilised” for so long that they’ve given up war and violence. When they find themselves embroiled in what turns out to be a centuries-long conflict with a set of races called “The Others” they recruit younger, more violent races, including humans, to fight the war for them. in a multi-race Marine Corps and Space Fleet.

This sounds like a clever but not that unusual Military SF set up but, in Tanya Huff’s hands it becomes something more. I’m a big fan of her ability to build relatable, unconventional characters and to twist tropes into new shapes which highlight and undermine the patriarchal assumptions embedded in many SF&F tropes. In the Confederation series, she excells at both of these things.

She does the first by, creating Staff Sargeant Torin Kerr, a professional soldier with strong tactial and leadership abilities who does her best to keep her troops alive and to prevent officers from messing up. She does the second by setting Kerr challenges that look like standard military SF blow-it-up-and-hope-for-the-best stuff but where the solution often lies in redefining how conflict works and who the enemy is.

I read the first three books “Valour’s Choice”, “The Better Part Of Valor” and “The Heart Of Valor” back to back. I was blown away by how, in each book, Torin matured and her understanding of the universe that she lived in deepened. The first five books focus on the war. They’re packed with strong emotions and vivid action but they also, slowly but surely, lead to a completely different understanding of what’s going on. They are all dominated by the Torin Kerr’s passion, courage and refusal to accept obvious answers

The last three books were written five years later and take place after the war is over. Torin has changed from soldier to peacekeeper and finds herself on a path that reveals things about the Confederation that the elder races want to keep secret.

.If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Boundary Magic Series (5 books) by Melissa F. Olson

After her twin sister’s brutal murder, former US Army Sergeant Allison “Lex” Luther vowed to protect her niece, Charlie. So when two vampires try to kidnap the baby, it quickly turns into a fight to the death—Lex’s death, that is.

She wakes up to two shocking discoveries: she has miraculously survived the fight, and baby Charlie is a “null,” gifted with the ability to weaken supernatural forces…and a target for creatures who want to control that power. Determined to guarantee her niece’s safety, Lex makes a deal with the local vampires. She sets out with the mysterious—and undead—“fixer” Quinn to track down whoever’s responsible for the kidnapping, sharpening her newfound magic skills along the way. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous her powers become.

.If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Nadia Stafford Series (3 books) by Kelley Armstrong

The Nadia Stafford series appeals to me for its originality. Kelley Armstrong takes the hit-man trope and twists it until it screams.

Instead of a laconic, male, loner, working on a pay-per-kill basis, we get a female ex-cop, Nadia Stafford, who has a strong social network and the front of house skills to keep the guests at her nature lodge happy but who subsidizes her business by doing hits for a Mafia family.

Kelley Armstrong sets her trope twists into high relief by making Nadia’s mentor, Jack, into the classic “I’m too laid-back to complete a sentence and too reserved to express an emotion” loner male.

In the first book “Exit Strategy” she twists the the trope again when the plot turns out to be about a hitman hunting hitmen, who then has to be hunted by Nadia.

The next two books each finds its own twist, keeping the stories fresh. Nadia Stafford never becomes someone you’d want to invite to a meal with your family but Kelley Armstrong does manage to make her into a killer I can believe in.

.If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Mercy Thompson Series (12 books) by Patricia Briggs

I was over a decade late joining the Mercy Thompson party (partly  because I was put off by the, mostly inaccurate, covers) when I read the first book, “Moon Called” back in 2017. Now I’ve read all twelve books and have each new addition to the series on pre-order.

“Moon Called” is Urban Fantasy as it should be. There’s a likeable, kickass heroine who was raised by werewolves, makes her living fixing German cars, can take on the shape of a Coyote at will and is happy to spend time with fey, vampires, werewolves and humans as long as they’re interested in cars. There’s a complex cast of weres and vampires and fey and humans who are written up as people rather than game avatars. There’s a nicely curly plot with strong action scenes but with a pace slow enough to give me time to get to know people.

The Mercy Thompson series is Urban Fantasy as it should be. There’s a likeable, kickass heroine who was raised by werewolves, makes her living fixing German cars, can take on the shape of a Coyote at will and is happy to spend time with fey, vampires, werewolves and humans as long as they’re interested in cars. There’s a complex cast of weres and vampires and fey and humans who are written up as people rather than game avatars. The cast grows and develops from book to book as Mercy’s life becomes more and more complicated.

The whole series has a positive, feel-good vibe to it without getting cosy and losing its edge.

.If you’d like to read reviews of the other books in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Mary Russell Series (16 books) by Laurie R. King  

The first book in this series “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” is a beautiful evocation of an older Holmes finally meeting someone with the talent to work alongside him. The twist is that the person is a fifteen-year-old girl, Mary Russell.

The story is told as a memoir, written by Mary when she is ninety-four years old, in 1994 and is looking back on her long association with Sherlock Holmes whom she first bumped into on the Sussex Downs in 1915, when she was a teenage girl recovering from a recent calamity and seeking refuge in books and long walks. Sherlock Holmes, in his fifties and allegedly retired, now lives in the country, keeping bees and writing papers on the topics such as how to disguise one’s footprints.

The Holmes Russell sees is older, more humane, and (eventually) more willing to share than Conan Doyle’s younger Holmes. Russell is intellect and focus, seasoned by guilt beyond her years and more than ready both to challenge and learn from Holmes. Russell and Holmes and the relationship between them are the heart of this book. The cases are there only to set that heart racing.

The book spans a four-year period and lays the foundation for a long-term relationship between Russell and Holmes. That long-term relationship may be a stumbling block for the series for some. To enjoy it, you need to see the meeting of mind and spirit and ignore Mary’s initial immaturity and the forty year age-gap between the two of them.

I suspect that “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” is a love/hate book. If the style of writing doesn’t grip your imagination and win your heart by the end of it, then the series isn’t for you. If, like me, you are entranced, then another fifteen books lie in your future.

So far, I’ve only read four Mary Russell books, all of which I’ve enjoyed, but. It’s a series that I have to be in the right mood for, so I’m taking it slowly.

.If you’d like to read reviews of the other books that I’ve read in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

Soulwood Series (4 books) by Faith Hunter

Faith Hunter’s “Soulwood” series is set in the same world as her long-established Jane Yellowrock series but is very different in tone and seems to me to be fresher and more vital.

“Blood Of The Earth” is the first book in the series but Nell Ingram, the complex young woman at the heart of this series, first appeared in “Off The Grid” in a Jane Yellowrock short story where Nell helped Jane to to rescue a vampire that had been abducted by  “God’s Cloud of Glory” a polygamist cult living off the grid in the Appalachians.

Nell is a fascinating female lead. She was born and raised in the “God’s Cloud Of Glory” church. Although she’s still young, she’s a widow and has inherited Soulwood, wooded farmland adjacent to the Churches’ land. Nell is not a typical kick-ass Urban Fantasy heroine. She doesn’t have fur or fangs or tote a sword of power. She’s intelligent and reads people well but she is poorly educated and has no experience of the modern world that most of us live in. She avoids conflict when she can and mostly she wants to be left alone with her land and her trees. She’s also not entirely human and has a unique relationship with her land and with the plants and trees on it.

Nell’s relationship with the Church is complicated. Her family are still members and she visits with them. Although “God’s Cloud Of Glory” was presented in “Off The Grid” as a polygamist cult that is starting to curdle on internal strife and misogynistic violence, it is soon clear that this is too simple a view.

Nell ends up in a violent conflict with members of the Church who want to take her land from her and, in the process, finds herself working with PsyLED, a sort of Federal police for the supernatural, who have appeared from time to time in the Jane Yellowrock books.

As the series progresses, we see how Nell adapts to being immersed in the modern world as part of the PsyLED team, how her relationship with the Church and her family changes and how her own powers emerge as she ends up in conflict with various supernatural bad guys.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other three books in the series, click on the thumbnails below. The fifth book in the series is scheduled for publication in July 2020.

Her Royal Spyness Series (14 books) by Rhys Bowen

Her Royal Spyness is my current go to series for a light, fun read wrapped around a decent mystery set in the world of the British aristocracy in the 1930s. It follows the adventures (and calamities) of Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (Georgie to her friends), a minor Royal, cousin of King George V of England, and thirty-fourth in line to the throne, as she gets involved in investigating, spys, would-be assassins, murderers and other not very nice people.

The first book “Her Royal Spyness” opens in 1932 with Georgie moving to London from her ancestral castle in Scotland (now belonging to her brother, the Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, and his wife, to make her way in the world. Her recently deceased father was the previous Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch, her mother is a famous actress and her grandfather is a cockney ex-policeman who lives in a semi-detached house in Essex. Georgie was educated at a Swiss Finishing School, knows all the right people, but has no money and no experience of life without servants. 

The plot, which involves finding a body in Georgie’s bathtub, her brother being accused of murder, the family estate being under threat and a secret mission being given to Georgie by the Queen, results in Georgie having to learn how to look after herself, solve a murder, make some money and try and survive the strong of accidents that befall her.

I’ve read five books in the series so far and all of them contain the same core group of characters facing adversity in a variety of settings. Georgie is easy to like and the supporting characters are all a lot of fun.

What I like most about the series is the way Rhys Bowen wraps humour, history and social observation around real mysteries.

These books are pure fun and the perfect antidote to Lockdown blues.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other books that I’ve read in the series, click on the thumbnails below.

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