Add Tamora Pierce to my list of people whose presence would likely cause me to become a stammering idiot. She is one writer whose work I've been fond of for some time, typically writing quartets in one of her two fantasy universes: the Tortall universe and the Circle universe. I read the Circle universe books first, but it's the Tortall books that I really love. Each series in the Tortall universe features a different strong young female lead forging her own new path.
The Song of the Lioness. This quartet stars Alanna, who doesn't want to be a lady. So she switches places with her twin brother and goes in disguise as a page to begin knight training while her brother goes to the temple to become a sorcerer. Much craziness ensues, including some love plotlines in later books, as well as the usual prejudices you'd expect to face when you're determined to become not only the realm's first lady knight, but the best damn knight. Also, she has magic powers.
This is one of Tamora Pierce's best-known series, but it's one of my least favorite, probably because I don't easily identify with Alanna.
The Immortals. Daine Sarrasri, orphan from Galla, is the star of this quartet. She travels to Tortall and discovers she is not, as previously suspected, insane. She can just talk to animals. And shape-shift. Oh, and immortals return from the Divine Realm, where they were locked away centuries ago. Dragons and all sorts of crazy creatures. Daine gets to use her special abilities in new and exciting ways.
Lots of cool animal stuff, and also the immortals make everything neat. Daine is pretty all right.
Protector of the Small. Keladry of Mindelan is the first girl to follow Alanna's footsteps and openly become a lady knight. Interestingly, she has more prejudices to fight than Alanna did, because she's not in disguise as a boy. Also, she has no magical gift. But she's determined and hardworking. Keladry stands up to bullies, which makes her pretty kick-ass. In fact, I would definitely say that bullying is a recurring theme in this series. Later in the series, Keladry and her fellows are involved in a war to the north, and Keladry rises to the challenge beautifully.
Keladry is one of my favorites because she has no superpowers and still kicks butt and takes names.
Daughter of the Lioness. Aly of Pirate's Swoop is the daughter of Alanna the Lioness, the realm's first lady knight. But unlike her famous mother, Aly has no interest whatsoever in being a knight. She wants to be a spy like her father! But both parents forbid it. Angry, Aly runs away, only to be instantly snapped up by pirates and transported to the Copper Isles as a slave. The oppressed raka are ready to rise against their luarin oppressors and install a half-raka, half-luarin queen with the blood of the current and the previously-overthrown royal lines. And there's a god involved: Kyprioth, a trickster with a tempting bet for a clever girl.
Aly is my absolute favorite. She's clever and witty and although she has magic, it is the Sight, which means she can see magic but she can't actively use magic.
This particular series is only two books rather than the typical quartet, however each book in Daughter of the Lioness is twice the length of the other Tortall Universe books. This is reportedly because the success of the Harry Potter books showed publishers that longer books will sell, and that kids will read longer books. So don't worry -- you're not getting less with this two-book series :)
I think there are a few other books in this universe as well, and some short stories too in various collections. Anyhow, I highly recommend all of these books, specifically the Daughter of the Lioness books: Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen. And if you have a daughter or niece or granddaughter or whatever who you're looking for a gift for, give her these books. Boys would probably like them, too. I don't know; I'm not a boy, and the only other person I know who's read them is also female. But there's a lot of action, so maybe!
Have you read any Tamora Pierce books? Do any of these sound appealing to you. (They're almost definitely at your local library. Hint. Hint.)