I am an avid reader of historical fiction and I am especially drawn to stories that feature strong and powerful women. As a woman who has studied history for many years, I am keenly aware of how few histories of women make it into the history books. I am also aware that due to the patriarchal nature of many cultures worldwide (and especially the western world) the voices of strong women have all too often been silenced by men who felt threatened by these intelligent, clever, and remarkable female leaders. Sadly, I find myself regularly disappointed in non-fiction books which supposedly center on women because more often than not, it’s a political history of the men who surrounded her. Now, to be fair, this is hardly the author’s fault since historically, men prohibited and/or scorned educated women and made certain that much, if not all, of what they wrote was destroyed. The reasons for this destruction vary but generally include statements such as, “it was meaningless correspondence,” or “those records were accidentally destroyed in a fire.”
This being the case, I have found refuge in historical fiction. Over the years I have probably read upwards of 100 different historical fiction novels based on the lives of intelligent and formidable women from across history and cultures. Everything from China to India, Egypt and the Middle East to Europe, and across the Atlantic from South America, Meso-America, to North America!! I am thankful that there is such a wide range of material but at times it can be overwhelming so I’m going to try to narrow it down a bit and give you a few excellent places to start if you’re interested in diving into the world of women’s historical fiction.
*Important Note: reading historical fiction is NOT like reading a history textbook or even most non-fiction history books. These authors use historical information to create narratives that include unique and interesting characters with motivations and plot development while giving voice and agency to women who were previously ‘lost to history.’ Therefore, clearly much of historical fiction is just that…fiction. But most authors pride themselves on being historically accurate with setting and story line and almost always provide an Author’s Note at the end of the novel to explain how/why/where they have changed any historical details.
Since I am interested in many times and places I have recommendations from all over the world! Here are my top 5 books/series of Women’s Narrative Historical Fiction:
1 – The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George (Egypt)
One of my all-time favorite historical fiction books!! This is a monster volume at 900+ pages but it is worth the effort if you are at all interested in Cleopatra, Egypt, or the Roman Empire. Margaret George makes Cleopatra a real person with real motivations and feelings, smashing the patriarchal historical narrative of her as the ‘seductress femme fatale’ who corrupted the brave and honorable Roman men.
2 – Six Tudor Queens Series by Alison Weir (Tudor England)
The lives (and deaths) of the six Queens of King Henry VIII of England all too often get summed up in the simple rhyme: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Thankfully, Alison Weir brings these women to life and gives each a voice to tell her own story. While obviously, these women’s narratives are wrapped up in the trappings of King Henry VIII’s court and political agenda, they each have a unique personality and story that should not be neglected due to the bombastic and erratic nature of their common husband’s life and personality.
3 – The Taj Mahal Trilogy by Indu Sandaresan (Mughal India)
India has a rich and complex history and one could certainly study Indian history for a lifetime and still feel they have only scratched the surface. Indu Sandaresan grounds her story and characters in this vivid and deep historical context and while I have only read the first book in this trilogy, I look forward to picking up the next two!
4 – Empress Orchid Series by Anchee Min (China)
I fully admit that my knowledge of Chinese history is woefully lacking, which is one of the reasons I picked up the first book in this series. The story of Empress Orchid begins with a young girl who is chosen to live in the Forbidden City where she will become one of many wives to the Emperor. Her rise to power is filled with twists and turns, triumphs and bitter disappointments. I am excited to pick up the next book, The Last Empress, to learn the rest of her story!
5 – Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende (Spain & South America)
We read this book for 2021 Book Club & Cocktails and it was a big hit! Isable Allende tells the story of the Spanish colonization of Chile from the perspective of Ines, the wife of Valdivia (leader of Spanish forces in Chile). Ines’ story takes her from Spain to Peru and Chile and through multiple romantic relationships which shape her and her perspective on the brutal tactics utilized by both the Spanish invaders and the native populations.
–The Dark Queen Saga by Susan Carroll (Medieval France)
This series is less ‘history’ and more ‘saga’ but I found the characters and story interesting and fun to read. This is a series I keep on my Kindle and re-read when I just want something easy, mostly fun, with a little romance.
–Empress of Rome Series by Kate Quinn (Roman Empire)
Like the Dark Queen Saga, this is probably a bit less ‘history’ and a bit more ‘fiction.’ But sometimes that can make for a good read and if you want an easy place to start reading historical fiction, The Empress of Rome Series is perfect for you.
Historical fiction is a great way to access history without becoming bogged-down in names and dates and it can provide a glimpse into the lives of women whose stories have never been told. I hope something on this list of recommendations sparked your interest!
Read on my friends!